INDIANAPOLIS — Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
*Kickoff: 1 p.m.
*Line: Browns by 3½.
*History lesson, Part I: The series is tied, 17-17, but the Colts hold a 12-7 edge since 1984 and have won 10 of the last 13 meetings. The Browns took the most recent meeting in Cleveland in 2020, 32-23. Quarterback Baker Mayfield outdueled now-retired Philip Rivers.
*History lesson, Part II: We’re mentioning this because we see how the Colts’ offense might work from here on out. Kicker Matt Gay is earning his $22.5 million contract. He’s 11-of-12 on field-goal attempts. He’s 5-of-5 on 50-plus yarders through six games.
The club record for 50-yarders is nine, set by Chase McLaughlin last season. The NFL record is 11 by the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson, also last season.
Just putting that out there.
*It’s Minshew’s offense: Speculation became reality when the team confirmed Anthony Richardson will undergo surgery to repair the sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. The rookie quarterback’s season is over after four starts and 173 snaps.
“This is Gardner’s team, and we’ve got a ton of confidence in Gardner and his abilities moving forward,’’ Colts coach Shane Steichen said.
Gardner Minshew II goes from valued backup to the veteran who must be capable of providing leadership and efficient quarterbacking for the remainder of the season. He clearly brings a different skillset to the offense. Minshew lacks Richardson’s arm strength and ability to threaten a defense with his legs.
His strength has been ball security, rhythmic passing and moving the chains.
The early returns on Minshew have been mixed.
In two extended relief appearances against Tennessee and Houston that completed victories, he completed 81% of his passes, averaged 8.8 yards per attempt, had one TD and a 112.4 rating.
In two starts when Baltimore and Jacksonville had time to prepare for him — not Richardson — Minshew’s completion percentage fell to 64.5, and he averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. He made winning against the Jaguars virtually impossible with four turnovers — one fumble and a career-high three interceptions — that led to 17 points in the 37-20 loss.
The bottom line: Minshew can’t be part of the problem moving forward.
The final 11 games will be more about Steichen and Jim Bob Cooter game planning to maximize Minshew’s strengths and stay away from his limitations than Minshew carrying the offense.
*Find a run game: Steichen and Cooter must — absolutely must — find a way to have some level of success against the Browns’ fourth-ranked run defense. The Colts showed little inclination to run last week at Jacksonville — 15 combined attempts by tailbacks Jonathan Taylor and Zack Moss, including just eight in the first half. The Colts finished the contest with 44 total yards on the ground, but they can’t afford to be one-dimensional with Minshew under center. They can’t have him throwing 55 passes. He’s delivered 99 in his two starts.
The Colts have been ramping up Taylor, and maybe he’ll get a much heavier workload in his third game since signing his $42 million extension.
As formidable as the Browns’ defense has been, it yielded 131 rushing yards to Baltimore and 108 to San Francisco. And yes, QB Lamar Jackson contributed 27 yards and two TDs to the Ravens’ 28-3 blowout win.
*Major challenge: Minshew’s third start with the Colts and 27th of his career comes against a Browns’ defense that is off to a historic start.
With defensive end Myles Garrett serving as the relentless catalyst, Cleveland ranks No. 1 in most significant categories: yards per game (200.4), yards per play (3.8), pass yards per game (121.4), third-down conversions (23.2%), first downs per game (10.4; 52 total). It’s No. 5 in scoring, allowing 15.4 points per game.
A stat that jumps off the page — excluding six drives at the end of the first half or game, the Browns have not allowed a first down on 32 of 58 drives. That’s 55%. And that’s ridiculous.
The 1,002 total yards allowed are the third-fewest in the NFL by a team in its first five games since 1970. In the red zone, the Browns have allowed the fewest possessions (nine) and second-fewest points (48).
We feel obligated to point out they’ve also faced some offensive-challenged teams through five weeks: Cincinnati with hobbled QB Joe Burrow and Tennessee come to mind. And Pittsburgh and Baltimore hit them with 26 and 28 points in their two losses.
But they limited unbeaten San Francisco to 215 yards last Sunday in a 19-17 upset that was secured when Niners’ rookie kicker Jake Moody missed a 41-yard field with six seconds remaining in the contest. San Francisco was without wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Christian McCaffrey for most of the second half.
No matter how you view the stats, Minshew and the Colts are going to have to work for every yard.
*About Garrett: We’re not about to gloss over Garrett’s presence. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft is one of those rare players — think T.J. Watt, Micah Parsons or one of the Bosa brothers — who can blow up a game by dominating four or five plays.
“Every time you see him on tape, it’s like, ‘Wow, he’s good in a lot of different ways,’’’ Steichen said. “He can beat you in about every way. Excited for that challenge.’’
Browns coordinator Jim Schwartz moves Garrett around, allowing him to find a weak link along opposing offensive lines. The Colts are advised to give rookie right tackle Blake Freeland frequent help.
Garrett has 5.5 sacks, 15 QB hits, five tackles for loss and a forced fumble in five games. Since entering the league, his franchise-record 80 sacks rank No. 2 to Watt’s 85.5. He also has 156 QB hits and 82 tackles for loss.
Know where he is and do whatever it takes to keep him from wrecking the game.
*More than Garrett: The Browns aren’t a one-man show on defense. They feature top-level cornerbacks in Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and Martin Emerson. Cleveland is allowing 5.4 yards per pass attempt, 51.9% completions and a 71.9 passer rating.
Schwartz makes liberal use of man coverage, which will test Colts’ wideouts Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce and Josh Downs.
*P.J. or Deshaun?: A late-week development probably complicated the preparation of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. It appeared former Colt P.J. Walker was in line to make his second consecutive start. Then, Deshaun Watson returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday and was a full participant Friday for the first time since Sept. 22. He missed the last two games with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder and is questionable for Sunday.
“I want to see how he responds over the next 48 hours based on that full workload he just got,’’ Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters Friday, “but he looked good.’’
The Colts are very familiar with Watson. Watson was traded from Houston to Cleveland in March 2022. The Browns then signed him to a groundbreaking five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract.
While he was with the Texans, the Colts faced Watson seven times, including once in the postseason. The Colts are 5-2 against him, but he always presented a diverse threat: 70.4% passing, 313.9 yards per game, eight TDs, five interceptions, 257 rushing yards and two running TDs.
Watson still hasn’t been the QB the Browns invested so heavily in: 5-4 as a starter, 11 TDs, seven interceptions, an 82.4 rating. But no one should question the talent.
Walker has been elevated to the active roster from the practice squad and will start if it’s determined Watson isn’t ready. He entered the NFL in May 2017 with the Colts as an undrafted rookie free agent. He was with them during that offseason and on the practice squad from 2017-19.
Walker was under center for the Browns’ upset of the Niners and went 18-of-34 passes for 192 yards with two interceptions.
*And the winner is: Colts 19, Browns 16: OK, this is merely a hunch from someone whose glass remains half full. If the Colts are going to make anything out of a post-Richardson season, it requires finding a way to turn back a Browns group that features an elite defense but a pedestrian offense. Next week, it’s another home game against the mediocre Saints. Unsightly, ugly, whatever it takes. Find a way. And we’re looking at you Matt Gay.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.