Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Gus Bradley's Defense, Alec Pierce's Outlook, Matchup vs. Texans

The Colts Mailbag returns for Week 1 with questions on how Gus Bradley's defense will look different from Matt Eberflus' scheme, what we can expect from Alec Pierce as a rookie and a few matchups to watch on Sunday against the Houston Texans. 

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The Colts Mailbag is back! Colts.com readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here, or by taking part in the Colts.com Forums. You can also send your questions to @JJStankevitz on Twitter.

Let's get after this week's questions:

Sam T., Lebanon, Ind.: What matchups are you watching for between the Colts and Texans?

JJ Stankevitz: First thought – Houston has a solid group of pass rushers that'll challenge the Colts' offensive line. Jonathan Greenard had eight sacks last year and earned an 89.2 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, while veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison joined the Texans in the offseason. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins was effective as a pass rusher last year, too.

Greenard primarily lined up on the left side of the Texans' line last year, so he'll probably go up against right tackle Braden Smith. Matt Pryor will make his second start at left tackle with the Colts against Hughes, with Addison and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo rotating in on each side of the line.

On the other side of the ball, Yannick Ngakoue vs. Laremy Tunsil should be a fun battle to watch. Ngakoue has faced off against Tunsil twice in his career and has a sack in each game (2018 with the Jaguars, 2020 with the Vikings).

More than any specific matchup, though – I'm just excited to have an actual football game to watch. Preseason football was fine and all, but as Frank Reich said about the Colts' scheme in those three games: "We did nothing. We were so generic in every way."

Dustin Easton, Fort Wayne, Ind.: What is the biggest change that we will see with Gus Bradley's defense versus Matt Eberflus?

JJ Stankevitz: The easy, surface-level answer is the Colts will switch from primarily playing versions of Cover-2 to primarily playing versions of Cover-3. Bradley's Raiders led the NFL in Cover-3 snaps in 2021, per Pro Football Focus – but the Colts were 17th in Cover 3-snaps, so it's not like Eberflus never played it. The Raiders played the second-fewest Cover-2 snaps last year, while the Colts under Eberflus played the 10th-most.

But there's a lot more that'll go on beneath the surface, and perhaps some wrinkles to what Bradley has become known for since his "Hawk 3" defense sparked the Legion of Boom era in Seattle.

"I think there's probably a perception out there that, hey, we're Cover-3, it's the exact same thing that we did in Seattle, but it's really evolved," Bradley said. "What we did back then, compared to what we do now, you're always trying to stay a year ahead or two years ahead of the opponent. It's forced us to adjust and develop some new concepts in the back end.

"I'm really excited about that part of it. We've had great feedback from our players and our coaches putting it in. That part of it, I think maybe doesn't look as familiar. We're still aggressive on the perimeter, affecting the quarterback, taking the ball away, all of those principles are very similar to what we did in Seattle. Some of the scheme things, you're going to see some different things."

One change you'll definitely notice is the Colts' defensive ends playing an attacking "Wide 9" technique – meaning they'll line up well outside the tackle's outside shoulder, and if there's a tight end on that side of the offensive formation, outside the tight end's outside shoulder, too. The Colts' defensive line in Bradley's scheme is coached to penetrate and attack the quarterback, and the goal is to produce a pass rush that can consistently effect and sack opposing QBs.

JJ Stankevitz: First up on Offensive Rookie of the Year, this surprised me – since 1995, there have only been five wide receivers to win Offensive Rookie of the Year (Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, Percy Harvin, Odell Beckham Jr. and Ja'Marr Chase). Quarterbacks and running backs often win that award.

But seeing Pierce's growth during training camp, I wouldn't put anything past him, or a ceiling on what he can be for the Colts' offense in Year 1. He has good vertical speed, can win 50/50 balls and has the skillset to be a weapon in the red zone. Plus, his connection with quarterback Matt Ryan is strong.

"At the quarterback position, one of the things I've always said is you need great decision making, timing and accuracy," Ryan explained. "The timing and accuracy is half my part and half theirs. They've got to be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there. I think he's really done a good job of taking that to heart and understanding that it's one thing to be open, it's another thing to be open in the timing of the play. You can either win too early or win too late – not going to help us. You've got to win in the timing of the play. I certainly think (Pierce) has picked that up very quickly."

The Colts return to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center practice fields in preparation for the 2022 season opener in Houston versus the Texans.

Harold Miller, Bedford, Ind.: Why does it feel like the Colts draft this year was so good?

JJ Stankevitz: Probably because you're going to see several rookies play significant roles right away. Pierce and safety Nick Cross are listed as starters in the Colts' unofficial depth chart, while Jelani Woods looks to get a good amount of work in the tight end rotation. And then there are a handful of depth guys and special teamers sprinkled throughout the roster: Defensive tackle Eric Johnson II (fifth round), safety Rodney Thomas II (seventh round), cornerback Dallis Flowers (undrafted free agent), linebacker JoJo Domann (undrafted free agent) and center Wesley French (undrafted free agent).

Landen Suman, St. George, Utah: Can't wait to get this season under way! My question is this, since the Colts only have 5 CBs on the roster and IF they don't end up adding anyone else, could we see Rodney Thomas getting some reps at CB because of his ability to play different positions? Colts have 3 VERY solid safeties so it wouldn't hurt to give Thomas some reps at CB right?

JJ Stankevitz: Sharp question, since Thomas does have positional flexibility in his background. But with Armani Watts' season-ending injury and undrafted safety Trevor Denbow going on injured reserve, the Colts do need some depth at safety behind the Cross/Julian Blackmon/Rodney McLeod trio. And with the ability to elevate two players from the practice squad to the active roster for each game, cornerback depth isn't dire – the Colts have CBs Tony Brown, Will Redmond and Chris Wilcox on the practice squad.

Cayden Burrow, Cave City, Ark.: How are the Colts behind the scenes? Like in the locker room, weight room, and film room? Are the new additions really bonding or is there still some tension where we can't see it?

JJ Stankevitz: The vibes here are really good, Cayden. The combination of a strong returning group of leaders – like Shaquille Leonard, Zaire Franklin, Quenton Nelson, DeForest Buckner, etc. – and veterans who've been there and done that in Matt Ryan, Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue has produced a tight, well-bonded team.

One example: I had a conversation this week with cornerback Brandon Facyson this week where he explained to me how Ryan has helped him and other defensive backs out through sharing what he sees when they line up in certain ways – i.e., if a tendency or alignment might give the play away, etc. That's how it should be – and that's how it is with the Colts.

Ron Preston, North Chesterfield, Va.: J.J. thanks for the great coverage you and the Colts media team give us every day. Being out of the Indy market I can rely on you guys to keep me informed. Question: do you see any chance of the Colts using all 3 running backs on some plays? Defenses could really be confused with J.T., Hines and Jackson out there. Thanks again, Ron

JJ Stankevitz: You'll see a lot of Taylor and Hines on the field, certainly, with the Colts viewing those guys as two of their top playmakers. Jackson has some juice, too, so I wouldn't put it past the Colts to have a couple of plays designed for him.

But plays with three backs on the field at the same time are rare. Out of 36,332 plays in the 2021 NFL regular season, only 38 (.001 percent) were with three backs on the field.

Kirby Ammerman, Rushville, Ind.: How often will we see Taylor and Hines on the field together and is there room for both to have one thousand plus yard seasons?

JJ Stankevitz: Again, you'll see those guys on the field quite a lot, primarily with both lined up in the backfield or Taylor in the backfield and Hines in the slot. The 1,000-yard season question is interesting if we look at total yards from scrimmage.

Assuming Taylor hits that mark again – he did in Week 9 last year – Hines would need to set a career high in yards from scrimmage to hit 1,000. The closest he's come is 862 in 2020, when Taylor had 1,468 yards from scrimmage as a rookie.

Hines had 152 touches and averaged 5.7 yards per touch in 2020; he'd need to average 6.6 yards per touch in 2022 to hit 1,000 yards with the same number of touches. Hines, though, has increased his yards per touch average every year of his career:

  • 2018: 5.0
  • 2019: 5.4
  • 2020: 5.7
  • 2021: 6.1

If that trend continues, and he gets back to his 2020 usage – or maybe exceeds it – a 1,000-yard season is absolutely in play.

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