INDIANAPOLIS — Each week, Colts.com readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.
Let's jump right into this week's questions:
Dredais on Colts Reddit: "This will be arguably the toughest defense we've faced all season. Do you believe Philcember domination continues or we get a game that has fans clamoring for a benching"
Walker: Well, since you asked your question, the dynamic to Sunday's game certainly has changed a little bit considering both of the Colts' starting tackles, Anthony Castonzo (knee/ankle) and Braden Smith (Reserve/COVID-19 list) are now officially ruled out. So I wanted to be fair to you by pointing that out from the start. That certainly isn't me saying the Colts can't still win this game, or that their offense can't still find success against what has been an extremely solid Steelers defense, however. This is one of those typical AFC North Division defensive units, though: don't think you can come in and make a bunch of mistakes — whether it's mental errors or being careless with the ball — and that you're going to get away with it. Check out Cleveland Browns in Week 5 and Baltimore Ravens in Week 9 to see how that ended up for the Colts. With Castonzo and Smith out, that margin for error shrinks even more. But I think if you're Frank Reich and this Indy offense, you're encouraged with the way the unit has seemingly come together in recent weeks to play a much more multiple, attacking style; Jonathan Taylor's emergence has made the Colts' run game one of the best in football the last four to five weeks, and, perhaps related to that, T.Y. Hilton's re-emergence as a bonafide No. 1 receiving threat down the field clearly has garnered the respect of opposing secondaries. So if you're Philip Rivers, you don't have to change much just because you're missing both of your tackles and you're facing such a good defensive unit in the Steelers; just do what got you here, limit the potentially massive mistakes and make adjustments from there.
Luck1492 on Colts Reddit: "Does this game now officially qualify as a "trap game"? The Steelers are obviously looking to rebound after the stunning loss to the Bengals, and the Colts are coming off a near last-play victory against the Texans. It seems like this could be the pitfall - especially since a win all but guarantees a playoff berth."
Walker: Nah, I don't think so — and maybe we have different working definitions of a trap game. Like, some might've considered last week's matchup against the Houston Texans to be a "trap game" (I didn't, for the record), because of Houston's record and what divisional loss at home would've done to the Colts' playoff résumé. But this is still the Steelers we're talking about here; three-game losing streak or not, they are leading their division, have already clinched a playoff spot and very much have a ton more they're playing for the rest of the regular season. I also believe this is a very ticked off Pittsburgh team overall that hasn't exactly gotten the most fair of shakes when it comes to their schedule and various COVID-19-related issues across the league. So, no, not a trap game at all in my mind.
grapplerone on Colts Reddit: "It does seem to me that playing zone defense would not bode well for the Colts this week. I wonder if we might see them show zone but go man during the game just to throw them off? Can they get away with just a 4 man rush to keep additional pass protection available? Ole Ben did seem to be less mobile than his norm. I think our defense run stopping effort is sound enough."
Walker: Yeah, this isn't exactly the Ben Roethlisberger we've come to know all these years as a guy who is willing to take time to let plays develop downfield, make some moves in the pocket, shed some tacklers, scramble around and figure out a way to get it done. In fact, Roethlisberger this season is getting rid of the football (2.31 seconds snap to throw average) faster than any other quarterback in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. So we might be looking at more of a Gardner Minshew Week 1 dink-and-dunk-type approach from Big Ben in this one, and we all saw how that one turned out for the Colts. But I will say this: against more man-to-man looks this season, in general (according to Pro Football Focus), the Steelers this season have a quarterback rating of 91.7, which ranks 12th, but against more zone looks, that quarterback rating falls to 79.3, which ranks 29th. So I can almost guarantee the Colts' defensive approach in this one is to ensure the Steelers don't get that run game going first and foremost, and then, from there, mix it up a bit in the secondary with the coverages, try to generate some creative pressure (against the least-pressured quarterback in the league) and limit the big plays over the top.
Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "The Colts are playing better football than the Steelers over the past four weeks by just about any metric, so objectively, we should win the game. But how important is an intangible like confidence? Luck never lost to the Titans, for example. The Steelers have absolutely owned the Colts, won games that they should have lost (playoffs 2006), and occasionally beaten the daylights out of us (like the 45-10 shellacking in 2016). Despite playing poor football for the last month, will the Steelers feel confident facing a team that they seem to beat regardless of who's on the field? Will the Colts fear that somehow, some way, the ball will bounce in the Steelers' favor? Or is all that just a strange confirmation bias and superstition?"
Walker: I know what you're getting at, but I have a hard time believing a team as relatively young as this Colts squad actually takes much stock into its franchise's past failures against the Steelers. And, trust me, the failures have been significant, as the Colts organization has a 6-25 all-time regular season record against the Steelers going back to 1950, and an even worse 2-16 record in games played in Pittsburgh (we won't even bring up a couple of those more recent playoff losses to the Steelers, either). I mean, if I'm Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, I'm still mad about last season's road loss to the Steelers, which might add some sort of extra motivation on Sunday, but I don't think T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle are going to be trying to pump everyone up at the team meeting tonight talking about that 45-10 loss to the Steelers back in 2015.
hi123156 on Colts Reddit: "Do you think people getting snubbed from the pro bowl makes them want to and play better?"
Walker: Hi, hi, yes, I do think for a lot of players there is some sort of motivation factor to being a Pro Bowl snub. I'd have a hard time believing guys like DeForest Buckner, Kenny Moore II and George Odum aren't going to be looking to make some sort of statement on Sunday against the Steelers, to say, 'Huh, I'm one of the best players at my position in the NFL, and you don't think I'm worthy of the Pro Bowl? Well watch this." I also think it's important, however, for those same guys not to overdo it when it comes to the snub stuff; if you need that extra little lift from not being selected for the Pro Bowl, that's perfectly fine, but don't go out and try to do something so extreme that it could backfire and end up costing your team in the end — especially during a playoff push.
rockywoj on Colts.com Forums: "Hey Andrew. Have enjoyed the Colts Mailbag for years now. First time question submission from this OL' Colts fan / Colts Fan Forum diehard from the Peg (Winnipeg, Canada) ... Call me old school, but sometime I miss the I-Formation or in the very least, 2 RBs split in the backfield. With the Colts having two dynamic playmakers in Hines & Taylor, do you foresee the Colts maybe increasing formations where both RBs are on the field at the same time? Pretty sure I saw a time or two last game where they were both out there, but then Hines split out in motion to the receiver position. I can't help but think that with both Hines & Taylor out there at the same time, it would be a defensive mis-match nightmare / big play waiting to happen! Thoughts?"
Walker: Thanks so much for reading the Mailbag all these years, and a big thanks for your first question. Please don't hesitate to keep asking away — this is a great one. It reminds me of the offseason signing of fullback Roosevelt Nix (ironically, formerly of the Steelers), and how intrigued I was to get such a legit lead blocker for those I-formation plays, but how ultimately, as Frank Reich admitted, the team, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the missed on-field time this offseason, just didn't have enough time to justify keeping that fullback on the 53-man roster. Now, Nix probably wasn't going to be playing more than about 10 offensive snaps a game, anyway, but it's still an added element to the offense that you don't quite have without that position. Without a fullback, the Colts have pretty much abandoned the I-formation altogether, according to Pro Football Focus, as they have used a variation of the "I" on just one rushing attempt all year, fewest in the NFL. That play came in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, when Philip Rivers was under center with Jonathan Taylor as the halfback and Nyheim Hines as the up-back; in the first quarter, on 2nd and 4 from the Minnesota 47, the Colts used Hines as a decoy running to the right and handed it off to Taylor to the left, who lost two yards on the play. Now, the Colts have passed the ball four times out of some variation of the I-formation this season, too, and three of the first four came on short-yardage situations (1st and Goal from the 1, 1st and Goal from the 2, 4th and 1 from the 16), while the fourth came in Week 14 against the Raiders, when, on 2nd and 10 from the Indy 25 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Rivers, with Taylor as the halfback and tight end Jack Doyle the up-back, faked the handoff and found T.Y. Hilton for a gain of 14 yards.
To answer the second part of your question, the Colts have utilized formations with two running backs 29 times, according to PFF, which is the second-fewest in the league, and just once have Taylor and Hines been on the field together as running backs — that aforementioned Week 2 run play for a loss of two against the Vikings. (We won't count that wildcat formation with Hines at quarterback and Taylor at running back that scored the touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders, although I love the creativity). So maybe that is a wrinkle Reich can use if and when the Colts reach the playoffs? We'll see.
Colts1324 on Colts.com Forums: "Is Turay at 100%?? He is getting more snaps, but he seems to still be on a snap count."
Walker: I definitely think Kemoko Turay is getting close to where both he and the coaches want him to be, which is terrific for a team this late in the season making a playoff push in need of some added oomph off the edge. He played a season-high 33 defensive snaps in last Sunday's win against the Houston Texans, and although he didn't register any tackles or sacks, there was just something about him that felt … right — his jump off the snap, his general pass-rushing depth, his counter moves, etc. I think he's very close, in fact. I'm not certain Turay will be pushing Justin Houston or Denico Autry for their starting jobs the rest of this season, but there's nothing wrong with Turay logging 25 to 30 or more snaps a game as more of a pass-rushing specialist, and then pushing for a starting job next season.
PrideOfAthens17 on Colts.com Forums: "Philip is 3 - 0 in games head to head against Eli, and 3 - 3 in games head to head against Ben (although Ben won their only postseason matchup, and Philip is 3 - 5 overall against the Steelers, having lost both of the games in which Ben didn't play). So a win Sunday would give Philip the overall lead in head to head matchups against his fellow 2004 draft class quarterbacks. I don't know if you'll get the chance this week to ask him, and I know he's focused on only winning this particular game, but I'm curious how much, in the back of his mind, he's aware of things like this, and if he uses them in any way to help motivate him. And thanks, as always, Andrew."
Walker: I hate to attack you with the long copy and paste here, but I found this Philip Rivers answer quite fascinating this week when he was asked about his memories of that infamous 2004 NFL Draft, and how both Ben Roethlisberger and him are still starting big games in the NFL:
"It is cool. As I've said to you about the other guys we've gone against, Aaron Rodgers and other guys, certainly we're not playing one another – neither of us will be on the field at the same time. Obviously, we have our hands full with that defense as I'm sure he has a great respect for our defense. But yeah, it is cool to look 17 years later for us to be still be playing. Ben (Roethlisberger) has had an unbelievable career. But yeah, you think back to that day – in all honesty, I thought I was going to be in Pittsburgh. I don't know what he thinks. I had thought he was going to be in New York, so it is interesting to see how all that played out. It's always fun when you look 17 years later, and you're going to be out there leading a team and competing against one another."
NannyMcafee on Colts.com Forums: "Off topic of this matchup... does a SB appearance lock Rivers in as a HOF QB? Similar to how it got Marino in."
Walker: I've touched on this before, but I think Philip Rivers is a Hall of Fame lock as is. A Super Bowl appearance — and certainly a Super Bowl win — might lock in first-ballot status for Rivers, sure. But the guy is going to retire being top-five in all the major passing categories in NFL history, he's been a beloved teammate and competitor and has treated the media extremely well the whole way. Mix that all together, and, to me, you have a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Also: side note, Dan Marino is the same way. He didn't need to make a Super Bowl to earn his gold jacket. I mean, Marino was a transcendent talent that led the way for the Philip Rivers, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees and, yes, Tom Bradys of the world to do what they've done.
danlhart87 on Colts.com Forums: "What are the chances of Buckner winning DPOY ? I believe he should get tons of votes! The Colts are trending in the right direction YPC running the ball. They are facing a very good D that could stall that momentum. How do you expect the Colts to attack the Steelers run D?"
Walker: DeForest Buckner 100 percent should've been voted to the Pro Bowl, and he 100 percent should be named All-Pro by the end of the season. As far as NFL Defensive Player of the Year goes, it's hard for me to go there. It's not that Buckner isn't a massive game-changer for this Colts' defense and one of the top two or three players at his position, but to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year you either have to be Aaron Donald (there's only been one of those ever), you have to have a crazy amount of sacks, or you are a Bob Sanders-type player, where the stats might not necessarily blow you away at first glance, but everybody knows to avoid you at all costs. Could Buckner get a few votes, however? It's quite possible.
2006Coltsbestever on Colts.com Forums: "I posted in another thread that I felt like outside of playing the Chiefs come playoff time that we had a 50/50 chance of beating anyone else (assuming we make the playoffs). Teams 2-7 will be pretty even I still give us a 30% chance of beating the Chiefs, which isn't good odds but not awful. I can see us making the AFC Title Game. I guess my question is, do you agree with me and what do you think our chances are of making a deep run? Thanks again for being here to get our opinions on things"
Walker: Let me jump to an old cliché here, but it's certainly true in this case: if you want to be the best, you're going to have to (eventually) beat the best. So if the Colts can, first and foremost, clinch a spot in the playoffs, there's no doubt that at this point, it looks like the Kansas City Chiefs are going to be the biggest test in the AFC.
(Side note: I always wondered how that 2018 Divisional Round game against the Chiefs could've gone if the Colts' offense didn't sputter so bad early on; we all know what happened from there — and, heck, the way the Chiefs were playing, they definitely would've still won regardless — but it could've been a lot more interesting, at least.)
Anyway, to get back to your question, as I've referenced before, I think the best scenario for the Colts in the playoffs is to play the Tennessee Titans, just due to the familiarity (and, yes, that works both ways). But I don't really see the Colts not matching up well against just about every other potential AFC contender. One would have to imagine Indy would be a decent underdog on the road in Kansas City, but the Colts' win there in Week 5 last season certainly is proof they can get the job done against Patrick Mahomes & Co. But just get to the dance, first and foremost, and anything can happen — especially in this crazy 2020 season.