The Indianapolis Colts sit at 5-2 midway through the season, and through 8 weeks, every game they’ve played has finished within one score. It is tough to keep that up over the course of a season, and even tougher to do so if you aren’t consistently winner the turnover battle.
Turnovers were a major point of influence in the offseason and heading into the 2019 season. Chris Ballard spoke specifically about them ahead of training camp, both in terms of creating turnovers, and as importantly, capitalizing on them by scoring points.
“Look, to me turnovers – but then capitalizing and getting points off turnovers. That’s a big deal and we are not where we need to be in that area. I think it was 2.7 last year. It needs to be over three in our minds.”
There have been 6 takeaways that could potentially have resulted in points this season for the Colts. Their 7th was a Darius Leonard interception of Deshaun Watson to seal the game and resulted in a kneel down. Over those 6 takeaways, they averaged 2.83 points. Not bad, but not up to the 3.0 marker Ballard set for them as a target in the offseason. Over the remainder of the season they’ll need to continue to show improvement in making the most of those opportunities when they get them.
However, the issue here seems to be less about making the most of turnovers and more about creating them in the first place. That has been a pretty significant issue on defense this year, a reality that hasn’t been helped by the absence of Darius Leonard, Malik Hooker, and Jabaal Sheard for good chunks of time so far this season. Arguably their best players at every level, missing these guys is bound to have an impact.
Ballard talked about the importance of turnovers, as well as how they are a result of coaching and intentionality in camp as well.
“You can’t just say, ‘Let’s go create turnovers.’ You’ve got to practice it. It’s contagious. It’s effort. Those kind of things all attribute to turnovers. Then when you’ve got a guy like Darius (Leonard) who I think is rare at it. I mean – I’m telling you – he is like Charles Tillman was. I texted Tillman during the season and said, ‘We have the linebacker version of you playing.’ That play he made versus Oakland when he knocked the ball out – you could put Charles Tillman strip-tape on and it’s the same type of stuff.”
We saw that in practice this offseason. Go to camp and you couldn’t help but notice a team that was rabidly going for the ball. Every tackle featured a tomahawk chop. Every ball was grabbed off the turf and run back. The defensive players were fired up to take the ball away on every single down. So much so, that the Browns took exception to it and it resulted in a couple of pretty significant dust-ups between the teams during their joint practice. For some reason, that fire simply hasn’t translated to results on the field.
In 2018 the Colts won the turnover differential, creating 26 turnovers to their own 24 on the season as a whole. That was good for 10th in terms of takeaways by the defense. In 2019 they are on pace for 16 takeaways. That puts them 28th in the league, with only the Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, and Dolphins behind them. If you aren’t a fan of that particular company, you aren’t alone. Chris Ballard and the coaching staff almost certainly aren’t pleased.
Their current turnover differential sits at 0. They’ve lost 7 and taken away 7. A defense that operates on a bend, but don’t break mentality is one that is tough to sustain against good offenses if they can’t consistently take the ball away. Giving up just 7 turnovers on offense is actually great—it’s good for 5th in the NFL. If the defense can’t start taking the ball away, however, this team is going to struggle down the stretch.
Just for fun I compared the Colts offense to that of the Eagles in 2017 a week ago.
There is a real similarity to that team, not the least of which is Frank Reich’s game planning. However, there’s also a major difference. The 2017 Eagles finished their season with a +11 turnover differential and 31 takeaways. The Colts would need to average 2.67 turnovers per game to hit that number of takeaways on the season.
So in terms of team defense, they aren’t in the same ball park as that Eagles squad. They are a balanced team on the whole, and that has kept them in every game and kept it close. However, if they want to turn what has been a surprising season into an incredible one, it is going to mean the defense making a big push to start generating more turnovers. That starts with their big time playmakers like Darius Leonard, and extends all the way through the roster.
If they can’t make it happen, the Colts could find themselves looking back at 2019 asking what could have been.