Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Week 1 Thoughts, Jonathan Taylor-Nyheim Hines Splits, Playing More Man Coverage, Vikings Challenges

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about what went wrong in the Colts’ Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, what a Jonathan Taylor-Nyheim Hines backfield will look like moving forward, how defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is approaching coverage schemes, the challenges the Vikings present on Sunday 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:

@theloop on Twitter: "Hindsight is 20/20, I know. But what do the analytics say about taking the chip shot field goal to go up 2 scores versus going for it on 4th and 1? Dungy would have taken the points. Too conservative?_"

Walker: Head coach Frank Reich was asked about this after last week's loss to the Jaguars, and he said: 

"That is the thinking is to be aggressive. I mean for what it's worth it's a strong go in all of the analytics. In our analytic charts, it was a strong go. I was feeling that way anyway. Like I said, I felt sometimes you have to use the chart and sometimes you have to gauge it on the play you are going to call. I felt like that play for going to work, but it didn't. We got outcoached and outplayed on that play."

I think this is one of those cases where as a fan your team looks great if it works, or you're left scratching your head if it doesn't. There is no in-between. If your offense is absolutely rolling to that point — think about how quickly the team got into the end zone on its first drive, and then it gets right back to the Jacksonville 3-yard line on its second drive — then you're not only considering the analytics (and the analytics said absolutely go for it), but you're taking the flow of the game into consideration. You call a run play behind your All Pro left guard Quenton Nelson and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, and it just simply didn't work. As you said, hindsight is 20/20, and the usual approach is "take the points on the road" and kick the field goal. But I can also remember fans being upset with former regimes for not being aggressive on fourth down. It's a tough balance to strike, but Reich went with both the numbers and his gut, and it just didn't work this time.

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@ColtsLaw on Twitter: "Signing a kicker to the practice squad. Does this mean Hot Rod's job might be in jeopardy?_"

Walker: I can definitely understand why that might be in the back of fans' minds, especially because we're really hitting uncharted territory as an organization when it comes to the kicker position. For the past 14 or so years, the Colts have had the greatest kicker of all-time handling those duties, and while last season certainly had its bumps in the road, there was no way that the team at any point was seriously considering replacing Adam Vinatieri, or even bringing in someone to compete for his job. Now we're just one game into the official post-Adam Vinatieri era, and the undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship had a pretty good debut, hitting four of his five total kicks, but he also missed a chip shot 30-yard field goal (fortunately for the Colts, that miss didn't really end up playing a factor into the end result of the game). So when the Colts go out and sign a kicker, Matt Gay, to their practice squad two days after their 2020 opener, I can see why it might be looked at by some outside of the building as a way to keep the heat on Blankenship. But, as Frank Reich explained this week, that's not the case. With expanded 16-man practice squads this year and all the COVID-19 protocols in place, you're looking at a three or four day waiting period before any player you bring in from the outside can officially be brought in your building and begin practicing. So a good number of teams have decided to keep an extra kicker on their practice squad just in case their normal kicker either goes down with an injury or tests positive for COVID-19 or any other reason why they'd have to miss a game. Long story short, Blankenship's job is secure, and the Colts think he has a bright future as their kicker.

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@TheNextDanUp on Twitter: "Would like to know why we chose to throw 40+ times when we have a top 5 offensive line"

Walker: I think having a top offensive line works both ways, and it gives Frank Reich the ultimate flexibility not only when formulating the Colts' offensive gameplan each and every week, but to make adjustments as needed to respond to the flow of the game. Look at how well the quick-passing attack was working for the Colts to open up last Sunday's opener against the Jaguars: Philip Rivers in the first two drives completed 6-of-7 passes for 77 yards; included in that were completions of 21 and 18 yards, respectively, to Parris Campbell, and a 19-yard completion to Marlon Mack. Rivers also responded nicely after his first interception of the day by completing 12 of his next 13 passes for 130 yards. So the high-percentage throws were there, and the Colts took them and got a lot of yards doing so; they just weren't as successful as they would've liked in the red zone, and that was one of the few main factors in the loss. I'll also say this: I think Rivers treats the short passes to running backs as an extension of the run game, so that's one reason why, to me, you can't really react week to week at the pass-run ratio without some context. Now, Reich has said after watching the film from the game that in hindsight he had hoped to add more running plays and get into a better rhythm on the ground, probably especially after the injury to Marlon Mack midway through the second quarter. So perhaps that'll be an emphasis on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.

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@Davonn112 on Twitter: "What percussions are eberflus taking to make sure that in Week 2 vs the Vikings his defense are perpared, disciplined and satisfied that his defense can push to that 40 takeaway goal that they were praising for this coming Season?"

Walker: If I had to put my finger on the main issue defensively in last Sunday's opener, it certainly wasn't effort, but probably a lack of communication on a few key plays that led to breakdowns — and, ultimately, points for the other side. While it was tough to watch live, and probably just as tough for the players and coaches to pour over in film study in the days after, I think the good news is these issues are all correctable. These aren't physical mistakes; these aren't players put into an impossible position to succeed. But, to your point, can you imagine what even one defensive takeaway could've done for the Colts, especially late? This defense has established a lofty goal of 40 takeaways this season, which hasn't been done by any team since 2012, so after getting zero interceptions or fumble recoveries in Week 1, the Colts have a little catching up to do against Kirk Cousins & Co. on Sunday.

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sigma4488 on Colts Reddit: "Are we going to see some deep shots by the offense against the Vikings?"

Walker: I can see this going a couple ways. It's important to look at the upcoming opponent, the Vikings, and see how their secondary performed in their previous game, and simply put, there were some major struggles against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers' offense. Rodgers completed 32-of-44 passes for 364 yards with four touchdowns to zero interceptions for a QB rating of 127.5, but as it pertains to your question, Rodgers wasn't just dinking and dunking throughout the afternoon; his average intended air yards on each pass, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, was 9.6 — so on 44 passing attempts, Rodgers was basically, on average, targeting his receivers 10 yards down the field. Philip Rivers' average intended air yards on each pass last week against the Jaguars was 6.1, which was the 23rd highest among all QBs in Week 1. So, because of that, I certainly see some opportunities for Rivers to push it down the field a little bit more. But one thing I think we saw proven true in the Colts' opener was how Rivers likes to just get the ball into his playmakers' hands in space and let them do the work from there, which creates those "chunk" passing plays of 16 or more yards. The Colts had eight such passing plays of 16 yards or more, and six of them were short throws where the receiver had room to run (35 yards to Jonathan Taylor; 28 yards to Jack Doyle; 21 yards to Parris Campbell; 19 yards to Marlon Mack, 18 yards to Campbell; 17 yards to Taylor). So while I think it's possible we see maybe a couple more "deep shots" in this game just to test this young cornerbacks group, there are other ways to get those big yards through the air without chucking it deep.

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Dredais on Colts Reddit: "Do you think buckner will have a bigger impact this coming week? Do you think Taylor produces with a bigger work load?"

Walker: I can understand why fans who watched last Sunday's opener against the Jaguars, and then checked out the box score afterwards, might come away with the conclusion that DeForest Buckner didn't have much of an impact on the game. After all, the Colts traded away their 13th-overall pick in this year's NFL Draft to acquire Buckner, and then immediately handed him a huge contract extension, so expectations are high. I get that. But looking back at the film, I think what's evident is Buckner deserves a little bit more credit beyond his stat-sheet line of six tackles (one for a loss). As the defensive line started to gel in the second half — that's when it limited Jacksonville to six combined rushing yards and had three of its four sacks — you began to feel Buckner much more consistently, and the attention placed on him allowed for others (I thought linebacker Bobby Okereke was fantastic in the second half) to make plays. Buckner also had the eighth-best week among all NFL interior defensive linemen in run stop win rate in Week 1, according to ESPN. Now, moving forward, of course you want to see more of those impact-type plays out of Buckner — sacks, big run stuffs, forced fumbles, defensive touchdowns, etc. But I think it's also important to to remember there are other ways for the three-tech to impact the game, and Buckner did a pretty good job of that last Sunday.

And real quick on Jonathan Taylor: I think the fact that he's getting the start, with the opportunity to create some momentum in the run game, should help him tremendously on Sunday. You've also got to imagine this will be one ticked off Colts offensive line that's looking to take out its anger on the Vikings after a few runs didn't go their way last week.

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TheHouseOfIceAndFire on Colts Reddit: "Will Hilton bounce back? Will Campbell and Hines continue to be big producers on the offense?"

Walker: I am never one to count T.Y. Hilton out. And Philip Rivers is clearly in the same boat: Hilton was targeted with a team-high-tying nine targets last Sunday against the Jaguars, including those two big ones on Indy's final drive that Hilton wasn't able to hang on to. If you add those plays to Hilton's stat line (yes, I know that's not a thing), it'd look much better than four receptions for 53 yards. Hilton just saw Davante Adams take these young Vikings corners to school throughout last Sunday's game, and you've got to imagine he's looking to do the same on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And of course Campbell and Nyheim Hines will continue to be focal points of this offense. They can be electric with the ball in their hands, and they also can line up all over the formation and create those matchup problems that Rivers is going to want to exploit.

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thedudeofficial on Colts Reddit: "What's the dynamic between Taylor and Hines going to look like with Mack out?_"

Walker: I go back to the first quarter and a half of that Jaguars game for a good perspective on how Frank Reich could look to incorporate Nyheim Hines into the offense this season. Marlon Mack, of course, was the starter at running back, and he got his touches — he was at four rushes for 26 yards (6.5 avg.) on the ground and three catches for 30 yards through the air when he went down with his Achilles injury — but Hines during that sequence also had four carries for 21 yards (including his 12-yard touchdown run on the opening drive) as well as one reception for six yards. So Taylor, of course, will be the starter moving forward, and he's expected to get a bulk of the carries, but Hines is going to be on the field plenty, as well; Reich has said he doesn't view Hines as just a third-down back, and then this team also seems to really like putting the ball in Hines' hands in the red zone, as well.

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jchandler7 on Colts.com Forums: "If Eberflus has any intention on changing up the coverage schemes such as switching to Man instead of zone? Seems our outside big bodied corners would be much better playing up on the receivers instead of 5-10 yards off the line on every play that's not on the goal line."

Walker: This is a very popular question this week. I think there's this perception out there that Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is just stuck in his ways when it comes to zone coverage; that if an opposing quarterback is completing a lot of passes, no matter where they are on the field or how quickly he's getting rid of the ball, that all of a sudden switching to more man-to-man looks would be the answer. The fact of the matter is the Colts last week did end up utilizing man-to-man coverage in the back end a lot more than I think people realize; according to the Indianapolis Star's Jim Ayello, the Colts were in man coverage on 38 percent of Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II's dropbacks. And you mentioned the cornerbacks playing more press coverage? Ayello says "at least one corner was playing up near the line for 21 of the 29 dropbacks." So there was clearly an attempt to mix things up in coverage; the Colts at every level just didn't execute and communicate the way they should have. These are all correctable issues heading into Week 2, and even though Indy is facing another high-percentage thrower in the Vikings' Kirk Cousins, perhaps with a little bit more consistent pressure up front and some better play behind them, you can see a bounceback performance from this Indy defense.  

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chad72 on Colts.com Forums: "Is the O-line healthier than going into game 1? "

Walker: Yes, but I don't really think this was a huge issue last week against the Jaguars. It was certainly notable that the Colts' entire left side — left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly — were, at some point, dealing with respective injuries in the week leading up to the game, but all was well by kickoff (or as well as it's going to get). This week there were no offensive linemen on the injury report — well, other than Castonzo, who gets a veteran rest day every Friday. So that's certainly a positive sign. This unit did a terrific job protecting Philip Rivers in the opener, and I just think it's a matter of time before it gets things rolling in the run game. And, as we know, once the Colts start running the ball well, sometimes they don't stop for quite a while.

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NFLfan on Colts.com Forums: "After Week 1, the Vikings defense is rated last in the league. Is their defense, albeit without Danielle Hunter, really that poor? How will the Colts exploit it?"

Walker: No, I certainly don't think the Vikings' defense is as bad as it showed in Week 1 against the Packers — just like I don't think the Colts' defense is as bad as it was at times throughout its opener against the Jaguars. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer's specialty is defense, and that's definitely been on display at times throughout his tenure in Minnesota. It's just right now the Vikings have decided to spend of ton of money on the offensive side of the ball; quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receiver Adam Thielen, tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Dalvin Cook combined account for almost 25 percent of the team's cap space this season, according to Spotrac.com. Minnesota also got rid of some key veteran defensive players this offseason, including former All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who, of course, is now with the Colts. Now the Vikings have one of the youngest cornerbacks groups in the NFL, and Aaron Rodgers picked it apart last Sunday; Rivers will look to do the same on Sunday. One X-factor that you hope doesn't make a difference for the Vikings in this game, however, is former Jaguars edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who was acquired by Minnesota via trade late last month. Ngakoue had a very quiet debut for the Vikings last week, but we all know how he can wreck a game, as evidenced by his 23 total tackles (six for a loss) with 6.5 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles in eight career games against the Colts. If you can take advantage of the youth at cornerback and mostly keep Ngakoue at bay, then that seems like the recipe for success against this Vikings defense while the aforementioned Danielle Hunter works his way back from injured reserve with a neck injury.

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JPFolks on Colts.com Forums: "Will we trust our first draft pick of 2020 in the red zone this game and target him in the end zone or should we expect more power 4th down plays featuring our 170 pound receiving back? Okay.. too snarky. How about: Can we expect to see our top WR pick more involved in the passing game this week? "

Walker: Har har. To your point, though, I can understand why you'd want to try to get Michael Pittman Jr. at least one target in the end zone just to see what he can do in that ballgame. It's one game, though, and there will be plenty more opportunities moving forward. And I realize this wasn't a factor when you wrote your question, but there's now a question about Pittman Jr.'s availability for Sunday's game against the Vikings after he suffered a toe injury during Thursday's practice; Pittman Jr. was listed as a limited participant on Thursday and he did not practice on Friday, and head coach Frank Reich said they're going to use as much time as they can this weekend before kickoff to determine the rookie's playing status.

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Dogg63 on Colts.com Forums: "I'm struggling to think of a need for 7 WR on the 53. What's your take on the Colts' strategy of elevating Reece Fountain as the 7th WR on the 53?"

Walker: I would have to imagine the Colts elevated Daurice Fountain to the active roster from the practice squad as a response to the injury to Zach Pascal, who did not practice Wednesday with an ankle injury — that was the day Fountain was moved to the active roster — but then Pascal was able to improve to limited status on Thursday and was a full participant by Friday. Pascal is still considered questionable heading into the game, but one would imagine him practicing fully is at the very least a positive sign. But you also have to be ready just in case he can't go or is limited in the game.

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