Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Michael Pittman Jr.'s Breakout, T.J. Carrie's Value, Why Not More Play Action & QB Sneaks?

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about how rookie Michael Pittman Jr. can continue to find success after his breakout performance vs. the Titans, why the team is in good shape at nickel cornerback behind Kenny Moore II, why the Colts don’t utilize more play action and quarterback sneaks and 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:

Luck1492 on Colts Reddit: "It took the offense all 4 downs much of the game to get the ball moving against a relatively weak Titans defense. How do we improve so that when facing the Packers' D, we aren't stymied like last night?"

Walker: I tried to see if perhaps the Colts had any notable issues moving the ball on first and second down on Thursday night against the Titans, which, because of the third-and-long scenarios that usually presents, would at least partially explain what was going on. But, actually, the Colts' offense on Thursday needed just 5.3 yards to go on each third down, which was their lowest average third down-to-go figure in a game this season. So first and second down weren't the issue at all. I think the answer here is pretty simple: the Indy offense just continues to have uncharacteristic struggles on 3rd- and 4th-and-short. According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts have converted 56.8 percent of their opportunities on 3rd or 4th down with two or fewer yards to go this season, which is the fifth-worst figure in the league so far. In fact, Indy's 37 such attempts to this point of the season are the second most in the NFL, and only one behind the Pittsburgh Steelers' 38 (they rank 21st with a 63.2-percent conversion figure). So Thursday's game was kind of a microcosm of the entire year to this point when it comes to this specific issue for the Colts. Now, perhaps the team can start to get this turned around against the Green Bay Packers in Week 11? Their defense allows a 70.8-percent conversion rate on these same plays, which is the ninth-worst figure in the league. Whatever the case may be, one can imagine this will continue to be a huge point of emphasis for the coaching staff moving forward, and maybe by the end of the season that number will start to creep up a little bit.

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Best_Golfer_Yeet on Colts Reddit: "With MPJ getting his first 100 yard game, how do you see him being used, with such a big body guy and with his speed. Could we see him used as a red zone guy along with mo alie cox and hines."

Walker: I think that's the next step in Michael Pittman Jr.'s evolution — those red zone, go-up-and-get-it type of plays. But even in training camp, including those scrimmages at Lucas Oil Stadium, we also saw Pittman Jr. targeted quite frequently in traffic across the middle in the end zone, so I'm sure those plays will also start to materialize more and more throughout the second half of the season. This isn't high-level analysis, but what has been so crystal clear the last couple games has been Philip Rivers' increasing comfort throwing the rookie Pittman Jr. the ball; he caught four first downs Week 9 against the Ravens, and then on Thursday night against the Titans, getting the ball in Pittman Jr.'s hands was clearly a point of emphasis, and the end result was his seven receptions for 101 yards, as well as that 21-yard reverse play on the ground. Stock up for No. 11.

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Trey1831 on Colts Reddit: "As much as we run, why is there so little play-action?"

Walker: For whatever reason, the Colts just haven't had much success utilizing the play action this season. On average, Indianapolis uses play action on 8.4 plays per game, which is the eighth-lowest figure in the NFL, but, according to Pro Football Focus, the Colts' "successful play percentage" on drop backs is 32.9, which is 31st and out 32 teams (the league average, for context, is 44.5 percent).

For better context, though, I went back and looked at the 2014 and 2015 seasons, in which Frank Reich was Philip Rivers' offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers; in those two years combined, the Chargers utilized play action on just 4.4 plays per game, which was the fewest in the NFL by far (the Cowboys had the second-lowest rate at 6.0 play action plays per game). Now, to be fair, Rivers had a "successful play percentage: of 46.0 on play action plays those two years, which was third-best figure in the NFL at that time (the league average then was 41.7 percent).

So, when it comes down to it, I think the answer is a combination of two factors: Rivers simply isn't really a "play action" type of quarterback, in general, and when the Colts have attempted play action this season, they haven't had too much success with it.

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xmagicx on Colts Reddit: "Hello and thank you again for doing these.

What are the negatives from an offensive standpoint from going up tempo for large periods of time, with the exception of not controlling the clock. A big part of it i agree but are there others?

With how this year has gone at running back, do you foresee us brining back Mack on a 1 year deal whereas we might not have previously when we thought Taylor would come along alot better.

Obviously Kenny Moore is probably our 3rd best defensive player, so a hard piece to replace if he is injured, but how well do you think the colts are placed to cope though?"

Walker: Thanks again for your questions! I'll try to go through these pretty quickly:

» I can think of a couple potential "negatives" for a team that frequently utilizes an up-tempo offensive style. The first has to do with personnel; when you're in the no-huddle — or even not necessarily doing no-huddle, but still moving with a fast pace in-between plays — a team is usually pretty locked in on the same 11 guys being on the field. That's not to say substitutions can't happen, but, in general, you limit yourself to certain packages and schemes when you speed things up tempo-wise. Also, if you're running a quick-paced offense and you go three and out, or maybe you get one first down and then find yourself punting, that's not enough time at all for your defense to catch its breath on the sideline. If this ends up happening multiple times throughout the game, then you're really not doing yourself any favors. Like anything else, the no-huddle has a clear risk-reward factor attached to it.

» I can't speak for the team on this one, but just knowing how universally well-regarded Marlon Mack is, I wouldn't be surprised at all if there was an attempt to bring him back beyond this season. As with any pending free agent, however, there are a couple important questions to answer before that can happen: does the player want to come back, one, and what's the price tag if he does? To me, it'd be quite appealing to potentially return all four running backs — Mack, Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins — next season.

» The Colts seem in much better position at the nickel cornerback spot this season than they were last year, and that's largely due to the presence of veteran T.J. Carrie. When Kenny Moore II missed action with injuries last year, Indy really seemed to struggle at times in the secondary as a whole, but that hasn't been the case with Carrie in the mix this year. According to Pro Football Focus, with Carrie lined up in the slot this season, he's allowed just one reception for five yards and a QB rating of 42.4. Last year, in Weeks 13-17, with Moore II inactive due to an ankle injury, those lined up in the slot for Indy were targeted 54 times and allowed 43 receptions (79.6 percent) for 395 yards and four touchdowns, with 20 first downs — for a QB rating of 121.8. So while we wait on a potential timetable for Moore II's return from his ribs injury suffered Thursday night against the Titans, the team can rest much better at night knowing it has a capable replacement in Carrie ready to go if needed.

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sigma4488 on Colts Reddit: "Could we see more Brissett "Brady Sneak" on 4th and 1 in the future?"

Walker: I happen to be a huge proponent of the quarterback sneak to move the chains with a yard or less to go. I'm not saying it needs to be done in every single one of these scenarios, but the numbers indicate you're much more likely to convert using a quarterback sneak than a traditional run. Heading into the 2019 season, for example, NFL analyst Warren Sharp crunched the numbers and determined a QB sneak converted first downs or scored touchdowns on 78 percent of all short-yardage situations (one to three yards to go), while a handoff moves the chains in 60 percent of these same scenarios.

Now, to your point, I think we can pretty much forget about Philip Rivers being utilized on quarterback sneaks for the Colts; since 2016, Rivers has attempted just one rushing attempt on third or fourth down with one to three yards to go — he converted that one attempt, for the record — according to Pro Football Reference. (Coincidentally, that one play came in 2018, with the Los Angeles Chargers taking on the San Francisco 49ers, and it was DeForest Buckner who tackled Rivers near midfield.)

Brissett, meanwhile, has been a model of consistency in these situations; in his career he has 17 first downs on 22 total rushing attempts on 3rd or 4th down with one to three yards to go, for a 77.3-percent conversion rate. He's been even better with Frank Reich calling the plays, however, moving the chains or scoring a touchdown on 11-of-12 such attempts (91.7 percent).

Knowing Frank Reich, he doesn't want to be too predictable if and when he puts Brissett into the game, but, on the other hand, the numbers are the numbers, and if you're struggling in short-yardage situations with more traditional plays utilizing the running backs, perhaps this could be a wrinkle Reich could go to from time to time.

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Samster1736 on Colts Reddit: "Do you feel Coach Reich was being to careless on the 4th downs so close in the end zone when we could have just taken the field goals and boost the lead against a top ten team?"

Walker: I think we all know by now that Frank Reich is, generally speaking, going to be very aggressive on 4th-and-short opportunities. In fact, since Reich was hired as the Colts' head coach in 2018, Indy's 38 attempts on 4th-and-short (from one to three yards out) are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the most in the NFL; the Colts' 68.4-percent success rate on these plays ranks ninth in the NFL. So if you know all of this going in, I don't think you're surprised at all to see all those fourth-down attempts by the Colts' offense on Thursday night against the Titans.

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bodiepartlow on Colts Reddit: "Any updates on Moore, Doyle, Turay?"

Walker: Nothing concrete on all three of those guys, but that's to be expected after a Thursday night game, in which there's a much longer wait until the team hits the practice field again, and you can get a little bit better idea where certain players are with their respective injury situations.

Cornerback Kenny Moore II suffered an injury to his ribs Thursday against the Titans and didn't return. Frank Reich said on Friday that Moore II will continue to be evaluated in the coming days. Tight end Jack Doyle remains in the league's concussion protocol after suffering his injury last Sunday just before halftime against the Baltimore Ravens. For both Moore II and Doyle, it's probably best to wait until Wednesday's practice to get any sort of initial indication if either might be available next Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

As for defensive end Kemoko Turay, could this be the week that he returns off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list? Colts general manager Chris Ballard on Monday did tell Colts.com's Matt Taylor "we'll have more information here come next week" on Turay, so we'll see if that ends up coming to fruition.

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CaptainColt12 on Colts.com Forums: "Does Frank Reich brush his teeth before or after he eats his breakfast?"

Walker: I don't know the answer to this, but based off my extensive research on this topic — which includes clicking on the first link to pop up in Google — Reich might be better served brushing his teeth before breakfast. Here's an opinion from Registered Dental Hygienist magazine:

Based on what we do know, however, it makes more sense to brush before eating. That way, plaque is removed before ingesting sugars, and if acidic foods and beverages are ingested, we avoid compounding the erosion with toothpaste abrasion.

So there you go.

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PrideOfAthens17 on Colts.com Forums: "Curious how the Colts typically handle a player who is ejected from a game for the kind of thing that AQM was ejected for Thursday night. Do they have just a conversation with the player, then move on, apply some form of internal discipline limited to something during the week, but not the next game, apply some form of discipline that impacts his snaps in the next game(s), or forget it right away and do nothing at all?"

Walker: I can't say for sure what happened in this particular instance with Al-Quadin Muhammad — or what the team has done in similar instances over the past few years. But one has to imagine there are no hard-and-fast rules in place when it comes to handling a player who has been either ejected from a game and/or one who commits those "What the heck are you doing?" type of penalties. Football is a game filled with intense emotions, and I think sometimes when those emotions spill over, you generally give a guy the benefit of the doubt. Now, if he's a repeat offender or if his act was especially egregious or costly, then, sure, you can explore some sort of punishment, but overall, I would have to imagine after getting the business a little bit from your position coach/coordinator/head coach on the sideline, you just move on in these scenarios.

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csmopar on Colts.com Forums: "After the game, Frank Reich was telling ESPN that he, the rest of the coaching staff and Rivers decided on an uptempo/no huddle game plan on Wednesday. Seeing the success it had, will the Colts use this as their game plan for going forward?"

Walker: I think Frank Reich and the Colts saw a perfect opportunity to break out more of a fast-paced offensive attack on a short week Thursday night against the Titans. Reich explained that in his years as an assistant coach with the Colts when Peyton Manning was the quarterback, he noticed how successful Manning was at going up-tempo, particularly during short weeks; from 2006 through 2011, when Reich was an offensive assistant, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach in Indy, Manning and the Colts were a combined 5-0 on Thursday Night Football. There are plenty of risks and rewards that can come with running a fast-paced offense, and we highlighted some of those above, but it's hard to ignore the success this current Colts team had with it in a crucial win over the Titans.

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Stephen on Colts.com Forums: "Will Campbell be back this year"

Walker: Here was Frank Reich's answer when asked on Friday about whether Parris Campbell could potentially return later in the season:

"At this point, I think it's too early to tell that. I know he's working really hard. So if there is a chance, I know that Parris is the kind of guy that will do everything possible to give himself that chance. But I think it's still too early to tell that."

To me, the new injured reserve rules in place exclusively for the 2020 season — which allow for an unlimited number of players to return from IR — at least make it possible for Campbell to return from his knee injury/surgery at some point this year; if the Colts make the playoffs, then even better. Even if Campbell has a five-percent chance of returning, there's still a chance, right? (And, for the record, I'm just making that number up.)

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JOIN US AT LUCAS OIL STADIUM ON NOV. 29TH

JOIN US AT LUCAS OIL STADIUM ON NOV. 29TH

Catch the Colts back in action at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 29TH as they welcome the Tennessee Titans.

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