INDIANAPOLIS — Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ season-opening meeting against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium:
*Kickoff: 1 p.m.
*Spread: Jaguars by 5.
*History lesson, Part I: The date of note is Sept. 8, 2013. That’s the last time the Colts won a season-opener. Andrew Luck was the quarterback, Reggie Wayne was his leading receiver and Vick Ballard was his leading rusher in a 21-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders. Luck helped clinch the game with a 19-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. As 1070 The Fan’s Kevin Bowen noted, not one Colt from that game is still in the NFL. Yes, it’s been that long.
The Colts are 0-8-1 since. Clearly, last year’s 20-all draw at Houston was a small step forward. The nine-game streak is the NFL’s longest active drought. With another loss, they’ll tie the second-longest dry spell ever. The standard bearer: Cleveland, which lost 16 openers and tied another from 2005-2021.
*History lesson, Part II: Welcome to the NFL, Anthony Richardson. The No. 4 overall pick in the April draft not only is the Colts’ quarterback of the future, but of the present as well. He’s the youngest starting quarterback in club history (21 years, 111 days) and the third-youngest in NFL history.
*History lesson, Part III: At the risk of raining on Richardson’s coming-out party, Colts’ rookie quarterbacks are 1-5 in season openers. The only one to lead his team to a victory: George Shaw in 1955.
*What to expect from the rookie: As Shane Steichen admitted, a measure of the unknown will follow Richardson into his first NFL huddle. The team has done everything possible to prepare him for what’s to come, but there’s only so much that can be done. The regular season is a different animal, and Richardson will see things Sunday — and in every following week — he hasn’t previously seen.
There will be highlights and speed bumps. Steichen only will utilize a portion of his playbook until Richardson settles in at some point this season, but he still will maximize Richardson’s dynamic skillset. We’re expecting a ton of Richardson and his running backs, stressing the edges of Jacksonville’s defense.
*Ground support: Admire Jonathan Taylor’s mural on the southside of Lucas Oil Stadium, and wonder how his presence would bolster Richardson and the offense. Instead, the NFL’s 2021 rushing champion will miss the first of four required games while on PUP. Complicating matters in the backfield is the likely absence of top backup Zack Moss, who still is recovering from a broken forearm. He was limited in three practices this week and downgraded to “doubtful’’ Saturday. That usually means “out.’’
That leaves the running game in the hands of Deon Jackson, rookie Evan Hull and second-year back Jake Funk. For you numbers nerds, that trio has combined for 272 yards and two touchdowns in two combined career starts. Jackson has accounted for virtually everything with 267 yards and two TDs in 25 games and two starts — both of which came last year.
It’s imperative for Steichen to provide Richardson with a reliable ground game, which obviously will include heavy doses of Richardson. But the backs have to be productive against a veteran Jacksonville defense that was decent against the run last season: 12th in yards per game (114.8) and 7th in yards per attempt (4.15).
A stat we’ve used before lest anyone shrugs off Taylor’s significance to Indy’s offense: the run game has averaged 132.2 yards with Taylor, and 106.1 without him.
The wild card, of course, is Richardson.
*Cornering the market: Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley knows what’s coming against Trevor Lawrence and his spate of offensive weapons.
“They’re going to take shots there, and you’ve got to be able to hold up out there and make plays,’’ he said. “We’ll probably go through some growing pains with them, but I think we’re really excited about their ability and what they bring to the table.’’
What’s lacking in the cornerback room is experience. Kenny Moore II is the given with 74 starts and 14 interceptions in six seasons. Everyone else is a work in progress, and there’s so much work to be done. Warren Central High School product JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones are rookies; a hamstring injury has impeded Brents’ development. Dallis Flowers and Darrell Baker Jr. have earned the starting spots, but Flowers’ experience at corner consists of four games, one start and 174 snaps, all coming in the last four games last year. Baker steps on the field for the first time on defense Sunday. He handled 31 special teams snaps in 2022.
This figures to be one of the stiffer challenges for Bradley’s defense in general, and the secondary in particular.
Lawrence is quickly establishing himself as an upper-tier quarterback. The No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft finished with 4,113 yards, 25 touchdowns and a 95.2 passer rating last season. He was just short of elite while leading the Jaguars to seven wins in their final nine games, producing an AFC South title. In that nine-game stretch, he amassed a 104.6 rating, completed 69.7% of his passes and averaged 252.6 yards per game with 15 TDs and just two interceptions.
Lawrence is 2-2 against the Colts, but has been a problem: 70.6%, 785 yards, five TDs, no interceptions.
And about that supporting cast. Calvin Ridley is back after being suspended last year for violating the NFL’s gambling policy, and complements Christian Kirk (84 catches, 1,108 yards, eight TDs in ’22), Zay Jones (82, 823, five) and tight end Evan Engram (73, 766, four). And let’s not forget 1,000-yard rusher Travis Etienne Jr.
The last time Ridley played a full season (2020), he piled up 1,374 yards and nine TDs on 90 catches for the Atlanta Falcons.
*Pressure on line(s): So much of how the Colts fare this season hinges on their fronts. The offensive line returns intact from the end of last season, and collectively must elevate its game. The most encouraging aspect from training camp was the growth of left tackle Bernhard Raimann. As we’ve mentioned in the past, proven depth is a concern.
Jacksonville offers an early test with a pair of disruptive, first-round edge rushers: Josh Allen and Travon Walker.
The defensive line might be the strength of the roster, and must be a factor Sunday, and the following weeks. We’re not that concerned with the tackle tandem of DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart, but Kwity Paye, Samson Ebukam and Dayo Odeyingbo must — absolutely must — provide steady pressure from the edge.
*Shaq’s back: All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard returns following a second back surgery. Just thought we’d mention that.
*And the winner is: Jaguars 31, Colts 17. As we mentioned, this isn’t a great opening matchup for Indianapolis. It’s Lawrence and company against the Colts’ unproven corners.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter/X at @mchappell51.