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Why the Colts are winning right now

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Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

First of all, let me start off by apologizing to the Colts Organization. It’s important to celebrate one’s correct predictions, but it is even more important to recognize one’s mistakes. And my oh my was I wrong about the Colts this season. I predicted them to go 6-10, and as you all know, they are 4-2 as of now with upcoming games against the Broncos, Steelers, Dolphins and Jaguars.

So, yeah, barring a catastrophic turn of events, it looks like I’m going to whiff on that prediction. As of right now, I hold Reich’s offensive scheme and Ballard’s talent evaluation responsible for the Colts’ recent success. And, while I must admit that Brissett is playing well, I’m still not sure that he is the answer (at least, not yet). I am well aware of the fact that he passed for 326 yards and 4 TDs, and while there is no taking away from that achievement, it was against one of the worst secondaries in the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at what is responsible for the Colts recent success.


Frank Reich’s Play-calling

The NFL is a copycat league. When something succeeds, you can expect that within a couple of years, everyone is going to be implementing it (RPOs for example). The college ranks tend to be where most of the innovation happens, and if you’re lucky, some of it may trickle to the NFL. But in the end, there are 2 qualities that make a HC better or worse:

  • Their scheme/play design
  • Their knack for play-calling

The former is something which doesn’t rely solely on the HC, as Reich meets up with Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni and the assistant coordinators every week to devise a game plan. Coaches tend to use whatever they’ve learned in their careers to formulate their scheme, this is why there often tends to be a lack of ingenuity and difference in play design between offenses with the same scheme. Reich, however, does a good job of adding his own little wrinkle to his predecessor’s scheme by being more aggressive than the average head coach (7/8 on 4th down this season) and adding in trick plays (look at Pascal’s pass today). Overall, scheme and play design tends to be an acquired talent that most coaches tend to be pretty good at, as long as they have the necessary personnel.

Play-calling, however, is the complete opposite. Sure, a veteran coach will be a better play-caller than his rookie counterpart, but at the end of the day, calling plays tends to be an “it” factor characteristic. You either have it or you don’t. Reich has it. Lincoln Riley has it. Andy Reid has it. Bill O’Brien does not. The ability to call the right play at the right time is vital for the team’s success, and I think the Colts’ red zone and 3rd down conversion success is mostly due to Reich’s play calling.


Jabaal Sheard

The Colts run defense was, for lack of a better word, trash. That was until Jabaal Sheard came back. Sheard has made his money in the NFL as a run stopper who sets the edge and prevents runs from going for long. At the beginning of the season, I described our line as “swiss cheese”, but that is no longer the case. Clearly, the improved run defense is not just due to Sheard being back, as the growth of the rookies (mainly Willis and Okereke) has lead to less missed assignments. Still, Sheard’s role should not be downplayed.

Here’s a graph showing the rushing yards per game the Colts give up.

Here’s a graph showing the average yards per carry the Colts give up on a weekly basis.

Can you tell that Sheard has only played full snaps the last two games? Yeah, me too.


Playing Man and Pressure

It seems that after weeks of clamoring, Eberflus finally heard Colts’ fans. Their message: Stop playing zone. It works if you have a dominant pass rush that forces the QB to make check down passes. Last year it worked because, honestly, the opposing QB talent was not very high. Against the likes of Rivers, Ryan, Mahomes or Watson, however, the Tampa 2 would have been ripped to shreds. So what did Eberflus do? Well, he changed his scheme so his predominantly man-to-man corners could play man.

Furthermore, playing man not only made it harder for opposing QBs to pass the ball, it also gave the defensive line a couple extra seconds to get into the backfield, leading to an uptick in sacks (while a small sample size of 2 games).


The Run Game

The run game has been impactful every single week, even when it doesn’t show up in the box score. Through 6 games, the Colts running game has surpassed 100 yards rushing 3 times, and come close 5 times (79, 81). I can, with the utmost certainty, assure you that opposing defensive coordinators are primarily preparing for the Mack Attack, leaving Brissett as a secondary concern. This allows the Colts to take advantage of linebackers and safeties stacking the box, leaving the wide receivers with one-on-one match-ups.


Conclusion

Overall, the Colts seem to have developed a recipe for success: They establish a strong run game which doesn’t force Brissett into having to carry the team. They play man-to-man and give the pass rush more time to get after the QB. They control the clock, minimizing the number of drives per team and thus minimizing the scoring opportunities each team has. Finally, they maximize their red-zone and 3rd down conversion rate by using Reich’s talent as a play-caller. The Colts have to continue to execute all these at a high clip if they want to be a serious playoff contender, and if they want to become a real Super Bowl favorite, they’ll have to develop certain additional aspects of their game such as:

  • Completing more deep passes
  • Forcing more takeaways
  • Creating even more pressure/sacks
  • Finding a way to get more separation for the wide receivers