(TSX / STATS) — The Los Angeles Rams welcome the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the season opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with both teams cursing their misfortune.
For the Rams, a summer without defensive tackle Aaron Donald, one the NFL’s top defensive players, has turned into a regular season with his absence continuing. A contract dispute between the parties lingers.
The Colts’ season starts minus Andrew Luck, their star quarterback. A sore right shoulder that derailed his preseason will have him idle Sunday.
When either player will return is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the Rams, under new coach Sean McVay, are looking for improvement on last year’s 4-12 record. It was their 12th consecutive losing season.
The Colts, playing in their first game in L.A. since 1991, look to rebound as well from an 8-8 mark that put coach Chuck Pagano on the hot seat. Pagano survived to enter his sixth season. Now he has to see if his team can stand tall without Luck.
Indianapolis will be without more than Luck. Center Ryan Kelly (foot) is out, and Vontae Davis (groin) the Colts’ best defensive back, is down, too.
The Rams hope quarterback Jared Goff begins to reach expectations this season. Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, went 0-7 last season and showed little development.
Even so, he is back under center and taking aim at an Indianapolis secondary, hoping year two, with an offensive-minded McVay orchestrating the plays, aids his advancement.
Goff threw for nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year.
The receiving corps got a boost with the addition of Sammy Watkins. He was acquired from the Buffalo Bills as the Rams attempt to build around Goff by supplying him with some weapons.
Watkins is a compelling complement to the versatile Tavon Austin. Austin accounted for 1,037 total yards and four touchdowns catching, rushing and returning the ball.
Austin was slowed by a hamstring during camp, but he appeared fit of late.
“He looks explosive, and he looks like the Tavon Austin that we’re accustomed to seeing,” McVay said.
Unlike Rams receivers Robert Woods, Watkins and Cooper Kupp, Austin also will be used out of the backfield.
“He knows how much we are going to need him,” Goff said, “and how much he going to make a difference.”
If Todd Gurley can supply the rushing yards, Goff’s chances improve. Gurley is another Ram eager to wash away last year, and against a suspect Colts defense, he could roll.
Gurley rushed for 885 yards and six touchdowns last year.
If the Rams stall on offense, there are worse options than turning to Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker. He had the most punts inside the 20-yard line (46) in NFL history last season. Hekker also broke his NFL single-season net punting average (46.0 yards).
Indianapolis’s quarterback will be Scott Tolzien, who will make his fourth career start. Like Goff, he is looking for his first NFL win.
Tolzien, a four-year pro, doesn’t have a particularly big arm, but he is accurate and smart enough to run the Colts in Luck’s stead. What he doesn’t have is the ability to throw for 4,240 passing yards and 31 touchdowns, as Luck did last year.
“He’s done a great job through spring and training camp of taking control of our offense,” tight end Jack Doyle said.
T.Y. Hilton gives Tolzein an inviting target after he led the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) last year.
Tolzien would love to lean on a running game to set up his play-action opportunities. He will look to ageless Frank Gore, after he gave Indianapolis its first 1,000-yard rusher since Joseph Addai in 2007.
Veteran coordinator Wade Phillips, in his 39th NFL season, is newly in charge of the Rams’ defense, which was ranked No. 9 last year. He switched it to a 3-4 alignment, but it may have problems minus the imposing Donald plugging holes.
Phillips is also eager to see how outside linebackers Robert Quinn and Mark Barron fit into the scheme. Neither played in the preseason.
The Rams own a 23-18-2 all-time record against the Colts and won the most recent meeting handily, 38-8 in 2013.