Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Airing It Out Against The Browns, How To Improve The Run Game & Red Zone Efficiency, Buyers At The Trade Deadline?

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about whether Philip Rivers will open up the passing game against a struggling Cleveland Browns secondary, what specifically needs to improve in the running game and in the red zone, whether the Colts will be buyers at the trade deadline 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:

Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "The Colts are facing the #29 pass defense in the league on Sunday. What kind of outing should we expect from Phillip Rivers and the Colts receivers? Is 300 passing yards and 3 TDs out of the question?"

Walker: We all know to this point Philip Rivers hasn't really had to open it up much in the passing game — he threw more than 40 times Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but a lot of those passes were designed to get the ball out of his hands pretty quick — but, to your point, this should really be Rivers' best chance to put up some big numbers through the air. Opposing starting quarterbacks are averaging almost 330 passing yards and three touchdowns a game against this Cleveland defense through four games, and I definitely think if Indy can get its run game going early — and I'm not exactly sold on Cleveland having that great of a run defense; teams just haven't really needed to run it against them so far this season — that Rivers can carve up the secondary with T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal, Trey Burton, Mo Alie-Cox, Nyheim Hines and others. There is this caveat, however: the Browns are pretty boom or bust in coverage. Cleveland leads the NFL in takeaways, so not only do you have to be mindful of opportunistic linebackers, corners and safeties trying to jump routes, but you also have to be weary of guys like Myles Garrett up front, who is tied for the league lead with five sacks and has had a strip-sack in each of the last three games. So you can definitely get a lot of production through the air against this Browns defense — just be smart about it.

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DaxWebster on Colts Reddit: "What young receiver is poised for a breakout game/rest of season?_"

Walker: I really think Daurice Fountain has an opportunity to make a few more plays as he continues to get more and more involved in the offense. Fountain the last couple years has certainly showed the ability to take over practices at times with his electrifying plays down the sideline, and then he had a five-reception, 63-yard performance in the Colts' preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills last year before going down with his season-ending ankle injury. There's no reason why this couldn't translate into added production throughout the rest of the regular season. I think we'll just continue to see this passing attack evolve more and more as we go, and Fountain is certainly in the running to have some more passes thrown his way.

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GBarr11 on Colts Reddit: "Do you think this team has more to it than meets the eye considering the fact that the majority of the games so far have been against what many would consider subpar teams?_"

Walker: I am very encouraged by the progress made by this Colts team through the first four games of the season, and believe that while not every game has been perfect in every aspect, you can clearly see that the team has been able to get out to decent leads over the past few weeks and never really be seriously challenged throughout the third or fourth quarters. Whether you win by 50 or you win by four, to me, that's what matters — you're not only beating the teams you should, but you're getting out to leads and keeping/maintaining them. While I think last week's game against the Chicago Bears was a pretty good "barometer" type win for the Colts — and Chicago's win on Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers makes that win for Indy look even better — Sunday's game against the Browns will be the best chance yet to see where this Colts team stacks up so far.

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PowerfulGovernment on Colts Reddit: "What do you think is contributing to the "step back" in the run game?_"

Walker: Yeah, I'd say third downs, red zone efficiency and the run game overall are pieces to the Colts' offensive puzzle that have been, well, puzzling to this point of the season. And since we're four games in, I think it's fair to start making at least initial observations about various trends we're seeing in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams. I will say this about the running game: I think the fact that the Colts have had these leads in the second half the last three weeks has definitely affected that yards-per-carry average, which in my opinion is really the biggest outlier stat considering the team ranks tied for 15th in total rushing yards, yet is last in the league at 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Think about this, though: if you go three games in a row in which the majority of the second half, and particularly the fourth quarter, your opponent knows you're going to be running the ball a lot, your yards-per-carry average in general just isn't going to be as good. Now, that doesn't excuse the lack of execution on some carries in the first half of games, nor does it excuse the fact that even if you're facing stacked boxes, this offensive line and these running backs should be able to get a little bit more production because we know they're that good. Let's revisit the topic at the halfway mark of the season and see where the Colts are at in this regard, because I definitely have faith that all three of these areas have to start seeing improvements here pretty soon.

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Dietcereal on Colts Reddit: "Can we get some quotes from the O-line about what it's like to practice against Buckner week in and week out."

Walker: Here's one from center Ryan Kelly on Aug. 17:

"I think he brings a certain level of energy to that defensive line that's contagious. Obviously, if you look at the guy, I think he is 6'7", 300 pounds. So, when you have that kind of speed and ability – to use his length, it's hard to block him. I know he is making us better and I hope that we are making him better at the same time. Obviously, I'm excited to have him on our team just to raise the elevation of both sides."

It's important to note, however, that with the regular season now underway, the No. 1 offense isn't really taking on the No. 1 defense in practice like it would during a training camp setting. So pretty much any of the offensive linemen that would occasionally be made available to the media are going to be starters; while they definitely all are well aware of Buckner's impact from a day-to-day standpoint, they don't really have to go against him anymore.

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Ozzurip on Colts Reddit: "What can be done to improve red zone efficiency on offense?"

Walker: Much like the "what's going on with the run game?" question above, while I definitely think we've reached a point in the season in which we can start making initial observations about various trends, I also think it's fair to say that it's probably still too early to make any sort of explanations — especially when it comes to the red zone efficiency (or lack thereof) — beyond simply just saying "it's the execution" and/or "it's the playcalling." Frank Reich have said both areas need to be better in the red zone, period. To me, moving forward, I think this is where maybe T.Y. Hilton can start to make an even bigger impact, as he's had just two red zone targets so far this season, one of which resulted in defensive pass interference, and the other one was an incompletion with illegal formation called on the offense. Last year, Hilton was among the league leaders for much of the season with five red zone receiving touchdowns, which I think was a surprising stat to some. Also, I'd like to see Trey Burton have an impact in this area as he starts to get incorporated back into the offense. Then there's Michael Pittman Jr., who had two red zone targets in his first couple games before going down with that lower leg injury and being placed on IR for at least three games — can be come back and be a factor inside the 20, too? Finally, this is part of the run game equation, as well; the Colts have 29 rushing attempts in the red zone so far this season, which leads the league, and have three touchdowns on those runs, and that 34-percent success rate, according to NFL analyst Warren Sharp, ranks 30th in the NFL. So I think you start to get more guys involved in the passing game, and then start clicking in the run game overall, and the red zone efficiency will start trending upwards where it needs to be.

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thedudeofficial on Colts Reddit: "Is it likely we see Rivers air it out more given Cleveland's secondary performing subpar? Could we see Taylor get an increase in carries, even if marginal? How do we stand on the health of our receiver group? If our top depth is unhealthy should we lean on our TEs? As always u/AWalkerColts thank you and I look forward to the article! Please thank the rest of the staff for me too!_"

Walker: Throwing lots at me, Dude.

» I addressed my thoughts on how I can see Philip Rivers' approach playing out Sunday against the Browns above. Simply put, if he can limit the mistakes against a very opportunistic Cleveland defense, there will be opportunities to throw the ball down the field with regularity, especially if the Colts can come out and establish the run early.

» I think we will start to see Jonathan Taylor take on a little bit more in the run game overall as the season progresses. Perhaps the fact he played 49 offensive snaps and had 26 carries Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings clouded our expectations a little bit, especially after he had just 24 offensive snaps and 13 carries the following week against the New York Jets. I think Taylor's workload last Sunday against the Chicago Bears — 33 offensive snaps with 17 carries — seems more in his wheelhouse, especially when you know the team also wants to get Nyheim Hines plenty of touches, and that Jordan Wilkins is going to be used from time to time to keep Taylor fresh.

» As for the health at wide receiver, not much has changed since last week; the two guys on injured reserve, Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr., are still in the "out indefinitely" range. We'll likely try to get a more concrete update on Pittman Jr. from Frank Reich heading into the bye week; Campbell just underwent surgery to his knee, meanwhile, so while he still isn't being officially ruled out for the rest of the season, one would assume he still has a ways to go before he can even begin to think about getting back.

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jvan1973 on Colts.com Forums: "Why is Hines being used the way that he has been?  Run up the middle on short down and distance?  Can he be utilized as a wr to help out with the injuries?"

Walker: There might be something to lining Hines up more in the slot and out wide from time to time. According to Pro Football Focus, Hines has lined up in the slot seven total times so far this season, and is yet to line up out wide. Last year, Hines averaged about three snaps per game lined up in the slot and a little more than two snaps per game lined up out wide; his rookie year in 2016, it was flipped — about four snaps a game lined up out wide and 2.3 snaps per game lined up in the slot. Perhaps part of that has to do with the quarterback; we all know about Philip Rivers' tendency to throw to running backs out of the backfield, which could be a contributing factor here. Like everything else, I'm willing to see if this trend changes over the course of the next four games. As for Hines' role in the run game, I'm not going to pretend to have any insight into the approach there, other than to say I think this coaching staff was impressed with the way Hines carried the ball down the stretch last season, and perhaps they want to give him some more opportunities to build off of that here in Year 3. Through four games, however, Hines' "successful play rate" on situational rushing attempts, which is defined by NFL analyst Warren Sharp as how many yards were gained vs. what down and distance the runner was facing, is just 28 percent (five successful plays out of 18 total situational rushing attempts). By comparison, Jonathan Taylor has a 42-percent rate on similar plays, which is better, but still ranks 36th among NFL running backs with at least 15 such rushing attempts (Hines ranks 45th out of 47 qualifying running backs). All of this factors into the areas in which Frank Reich wants to see improvements going forward.

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danlhart87 on Colts.com Forums: "Do you expect a different outcome on D this week now that the Colts are playing a top tier O with a very good OL and are we using that knowledge to mix things up? Do you think the Colts will be buyers come trade deadline? The one big weakness with the injuries we have is WR and a top guy like Julio Jones would do wonders for Colts O. The emergence of Blackmon has really surprised me. Do you expect him to have a bigger role as the season progresses?"

Walker: Sunday's game against the Browns will no doubt be the Colts' defense's stiffest test yet, as Cleveland leads the league in rushing and has some terrific weapons in the passing game. But the Colts are no slouches against the run, too. Am I more inclined to believe that Cleveland can keep up its torrid offensive pace (scoring almost 40 points per game in its last three games and averaging more than 200 rushing yards a contest), or am I more inclined to believe the Colts' defense on Sunday will keep on playing like the best unit in the league? Would you be shocked if I said I'm more inclined to believe the latter? This is Colts.com, after all.

As for the trade deadline, I'm not inclined to believe the Colts will be making any major moves. That's not to say Chris Ballard wont, as he puts it, have the team's "lines in the water" — if there's a big piece that is a perfect fit on and off the field and you're willing to part ways with a valuable draft pick (or two) to get them, then Ballard will certainly consider it — but that's just not really this GM's M.O. This isn't baseball or basketball where you can seamlessly bring in a guy midseason and he's just immediately ready to roll; while there have certainly been some exceptions to that rule in the NFL over the years, I get the impression the Colts like what they have, and one additional piece or a half-season "rental" wouldn't make a huge difference vs. what you'd have to give up to get them.

As for Blackmon: he played 100 percent of the defensive snaps last week against the Chicago Bears. You can't possibly play a bigger role than that, obviously. I do think there's a chance you start to see Matt Eberflus move Blackmon around a little bit more as he gets more and more established in this defense, however; perhaps he can play a little bit of that dime linebacker role from time to time, and use his coverage skills and his physicality to his advantage a little bit closer to the line of scrimmage? 

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csmopar on Colts.com Forums: "What is going on with TY Hilton?"

Walker: In T.Y. Hilton's best seasons, he's had anywhere from 20 to 27 percent of the Colts' passing targets. He's currently at a 20.93 target percentage through the first four games of the season, so it's not as if he's being involved any less in the passing game compared to previous years. Think about this: if Hilton makes even one of those two catches late against the Jacksonville Jaguars, if he hauls in that long touchdown pass over the top against the Minnesota Vikings, and then if a defender doesn't push Marcus Johnson into Hilton's leg, causing the timing to be off on what would've been a huge fourth-quarter connection last week against the Chicago Bears, I don't even think this would be worth mentioning at this point of the season. That's a difference of three or four plays. I'm confident Hilton can make up the difference, and that one of his vintage huge performances is right around the corner.

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sigma4488 on Colts Reddit: "If the Colts keep their winning ways, what's the mentality of the team so they don't get in their own heads similar to last year when they were 5-2"

Walker: One major difference so far between this Colts team and the one that started 5-2 last season is the way in which the team is closing out games on a week-to-week basis (so far, of course). In those first seven games last year, Indy was outscoring its opponents by a combined seven points — yes, I can do the math here; that's an average of one point better than the other team per game. This year through four games, the Colts are outscoring their opponents by a combined 47 points; my calculator indicates that's an average winning margin of 11.75 points per game. It's a small sample size, but I think you're encouraged by this trend early on, which gives you confidence that the team won't stumble in the second half in 2020 like it did last year.

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