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Looking to replace the retired Philip Rivers without going into a rebuild, the Colts opted for Carson Wentz. Wentz had shown that he could be a successful quarterback under perfect conditions but struggled in his last year with the Eagles behind a bad offensive line and with limited weapons. The Colts were looking for a competent quarterback who could lean on a solid run game, avoid turnovers, and take the easy throws to create yards after the catch.
Wentz did not understand the assignment. Despite arguably the NFL’s best offensive line (when healthy), Wentz was mediocre at best. The Colts had the league’s best running game and plenty of options in the short area passing game who could turn catches into yards. They had a well-designed scheme that Rivers executed effectively in 2020, built around making quick throws, picking up positive yards, and letting the skill players make plays.
But behind an offensive line that allowed the NFL’s best rushing EPA/play and the 2nd-highest average time in the pocket, Wentz managed to be one of the least accurate starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Time in the pocket and only the 17th-highest average depth of target did not help Wentz consistently hit his receivers. He completed some really tough downfield passes that showed up on highlights and gave him confidence, but his inconsistency in the short game killed them.
I was wrong about Wentz. I thought he would succeed in Indianapolis the way Ryan Tannehill succeeds in Tennessee because quarterbacks in that mold tend to be very circumstances-dependent. When they have time, a good ground game, and a good scheme, they can perform. Otherwise they struggle. I thought Wentz belonged in this tier, but he does not. He lacks the ability to take the easy ones and capitalize against defenses focused on taking away the run. He tries to do too much, and forfeits what could be a consistently reliable offense.
Since 2013, the Eagles are 35-33-1 (including 0-1 in the playoffs) with Wentz and 47-36 (4-2 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl win) without him. The quarterbacks for the Eagles during that stretch? Nick Foles (31 games), Jalen Hurts (20), Sam Bradford (14), Mark Sanchez (10), Michael Vick (6), and Gardner Minshew (2). And in 2021, Wentz took an 11-5 Colts squad to a 9-8 record. At this point, there is simply no reason to believe Wentz can elevate a team around him.
With an inconsistent quarterback unable to capitalize by making easy throws, the Colts did not take advantage of defenses that allowed a high completion percentage to opponents. Chart A shows the Colts’ relative offensive performance ranking each opponent by completion percentage allowed on the season. Two of their worst performances came against the Jaguars, who allowed the 2nd-highest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. Over half their games involved teams who were bottom-10 in this metric, but the Colts offense only capitalized fully against the Jets.
Ultimately, this cost the Colts in the biggest spots. With the season on the line, all they needed was a win against the Jags to secure a playoff spot. They fell flat, losing 26-11 because Wentz could not convert on third down. At this point in the season, the coaching staff did not trust Wentz on fourth down, and instead ran the ball with Jonathan Taylor on two fourth and short situations. Taylor was stuffed on both. With the season on the line, you need a quarterback who can make a play. The Colts did not have one.
So I completely agree with the team’s decision to move on, and believe Matt Ryan is a huge upgrade. He is essentially what Rivers was in 2020. His arm talent may not be where it once was, but he’s smart, reads defenses, and can make all the throws. He should be able to lean on Jonathan Taylor and the ground game, take the easy ones, and perform well under pressure. It will certainly help if the Colts improve their receiving corps, but I’m optimistic overall.
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The Colts defense sought to take away big plays and avoid mistakes. They wanted offenses to have as many chances as possible to make a key error on their way down the field, rather than trying to aggressively force errors. They were excellent at tackling and strong in deep coverage, forcing shorter completions where they could wrap up the receiver before too much damage was done.
In some ways, it worked. They led the league in forced turnovers despite pressuring quarterbacks at the 2nd-lowest rate. Usually turnovers correlate to pressures, but not for the Colts. This level of divergence is likely not sustainable, but the Colts have been consistently in the top-10 (or close to it) at forcing turnovers over the last four years. So it’s tough to call it an absolute fluke, even if the specific numbers are on the high end. They do make plays and they do frustrate opponents into making mistakes when they are not patient.
Given their strong tackling, the most effective way to beat the Colts was to generate yards before contact. Primarily, teams accomplished this with well-designed run schemes and elusive running backs, which lead to good yards before contact on the ground. Chart B shows the Colts’ adjusted defensive effectiveness (relative to opponent) against each team ranked by its yards per rush before contact on the season. As you can see, their two worst performances on defense came against the Ravens and Seahawks, who both scheme up good runs.
The Colts allowed the 3rd-fewest yards after the catch per completion on the season and the 13th-lowest average depth of target. Explosive plays in the passing game – whether the deep ball or big catch-and-runs – were hard to come by. You had to be consistent, patient, and wear the Colts defense out so that they got tired. We saw this most obviously when the Ravens stormed back from 25-9 down to win in overtime against the Colts. There weren’t many big plays in this comeback. Just short pass after short pass, taking advantage of the Colts lack of aggressiveness and fatigue as the game wore on.
The good news from the Colts’ perspective is that stopping explosive plays and being vulnerable to offenses that like to chip away means their defense is targeted to its toughest opponents. They showed out against the best teams in the NFL. The held Josh Allen and the Bills to 15 points in a 41-15 beat down. They handled the YAC-happy 49ers easily in a 30-18 win. And they hung around with both the Rams and the Bucs. Their defense did its job in the biggest spots. Unfortunately, they did not get a chance to prove they were a competitive team in the playoffs after ending the year with two consecutive miserable losses.
The Colts have talent at every level on the defense, disciplined tackling, and a scheme that works fairly well against explosive offenses. This formula has worked for them year-in and year-out, so there is reason to expect the defense should be at least average again in 2022. They faced multiple injuries and absences on defense over the course of the season, which were never enough to completely dismantle the defense but were just enough to keep them from reaching their potential. They also faced a surprisingly tough schedule that included 10 playoff teams, which could get easier. Defensive performance tends to track opponent strength, so this is welcome news when projecting out the Colts defense in 2022.
When to bet on the Colts: The Colts are at their best when they can run the ball into the teeth of a defense and force extra defenders into the box. Matt Ryan is a smart quarterback and with a healthy offensive line, he should capitalize in those spots and the Colts will be live in just about any game.
When to fade the Colts: The Colts are a strong all-around team that I am not looking to fade early. But they are probably not built to play in a shoot-out or to play catch up with their lack of receiving talent downfield. I’d be especially wary against a methodical and effective offense that implements great run schemes and avoids mistakes.
What to look for in the offseason: They already upgraded from Wentz to Ryan. Now I’m interested in how their defense shapes up. They have obtained Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore, which is an excellent start to the off-season. It would be nice to see an upgrade at receiver too, to help out opposite Michael Pittman.
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