One Big Storyline
At 3-3-1, the Colts have the ninth-best record in the AFC – and are a half-game behind the 4-3 Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. They're far from buried in the 2022 playoff picture.
So with that backdrop, the move to start Sam Ehlinger at quarterback over Matt Ryan may seem daring – but also has the potential for a significant payoff over the final 10 games of the season.
"Anybody who knows Sam knows that he's made for moments like this," head coach Frank Reich said. "That doesn't mean — is he gonna go in and be offensive player of the week, I'm not saying that. Will he have some growing pains, absolutely he'll have growing pains.
"But I can tell you this for sure, there's nobody waving the white flag. 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."
Beneath the surface of that 3-3-1 record, though, is an offense ranked 30th in scoring (16.1 points per game) and 30th in turnovers (14). The Colts' offense enters Week 8 with the fourth-most sacks (24) and second-most plays resulting in lost yardage (52) in the NFL. It's hard to win when your offense is turning the ball over too frequently, and having negative plays too consistently.
"We know at the quarterback position that it's not our poor production on offense is not on one person, it's not on Matt Ryan," Reich said. "But we also know, as Matt and I talked it through, hey, as head coach and quarterback, ultimately it doesn't matter. I'm judged on wins and losses, quarterbacks are judged on points, production and turnovers. We understand that's how it is in this league."
So enter Ehlinger, the second-year quarterback from Texas who will make his first career start on Sunday against the Washington Commanders. The plan is for Ehlinger to be the Colts' starting quarterback for the rest of the 2022 season, and the plan is to win with him operating the offense. The first pass he throws on Sunday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium will be his first regular season pass attempt in the NFL. But while Ehlinger may lack in-game experience, his coaches and teammates don't lack belief in the young quarterback.
"I think Sam is a great quarterback," linebacker Shaquille Leonard said. "I've been with Sam – his second year and seeing his leadership role, seeing the way he carries himself and we have so much confidence in Sam. The way that he's the first one in the building – I come in, I do my workout, I leave, eat, shower, everything and he's still in the weight room. He's always willing to learn. He's always asking questions. One thing about Sam, his cup is never full. He's always asking, always wanting to learn. We look forward to it."
While folks outside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center maybe haven't seen Ehlinger much, the people inside the facility have. Take their word for it: He'll be ready, and the moment will not be too big for a guy who was a four-year starter at the University of Texas.
"Now that he's getting his opportunity, I know he's gonna take full advantage of it," tight end Kylen Granson, who also played with Ehlinger at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, said. "So it's all in his preparation — dude prepares like a pro. So he's gonna play like a pro."
We'll get into how this all looks below in 5 Things To Watch. But the biggest thing to know about Ehlinger heading into Week 8 is the Colts trust he can play an important role for a team that believes it can still be a playoff contender in 2022.
"We have a long way to go," Reich said. "We haven't proven as an offense that we should be seriously considered for that. We haven't, not as an offense. But we have an opportunity to turn that around and that's what we're going to try to do."
Who's In, Who's Out
The Colts' final practice report of the week, with game designations:
5 Things To Watch
How Ehlinger's mobility benefits the offense. Ehlinger is not a run-first quarterback, though he does have the capability to move outside the pocket and make plays with his legs if needed. And the ability to avoid the negative dropbacks that've hurt the Colts' offense this season is an important aspect of what Ehlinger can bring to his first career start.
"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 you 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."
Reich pointed to the handful of times per game a mobile quarterback can scramble on third-and-long – instead of taking a drive-killing sack, throwing a drive-ending incompletion or, worse, throwing an interception, the ability of Ehlinger to try to make something happen with his legs could extend that drive. And that could be the difference between zero points and three points, or zero points and seven points, at a critical point or two during the game.
"There's an element to where the league's transitioning to more mobile quarterbacks and I think I am able to offer that," Ehlinger said.
Will Ehlinger take opportunities to push the ball downfield? On average, Ryan's passes traveled 6.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, lowest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. And only the New York Giants' Daniel Jones attempted fewer passes of 20 or more yards than Ryan (12).
Again, not all of that is on Ryan – a lot has to go into a successful shot play before the quarterback even releases the ball. Reich said the Colts called four or five plays that could've resulted in downfield passes last week against the Titans, but for whatever reason – coverage, protection, routes, quarterback, etc. – they weren't there.
Ehlinger worked to improve his arm strength with quarterback guru Tom House in the offseason, and showcased those gains on a 50-yard touchdown to Dezmon Patmon in the Colts' second preseason game.
"We definitely would like to have that balance of the quick throws, get it out but also have the ability to push the ball down the field because we have guys that can go up and make some plays," offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. "We talked about that as a staff. We want to give those guys opportunities if it presents itself. We don't want to force it down the field, we want to take what the defense is giving us and then kind of go from there."
Who will step up to take pressure off Ehlinger?
As the Colts got to work this week, Reich relayed a message to Ehlinger: "Hey, relax, play your game," Reich told his new starting quarterback. "You don't have to be a hero."
The Colts want to be more balanced as an offense and lean into their run game more than in previous weeks (although "balance" does not mean a 50/50 run/pass split). Running back Jonathan Taylor had 10 carries for 58 yards last week against the Tennessee Titans, and the Colts may have found something with their shotgun run game, in which Taylor is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this year.
Taylor said he, Nyheim Hines and Deon Jackson will try to do what they can to take some of the pressure off Ehlinger this week.
"It can help him out a ton, especially not only through the run game, but in the passing game as well," Taylor said. "We need to make sure we're available for him, whether it's in protection or it's through our route running. We need to make sure we're there for Sam so that he's not able to put everything on his shoulders and try to make plays down field when he doesn't see it or it's not there."
Ehlinger seems to have taken Reich's message to heart, and his focus is on letting his teammates make plays on Sunday.
"Just being smart with the football, taking completions, getting the ball in the playmakers' hands — we got a lot of really good players," Ehlinger said. "And even in the run game, giving the ball to JT, Nyheim, Deon, let those guys work. Parris (Campbell) is playing great, (Michael Pittman Jr.'s) playing great, Alec (Pierce's) playing great. Get the ball in their hands and let them be the stars.
The defense, with Shaquille Leonard back. Leonard will be on a snap count, head coach Frank Reich said, but he'll play for the first time since sustaining a concussion and nose injury in Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans. Leonard was ahead of where the Colts thought he'd be at this point, so while the team is still exercising caution with the three-time first-team All-Pro linebacker – they wanted to do what they could to get him on the field.
We didn't get an extended look at how the Colts' defense may change with Leonard on the field back in Week 4, when he sustained that injury on his 16th snap of the game. But dropping a guy who has 11 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles in his career into a solid defense that's looking for more takeaways can, seemingly, only help.
"He's the best defensive player in the league," Reich said.
Seeing if the Colts can play with a lead. The Colts are one of four teams to have not run an offensive play while leading by at least two scores in 2022; only the Atlanta Falcons have faced more plays on defense while trailing by nine or more points than the Colts' 107.
The Colts have nonetheless been steady on defense: They're eighth in the NFL in yards per play allowed (5.1), are eighth in sack rate (8.3 percent) and 13th in points allowed (20). But we still haven't seen what this defense can do with a lead, when offenses have to be more aggressive and take more risks to try to get back into a game. Maybe we'll see that on Sunday afternoon.