The Colts 10th-ranked offense outperformed its talent in 2020 thanks to solid offensive line play and a scheme that was both well designed and well executed. Frank Reich and Philip Rivers worked together to build an offense that kept the pressure off an aging Rivers and allowed him to use his vision and decision-making to throw quick, accurate, short passes that maximized opportunities for his receivers to rack up yards after the catch. They also relied heavily on the run game, rotating three backs in most games to keep them fresh.
Key Colts Offensive Stats
|YAC per Comp.||5.7||1st|
|Pressure Rate Allowed||17.0%||3rd|
I’m not sure if T.Y. Hilton lost a step and the other receivers did not excel downfield or if Rivers simply lacked arm strength. But they just did not incorporate a lot of deep throws. This required hyper-efficiency on offense, with a lot of key 3rd- and 4th-down conversion attempts. Reich embraced the analytical approach to football and recognized that using all four downs when possible is optimal strategy. With a strong offensive line, they just needed to get 8 or 9 yards on first and second down to set up a high conversion rate.
But when you run an offense that requires efficiency and consistency to get short conversion opportunities, avoiding mistakes is crucial. A key drop can kill a drive. Interceptions are even worse. It was easier to keep the pressure off Rivers when they had a lead and could run, and so they were comfortable with the lead. When they made mistakes, this compounded their negative performance. When they played mistake-free football, they were excellent. As a result, turnover margin pretty much determined the outcome of every Colts game in 2020.
Colts Turnover Margin v. Outcome
Despite strong offensive line play and a focus on the run game, the Colts were fairly average running the ball. Jonathan Taylor took time to adjust to the NFL, looking tentative early on and struggling to break any tackles. Every now and then he displayed his elite speed but he lacked instinct and vision as a rookie, particularly early in the season. He did show marked improvement at the end of the year but did most of his damage against the NFL’s worst defenses, including a massive 30 carries for 253 yards in Week 17 against a Jags team that had given up. He was significantly more effective against the NFL’s worst defenses, and had plenty of opportunities against them.
J. Taylor Splits
|Opponent Defensive Rank||Carries||Yards||YPC|
It’s not surprising that a running back would perform better against bad defenses. What stands out to me is just how bad his opponents were. He played DET (32nd in Adj. Rating), JAC twice (31st), HOU twice (30th), LV (28th), TEN (27th), CIN (26th), MIN (24th), CLE (22nd), and NYJ (21st). He needed space to succeed, and found it against many of these bad defenses. This could help explain why the Colts brought back Marlon Mack. They may not trust Taylor as a bell cow running back just yet. Or maybe they just want to run the ball 30+ times a game.
The Colts did not overly rely on any one player. Their offensive line was balanced and showed resilience when it suffered key injuries. The run game involved several backs (including Brissett in short yardage), and the pass game involved a wide array of pass catchers, including running backs, receivers, and tight ends. Thus, they were relatively good at withstanding injuries.
Now Rivers and Castanzo have moved on. Carson Wentz has come to Indianapolis and I’m honestly having a really difficult time predicting how this will end up. All the things that Rivers did well last year – avoiding pressure, releasing the ball quickly and accurately on short routes that led to YAC, and making the right decisions – were all the things that Wentz did terribly in Philadelphia last year. Reich may reform Wentz into a more conservative, smart quarterback. Or maybe Wentz will stubbornly try to play “hero ball” and hold the ball too long. Or, perhaps, Wentz will thrive behind a better offensive line and bring a new downfield element to this offense that Rivers lacked. He has succeeded in his career in good situations and this looks like a good situation. If I had to guess, I would think the Colts ride Taylor, Mack, and Hines early and let Wentz get comfortable. This should be a recipe for relative success, provided Wentz limits his mistakes.
The Colts 9th-ranked defense was anchored by talent at every level. They played with 4 down linemen and tried to win the battle up front with Buckner, Autry, and Houston. Typically they were successful. Leonard and Okereke played well in the second level and both Rhodes and Kenny Moore played fairly well at cornerback. They did not implement a lot of blitzes or take a lot of risks. They focused on stopping the run and preventing yards after the catch with strong tackling and good discipline.
But despite not being particularly aggressive in their scheme, the Colts were excellent at forcing turnovers. They tied for 5th in the NFL with 25 forced turnovers despite implementing the second-fewest blitzes in the NFL. As blitzing correlates positively to turnovers, this made Indianapolis an outlier in 2020.
They played particularly well against teams that relied on the run. I attribute their turnover success to forcing run-heavy teams out of their game plan and into something much less comfortable for them. Their best games came against more conservative, predictable offenses, which did not necessarily correlate to bad quarterbacks. For example, they picked off Kirk Cousins 3 times in a strong win against Minnesota, who couldn’t get the ground game going, but struggled to stop Gardner Minshew, who threw only one incomplete pass against the Colts in Week 1.
*Omitted Week 11 v. TEN (Buckner, Autry, and Okereke all did not play)
This chart shows the Colts’ defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long reliance on rushing success (measured by the % of total offensive yards gained on the ground). They played particularly well defensively against run-heavy teams like BAL (+1.01), MIN (+1.90), and NYJ (+0.54), who all struggled when forced to be a passing team. Meanwhile the Colts had no outstanding games against pass-heavy teams and played their worst games against HOU (-0.58), JAC (-1.06), and CIN with Burrow (-0.71), who all favored the pass.
As they were stronger on defense against the run than the pass, they typically played better defensively when they were losing. Teams with the lead tend to run more. This led to several games where the Colts either staged a huge comeback (because they shut down the winning team’s offense) or blew a massive lead (because they couldn’t stop the pass). Against the Bengals they erased a 24-7 lead to win and against the Steelers they blew a 24-7 lead. It helped that their offense could score against a bad Bengals defense and couldn’t score against a good Steelers defense.
This tendency made it difficult to predict blowouts in Colts games, particularly when partnered with an offense, that, as noted above, relied on avoiding mistakes. Drops and turnovers are notoriously difficult to predict on a game-by-game basis and had an outsized impact on Colts games. So Vegas was very gun shy assigning big spreads one way or the other. In 9 of their 17 games in 2020, the spread was 3 points or less. And in 6 of those 9, the spread was less than 3, which is essentially a pick ’em. And in the 8 games that featured a 3.5-point spread or bigger, the underdogs went 6-2 against the spread.
With good talent across the defense, the Colts relied more on scheme and execution than any one player. But when enough key pieces were unavailable, they did suffer (like they did against the Titans without at least three key defensive players). This offseason has seen a couple of players leave, but the core remains intact. I expect some continuity given the strength of their scheme.
Putting it All Together
- The Colts are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were a good, well-balanced team in 2020 and that’s how they are generally regarded. Opinions on how the team will look with Carson Wentz vary widely, and for good reason.
- The offensive line should not see a drop off in production without Castanzo, because they played fairly well without Castanzo at the end of the year. Assuming the line holds up, anticipate improvement for Wentz in a much better situation for him than he faced in Philadelphia.
- However, unless Wentz can play better within the system, do not anticipate an upgrade over 2020 Philip Rivers.
- Respect the Colts defense when healthy, even against good teams.
- Expect the Colts defense to outperform against run-heavy teams who struggle when forced to pass.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- I would avoid Jonathan Taylor in fantasy football. This looks like an RBBC in which Taylor will be sharing time with both Mack and Hines. Taylor struggled for most of 2020 before exploding at the end of the year against Jacksonville, Houston, and Las Vegas. There are too many ways Taylor ends up a bust for me to draft him in the first round. Mack (non-ppr) and Hines (ppr) make good late-round stashes for this reason.
- The Colts likely will play slow and run-heavy, and the pass game is too diversified to have much faith in any one player. Second-year receivers are always interesting, so I have some interest in Pittman, but I would hesitate to predict any major breakouts here.
- Avoid Running backs against the Colts if possible.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In the Wild Card round, the Colts visited Buffalo as 7 point underdogs. In my official Wild Card Picks, I wrote the following: “The blueprint for beating Buffalo is to slow the game down and keep Allen on the sidelines, and I think the Colts are good enough to do just that. The weather here may also keep the game slow and close, which favors the underdog. I give a slight edge to Frank Reich and Rivers with their experience in a big game, and I think if the Colts move the ball they will score enough touchdowns to keep this one from getting out of reach. I also love the chance at getting a backdoor cover or push with the 7 points, which I locked in before the line moved to 6.5.” I put 3 Units on the Colts, who I thought at the very least could cover the spread and could win outright if they avoided mistakes. They did not avoid mistakes, and arguably should have won the game based on how well they played. But they failed on a key 4th down, missed a field goal, and suffered several drops. The Bills squeaked out a 27-24 victory and we won the bet.