One Big Storyline
A story of the 2022 Colts has been how little margin for error this team has had on a week-to-week basis. That narrow margin for error means not converting a first-and-goal from the five-yard line into a touchdown – like in Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles – can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Zooming out, the Colts don't have much margin for error over their final six games of the 2022 season. At 4-6-1, the NFL calendar is not on the Colts' side – a 10-6-1 record would almost certainly get this team into the playoffs, and a 9-7-1 record would be a little better than a coin flip (this is per the New York Times' playoff simulator). But the Colts have won consecutive games just once – that was in Week 5 over the Denver Broncos and Week 6 over the Jacksonville Jaguars – and, realistically, will need to at least three games in a row at some point between now and late January to get back into postseason contention.
That back-against-the-wall mentality, though, is one with which interim head coach Jeff Saturday arrived in Indianapolis.
"They're all must-wins," Saturday said. "When I got here – they're all must-wins when you're staring at where we are and trying to make a push.
"The process matters and the way that we are going about it matters. That's kind of what I've been preaching to the guys, is being able to transfer what we're doing on the practice field to the game field, and that execution coming to life there. At every point in the game it's going to become a must, right in the moment. I think guys have done a good job of understanding it. The wins will take care of themselves. We've got to make sure we're taking care of the process to get ourselves there."
The Colts, collectively, have said all year they've had good practices and felt like they've prepared for games well. But once those games have started, execution – particularly on offense – hasn't been where it's needed to be to consistently win.
They've won games by three, three, seven and five points and have three one-score losses, which on the surface isn't a bad thing. But that also means the Colts haven't won a game by more than one score this year.
In 2021, the Colts won seven games by nine or more points; in 2020, that total was six; even in 2019, the Colts' last sub-.500 season, they won two games by more than one score.
For the Colts to go on a run late in the season, it'll come down to lowering their margin for error on gameday – since their margin for error in the AFC playoff picture is awfully small.
"I mean, we say it all the time, every week is (a must-win) but the reality of the situation is we've got to knock off as many as we can in the next six," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It starts Monday night. I think the urgency is good, I feel like the week has been off to a good start. I thought we had a good week last week to be honest with you. I thought the preparation was really good, I think our execution needs to be better. We have to get right back to it and we've got to try and improve on what we did in practice last week and make sure that translates to what we can do on the field."
5 Things To Watch
Who shines in the national spotlight? With Pro Bowl voting open through mid-December, Colts players will have an opportunity to showcase themselves in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football (and six days later, when the Colts face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football). Folks watching on TV will be well-acquainted with guys like running back Jonathan Taylor and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but by the end of the night should know the names of defensive tackle Grover Stewart (one of the NFL's most dominant run defenders) and linebacker Zaire Franklin (the NFL's leading tackler entering Week 12). And for wide receiver Parris Campbell, these next two games will be an opportunity to show football fans just how good he's been this year – and how good he can be when he stays healthy.
Saturday talked with his team this week about the opportunity in front of them – "Embracing the moment, having fun with it, appreciating it and then performing at your best when you have these moments and opportunities," he said.
Can the Colts push the ball downfield? Only two teams have allowed more pass plays of 15 or more yards than the Steelers (73), while Ryan has the lowest average depth of target (6.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) among starting quarterbacks in 2022. There isn't one singular reason why the Colts haven't been able to dial up downfield throws with more consistency, but it's something the offense, collectively, certainly wants to do – if the opportunity is there.
"I think part of it is just you have to have enough time to be able to do some of the things you want to do, to push the ball down the field," Ryan said. "We just haven't been consistent enough throughout the year. I really think we've made some strides. We did some good things last week, we made too many mistakes. But we have to find ways. We've got to find ways to stretch the field vertically, get some chances, create explosive plays. It becomes difficult when every drive you're not getting those chunk plays. So, I think Parks (Frazier) has done a good job the last couple of weeks. We've got to continue to look during the week to find ways to try and do that and hopefully we can be better at that."
Better execution in the red zone. The Colts were frustrated by their lack of execution in a goal-to-go set of downs at the Eagles' five-yard line in Week 11, where a sack on third down led to the offense having to settle for a field goal. Instead of extending their lead to 10 points, the field goal bumped it to six with just under five minutes to go. That cracked the door open for Philadelphia's offense, which marched downfield to score the game-winning touchdown with about a minute and a half left.
The Steelers are allowing opposing offenses to score touchdowns on 54 percent of their possessions that reach the red zone, 15th in the NFL. The Colts are converting 43 percent of their red zone drives into touchdowns, 30th in the league. And this team knows it needs to execute better in the red zone to have a chance at turning this season around with six games left.
"You've got to maximize the opportunities that you have," Ryan said. "I think across the board, when you look at the scope of the entire year, I think part of it is we've each kind of taken our own turn. It hasn't been just one thing but at different times, we've each taking our own turn. So, we just have to be more consistent. You have to believe. I do think there's a sense of even though it hasn't gone our way, there has to be a belief that when you get down there, you're going to find a way to punch it in. However that looks whether it's running it, throwing it, whatever we have to do to find a way to put it in the end zone."
Bernhard Raimann vs. Alex Highsmith. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt has almost exclusively rushed the passer against opposing right tackles this season, so it'll be on Braden Smith to keep him out of the pocket on Monday. But opposite Watt is Alex Highsmith, who has nine sacks this season and will present a strong challenge for rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann.
One of Highsmith's most effective pass rushing moves this season has been a Dwight Freeney-esque spin technique, where he threatens the tackle with speed to the outside and then rips a spin move inside to get to the quarterback. Highsmith has four sacks on inside spin moves this season, per Pro Football Focus.
(Left guard Quenton Nelson may be able to help in stopping this move.)
Raimann was solid in Week 10 against the Las Vegas Raiders and had an up-and-down game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11. But the Colts are committed to giving Raimann – along with 2021 seventh-round right guard Will Fries – the space to develop this season, and have seen growth in the Central Michigan product over the last few weeks.
"The effort is there, the technique is getting there, they're getting better every week," Saturday said. "And I think you continue to get better each week when you get reps and you get activity and you see things happen that you can now apply to the next week. It's not gonna be perfect, no player is. But my expectation is they take strides each and every week of being better players."
The Colts' plan for Kenny Pickett. The Colts have face a few young quarterbacks – like Houston's Davis Mills Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence – but Pickett will be the first rookie Gus Bradley's group will take on in 2022.
Pickett has had an uneven Year 1 with three touchdowns to eight interceptions while averaging 5.8 yards per attempt and taking a little over three sacks per game on average. But when the Colts turned on the tape to prepare for Pickett, they saw a rookie making strides over the last few games.
"Knowing he's a young quarterback, he's getting the hang of it," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "He's been playing better the last couple weeks, they scored some points last week, so he's been playing a lot better. But getting after him, giving him a bunch of different looks, knowing that he ain't much of a wealth of knowledge as everybody else does and show him some different stuff. And just trying to make him uncomfortable back there."