One Big Storyline
Frank Reich's mantra to his team this week, after Marcus Brady was relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator and Nyheim Hines was traded to the Buffalo Bills, was simple: "Unite and fight."
Will it work?
"We'll find out," Reich said. "I mean, I do think it's an effective message. I do think – we won two games and then we lost two games. We're very disgusted with where we are at right now with our record, but I believe everybody has the mindset like we're going to get back on track – today, start today."
Players took to that message this week by turning their focus inward, not on the departures of Brady and Hines. The Colts believe they're close to consistently winning as a team so long as each player individually executes, especially in the red zone on offense. And dwelling on Tuesday's changes to the roster and coaching staff, then, wouldn't be productive in getting a 3-4-1 season on track.
"At the end of the day with the changes, your job remains the same, your responsibilities remain the same," left guard Quenton Nelson said. "Just need to improve on doing our job, winning our one-on-ones and collectively as a group doing that."
Added defensive tackle DeForest Buckner: "I can't control the quarterback change, I can't control if a coach gets fired or a guy gets traded. I gotta be able to do my job and look in the mirror to see what I can do to get better. That's all I can do."
The Colts still have time to turn their 2022 season around. But when the clock hits zero at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, the Colts will be past the halfway point of the season.
So this team is approaching Week 9 with a good sense of urgency, knowing that while there's still time – it's running out.
"(The season) kind of flew by already," center Ryan Kelly said. "Just kind of, s—t or get off the pot time."
Who's In, Who's Out
Week 9's final practice report:
5 Things To Watch
Sam Ehlinger vs. Bill Belichick's defense. Over the last 10 years, a quarterback in his first or second year in the NFL has started against the Patriots 49 times. Those young quarterbacks are, combined, 831/1,481 (56 percent) for 9,895 yards (6.7 yards/attempt) with 51 touchdowns, 61 interceptions, 126 sacks taken and a passer rating of 71.
And combined, those quarterbacks' teams are 10-39 in those games. The point is: No coach in NFL history has done more to make things difficult for a greenhorn NFL quarterback than Bill Belichick, whose Patriots will take on the Colts and Sam Ehlinger in his second career start on Sunday.
"Obviously, you want to get your first win and I'm really looking forward to playing against coach Belichick and the Patriots," Ehlinger said. "There's nobody that's done it better and they always present a challenge defensively. I know it's going to be a challenge and it's going to be a hostile environment. I'm looking forward to it."
This doesn't mean it'll be impossible for Ehlinger to win on Sunday – far from it. Just two weeks ago, second-year quarterback Justin Fields led the Chicago Bears to a 33-14 rout of the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Monday Night Football; the Denver Broncos won an 18-12 game over the Patriots in New England with Drew Lock at quarterback in 2020. And looking down the list of young quarterbacks to beat the Patriots – guys like Fields, Lock, Lamar Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson – they all possess mobility as a trait, like Ehlinger.
"Having a guy like Sam who's able to extend plays, especially in man coverage — the play might break down, pocket might break down, we're running one route, the DB's kind of relaxing, and we just break away for a big play," wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "I think it'll be to our advantage."
The Patriots' defense will enter Week 9 ranking 12th in points allowed per game (20.4) and 15th in yards allowed per play (5.5), though they're fourth in interception rate (3.7 percent) and seventh in sack rate (8.5 percent).
Can the Colts execute in Patriots territory? One of the more head-scratching stats about the 2022 Colts is they're 12th in yards per play (6.1) when snapping the ball in their own territory, yet are 31st in yards per play (3.6) when snapping the ball in opposing territory. It's why we keep hearing from players and coaches after games about how the Colts felt like they were able to move the ball on offense, then one or two negative plays or a turnover ended a drive.
"I thought we played a pretty good game today, we just made stupid mistakes," Kelly said after Sunday's loss to the Commanders. "That stings even worse."
And is not like those numbers are the result of a small sample size, either – the Colts are fifth in number of plays run in opposing territory (251). Getting closer to the end zone, the Colts are 32nd in the NFL in EPA per play inside the 30-yard line (-.478), the result of the team turning the ball over a league-high six times inside the 30, two of which came on Sunday against the Commanders.
The good news for the Colts is they flashed an explosive streak against Washington with Ehlinger at quarterback, and if those miscues in plus territory can get cleaned up, this offense has the ability to be an efficient, high-scoring group. It's not like you're seeing a bunch of three-and-outs, which are usually the mark of an offense with little upside.
"I thought as an offense we had a lot of opportunities," Ehlinger said. "We just shot ourselves in the foot. We got down on the other side of the 50 multiple times and didn't come away with points — two turnovers. We came down to the inch-yard line and came away with three points. That's not good enough in this league. Had some penalties we got to clean up. So it's frustrating. We showed that we can be an explosive offense. We had explosive plays. And we just got to keep building from here."
A possible opportunity for Bernhard Raimann, and an opportunity for Deon Jackson. With Dennis Kelly (calf/ankle) a game-time decision, Raimann could be in line to make his third start at left tackle this season – with this one coming against a Patriots defense that's among the NFL's most effective at getting after quarterbacks. New England enters Week 9 sixth in total pressures (153) and has the NFL's sack leader in Matthew Judon, who has 8 1/2 sacks this season.
Judon has spent the majority of his snaps lined up against right tackles this season, but New England does move him around a bit to get him over left tackles – which could, on Sunday, be Raimann.
Raimann last started in Week 6, when the Colts planned to rotate him and Kelly at left tackle – but after Kelly played so well when he got in the game, Reich and offensive line coach Chris Strausser scrapped that rotation and stuck with Kelly.
"Bernard is doing fine," Reich said. "But what happened is Dennis got in there and he just looked good."
The Colts didn't lose faith in Raimann, and haven't as Kelly's started the last few weeks. We'll see on Sunday who gets the go at left tackle.
And at running back, the last time we saw Jackson start, he caught 10 passes – the most by a Colts running back in over a decade – and earned Kyle Brandt's Angry Runs Scepter with a punishingly physical touchdown in Week 6 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. With Jonathan Taylor (ankle) out and Hines in Buffalo, Jackson looks to get another chance to make an impact as the next man up at running back on Sunday.
Shaquille Leonard expanding his role. Leonard played 24 of 61 snaps in Week 8, as the Colts were intentional about bringing their All-Pro linebacker along in his second game of the season. Part of it is not pushing things physically with Leonard – who said he's continued to feel better every week – but defensive coordinator Gus Bradley pointed to Leonard's relatively limited time in his defense as a factor, too.
"It's that gradual, keep feeding him, keep seeing him getting better and better and getting a better feel out there," Bradley said. "It's bringing him to where he's back to an 'A' and it's a process that we're doing to get him there where he gains confidence in not only his ability physically but also understanding the game."
Even as he's getting up to speed, though, Leonard still found a way to make a play on Sunday against the Commanders with an interception in the fourth quarter. And last year against the Patriots, Leonard picked off Mac Jones and forced a fumble in the Colts' 27-17 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"I thought last week during practice, he made really good strides," Bradley said. "Definitely thought he played better this game than the first time he was in there. We just have to keep progressing him and the challenge for us as coaches – we want him on the field. He makes things happen when he's on the field. But we have this progression that we want to take to help him out so when he's out there consistently, he's at his best."
Stephon Gilmore's return to New England. Gilmore isn't putting any extra emphasis on his first game back in New England since the Patriots traded him to the Carolina Panthers last year, which isn't surprising for the even-keel, no-nonsense Colts cornerback. He actually played the Patriots last year with Carolina – although that game, in which he picked off Jones, was in Charlotte.
"It's just a good opportunity," Gilmore said. "I played great ball there, met great people. Just a good opportunity to go in there and play in a hostile environment and make plays and help my team win."
Gilmore starred for the Patriots from 2017-2020, earning AP Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2019, first-team All-Pro nods in 2018 and 2019, Pro Bowl berths from 2018-2020 and a Super Bowl ring in 2018. He's been solid again in 2022, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 73.5 passer rating when targeting him and while making a handful of plays late in games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos to propel the Colts to wins.