INDIANAPOLIS — A game most Colts fans probably didn’t circle on their calendars when the NFL schedule was released has become the team’s biggest test before Halloween.
Indianapolis (3-1) has run off three consecutive wins, just like the surprising Cleveland Browns (3-1), another team that has bounced back from a disappointing opener to run off three consecutive wins.
Now, the teams will face off at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium at 4:25 p.m. Sunday in a game that’s arguably the best matchup in the NFL this Sunday. With a pair of winning streaks on the line, here’s what to watch.
1. For the first time in 22 games, the Colts have to start somebody other than their preferred five on the offensive line. Veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo, arguably the most irreplaceable player on the roster, has been ruled out, vaulting Le’Raven Clark into his first start since Oct. 4, 2018 against New England. Clark has played just 81 offensive snaps since that day, including none last season.
2. Castonzo’s first absence in 33 games comes against a Cleveland defense led by end Myles Garrett, an early Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Garrett is tied for the league lead with five sacks, and he’s forced fumbles on three of them. For the most part, Garrett has lined up on the left side of Cleveland’s formation this season, which would put him against Braden Smith, but with Castonzo out, expect Garrett to spend some time on the blind side.
3. Garrett’s the big threat, but Cleveland has other options. Olivier Vernon, who doesn’t have a sack yet, rushes from the opposite edge, along with fellow veteran Adrian Clayborn, who is questionable with a hip injury but likely to return after two weeks out of the lineup.
4. The Browns won’t have their best interior player, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has 11 sacks over the past two seasons. With Ogunjobi out, the Colts will likely focus their attention on veteran Sheldon Richardson, who has two sacks already.
5. Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods likes to bring the occasional blitz from the secondary. Cleveland has gotten two of its 11 sacks from its nickelbacks, Tavierre Thomas and M.J. Stewart.
6. One of Cleveland’s top two cornerbacks, Greedy Williams, is out again. Williams hasn’t played this season, elevating Terrance Mitchell into the starting role. The Colts likely have to make their hay in the passing game against Mitchell and the Browns’ nickels; the other starting cornerback, Denzel Ward, is one of the NFL’s best.
7. The Browns defense has been better than its 25th ranking in total yardage, allowing 402.3 yards per game, and 27th ranking in scoring, giving up 31.5 points per game. On a per-play basis, the Browns rank 14th, and are 18th in quarterback rating allowed.
8. An Indianapolis ground game that has struggled to live up to its billing faces its toughest test so far. Cleveland’s defense is fifth against the run and eighth in yards allowed per carry. The Colts, ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per carry, averaging just 3.5 yards.
9. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor turned in arguably his best game against the Bears, creating most of his own yards in a 17-carry, 68-yard performance, but he’s averaging 3.8 yards per carry on the season. As bad as the Colts running game struggled in Chicago, it was at its best when Taylor was on the field. Backups Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines combined for just 39 yards on 18 carries.
10. After a 17-catch, 142-yard performance in the season opener, the Colts running backs haven’t been as much of a factor in the passing game, picking up just 14 catches for 112 yards in the ensuing three weeks. If Indianapolis needs to throw it more often — Rivers has averaged just 25 attempts per game the past three weeks — expect the backs to make a bigger impact.
11. Expect the Colts tight ends to continue to be a big part of the passing game with wide receivers Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman injured. With Trey Burton finally healthy, he earned five targets last week, Jack Doyle remains dependable and Mo Alie-Cox has been the offense’s best big-play threat. Cleveland strong safety Karl Joseph, who’d typically play a big role against the tight ends, is questionable with a hamstring injury.
12. T.Y. Hilton has killed the Browns in his career, posting a pair of 150-yard performances against Cleveland, but it might be a little much to expect him to do it again. The veteran ranks second on the Colts with 13 catches for 162 yards, but he doesn’t have a touchdown yet and hasn’t been the focal point of any game plan. Without Campbell or Pittman, the Browns will likely try to keep Hilton from going off again.
13. While Zach Pascal has just 10 catches for 129 yards this season, Rivers clearly trusts him. He led the Colts with eight targets against Chicago last week.
14. If a wide receiver outside the top two makes a big impact, take a look at Marcus Johnson, who played 34 snaps last week after being promoted from the practice squad and polished his deep-threat credentials with a big 27-yard catch on third down.
15. A Colts team that has struggled on third down (30th in the NFL) and in the red zone (28th) turned third down over to Rivers, who completed nine of his 14 attempts for 144 yards and a touchdown. Unlike Chicago’s situational defense, which has been excellent, Cleveland is ranked 26th in the NFL on third down and is tied for 25th in the red zone, contributing to how many points they’ve given up this season.
16. Rivers, who tossed two key interceptions in the season opener, hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 70 attempts. If he can continue to protect the football against Cleveland’s defense, the Colts offense will have a chance to have a breakout game. The Browns have given up some yards this season, but Cleveland’s big-play defense leads the NFL with 10 takeaways this season, ruining offensive game plans by taking the ball away.
17. A Colts defense that ranks first in the NFL after four games faces its biggest test in Cleveland’s offense. Everything for Indianapolis begins with stopping the run, and the Browns ground game has been unbelievable, averaging a league-best 5.9 yards per carry and 204.5 yards per game.
18. Cleveland will be missing leading rusher Nick Chubb, whose 335-yard start was cut short by an MCL injury, but the Browns have plenty of talent in reserve. Backup Kareem Hunt has racked up 275 yards on 50 carries, and D’Ernest Johnson has 100 yards on 14 carries, including a breakout game against Dallas last week.
19. Far more concerning for the ground battle is the absence of Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, who has been ruled out due to a groin injury. First man up to replace Leonard is usually Anthony Walker, but he is battling an ankle injury and was called a game-time decision by coach Frank Reich. If Walker can’t go, Bobby Okereke will slide over and Zaire Franklin will move into the middle or E.J. Speed will step into the weak-side spot.
20. The old Browns had problems on the offensive line. This version of the Browns is talented all over the front. Cleveland guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio are great. The Colts’ defensive tackle rotation of DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Tyquan Lewis and Denico Autry has their hands full.
21. Teller has been coming into his own, making a case for All-Pro. Being tested by Buckner, a defensive force playing like an All-Pro in his own right, makes the Teller-Buckner matchup the best one of the game whenever they line up across from each other.
22. On the outside, the Browns signed veteran Jack Conklin to play the right side and used a top-10 pick to take Alabama’s Jedrick Wills. Both moves have worked out so far. Cleveland has given up just six sacks. Veteran defensive end Justin Houston has been on a roll with 3.5 sacks, and he’ll likely be lined up against Wills for most of the game.
23. Expect Cleveland to get Mayfield on the move to avoid a Colts pass rush that has frustrated and frightened three passers in a row. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has always liked to use rollouts and bootlegs, something Indianapolis has been asked to defend a lot the past three weeks.
24. The Colts need more out of the fourth spot on their best pass rush combination. Houston, Buckner and Autry have been terrors; Al-Quadin Muhammad has three quarterback hits, and Ben Banogu hasn’t recorded a sack or hit yet. Indianapolis needs one of the two to get home.
25. Okereke will be playing with a protective wrap or cast on one hand. The second-year linebacker has earned more playing time this season, and the fact that he can be on the field with Leonard and Walker both facing injury questions is important for the Colts defense.
26. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has been playing a complementary role lately, protecting the football and making good decisions, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Mayfield is completing 62.6% of his passes and averaging 6.3 yards per attempt, numbers that are fairly pedestrian. The way Cleveland has been running the ball, it hasn’t mattered, but the Colts need to put the game on Mayfield’s shoulders and see how he responds.
27. Indianapolis has been excellent against the pass. Despite a disappointing performance against the Jaguars in the season opener, the Colts rank first in the NFL in passing yards allowed, yards per attempt, third-down conversions, interception rate and fifth in completion percentage allowed. If the Colts can make the Browns throw, they should have a statistical advantage.
28. Odell Beckham Jr. is coming off of his breakout game as a Brown. Beckham, who has 16 catches for 236 yards this season, had three touchdowns against Dallas, including a game-clinching 50-yard score on a reverse. If the Browns dial something up, the ball is likely going to Beckham. Despite some long-ago history between Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Beckham, expect Indianapolis to defend Beckham with a team approach.
29. The matchup between Kenny Moore and Jarvis Landry when the latter lines up in the slot is another one to watch. Landry, the heart and soul of this Browns team, leads Cleveland with 17 catches this season.
30. As good as the Browns offense has been, the Colts would be wise to try to hold onto the ball and dictate the action. Indianapolis has run 47 more plays than its opponents per game, an average of almost 12 per game, and holds a season lead in time of possession, 33:36 to 26:24. Take possessions away from the Browns, and it’s going to be harder for Cleveland’s offense to keep rolling.
31. Punter and kickoff specialist Rigoberto Sanchez has been a weapon this season, teaming with Indianapolis coverage to dominate the battle for field position.
32. A big return for Nyheim Hines, Ashton Dulin or Isaiah Rodgers might be available. The Browns rank 20th in the NFL against punt returns and 29th on kicks.