For much of this season, the Indianapolis Colts' offense has been among the best in the league. They've been atop the rankings for a number of weeks in yards per game and points per game, and they've not often dropped out of the top three all season long. They've been leading the league in passing offense for pretty much the entire season. Currently, in addition to their top-ranked passing offense, the Colts boast the number three offense in terms of total yards per game and points per game.
Recently, however, things have been a bit of a struggle for Indy's high-powered offensive attack. Four of the six lowest point totals of the season have come in the last five games for the Colts, and four of their five yardage totals of the season have come in the last five games. In their most recent game, a 17-10 win over the Houston Texans, the Colts managed their lowest point total (17) and yardage total (278) of the year. It was the lowest point total in their last twenty games (including playoffs) and their lowest yardage total in their last nineteen games (including playoffs). It's beyond clear that the Colts' offense has been struggling a bit recently.
The question we must then ask is why? Why has the Colts offense, that for so much of the year was great and at one point had some discussing this offense was better than Indy's 2004 offense (at no point in the season would I have considered even saying it was), been struggling recently? I went back over the film and the stats and tried to find some reasons for the drop off in play from the offensive unit, and more importantly to see what the Colts could do to fix the issues currently plaguing them. Let's take a look at some of them.
There's really no other place to start than with turnovers. Simply put, the Colts have had a huge problem recently protecting the football. In the last four games, the Colts have turned the football over twelve times. Twelve times in four games! Obviously, with turnover issues like that there are going to be some offensive struggles, and that's exactly what has happened to the Colts.
I don't necessarily think it's the interceptions that are the issue. It's easy to point to Andrew Luck's fourteen interceptions on the season as an issue, as that equals the number of turnovers the entire Colts' team committed in the entire 2013 regular season. But consider that Luck has thrown the football more than any quarterback in football this year and fourteen picks doesn't seem as bad anymore - in fact, his interception percentage is a very healthy 2.42%. Not great, but also not bad at all. In other words, Andrew Luck has thrown one interception every 38.5 passes this year. That's not bad. In the last three weeks the interception percentage has risen to 3.5% and so that has been an issue, but really the problem has been fumbles, not picks. Of the team's twelve turnovers in the past four games, eight of them have been fumbles.
Again, it's easy to point to Luck here, but it hasn't all been him. It's been T.Y. Hilton. It's been Reggie Wayne. It's been Boom Herron. The fumbles are really the issue the Colts have to get under control. They've put the ball on the ground fourteen times in four games, losing eight of those fumbles, and that's unacceptable. No team in the entire NFL has fumbled more than the Colts this year. It's a problem, and it's one that has really surfaced recently to contribute in a major way to the offensive struggles.
The Loss of Ahmad Bradshaw
A lot of people have talked about the turnovers leading to struggles. But another major factor that has contributed to the Colts' offensive "slump" recently has been the loss of Ahmad Bradshaw and their inability to really, truly replace him. I don't think anyone who has watched the Colts this year needs to be reminded of just how good Bradshaw was in the first nine games of the season and how important he was to the Colts' offense. He rushed for 425 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and also caught 38 passes for 300 yards and six touchdowns. He was a great blocker, a great runner, and a great receiver - arguably the most complete running back in football this season. When he was in the game the Colts' offense could function at a higher level, and in the critical situations it was always Bradshaw in there. His stats may be modest, but his impact sure wasn't. When he was injured in the tenth game, it was a crushing loss for the Colts. And so far, they haven't really been able to replace him.
In the four games without Bradshaw (excluding the Patriots game in which the back was injured), the Colts have averaged less yards per game (by 72.2 yards), less points per game (by 3.7 points), less first downs per game (by 4.6 first downs), less yards per play (by 0.29 yards per play), more turnovers per game (by 1.33 turnovers), and more sacks allowed per game (by 1.19 sacks). Is that all because of not having Bradshaw in there? Of course not, but it'd be short-sighted to not realize his loss was a huge one for the Colts.
Without Bradshaw, opposing defenses have just been teeing off on the Colts' suspect offensive line. Defenses are essentially not respecting the Colts' run game at all and are instead focusing heavily on pressuring Andrew Luck and defending the pass. The Colts lack one of the biggest x-factors their offense had in Bradshaw, who not only was their best running back when it came to actually running the football but also a valuable extra pass defender and receiver. His presence in the game alone caused defenses to react differently, something that is gone now and something that has caused defenses to have zero respect for the Colts' running game. And the Colts have yet to find someone to step up and fill Bradshaw's role, so instead that spot is just left open and the Colts' offense isn't firing on all cylinders because one of the key components is gone for the season.
One of the positives here is the emergence of Boom Herron recently. Herron has rushed for 313 yards and a touchdown while averaging 5.1 yards per carry this year, along with adding 15 catches for 105 yards. He isn't nearly the all-around back that Bradshaw is, but his presence in the game at least gives the Colts somewhat of a threat similar to what Bradshaw brought. With him in the game, it's better. He's not Ahmad Bradshaw and he can't fully replace the impact that Bradshaw had, but Boom Herron is the closest thing the Colts have to that and he should be seeing more and more playing time as the playoffs draw near.
The Wide Receiver Situation
T.Y. Hilton has had an absolutely fantastic season for the Colts, as he's fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and on pace to catch 94 passes for 1,537 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. But as the season has progressed, it has become more and more dependent upon the team's number one receiver and not on the other receiving options the Colts have. In fact, the second-leading receiver on fourteen different NFL teams have more receiving yards than the Colts' second-leading receiver this year, Coby Fleener (with 682 yards). A lot of that has to do with the way the Colts spread the ball around, as nine different players have caught at least 15 passes and at least 100 yards for the team this year. But at the same time, outside of Hilton the Colts don't really have a huge threat at the moment.
Reggie Wayne, unfortunately, has been hampered by injuries and age, as he's a 36-year old receiver coming off of a torn ACL a year ago and now playing through an elbow injury and a torn triceps suffered this season. He's still valuable in finding zones, getting open, and as a possession receiver, but he's nowhere near what he used to be and his struggles recently have also contributed to the Colts' offensive struggles. The tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, have proved to be valuable weapons in the passing game, but Allen has missed time with injury recently and then even with both of them healthy, the two have combined for just ten catches for 109 yards and a touchdown in the past two games. For the Colts and the way their offense currently is structured, they need more involvement from those two tight ends. Hakeem Nicks, who the Colts hoped would be a reliable third receiver option this year, has been demoted to the fourth receiver spot and hasn't shown much at all of being able to contribute. He has not had a good season and really struggles to create separation and doesn't have great timing with Andrew Luck. Donte Moncrief is a very interesting receiver and one the Colts need to play more because he's really the only receiver (aside from Hilton) who provides a dangerous threat downfield for defenses to adjust to. With that said, however, he's not a great possession-receiver type right now - though that's not exactly something the Colts need him to be at the moment.
What I'm getting at with the wide receiver position is this: they're not playing great right now. Apart from Hilton, they don't really have anyone to scare defenses, and the way around this is by playing Donte Moncrief more (to try to get defenses to respect the downfield passing game) and getting the tight ends more involved, like we've seen in some games this year.
I'll keep this one brief because I think at least part of the offensive line issues in protecting Andrew Luck recently can be a result of losing Ahmad Bradshaw and thus giving opposing defenses free reign to tee off on the Colts' line in an attempt to get to Luck. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the line has been bad at many times in the past month. Andrew Luck has been sacked nearly as many times in the last four games (11) as he was in the first nine games (14). Fumbling issues? A lot of the fumbles have come when Luck is hit quickly after a lineman was beat (though, while that has been the case for some of them, on some of the plays Luck just needs to take the sack). The line hasn't been the primary reason for the offensive struggles, but they've certainly been a part of it and it's hard to get rhythm going offensively when the quarterback is being pressured a lot. Perhaps the most concerning thing about this particular issue, however, is that the Colts continue to trot out line combinations that aren't the best. Now, keep in mind that no one is saying that any of the linemen possibilities the Colts have would be the savior of the team (like, for example, A.Q. Shipley isn't the one missing component), but it's hard to reason that the Colts are actually putting out the best five linemen right now. And it's not working out that well for them.
Lastly, we have to briefly mention that Andrew Luck just hasn't been as sharp recently. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the loss of Ahmad Bradshaw, some struggles from the receiving corps, and a struggling offensive line, but we can't overlook the number of times that Luck just misses on some throws, which has risen in recent weeks. To a lot of Colts fans Luck is beyond criticism, and I understand that, given a sports culture that loves to overreact to mistakes and cast judgement on a player in light of them. Andrew Luck has had a terrific season. But recently, he has been contributing to the slump the Colts are in offensively. He's a great player, but recently he's had some poor throws that have contributed to the overall struggles of the Colts' offense.
Ultimately, things aren't all doom and gloom for the Colts. Their offense has shown this year that they can rack up a lot of yards and points and I don't think the recent struggles are indicative of the team they really are. They have issues, and we've looked at some of them here, but they're still a good offense and can do a lot of damage when they're playing well. They haven't been recently, but hopefully with some minor tweaks and just better play overall they'll be able to get back to the offensive production they were achieving earlier in the season. Preferably, that would happen sooner rather than later.