Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Bye Week Evaluations, Kemoko Turay's Return, Is Philip Rivers A Hall Of Famer?

In this week’s bye week edition of the Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about offensive and defensive evaluations through the first six weeks, when Kemoko Turay could possibly return to the lineup, whether Philip Rivers is a Hall of Famer, deep dives into Quenton Nelson’s pulling plays, slant routes three-tight end sets 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:

PowerfulGovernment on Colts Reddit: "The offense finally played well, I don't believe the argument that we played the Bengals is valid considering we have played the Jets already but my question is was the play calling seem different from the previous weeks? I know you mentioned previously the Colts rank high in terms to hurry up offense but they did seem to be more up tempo?"

Walker: I think one huge factor from the Bengals game — besides just being down 21-0 early, which obviously forces you to open up the passing game — was Marcus Johnson and Trey Burton running all sorts of different route concepts, and in all sorts of different downs and distances. We all saw how Johnson was able to break free over the top for a couple notable plays, but, heck, I think he ran almost the entire route tree throughout the game, which is super impressive. As for Burton, he's finally fully healthy after missing the first three games of the season with a calf injury and then working his way back into the mix over the previous two weeks, and I think his performance against the Bengals was a carbon copy of what we saw in training camp, as Rivers was constantly going the tight end's way over and over on a daily basis. So, in a way, I think being down big early did affect the play calling to some degree, and opened things up down the field that perhaps we just hadn't seen before this season.

As for the pace last Sunday, there certainly was more of an up-tempo feel. According to NFL analyst Warren Sharp, the Colts in Week 6 were sixth in the NFL in offensive pace at 25.1 seconds per play. In the first five weeks of the season, the team had a pace of 29.1 seconds per play, which was actually the second-slowest in the NFL over that span. Now, there's a clear difference between pace and no-huddle — you can utilize a no-huddle approach on any given play, but still use a ton of play clock before getting the snap off — but I think clearly Frank Reich and the Colts' offense, considering the early deficit and the success they were having in that second quarter, found a fast-paced formula that worked.

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DweltElk On Colts Reddit: "At this point in the season, what does the coaching staff feel is our greatest strength? What does our coaching staff see as needing improvement? For what needs improvement, what is the staff looking to do to make the improvement?"

Walker: If I'm going off of some of the chatter this week from the players and coaches who talked to the media, especially those on Wednesday after the team had its "self-scout" opportunity to evaluate the first six weeks and what went right (and what needs to be improved), there are a couple clear areas on both sides of the ball that will be a focus moving forward.

On offense, Philip Rivers said the quarterbacks really focused on those situational opportunities that have been a struggle at times these first few weeks. Now, the Colts took a huge step forward on third down (7-of-11, 64 percent) and scoring touchdowns in the red zone (4-for-4) last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but still rank 24th overall on third downs (39.19 percent) and 27th in red zone touchdown scoring percentage (52.17). Rivers also mentioned how other position groups on Wednesday really dove into the run game, and how to improve in the various zone and gap scheme approaches; Indy currently ranks 31st in the league in rushing yards per attempt (3.6).

On the other side of the ball, defensive line coach Brian Baker dove into the balance he's trying to strike up front between staying disciplined in the rush lanes to keep the quarterback contained to the pocket vs. simply unleashing his pass rushers from time to time. While it's ideal to keep guys like Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes contained to the pocket so that they can't escape and extend plays and find their receivers down the field — or simply run for big gains themselves — there's also a simple approach of letting your guys do what they do best and try to generate pressure off the edge and from the interior. The Colts, according to Pro Football Focus, are generating pressure on 27 percent of all passing plays, which ranks 28th in the league heading into Week 7, so one can imagine that will be a huge point of emphasis moving forward.

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NH-INDY-99 on Colts Reddit: "What are the odds of Kemoko Turay coming back after the bye vs Detroit?"

Walker: Head coach Frank Reich this week wasn't really ready to say one way or another whether he believed Kemoko Turay would be able to return from the Physically Unable to Return (PUP) list in time for the Week 8 matchup against the Detroit Lions. To me, the bye week is a blessing and a curse in this particular instance; it's a blessing because Turay gets an extra week to rehab and rest his ankle, but it's a curse because if the Colts were playing this week — and this is purely speculation on my part — perhaps Turay could've returned in some limited fashion to practice, and then by next week started ramping things up to possibly be ready for the Lions game. So we'll see if three days of practice next week will be enough for Turay to make his return, or if instead perhaps the Week 9 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens is a more realistic goal.

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OPBadshah on Colts Reddit: "Serious question: What will our offensive identity be now as Pittman, Parris, and MAC will be on track to return after bye? Marcus, Pascal, and Burton have clearly showed their ability to be productive. Do we shift attention away from them to focus on the first 3? How much do we keep TY involved? He's clearly being outplayed by the younger additions.

Not-so-serious question: What kind of drills will Pascal be running to figure out how to not commit OPIs?

Even-less-serious question: Colts are on a bye. What do now?"

Walker: Well, first of all, I'll say this: Parris Campbell is more in the "out indefinitely" camp, so while he hasn't yet been ruled out for the year due to his knee injury and subsequent surgery, until we hear any updates down the road about his possible availability, I won't lump him in with the other guys you mentioned. But I think your general sentiment is the beauty of this Colts' offensive attack; when you see it working as well as it did against the Bengals, and then you know there's still more firepower you can add to the mix after the bye week whenever guys like Mo Alie-Cox (knee) and Michael Pittman Jr. (lower leg) are ready to return, then Frank Reich will have all sorts of options at his disposal as he gets together his gameplans. As for T.Y. Hilton, it's broken record time for me, but I still believe he will break out soon; he is still heavily involved in each week's gameplan, he is still getting a high number of targets in the passing game and he is still getting a ton of attention from opposing defenses, which is partly why guys like Marcus Johnson and Trey Burton were able to do what they did last Sunday.

As for Zach Pascal's two offensive pass interference penalties: the first one was just a bad break on a pick play designed to get Hilton open across the middle. If you're Pascal, you probably just have to sell that a little bit better, but you'll be hard pressed to find any offensive coach who finds fault on his guys who are called for a penalty on a pick play. The other one? Sure. That was a very physical push-off on a 3rd and 10 when you're just trying to make a play to move the sticks. He'll learn from it.

And with no Colts game this weekend, have some fun! Rake some leaves! Eat some good food! Sleep in! That's what's on tap for me, at least.

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Andrew2Doyle on Colts Reddit: "I would love to hear an update on our injured players. Haven't heard much about guys like Turay, MPJ, and Campbell."

Walker: I'll give you a pass this time, but we did cover Frank Reich's updates on most of these guys earlier in the week. As I mentioned before, wide receiver Parris Campbell (knee) is out indefinitely, so there's no real update there. Defensive end Kemoko Turay (ankle) remains on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and while he's "making good progress," Reich said he's not quite sure if he'll be ready coming off the bye week against the Detroit Lions. All other injured Colts players, including wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (lower leg) and linebacker Matthew Adams (ankle), who are currently on injured reserve, as well as tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee), tackle Chaz Green (back) and linebacker Darius Leonard (groin), who missed last week's game against the Bengals, Reich said, "Hopefully most, if not all, of those guys will be ready to go versus Detroit (in Week 8)."

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Stichting on Colts Reddit: "Hey man, thanks for doing this. Know the story on Patmon? Everyone made it seem like he had a good training camp- is he just a healthy scratch or is he dealing with an injury?

I hear a lot about first year as a rookie can be a learning year, particularly for skill positions. That said, out of the Colts sophomores (2019 draft and UDFAs), who has shown the most positive development?"

Walker: Thanks for reading! As it pertains to Dezmon Patmon, he's been a healthy scratch the first six weeks of the season. The Colts love his upside, but others at the position that have been active to this point probably provide some more unique skillsets, like DeMichael Harris in the slot, Ashton Dulin and his strong play on pretty much every special teams unit, and Marcus Johnson and Daurice Fountain as veterans who have a great grasp on the playbook. Patmon right now is primarily going to line up out wide, and the Colts have that covered.

As for the second-year players who have shown the most development, I'd have to go with Bobby Okereke. I think we all saw flashes of his potential throughout his rookie season, but now that he's playing an even larger role, especially here with Darius Leonard out of late with a groin injury, Okereke has absolutely flourished. He's been solid in the run game, but I think his development in coverage has been absolutely fantastic.

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Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "Is it just me, or have the Colts been pulling Nelson much less frequently this season than in the past?"

Walker: I did a deep dive into the stats for this one. According to Pro Football Focus, Quenton Nelson has been utilized as a pulling guard on 14 run plays so far this season, or about 2.33 per game. Last season, using those same metrics, Nelson pulled on 39 run plays, or about 2.44 per game. As a rookie, Nelson pulled on 55 total run plays during the regular season and eight plays during the postseason for 63 total, or about 3.5 per game. So there is a downward trend since Nelson's rookie year, but there isn't much of a discernible difference from 2019 to 2020.

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Andy_and_Vic on Colts Reddit: "Darius Leonard didn't have the stats he normally does in the four games he played—not a lot of solo tackles, and limited big-play stats. So is he playing a bit worse, or are teams game planning for him a lot? And is he still having a big impact that isn't obvious on the stat line?"

Walker: I think we were seeing a couple trends with Darius Leonard before he went down with his groin injury just before halftime Week 5 against the Chicago Bears, causing him to miss the rest of that game, as well as the following week's matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. First off, I think what might not show up in the stat sheet is just how much he has improved out in coverage; this was a huge emphasis for Leonard heading into this season, and I think he's taken a major step forward in that area here early on. Secondly, I think you're seeing the result of the defense as a whole just playing better around Leonard; if DeForest Buckner and Justin Houston and Grover Stewart are making tons of plays up front, and if Bobby Okereke and Anthony Walker are making more plays alongside him at linebacker, and if the secondary — with guys like Xavier Rhodes and Julian Blackmon — is seemingly making more plays on a week-to-week basis, then Leonard won't have as many opportunities to take it upon himself and get those "flash" plays. I think one area in which Leonard will want to improve once he does return is as a pass rusher; of course, he's been the NFL's top off-ball linebacker in this regard the past couple seasons, and we won't overreact to a few early games, but in seven pass-rush opportunities so far this year, Leonard hasn't been able to generate one "pressure," according to Pro Football Focus. So you can bet he'll want to make a bigger impact in that area here after the bye week.

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danlhart87 on Colts.com Forums: "I know we were playing catch up against the Bengals which explains the lopsided Pass Run ratio but is there a reason Colts aren't running the ball a whole lot? Taylor YPC have improved and I strongly believe he could hit 100 if given the carries constantly.

Seems like a different WR or TE is stepping up every week so how do you expect the depth chart to be effected once Pittman returns?

Do you think Rivers career numbers qualify him for the HOF? It was a hot topic on the forum this past weekend."

Walker: You always come strong with several questions a week. I'd love to focus on just one, but because it's the bye week and I'm feeling good, I'll try to address them all.

— You're right about the catch-up mode against the Bengals relative to fewer running opportunities in that ballgame. But I'm not so sure I agree that the Colts haven't been running the ball a whole lot; they entered Week 7 action ranked tied for seventh in the league in rushing attempts (172), and they also aren't scared to run against a stacked box; their 74 running plays against eight or more box defenders are fifth most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. In all, the Colts are running the ball on 44.09 percent of their offensive plays, which is the 12th-most in the league; before the Bengals game, that figure was at 47.76 percent, which ranked seventh. So I don't see anything here worth noting in terms of something the Colts are or are not doing; they just need to be more consistent in those opportunities.

— The Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round of this year's NFL Draft for a reason, and he still offers you a unique skillset in terms of what he can provide you outside, as well as his willingness as a run blocker and his toughness making catches across the middle on third down. So, yeah, I expect some roles to be affected once he returns, but outside of maybe fewer targets here and there for guys like Zach Pascal, Marcus Johnson, Trey Burton, Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox, I can't say for sure what exactly will change until we see it in action.

— Philip Rivers is 100 percent going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Period. End of discussion.

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Colts1324 on Colts.com Forums: "Why do we refuse to run the slant route?? Ever since Manning it's like we refuse to throw the underneath slant. Joe Burrow ate us up the entire game throwing the slant. And I think it would help our offense. Also, what is Michael Pittman Jr's timeline for a return??"

Walker: It might just depend on the quarterback and what they prefer. According to Pro Football Focus, since Frank Reich was hired as the Colts' head coach in 2018, the Colts have had about 2.65 slant routes targeted per game (106 in all) with 58 total receptions for 530 yards (9.1 yards per reception) and four touchdowns to two interceptions on those plays. In 2018, with Andrew Luck, the Colts targeted the slant route on about 8.3 percent of their throws; last year, primarily with Jacoby Brissett, the Colts targeted the slant route on about 3.6 percent of their throws; and so far this season with Philip Rivers, the Colts have targeted the slant on about 5.3 percent of their throws. The league average since 2018 is 6.7 percent of throws being targeted to the slant route. So this year, and certainly in 2018, it's not like the Indy offense is targeting the slant route significantly less than the rest of the league. Perhaps this is something I can ask head coach Frank Reich and quarterback Philip Rivers about here soon, and see how they approach it.

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Freenyfan102 on Colts.com Forums: "Why use the three TE set knowing full well it does not work"

Walker: Well, because that's simply not true — particularly in the passing game. The Colts this season have utilized the "13" personnel package — or one running back and three tight ends — on seven percent of their total offensive plays, or 25 plays in all through the first six weeks, which is the fifth most in the league, according to NFL analyst Warren Sharp. On those plays, Philip Rivers has completed 4-of-5 passes with a touchdown, for a passer rating of 136.3. On the ground, yes, there is work to be done out of this three-tight end set, as Indy is averaging 2.7 yards per carry on its 20 total rushing attempts. But the unpredictability factor, and the all-around talent that the Colts possess at the tight end position, means that this formation definitely isn't going away anytime soon.

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