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Colts Mailbag: How Sam Ehlinger Will Change Colts' Offense, What To Expect From New Starting Quarterback In Week 8 vs. Washington Commanders

The Colts Mailbag returns for Week 8 with plenty of questions on new starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger ahead of his first career start Sunday against the Washington Commanders at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

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The Colts Mailbag is back! readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here, or by taking part in the Forums. You can also send your questions to @JJStankevitz on Twitter.

Let's get after this week's questions:

John K., Syracuse, N.Y.: Long time Colts fan here, I was going to ask about the play calling that last few weeks and it looked vanilla, now that I see Sam Ehlinger coming in for the rest of the season I'm wondering how the play calling will change.

What I mean is that Matt is older and mostly operates out of the shotgun, his ability to throw the long ball has been non-existent, the RPO does't work knowing Matt isn't going to run, do you see this changing for Sam? It was mentioned that JT does't exactly like the shotgun formation either could this be hampering our run ability? Any thoughts on this?

Also do you see us adding some long plays now that the second year man can probably heave the ball down the field farther than Matt? Lastly, who is calling the offensive plays? I have not been impressed with the play calling. We are too predictable. And what has happened to our O-line, is this a result of the shotgun formation, or Matt's inability to step up in the pocket. Sorry for so many questions.

JJ Stankevitz: Couple things I'll push back on here, but I got some similar questions, so here goes.

The playcalling isn't "vanilla." Maybe the results feel like it with so much quick game, but that's hardly vanilla (also, the Colts did call for some shot plays against the Titans they weren't able to get to, for various reasons).

Also, weird I didn't get any questions about Frank Reich's playcalling a week ago when the Colts were coming off a 34-point performance against Jacksonville. Huh.

And I'm not sure where you got that Jonathan Taylor doesn't like shotgun runs – I've never heard him say that, and his splits in 2022 don't show that at all:

  • Under center runs: 38 carries, 130 yards (3.4 yards/carry)
  • Shotgun runs: 53 carries, 256 yards (4.8 yards/carry)

Last one – over the last two weeks, as the Colts have honed in on a Dennis Kelly/Quenton Nelson/Ryan Kelly/Matt Pryor/Braden Smith offensive line group, the team's Pro Football Focus pass protection grade has been higher out of the shotgun than it's been under center. It's a small sample size and take PFF grades for what you will, but I don't think shotgun has anything to do with it here.

Walter Blackburn, New Philadelphia, Ohio: Now that Sam is the starting QB, do you think he will see the same or less blitz from the opposing defense? Also, do you think we will see more RPO that made Reich successful in the past?

JJ Stankevitz: Good questions, Walter. Let's start with blitz rates.

Matt Ryan was blitzed on more dropbacks (101) than any other quarterback in the NFL through Week 7, but the other guys in the top five are mobile quarterbacks: Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Daniel Jones and Kyler Murray. Ryan's 12 sacks when blitzed led the NFL, and he went 54/87 for 560 yards with five touchdowns, three interceptions and five fumbles when blitzed.

That is, of course, not all on Ryan. But 12 sacks, three interceptions and five fumbles comes out to 20 negative plays – the kind that can kill or end a drive – when blitzed, so opposing defensive coordinators kept sending them against the Colts' offense.

I'm not sure you'll see too big a difference with Ehlinger, given other mobile quarterbacks – like Jackson, Allen, Jones and Murray – are all blitzed at a pretty high rate. The best way to keep teams from blitzing is to make them pay for sending an extra rusher, whether that's with Ehlinger's arm or legs.

We have, though, seen Ehlinger do that in the preseason. In the Colts' final preseason game this year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought a five-man pressure with a single-high safety playing deep and man-to-man coverage underneath. Ehlinger escaped pressure, got outside the pocket and rumbled 45 yards for a touchdown.

As for RPOs, the Colts ran 43 with Ryan at quarterback, per Pro Football Focus – the 13th-most in the NFL entering Week 8. Last year, the Colts were 15th in the NFL with 101 RPO plays; with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in 2019, they were 12th with 92 RPOs. Those have always been a part of Reich's offense, and maybe you'll see the dial get turned up a little bit with Ehlinger in at quarterback – but not necessarily to an extreme.

"We're still running our offense," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. "The beauty is Sam has been here for two years, so he's kind of seen both sides of it. One with Carson and one with Matt in it. So, he has at least a year and a half I'd say of knowledge of our system and how it can vary, the different nuances of it. It's going to be different. It's not the same. You know, Matt and Sam are two different types of quarterbacks but for the most part, it's not going to change too much for the skill guys and our o-line up front."

Bridgett Pemberton, Avon, Ind.: What can we expect from Ehlinger that will differ from Ryan? Will he run the ball more? How is his passing game? Does he posses the leadership qualities needed in a quarterback?

JJ Stankevitz: The first thing, of course, is you'll see mobility from Ehlinger, which Reich sees as a benefit specifically on third-and-long.

"If you have a quarterback who can scramble and get out into the open, if you say, 'Hey, if you can just get us one or two a game, one or two third-down conversions where you scramble,'" Reich said. "If you get one or two a game, those are huge plays. Sam as we all know, we've all witnessed, he has the capability to do that. Sometimes in a game, it's those one or two third down conversions on a scramble that can make the difference in a game."

You're not going to build an offense out of third-and-long scrambles, of course – there've been 69 instances of a quarterback scrambling on third-and-7+ this year, and 31 of those have been converted into first downs. But those first downs can have an outsize impact on the result of a drive, and by extension, the result of a game. The difference between a loss of five on a third down sack and a gain of seven on a scramble is massive.

The Colts could mix in some designed runs for Ehlinger, or zone read concepts where Ehlinger decides whether to hand off to a running back or keep the ball himself. He does have that capability. But he's also a capable passer of the football, and understands you can't rely on your mobility alone to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.

"There's a lot of really fast guys in this league and it can't just be drop back and run around," Ehlinger said. "I think within the system, you play within the scheme and defenses can do a good job and take things away. That's when the extra element comes in. So, not run first. Still being a quarterback first but then using the capabilities that I have when the play breaks down."

Added Reich: "This isn't, Sam's our quarterback, let's be a run-first offense. We want to be balanced, we want to be a balanced offense."

As for his leadership – Ehlinger absolutely possesses that quality. He was a four-year starter in the pressure-packed crucible of the University of Texas football program, and he has a certain "it" factor coaches and teammates feel when he's on the field.

"It's a big step but we think he's ready," Reich said. "This guy's special. Just talk to anybody that walks in that locker room — we're fortunate to have a guy like (Sam), really three quarterbacks like that. But Sam, he's got that about him. He carries himself in a way, he plays, he practices in a way he'll be ready. He'll be ready. Is he going to have some growing pains, of course. Is he going to make mistakes, of course he's going to make mistakes.

"But I think Sam will make plays. Sam is going to make plays. He's proven that everywhere he's been, and we believe that's what he's going to do. That's what he's going to do for our offense. He's going to make plays."

Suzanne Engle, Indianapolis: Can you explain what has been done to ready Sam for his debut in his first NFL game starting back at training camp, through pre-season, while he was on the inactive list and then as Ryan's back up?

JJ Stankevitz: The offseason is where the greatest development for young quarterbacks often takes place, and Ehlinger committed himself to making significant strides in his game as soon as the 2021 season ended. At the recommendation of general manager Chris Ballard, Ehlinger spent about five months training with renowned quarterback guru Tom House, working on his arm strength and accuracy in specific, intentional ways.

"There's a lot of things – I think that starting with my shoulder and the way that it's shaped and the muscles that are dominating," Ehlinger said in August. "You have accelerators and decelerators in your shoulder, and so really working on both of those things but having a balance and knowing what I need to do. So, that's just from a functional fitness working on the muscular stuff and then from the biomechanical signature, working on timing, the sequencing of from when you want to start to throw all the way from the ground up. So, working on all those things and then working on mechanical variables within that signature. So, there's been a lot that's gone into it."

The result showed up in training camp: Not only did Ehlinger's arm look stronger, he was more accurate with his passes.

"What's most impressed me was his accuracy," Reich said. "He made a few changes mechanically and I think it's showing up in accuracy and I've seen that consistently throughout the offseason, throughout training camp and even in practice."

Once the season started, Ehlinger got to work in practice on the Colts' scout team and impressed teammates and coaches not only with the look he gave for the defense, but with how he used the opportunity to push himself and improve his game.

"I think going against our defense has gave him a good opportunity to test his own limits, test his own strengths against the No. 1s," linebacker Zaire Franklin said.

The Colts kick off the week of practice at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center preparing to face the Washington Commanders in Week 8 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Dextin Baker, Phenix City, Ala.: Do you think Sam could be our QB1 for the Colts franchise? I'm highly sold on Sam I think he have what it takes to get us there! His been patiently waiting for his chance I think this could be it!

JJ Stankevitz: He certainly will have the opportunity to prove himself as a franchise quarterback over the next 10 games, Dextin. And the Colts wouldn't have given him this shot if they didn't think he had the potential to be a winning solution in both the short- and long-term of the franchise.

Which is to say – nobody inside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center is viewing the move from Ryan to Ehlinger the way I've seen some folks on the outside see it.

"I can tell you this for sure, there's nobody waving the white flag," Reich said. "That's not in my DNA, that's not in our players' DNA. I wouldn't do that in a million years. This is about winning — we're trying to win a championship. That starts with winning an AFC South championship. We're still in position to do that."

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