Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Blueprint To Beat Ravens, Adding Big-Name Wide Receivers, Who Starts At Running Back?

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about whether the Colts could be interested in some big-name wide receivers this offseason, what it will take to defeat Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, who might get the start, and the touches, at running back in that game 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, or by taking part in the Colts.com Forums and the Colts' Reddit.

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

rjlud02 on Colts Reddit: "Pittman seemed/s like an after thought in the passing game. He had a very healthy snap count so health can't be a concern, but essentially no meaningful targets. Is there anything tangible besides coach speak on his usage/development?"

Walker: I disagree that Michael Pittman Jr. was an afterthought before his injury. He really came into the season as the Colts' No. 4 receiver behind T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal, and then once Campbell went down with his knee injury Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, Pittman Jr.'s snaps, targets and receptions were all on the rise … and then he suffered his lower leg injury, had surgery and had to miss three games. So he never had the chance to really get going. As for his utilization last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, I have a couple thoughts: one, it's his first game back from leg surgery; no matter how "minor" or "routine" the procedure is, it's naturally going to take some time to work out the kinks with actual on-field reps, but the Colts love Pittman Jr.'s abilities even when the ball isn't coming his way, especially as a run blocker, so he still has great value. Also, Philip Rivers threw passes to 11 different receivers in that game last week, none of whom had more than three total receptions, so it's not like Pittman Jr.'s one catch for six yards was an outlier.

Now, if Pittman Jr. doesn't play a bigger role in the passing game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, when the Colts will likely be without T.Y. Hilton (doubtful; groin) and will also be missing Ashton Dulin (out; knee), while Marcus Johnson is questionable heading in (knee), then I think it would be fair to ask Frank Reich about the wide receiver's development halfway through his rookie year. But let's just see how that game plays out.

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PowerfulGovernment on Colts Reddit: "What would your analysis of Rock be at this point of the season? We don't really hear his name be called on game day which is a good thing for a corner._"

Walker: I think even Rock Ya-Sin would tell you he didn't have his greatest of performances Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, when, according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed six receptions for 125 yards on the day (although he did also break up two pass attempts and he was also a positive factor as a tackler that day). Other than that? I think Ya-Sin has had a fine second season to this point. You wanted to see him be able to cut down on the penalties, and he's mostly done that (he's been called for two so far this year). You also don't want to see a pattern of a young corner allowing big plays, and Ya-Sin has continued to avoid that (in fact, he's allowed zero touchdowns in coverage in his last 16 games going back to last season, according to PFF). Ya-Sin, in my mind, also continues to be one of the better tackling cornerbacks in the NFL. I think the next step in his progression is to be more consistent at getting those splash plays — the interceptions, forced fumbles, etc. — but those opportunities will come in time. But I think in general Ya-Sin is progressing just fine.

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Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "The Ravens blitz at an NFL-highest rate of 44% of snaps. One reason they've been able to get away with such a high pressure percentage is fielding Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphry, two of the best outside man-coverage corners in the NFL, who can defend 1-on-1 on the outside.

How might Humphry's unavailability affect the Ravens' defensive calls against the Colts? Will Harbaugh call more zone coverage? Or will he likely stick with his scheme and challenge Rivers to beat Jimmy Smith on the outside?

Finally, what matchups might Frank Reich use to exploit Smith?"

Walker: I did find a couple interesting stats (at least to me) related to your question. In 2018, Don Martindale's first season as the Ravens' defensive coordinator, when Marlon Humphrey missed Weeks 7 and 8 with a thigh injury, the Ravens, according to Pro Football Focus, showed press coverage on just 56.9 percent of their defensive snaps, ranking 24th in the NFL over that two-game span. In all other games that year with Humphrey in the lineup, Baltimore showed press coverage on 78 percent of their defensive snaps, the second-highest figure in the NFL. In fact, in every game in which Humphrey has played under Martindale since 2018, including the postseason, the Ravens have showed press coverage on 76 percent of their defensive snaps; only the Kansas City Chiefs (84.8 percent) and Detroit Lions (76.6 percent) have pressed more over that same span.

When looking at the blitz, with Humphrey in the lineup since 2018 (including postseason), the Ravens, according to PFF, have blitzed on 32.6 percent of their defensive snaps. In Weeks 7 and 8 of 2018, with Humphrey out, the Ravens blitzed just 26.3 percent of their defensive snaps.

Caveat time: that whole dynamic changes a bit with Marcus Peters now in the mix, and it might've just been gameplan-related or a total coincidence at the time, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if Martindale on Sunday: A.) Has his cornerbacks playing off the line a little bit more often; and B.) Decides to call fewer blitzes in general, especially against a quarterback like Philip Rivers, who has absolutely tore it up against the blitz this season.

As for matchups against Jimmy Smith — who, by the way, is questionable on Sunday with a back injury — I've really enjoyed watching Frank Reich utilize more rub route concepts the last couple games to get guys open. Now, you have to be careful with these "pick" plays and ensure you're not engaging too early and drawing a flag, but I feel this could be a solid overall approach especially if the Ravens aren't playing as much press coverage as usual with Humphrey out of the lineup.

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dunkdiver on Colts Reddit: "How much can we expect Anthony Walker to play this week against a run heavy offense? He played just 43% of snaps last week with Darius' return_"

Walker: One would imagine the Colts on Sunday are going to try to get as much speed on the field as possible when they're on defense. Accordingly, I wouldn't be surprised to see a bunch of nickel looks to get that extra cornerback on the field. That leaves just two linebackers in the formation, and, if we're going by recent patterns, it's probably a safe assumption that Bobby Okereke will be utilized as the MIKE more often than Anthony Walker throughout the afternoon. But, then again, if the Ravens start having some success with an interior rushing attack, I wouldn't be surprised at all if you see more of a base look with all three linebackers — Darius Leonard, Okereke and Walker — on the field at the same time, either.

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Andy_and_Vic on Colts Reddit: "Maybe a bit generic, but I'm really curious as to what we do to slow down Lamar. Will there be a permanent spy? If so, who? I would guess Leonard, but Kenny Moore and Bobby Okereke are also candidates. Will the defense against Baltimore look similar to how it normally does, or will it be unrecognizable due to the running QB?"

Walker: I think Matt Eberflus definitely wants to, and will, utilize a spy throughout Sunday's game against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. But, like anything else, there's a cost-benefit analysis the Colts have to consider in those scenarios: if you take a guy like Darius Leonard or Kenny Moore II and have them spy Jackson, then you're taking two of your best defensive players — and two of your better coverage guys — out of the mix in the intermediate and deep parts of the field; but if Leonard and Moore II (or Bobby Okereke, to your point) can have some success shadowing Jackson and limiting his big plays on the ground, then that's a clear formula for success against this Ravens offense. But, overall, like I mentioned above, I think you see a lot of nickel formations, depend on your corners and safeties rallying to the ball and providing support, and that's the best way to try to stop this potent running attack.

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bullethole27 on Colts Reddit: "Is Wilkins expected to continue dominating touches after last week? I have always thought he had great vision and outperformed some of his counterparts."

Walker: That's the question of all questions for the Colts' offense heading into Sunday's game. And, to your point, it's not really about who starts the game at running back against the Baltimore Ravens; it's which back gets the most touches (and when those opportunities occur). And I've just got to be completely honest here, because I got this question from several of you: I have no idea how Frank Reich will utilize the running back position against the Ravens. I could see an argument being made that Jonathan Taylor clearly was on the rise in recent weeks and that last Sunday against the Detroit Lions simply wasn't his best day, and I could also see an argument being made that Jordan Wilkins has done well with his opportunities time and time again the past three seasons, and it might be time to give him an extended role and see how he fares. I promise I'm not trying to duck the question, but you know Frank Reich isn't about to make his plan at the position public knowledge, so without that context I guess the best answer is tune in at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday and we'll all figure it out together.

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Dubya12 on Colts Reddit: "No questions, just a congrats on the shoutout from Baldinger lol"

Walker: You're, of course, referring to this Baldy's Breakdown on Twitter (go to about the 30-second mark):

I'm still awaiting my game check for the big win over the Lions. If someone could alert HR I'd appreciate it.

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Coltsfan210 on Colts Reddit: "With TY slowing down due to injuries and non-performance when healthy, is it safe to say this is his last year with the Colts? Who can step up into a true #1 role?"

Walker: T.Y. Hilton is still a major, major factor when he's on the field — look at all the attention he received just two games ago against the Cincinnati Bengals, if you need a recent example — so even if his numbers aren't up to par with what he's done in previous seasons in Indy, I can't sit here and say he's not still a huge part of this offense. And, no, I don't think it's safe to say that this will be Hilton's last season with the Colts. Nobody can predict how that situation could end up playing out heading into this offseason, when Hilton is set to become a free agent. While I definitely get why this is a question and there's lots of intrigue about Hilton's future, let's just let the rest of this season play out and see where things stand at that point.

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DweltElk on Colts Reddit: "The last three games we have seen both the offense and defense start the game not being able to move the ball or stop opponents, but managed to tighten things up in the back half of games. What is causing the colts to have these slow starts?"

Walker: I'm not really willing to lump last Sunday's win over the Detroit Lions in with the Colts' previous two games against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, in which Indy's offense and defense really struggled coming out of the gates. When you get a punt blocked that early in the ballgame, like the Colts did against the Lions, and it sets up the opposition with prime field position, I'll give the defense a pass; from that point forward, that unit was absolutely fantastic. And, yeah, the offense didn't get going until the first drive of the second quarter, but, I don't know, I just never really got that "here we go again" feeling from that unit in relation to the slow starts against the Browns and Bengals.

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bodiepartlow on Colts Reddit: "What key strategies on either side of the ball have been effective in the two Raven's losses as well (and the Philly game), and how do you expect the Colts to exploit those same areas?"

Walker: In those three games you referenced — the Baltimore Ravens' two losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, and their narrow win over the Philadelphia Eagles — the Ravens struggled on offense to get big plays through the passing game (their combined 11 pass plays of 15 yards or more ranked 27th in the NFL over those three weeks), they allowed the most sacks (10) and had the most dropped passes (10) in the NFL over that span, they had the second-most fumbles in the league in those three games and Lamar Jackson also had three would-be interceptions dropped by the defense. Defensively, the Ravens were pretty solid in those games, outside of their 14 total penalties, which tied for the most in the NFL over that span, and the 12 total touchdowns they allowed, which was tied for the second most in those three games. The Baltimore defense also allowed a rushing play of 10-plus yards on 14.8 percent of opposing carries, which was the 11th-worst figure in the league in those three games. So, all told, those are some pretty crystal clear indicators of how to get a win over this extremely talented Ravens team.

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dgiszewski on Colts Reddit: "There Cowboys are likely to cut Amari Cooper in the off-season to saved money. Could you see the Colts letting Hilton walk and signing Cooper as his replacement. One benefit would be that it wouldn't effect our comp pick formula."

Walker: It's hard for me to just assume what another team is going to do at this point, let alone what direction the Colts might want to take when it comes to a guy like T.Y. Hilton. I will say this, though: there very well might be a few big names available next offseason at the wide receiver position, and you can bet that Chris Ballard and his staff will explore the possibility of signing each and every one of them. But the Colts also also have a ton of other needs they'll be addressing the next offseason — I look at the defensive line, where Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Grover Stewart, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Sheldon Day and Taylor Stallworth are all reportedly set to become free agents next March; we all know how much of an emphasis Ballard places on the offensive and defensive lines, and I just can't see this team pursuing a mega contract for one player at wide receiver if it means potentially sacrificing multiple key contributors along the defensive line, if that makes any sense. It could still happen if that wide receiver is considered a perfect fit, but there are going to be other priorities, too.

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chad72 on Colts.com Forums: "_Are there any plans to go no huddle to limit substitutions from the Ravens' D? Big Ben and the Steelers comeback started in the 2nd half when they went no huddle. _

Also, the Steelers used a 3-5-3 alignment when the Ravens brought in a fullback to introduce heavier personnel groupings because that is what the Ravens do, for their bread and butter, run the ball with the QB, RBs and more. Do we have the personnel to introduce a 4th or 5th LB in response to the Ravens' heavier personnel groupings?"

Walker: I can see the no-huddle being a factor for the Colts in certain spots Sunday, but maybe not necessarily based off last week's Ravens-Steelers game. During no-huddle situations in the second half of that contest, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7-of-12 passes for 80 yards with one touchdown; he was also sacked once and had a yards-per-attempt figure of just 6.7. So it's not like the Steelers were absolutely on fire when they went to the no-huddle; they generally moved the ball and were able to get into the end zone, which is obviously a positive, but I'm not sure the no-huddle is going to be a huge point of emphasis for Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni on Sunday. I could be (and usually am) wrong, though.

And Matt Eberflus' history as the Colts' defensive coordinator suggests he won't be using many 3-5-3 looks Sunday against the Ravens — but, again, I could be wrong. Since 2018, when Eberflus took over the Colts' defense, Indy has utilized a defensive formation with three or fewer defensive backs just 14 times (including the postseason), which is tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the fewest such alignments in the NFL over that span.

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PrideOfAthens17 on Colts.com Forums: "If you can find out, I'm curious which player(s) they are using this week in practice to simulate Jackson. I hope it's not one of the quarterbacks, because quite frankly, that would be like using a Cozy Coupe to simulate a Ferrari."

Walker: Here's how Frank Reich on Wednesday described the plan to try to simulate Lamar Jackson in practice this week leading up to the game:

"We may mix it up some. I mean Jacoby (Brissett) will do most of it and as the week goes on we might try a wrinkle or two here or there."

I'll note this: Jackson did not run the 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, and he was reportedly clocked in at 4.34 seconds in the 40 at a Louisville practice. So, if we're talking 4.34 speed, and Colts players who might be available to simulate that in practice, then perhaps cornerback Isaiah Rodgers (4.28 40-yard dash) or running back Nyheim Hines (4.38 40-yard dash) were options this week for Reich?

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