One Big Storyline
The Colts just passed the quarter mark of the 2022 season, yet are already halfway through their AFC South schedule – and will have one divisional game left after playing the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday and Tennessee Titans in Week 7.
At 2-2-1, the Colts are a half-game behind first-place Tennessee and a half-game ahead of third-place Jacksonville. Divisional standings usually don't matter much in Week 6, but for a Colts team that will quickly be out of opportunities to play those teams they're sandwiched between, these games against the Jaguars and Titans will go a long way toward their chances of winning the AFC South.
"We have a big two weeks ahead of us," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said.
So as the Colts eye the first of those two big weeks on Sunday against the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium, they're looking to clean up the self-inflicted mistakes on offense that led to Week 2's loss to the Jaguars (24-0) and Week 4's loss to the Titans (24-17).
"We're able to get some things going but being able to continue to stay consistent, being able to stay ahead of schedule and not being able to put ourselves in damaging situations – a lot of times, just self-inflicted wounds," running back Jonathan Taylor, who's listed as questionable to play Sunday, said. "Just making sure we have to play clean football, No. 1. It's hard to beat an opponent when you can't even play clean football. No.1 going into this game, we've got to play fundamentally sound football."
The Colts entered Week 6 with the second-most plays on first down that gained three or fewer yards (96), which have too frequently put the offense in difficult second-and-long situations – which, in turn, have led to even more difficult third-and-long downs. The Colts had more plays of second-and-7+ than any other team in the NFL through five weeks (87); only four teams are averaging more yards to go on third down than the Colts (7.7).
And the Colts have turned the ball over on 6.6 percent of their third down plays, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
"This isn't just about the turnovers," head coach Frank Reich said. "We have to be more productive on first down and second down to stay in phase and I just think that's going to go a long way to solving some of the issues that we're having."
Quarterback Matt Ryan said Reich on Monday presented a few things on which the Colts needed to focus to fix those issues on first and second down, and there was a heavy emphasis on first and second down in Wednesday's practice.
"There's no mistake about it – we haven't been good enough and we've put ourselves in tough positions to overcome," Ryan said. "At times we have, but you're not going to do it consistently. So, I think the coaching staff has kind of given us some of the directions we want to go in terms of trying to be more efficient on first and second down."
The Colts believe they have the right coaching and personnel infrastructure in place to correct those issues. From 2018-2021, the Colts averaged the seventh-lowest yards to gain (6.9) and had the fourth-highest conversion rate (43.6 percent) on third down in the NFL.
But with these two division games looming, the Colts know the time is now to fix those issues on offense.
"Obviously, the division is tight right now," Ryan said. "When you play these types of games, you have to find ways to win and it's a good chance for us. We obviously didn't play the way that we are capable of down there earlier in the season. We have to focus on improvement and getting better and having another opportunity to try and get that first division win."
Who's In, Who's Out
The Colts' final practice report of the week, with game designations:
5 Things To Watch
[Updated] Deon Jackson time. Taylor (ankle) and Hines (concussion) were both ruled out on Saturday, so the Colts will roll with a trio of Deon Jackson, Phillip Lindsay and D'Vonte Price at running back against the Jaguars in Week 6.
Jackson in particular showed some playmaking juice in Week 5 with 91 yards of total offense.
"What we're looking for is consistency in performance," Reich said. "We think Deon can provide that if needed if Nyheim's down for another day, or whatever JT's situation is. We feel like Deon took a major step. He definitely took a major step. I don't think he surprised us. I think we felt he's had that in him. Very excited about that but also very excited for him to continue to have opportunities to show that he can back that up game after game when he's called upon. Whatever role, whether it's a small role, a big role, whatever that might be."
Michael Pittman and Alec Pierce. It wasn't just that the Colts were without two of their top receivers in Pittman and Pierce for Week 2 – it was that both were ruled out late in the week. Pierce didn't clear the concussion protocol and was ruled out the Friday before the game; Pittman was downgraded from questionable to out on that Saturday. Having both receivers not only play this Sunday, but practice during the week, should be a boost to the Colts' offense.
"We're getting these young guys in the passing game, getting more guys involved," Reich said. "It's not just Pittman Jr. anymore. We're spreading the ball around. I think that could be good for us going forward."
What the O-line looks like. Bernhard Raimann will start at left tackle next to left guard Quenton Nelson, while center Ryan Kelly will start at center. So that leaves the right side of the Colts' offensive line as a question mark, specifically with where Braden Smith will play. The Colts played Smith at right guard in Week 5 in an effort to jump-start their run game, but Reich cautioned this week the team was evaluating what to do next on the right side of the line. Whatever it looks like, the Colts will look to find the right mix to handle an outstanding Jaguars defensive front that pressured Ryan on 14 of his 36 drop-backs in Week 2, resulting in Ryan being sacked five times and completing just two of nine passes with three interceptions when under pressure.
"Hoping that we can lock in," Reich said on the O-line changes. "It hasn't been ideal but very few teams have the ideal. Most teams are getting guys hurt, having to substitute guys. Last week was the first big shakeup. So, other than that, we're rotating in. We did the right guard thing, but last week was a big shakeup. Hope to lock that down this week and build that chemistry and probably have to adapt because during the course of the year, somebody probably gets nicked. We're dealing with what every team deals with but what we're really focused on is just continue to find ways to get better as an offense and continue to find ways for those five guys to really get the chemistry that they need."
Gus Bradley's defense preventing long drives. The Colts' defense has only allowed four drives of 75 or more yards, and only three of those drives have resulted in touchdowns – both of which are tied for the fourth-lowest totals in the NFL. But the Jaguars put together two drives of 75+ yards in Week 2, both of which resulted in touchdowns; their other touchdown drive in that game went churned 68 yards on 15 plays. So Jacksonville is the only team that's been able to sustain long drives against the Colts with any consistency. But that was Week 2, and the Colts feel like their defense is in a better place in Week 6.
"I think over the course of these last few weeks, we've seen the playbook come alive," cornerback Kenny Moore II said.
An encore for Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has had a hand – literally – in the Colts' two wins this year over the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, and has made a smooth, impactful transition into Bradley's defense. And his versatility to play anywhere the Colts ask, with any technique the Colts ask, has allowed Bradley to tweak some things with how he deploys coverages in the back end of the defense. For example: The Colts are playing a higher percentage of quarters coverage (12 percent) than Bradley played with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021 (8 percent). And those little tweaks can have a big impact.
"I think that we're probably doing more now than we have at this stage in our defense," Bradley said. "I think if you looked around, you'd say, yeah, they play three-deep. I think really if you broke us down, we probably – we do play a lot of it and people are still attacking us that way, but I think we're much more multiple than what people think, and I think it's because of a guy like Gilmore and Kenny Moore II. Those guys and their ability to pick things up. We always tell our guys that we're never jeopardizing our ability to play fast. As long as we're playing fast, I think it gives us more flexibility to try some different things."