One of the most popular features each week during the season is our Q/A with the opposing team's blogger, and with week one of the regular season finally upon us, let's chat with Brad Wells from SB Nation's Stampede Blue.
1- Probably the biggest offseason story in the NFL was the transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, so let's touch on that for a moment. Luck has stated that he doesn't think it's reasonable to try and fill the shoes left behind by Manning, but based on what most experts said during the offseason, Luck may be the best pure passer the game has seen in a while. What are Colts fans' expectations of Luck now that it's his team?
Brad: Well, Luck can say whatever he wants, but it's pretty obvious he was drafted to replace Peyton Manning, not simply succeed him. His job requirement will be to fill Manning's shoes because, if he doesn't, people won't come to the stadium to watch the games. That should give you an idea of what fans expect of Luck. Overall for 2012, expectations will be measured. However, if Luck looks like the 2011 version of Blaine Gabbert, fans will be disappointed. I think they expect Luck to look like Cam Newton. He was drafted No. 1 overall for a reason.
2- The Colts leadership includes Owner Jim Irsay, who can come across as slightly insane at times, GM Ryan Grigson, who is a first-time General Manager, and HC Chuck Pagano, who is a first-time NFL head coach. How comfortable are Colts fans with this trio running their team?
Brad: I think fans very much like Pagano and Grigson. Pagano has a sunny, cheery, invited presence about him. Grigson is an active, aggressive G.M. willing to trade anything to get the team better. Fans respond well to that sort of stuff. Irsay is a different story. He's always had a tenuous relationship with fans, dating back to the days when he was the G.M. and his father owned the team. Peyton Manning and Bill Polian were given the credit for the great seasons from 1999-2010. Not so much Irsay. Now that Jimmy is back in control of his franchise, people are a little on the fence. Plus, you're right. Irsay can come across as a babbling idiot on Twitter. It doesn't help his local reputation when he acts that way.
3- Besides the obvious answer in Luck, who are some rookies and sophomores that could make an impact for Indy this season?
Brad: Good question. I'll pick one on offense and one on defense. On offense, I'll go with RB Vick Ballard. Colts O.C. Bruce Arians really likes him. I could supplant Donald Brown as the starter as the season progresses. He's a solid pass blocker, a good receiver, and shows great speed as a one-cut-and-go back. On defense, I'll go with a young guy named Cassius Vaughn. He's a young corner the Colts traded for this offseason, and he seems to have a ton of talent. Vaughn probably won't see much action early on in the season, but he seems to factor into future plans for Indy's defense.
4- There are definitely some recognizable names on the Colts roster, but who are some guys that might be flying under the radar that we should keep an eye on?
Brad: Like with the rookie question, I'll pick on on offense and one on defense. For the offense, I'll go with Donnie Avery. He's a cast-off from St. Louis and Tennessee, but in Indy he's looked very good both in training camp and preseason. His issue is health. He can't stay out of the training room. However, when medically cleared, he's blazing fast. The Colts plan to use him at slot receiver. On defense, Jerrell Freeman is starting at ILBer for Pat Angerer. Both he and Moise Fokou have looked good in preseason playing the inside backer spots, along with Kavell Conner.
5- Every game can generally be boiled down to three or four key match-ups. What do you see being the key for the Colts to win their season-opener against the Bears?
Brad: Match-up One: Andrew Luck v. Brian Urlacher. Urlacher's knee is gimpy, but he doesn't have his brains in his knees. Urlacher's incredible intelligence as a defender is often (in my view) underrated. Beating him will be Luck's first major test as a rookie. Calling the right audibles. Making the correct reads. Avoiding turnovers. Converting on third down. All that is "beating" Urlacher, who will work to make certain his teammates will rattle Luck. Rod Marinelli factors into this as well, but Urlacher seems to just as much a coach of the defense as Marinelli.
Match-up Two: Jay Cutler v. Chuck Pagano. Pagano was hired in Indy primarily because of his defensive background. Aside from a view short periods in 2006 and 2007, Indy's defense has been lacking. Pagano was hired to change that. This offseason, free agents Cory Redding, Tom Zbikowski, and Justin King were signed. Indy also traded for corners Vontae Davis, Cassius Vaughn, Josh Gordy, and D.J. Johnson. Effectively, the front office purged all the "bad" defensive players, and replaced them with people they expect to improve the defense. There first trial is Cutler, who looked great in preseason and has a lot of potent weapons on offense now.
Match-up Three: Colts offensive line v. Bears defensive line. The Bears front looks improved while the Colts offensive line is a completely re-patched group of players. Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, and Winston Justice are starters who were not on the Colts last year. The Bears will bring pressure from their linebackers and their secondary, but if the new Colts o-line cannot control Julius Peppers, they won't need to bring pressure.
There we go... Big thanks to Brad for taking time to sit down and chat. Lots of great insight, and plenty of things for us to keep an eye on. See you all Sunday!