The Indianapolis Colts had not made a change at quarterback important position in 2011.
Curtis Painter will make his NFL regular-season starting debut and tries to give the floundering Colts a hard-to-come-by first win of the year in Monday's bout with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team eager to showcase itself in a rare national television appearance.
Indianapolis has reached the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons, tied for the longest streak in league history, but is off to its first 0-3 start since quarterback Peyton Manning's rookie campaign of 1998. The most plausible explanation for the team's lack of early success has been a serious neck injury to Manning that has rendered the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player unable to play in any of the Colts' three defeats.
Veteran Kerry Collins has struggled in Manning's absence and was knocked out of last Sunday's 23-20 home loss to Pittsburgh with a concussion in the second half. With the 38-year-old being held out of this week's practice sessions, the Colts will turn to the sparingly-used Painter in hopes he'll be able to spark a turnaround.
A sixth-round draft choice of Indianapolis in 2009, Painter has thrown just 39 passes in his two-plus seasons and completed only 13 of them while being intercepted twice. He went 5-of-11 for 60 yards in relief of Collins last week, but did engineer a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the contest that briefly tied the score at 20-20.
"Every time he has been out there, he certainly has responded very, very well," Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said of Painter. "I think you could see that in the preseason game that he played in an extensive amount, he performed well. After a couple of glitches in this past ballgame, he took the team down the field 80 yards. Obviously, he did a nice job there as well. I think with all the work and preparation, he will be fine."
Painter will be facing a Tampa Bay defense that forced three turnovers and sacked Atlanta's Matt Ryan four times in a pivotal 16-13 victory over the defending NFC South champion Falcons this past Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. That key win followed a rousing 24-20 road ousting of Minnesota in Week 2 in which the Buccaneers overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit.
Tampa Bay doesn't seem likely to come down off its recent high just yet, as this week's clash will be the franchise's first home game on Monday Night Football since a 19-13 triumph over the New York Giants on Nov. 24, 2003. The Bucs' last Monday night matchup of any kind took place in 2008.
"We've been toiling down here in Tampa for a long time, unrecognized," said cornerback Ronde Barber, the only remaining Buccaneer from that 2003 win. "That's somewhat our fault, but you've got to relish the opportunity to play in front of everybody. That's the only game in town that night, everybody's watching and you get a chance to showcase."
Tampa Bay also hosted the Colts on a Monday night earlier in that 2003 season, a game in which Indianapolis trailed by 21 points with under five minutes to play before Manning rallied his team to a thrilling 38-35 overtime decision.
Though the injuries to Manning and Collins are the most significant ones to befall the Colts, they're far from the only ailing players on the roster. Indianapolis had to place a pair of defensive starters -- middle linebacker Gary Brackett and strong safety Melvin Bullitt -- on injured reserve Wednesday due to shoulder problems.
Indianapolis, which sports an impressive 9-2 overall record in Monday night tilts, has not lost four in a row since a five-game slide from Nov. 11-Dec. 10, 2001.
The Colts have won seven of 11 overall meetings with Tampa Bay and bring a two-game series winning streak into Raymond James Stadium, with Indianapolis following up that previously-noted 38-35 overtime verdict in Tampa during the 2003 season with a 33-14 home triumph in 2007. The Buccaneers had defeated the Colts two straight times prior to that 2003 result, a 24-10 home win in 1994 and a 31-28 decision at the RCA Dome three years later.
Both Caldwell and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches. Caldwell had served as the Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach under future Colts skipper Tony Dungy during the 2001 season.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though his game experience is minimal, the move to Painter (60 passing yards) may not be detrimental to an Indianapolis offense that struggled mightily under the direction of Collins (481 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT). The Colts enter the week ranked 28th in scoring (15.3 ppg), 29th in total yards (254.0 ypg) and 27th in passing (164.0 ypg), while converting just 30.8 percent of their third-down attempts. Painter does have plenty of familiarity in the system as well a few outstanding targets to work with, as top receiver Reggie Wayne (14 receptions, 196 yards, 1 TD) is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in seven straight years, counterpart Pierre Garcon (12 receptions) is coming off a six-catch, 82-yard display against the Steelers and tight end Dallas Clark (10 receptions, 1 TD) racked up 100 receptions and scored 10 touchdowns in his last full healthy season in 2009. An effective running game would certainly aid Painter in his first career start, and primary back Joseph Addai (189 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions) did manage 86 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries against a traditionally-stout Pittsburgh defense a week ago.
The Buccaneers head to the national stage off by far their best defensive performance of the young season. After having all kinds of trouble stopping the run in the team's Week 2 comeback in Minnesota, Tampa Bay shut down Atlanta's usually-productive ground attack last Sunday, limiting the Falcons' Michael Turner to a non-threatening 20 yards on 11 attempts. A strong pass rush headed up by rookie end Adrian Clayborn (4 tackles, 1 sack) and young tackle Brian Price (5 tackles, 1 sack) relentlessly harassed Ryan all throughout the afternoon as well, sacking the Atlanta triggerman four times and forcing two fumbles along with an interception by the ageless Barber (14 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD). The secondary can be vulnerable if the Bucs aren't getting consistent pressure up front, however, as the team has surrendered an average of 270.7 passing yards per game (23rd overall) through the first three weeks and lost free safety Cody Grimm (11 tackles) to a season-ending knee injury against the Falcons. Tampa Bay expects to have linebacker Quincy Black (11 tackles) back from a sprained ankle that kept him out of last Sunday's win, and he'll take his customary place alongside promising rookie Mason Foster (22 tackles, 2 INT) in the three-man arrangement.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
While the Bucs' defense is on the rise, the team has yet to really hit its stride on the other side of the ball in the early going. Tampa Bay was forced to depend more on the strong right arm of quarterback Josh Freeman (682 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) after falling behind in each of the first two games, but there was better balance and a more concerted effort to utilize the talents of physical running back LeGarette Blount (167 rushing yards, 2 TD) last week. After carrying the ball just 18 times total in Weeks 1 and 2, the second-year pro had 24 touches for a workmanlike 81 yards to allow the Buccaneers to dominate time of possession. Freeman's accuracy hasn't been off the mark, as the brilliant young signal-caller is completing nearly 68 percent of his passes, but he's thrown four interceptions -- including two last Sunday -- after being picked off just six times all of last year. Wideout Mike Williams (10 receptions), who compiled 11 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards during a banner rookie campaign in 2010, has also endured a slow start, having notched a mere 89 receiving yards thus far. Fellow sophomore Preston Parker (11 receptions) has made an unexpected impact out of the slot, however, while versatile running back Earnest Graham (20 receptions) and tight end Kellen Winslow (12 receptions) are both reliable veterans to an offense that's lacked an explosive element as of late.
The two undeniable stars of the Indianapolis defense are ends Dwight Freeney (6 tackles, 3 sacks) and Robert Mathis (4 tackles, 2 sacks), and the dynamite edge-rushing duo was at their intimidating best last time out. Freeney came up with two sacks and forced a Ben Roethlisberger fumble that was returned for a touchdowns by reserve lineman Jamaal Anderson (5 tackles) against the Steelers, with Mathis contributing one sack that also induced a fumble. The Colts also did a very good job of stopping the run last Sunday, with ultra- active middle linebacker Pat Angerer (42 tackles) and weakside starter Kavell Conner (25 tackles, 2 PD) leading a unit that held Pittsburgh to 67 yards on the ground. The young combo was credited with 30 tackles on the night, with Angerer amassing an unbelievable 20 stops. Indianapolis was still toasted for 341 net passing yards by the Steelers, including an 81-yard connection from Roethlisberger to speedster Mike Wallace, and Bullitt's absence is a blow to a struggling secondary. The Colts also figure to be without starting defensive tackle Fili Moala (ankle) for a second straight week, with Eric Foster (12 tackles) expected to draw the start.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Without question, the biggest contributing factor to the Colts' winless September was below average play at the quarterback position. For Indianapolis to finally break into the win column, Painter will have to show he's ready for the rigors of having a defense game plan for him as well as the hostile conditions that a sold-out and energized Raymond James Stadium will bring.
Freeman may be a terrific quarterback, but the Buccaneers are at their toughest when Blount churning out yards and wearing down opponents with his downhill style. Tampa Bay is 6-1 when the bruising young back gets 18 or more carries in a game over his brief career, and he'll be a challenge for an Indianapolis defense that's improved against the run.
Defensive pressure. Freeney and Mathis nearly willed the Colts to an upset with their pass-rushing prowess last week, and the Buccaneers can't allow the two standout ends to take over this game. On the other side, Tampa Bay clearly wants to bring the heat upon a quarterback making his first career start, and the team's ability to generate pressure against the Falcons in Week 3 was a key to that win.
The Colts played an admirable and inspired game against a tough Pittsburgh team a week ago, and it's not out of the question for the team to come up with a breakthrough victory if it can maintain that level of performance. Painter is the obvious wild card here, as he's an unknown quantity but capable of giving Indianapolis a much-needed lift on offense. That may be too much to ask, however, against a young but athletic Tampa defense that's beginning to gel, and the coaching staff's reluctance to make Painter the starter at the outset of the season isn't much of a show of faith. Coming off a big win over the defending champion in their division would normally make the Buccaneers a candidate for a letdown, but the headline status of this game should ensure that won't take place.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 23, Colts 10