Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Pass Rush Productivity, Philip Rivers' First Five Games, Bengals Gameplan

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about how the team can improve its pass rush productivity, an assessment of Philip Rivers’ first five games as the Colts’ quarterback, what the team can do to be successful today against the Cincinnati Bengals and much more.

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INDIANAPOLIS — Each week, Colts.com readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out on the party this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here.

Let's jump right into this week's questions:

JediSith1812 on Colts Reddit: "What do you think is causing the Colts horrendous 3rd down conversion rate? Last year, the Colts were just outside the top 10 in that category and now we are amongst the worst in the league. Also, I know this may seem blasphemous to some redditors here but, how long until the mediocre QB and passing play start to affect how Ballard is viewed? He's been here for four years and made some great acquisitions but has whiffed more times than not on getting solid playmakers at wideout. Also with Newton available, he went with Rivers._"

Walker: I see a couple issues on third down specifically. First off, for whatever reason, the Colts have struggled to convert third-and-short type opportunities; they've moved the chains on just 5-of-9 short-yardage (1 to 2 yards to go) situations on third down, and that 56 percent conversion rate ranks 29th in the NFL. If Indy were more solid in that area alone, then they'd easily be about middle of the pack in total third-down conversion rate (the Colts currently rank 27th at 34.9 percent). The turnovers have also been an issue on third down so far; Philip Rivers has thrown four interceptions on third down to this point of the season, which is tied with three other teams (Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers) for the most in the NFL. So if the Colts can improve in short-yardage situations and find a way to turn at least a couple of those turnovers into chain-moving plays, then they'd at least be about average on third down. They'll keep chipping away at it.

And at wide receiver, what are the Colts supposed to do, particularly the last couple years? You've used two (!) second-round picks at the position the last two years in Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. We all know what's happened with Campbell and all the hard luck he's had battling through injuries, which was not a theme of his at all at Ohio State, so it's not like you can blame the Colts for any of those issues now. Pittman Jr. is also currently battling his own leg injury and the hope is that he'll be back soon; he's just a few games into his career, so I don't think it's fair to make an assessment one way or another on him. The Colts also shelled out a reported $10 million to sign free agent Devin Funchess to be their No. 2 receiver last offseason, and then he suffers a season-ending clavicle injury in the very first game of the year. So that's two high-round draft picks and a pretty major free agent signing in the last two years alone that haven't been able to produce due to unforeseen injuries. I know it can be tough as a fan seeing other draft picks pan out at the position, but I really don't think you can say the Colts haven't made wide receiver a priority.

And I will be quick on Cam Newton: 31 other teams passed on him for months. There's a reason for that. He's playing great now, and kudos to him.

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Andy_and_Vic on Colts Reddit: "As good as the defense has been, as the pass rush reliable? Was last week a product of Cleveland's good offensive line, or is getting pressure going to be a problem?"

Walker: Well, I think the Cleveland offensive line, first of all, has proven to be pretty darn good through the first five games of the season. The Colts generated nine total pressures on quarterback Baker Mayfield throughout the afternoon, sacking him once and hitting him three times total. I think obviously you'd want a little more on any given gameday, especially in the first half of this one, but you also have to factor in just how well the Colts' defense played as a unit in the second half. Overall, though, compared to the rest of the league, the Indy pass rush has been about average. The Colts currently rank 21st in the NFL in total pressures generated (sacks/QB hits/hurries), according to Pro Football Focus, although their sack percentage (6.4) ranks 13th. But let me throw this caveat in there: the Indy defense so far has blitzed the least of any team in the league; the fact they're able to get the pressure they have been mostly by sending just the front four guys after the quarterback on each down, to me, is pretty impressive, and I think it's clearly making an impact at all three levels. So maybe Matt Eberflus will increasingly work in a few more blitzes here and there over the rest of the season to generate a little more pressure overall, but if it ain't broke…

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Jiverogers on Colts Reddit: "Is the team going to cling onto Rivers starting all year even at the expense of winning games ala Vinny last season?"

Walker: At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, general accuracy and yards per attempt are two of the primary statistical building blocks at the quarterback position in Frank Reich's offense. Philip Rivers currently ranks sixth in the NFL in completion percentage (70.8) and fourth in net yards per pass attempt (7.65). Generally speaking — and, yes, you can't apply this to every situation every single time — when a quarterback has been solid in those areas, they end up having a pretty darn good year, and that offense is among the more efficient passing units in the league. Now, through five games, other issues have been at play with Rivers, mostly the costly interceptions thrown in the team's two losses in Weeks 1 and 5. You just can't make some of those throws, and Rivers knows that more than anyone. Beyond that, however, I would personally like to see the Colts' offense get its run game going at a higher rate — a rate I think we all know it can reach, but just hasn't yet to this point for whatever reason — and see if that can have a positive effect on Rivers and the passing game. I'm going to wait a few more weeks, perhaps the midway point of the season, before really starting to evaluate this one. Now, as fans, I can certainly understand the frustration based off the second half of last week's game against the Browns, and maybe (probably) there will be some eye rolling attacked to my answer here. But I also am a believer in stats and averages and historical trends, and think there are some positive building blocks in that regard that haven't had quite enough time to play out just yet to make a full evaluation.

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jono9898 on Colts Reddit: "Does Reich not see Mo Cox as a solid number one TE? It just seems like Doyle and Burton were featured more than him especially in the second half of the Bears game and the full Browns game."

Walker: Frank Reich this week was asked about Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle's involvement in the passing game, specifically, the last couple games. He said:

"I mean, I see this with tight ends, receivers. To me, that's normal course where you go week-to-week and some weeks the plays fall towards one guy and the next week they don't. Or you might get a couple weeks in a row where one guy gets hot and it seems like the ball is going to him and there is some momentum. Really, as long as I've been around the game, that's always been true at receiver, at tight end and sometimes even at running back – that's what I love about our guys. They are unselfish, they know that's the case. These three tight ends, they all have their own kind of unique set of plays. They are all three different types of players. So, during the course of a game, how things sometimes get called is dictated on the flow of the game. You have certain plays that you know you're calling towards them, but those guys are unselfish and they know the ball is going to come back to them if they go a game or two without catching as many as normal."

Now, Mo Alie-Cox is officially ruled out of today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a knee injury, so we'll see how this plays out with him after the bye week.

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xmagicx on Colts Reddit: "Hey Andrew thanks for doing these.

1. I understand that Easson isn't going to play. If he was good enough we would have heard about it by now. But is he getting reps in practice, be it scout team etc?

2. Coming into the season we wanted a committee approach at running back, but it is becoming clear that Taylor, albeit with his flaws, is getting the most out of his carries. While I dont expect him to have the team put on his back and get 25+ carries a game, do you think as the season goes on we will increase his prominence in the offence?

3. Is there a metric that quantifies how scared teams are of our offensive passive attack? I was thinking of maybe proximity to the lin if scrimmage, with a smaller value meaning defences are cheating up to prevent the run and pass rush trusting thier secondary to match up. I thought if this because I feel he run game is suffering post the second half of last season because the opposition dont fear our passing, do you think that's the case?"

Walker: Thanks for reading!

1. We don't watch practices in their entirety, so I'm not sure how many actual reps Jacob Eason is getting. The best answer I can give right now is that assistant coaches are made available to the media once a month, so we'll check in with quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady here soon and ask about Eason's development, specifically.

2. I would have to believe as the run game picks up the way we all believe it will, Taylor's workload will increase — at least a little bit. I mean, he's already getting about 51.7 percent of the team's rushing attempts, and Marlon Mack last year was at 52.4 percent (granted, he missed a couple games with a broken hand). I think what matters more is the impact of the rushing attempts Taylor does get, and, yes, I do expect that to improve.

3. According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts have had 14 pass plays with eight-plus defenders in the box, which is tied for the third-fewest in the league; on the other side of the coin, they've had 67 run plays with eight or more defenders in the box, which is the seventh most in the NFL. So I really don't see much of a trend or a correlation there at this point of the season.

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Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "If you look at the two Colts losses (@Jacksonville and @Browns), what similarities do you find? That is, what's the blueprint for beating the Colts, and how can the Colts avoid those losses in the future?"

Walker: In those two losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, there are a couple main themes that stick out to me: generally poor defensive play in the first half and costly interceptions on offense. Against the Jaguars, I think the run defense really struggled the first two quarters before picking up the pace in the second half, and against the Browns, it was the pass defense that allowed too much production in quarters 1 and 2 before obviously putting down the clamps in the third and fourth quarters. As for the interceptions thrown by Philip Rivers in those two games, all four of them came on third down, and three of those four picks came in the second half as Indy was trailing but trying to work itself back into the game. So we'll see if that can be cleaned up moving forward.

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danlhart87 on Colts.com Forums: "I fear this might be a loss. Is there a reason the Colts from time to time tend to overlook lesser opponents? Burrow I feel will be very special so how do you expect the Colts to limit his options? Many fans are calling for Rivers head and asking that he be replaced despite it only being Week 6. If his struggles continue and actually causes some losses what actions do you expect the Colts to take not only this year but 2021?"

Walker: Have faith! I think the win over the New York Jets a few weeks back is a good example of the Colts doing exactly what they needed to do against a struggling opponent in all three phases and coming away with a decisive victory. With Joe Burrow — who has looked fantastic at times here early on in his rookie season — I think the Colts really need to take advantage of a Cincinnati Bengals offensive line that, to put it mildly, has struggled throughout the early portion of the season. I particularly like DeForest Buckner's matchup against left guard Michael Jordan in this one, and I also think Indy can really take advantage of Cincy's right side, too. Generate pressure on the rookie quarterback and also give him some disguised pre-snap looks throughout all three levels, and that seems like a good recipe for success today. And I addressed Philip Rivers above, but clearly the team needs to take the future of its quarterback position into account ASAP. Rivers is signed just through this season, and the general belief heading into the year was that he could extend his stay with the Colts to two seasons if both sides agreed it was for the best. Either way, you want to see how the rookie fourth-round pick Jacob Eason continues to develop, keep a very close eye on the quarterbacks set to enter the NFL Draft next year and then also have your pro scouts know the ins and outs of all the QBs who are set to enter free agency next year.

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Barry Sears on Colts.com Forums: "Bengals o-line is weak, so do you expect us to blitz more to pressure Burrow as much as possible?"

Walker: I really like the one-on-one matchups, really, across the board today. I mentioned DeForest Buckner against left guard Michael Jordan a little earlier, but depending on their availability, I think Justin Houston can really have a lot of success wreaking havoc on Joe Burrow's blindside, and Denico Autry and a guy like Al-Quadin Muhammad can break out off the other edge. Matt Eberflus just doesn't really blitz a whole lot — the Colts blitz the least of any team in the NFL currently — but maybe there's credence to throwing a few more disguised pre-snap looks at the rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, and then sending a guy like Kenny Moore II on blitzes a couple extra times early on to see how he reacts? We'll see how it plays out.

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Smonroe on Colts.com Forums: "Any timeline on Pittman or Parris? How is AC doing?"

Walker: No return timetable has been attached to either Michael Pittman Jr. or Parris Campbell. Pittman Jr. is out at least through the bye week next week, and tweeted earlier this week that he was running on turf for the first time since undergoing surgery for his lower leg injury, so it seems as if he's making progress. Campbell's absence could be a little more indefinite; he had surgery a couple weeks back, and Frank Reich is yet to completely rule him out the rest of the year, so that's something perhaps you check back on down the road. As for Anthony Castonzo, it's certainly promising that he was a full participant in practice on Thursday and Friday this week; the caveat, though, is that this is a rib injury, so it needs to fully heal before you can throw him back in at left tackle. We'll see here soon where he's at for today's game.

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csmopar on Colts.com Forums: "Do you feel our OL has taken a step back based on performance so far or do you feel its more of the team missing Mack?"

Walker: The stats in the run game indicate the offensive line hasn't been performing as well as it had been the last couple seasons; the Colts had 1,718 rushing yards in 2018 and 2,130 rushing yards last season, and are currently on pace for 1,693 rushing yards this season. In terms of rushing yards per attempt, the figure was 4.21 in 2018, 4.52 in 2019 and is currently at 3.55. Marlon Mack's emergence as what I believe to be a top-10 running back certainly plays a part in this, but Jonathan Taylor is extremely talented back there, too; we really saw the run game start to take off in Week 6 of the 2018 season, so that's why I'm hesitant to really make any conclusions about this year's performance just yet.

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Four2itus on Colts.com Forums: "What does the future look like for Tyquan Lewis? How does he feel about his role on the team?"

Walker: Tyquan Lewis has been in for about 21.5 percent of all Colts defensive plays to this point of the season. To be honest, I think that's right about where I would expect him to be, as defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and defensive line coach Brian Baker like to utilize a deep rotation of linemen up front throughout each ballgame. It can be tough to make a consistent impact when you're not out there a ton, but Lewis so far has a sack and three hurries through five games. With Justin Houston and Denico Autry a little banged up heading into today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, perhaps Lewis can log a few more snaps and get a few more opportunities? We'll see.

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holeymoley99 on Colts.com Forums: "When can we expect Ben Banogu to get increased playing time?"

Walker: Banogu is in the same boat as the aforementioned Tyquan Lewis, for the most part. In fact, they're played the exact same number of defensive snaps (65) on the season so far. Banogu has four total hurries on the year, with no sacks so far. I think we saw both Lewis and Banogu play much better in that rotation against a struggling Minnesota Vikings offensive line back in Week 2; maybe we'll see something similar against another struggling offensive line today against the Cincinnati Bengals?

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coltsfanmurf on Colts.com Forums: "I'd like to see a little more "up tempo" and more no huddle. Is this something that fits Rivers style of play or is he more comfortable in the slow it down and look over the defense type of game?"

Walker: The Colts actually head into today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals ranked 10th in the NFL in total no-huddle plays, with 37. According to NFL analyst Warren Sharp, Philip Rivers has completed 17-of-21 passes with a passer rating of 96.2 — and a yards-per-attempt figure of 8.0 — on no-huddle plays, with has one touchdown to one interception. So it's not like the Colts haven't been utilizing the no-huddle so far this year. But with the success Rivers has had hurrying things up through five games, I certainly think that's something Frank Reich can and will consider increasing moving forward.

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coltsfeva on Colts.com Forums: "Hey Anthony, Long-time fan here of the Colts and your mailbag. This may be a silly question but what ever happened to the "coffin corner" punt? I don't see a whole lot of it today. Is it outdated ? Do teams punt down the center of the field, in hopes they can get a muff?"

Walker: Anthony! Anthony?!? OK, I'm not actually offended — I can't tell you how many times I've been called Anthony or Adam (or worse); then there's the people who accidentally believe I'm linebacker Anthony Walker on Twitter. Easy mistake to make, if you ask me. But I appreciate you reading the Mailbag. As for the answer to your question, if we're talking about the Colts, specifically, Rigoberto Sanchez has gotten so good at placing his punts exactly where he wants them to go, and then the coverage units have been so good at making sure the returner doesn't have room to run on those kicks, that you can oftentimes buy yourself a few more yards of field position by allowing the other team to field the punt. Now, if a team has a hot returner or the situation just doesn't call for it, yeah, you boot the ball out of bounds as close to the end zone as you can, but the punting and coverage game has clearly been a specialty of special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone since he arrived in Indy in 2018, and the Colts mostly prefer to give their guys a chance to make a play and pin opposing offenses back as far as possible.

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