On Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts saw the clear limitations of a 38 year old Philip Rivers as their starting quarterback.
The veteran gunslinger has lost some zip on his best fastball, can make ill-advised decisions, and offers a nonexistent ability to escape or extend plays outside the pocket.
That being said, Rivers wasn’t brought in to carry the Colts offense, in a way that Peyton Manning prime or a healthy Andrew Luck otherwise would’ve.
It’s simply not realistic at this late stage of his career.
That’s not absolving Rivers from some lousy mistakes and poor play, including two terrible second half interceptions and a safety in Sunday’s road loss to the Cleveland Browns.
These weren’t the kind of turnovers which were bad luck, i.e, deflected passes or balls bouncing off of his receivers’ hands after all. They were just inexcusable mistakes.
The Colts also paid Rivers $25 million this season to be more than a game manager, and while their defense is very good, it’s not an all-time historically elite unit like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers that can survive with a glorified ‘hand the ball off quarterback’ like Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson behind center.
Rivers has to be able to make critical throws from time-to-time, and while he was largely poor at starting quarterback on Sunday, the hope is that Rivers can make more throws like this (where he flicked a ball utilizing great anticipation where he couldn’t even step into the throw)—which last year’s predecessor Jacoby Brissett simply wouldn’t have attempted:
Ashton Dulin says hello.— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) October 11, 2020
And less throws like this, where Rivers simply stared down a non-open T.Y. Hilton on a crossing route which resulted in a pick-six going the other way:
HOUSE CALL❗️@Rharr_15 | #INDvsCLE— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 11, 2020
: #INDvsCLE on CBS pic.twitter.com/VVBcaZWGGR
While Rivers simply has to be better, there’s still blame to go around collectively with the Colts offense—meaning he needs more support, and here’s why:
1. Offensive Line Hasn’t Performed Up to Expectations
The Colts offensive line had been holding its own in pass protection until Week 5, when the team was without stalwart veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo, which forced backup Le’Raven Clark into action against All-Pro Browns’ pass rusher Myles Garrett off the edge.
The results weren’t pretty and hardly surprising, as Garrett terrorized Rivers for most of the afternoon, including 5 of the 11 Browns’ total QB pressures and the specific pressure that ultimately led to a Rivers’ second half safety—as the veteran was penalized for intentional grounding in his own end zone, trying to escape Garrett’s long reach.
The hope is that the Colts’ pass protection will rebound with Castonzo back (and it should), but the run blocking appears to be another story entirely—which hasn’t performed up to its high expectations overall all season:
what on earth could be the difference in the Colts offense this year I wonder pic.twitter.com/PBnS406g9y— T.Y. Hilton Fan Account (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) October 12, 2020
The Colts are currently averaging a mere 3.1 yards per rushing attempt (31st).
Rivers was never expected to carry the Colts offense through the passing game, as he was expected to heavily lean upon a power running game that at one time featured both last year’s 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Mack and highly touted rookie Jonathan Taylor.
The Colts offense has to get back to its ‘roots’ and starting rushing the ball both more often (Rivers threw it 33 times on Sunday) and effectively during the remainder of the 2020 campaign.
2. Underutilizing Rookie Running Back Jonathan Taylor
Which leads me to my next point, why did the Colts underutilize their highly touted rookie running back Jonathan Taylor on Sunday?
The Colts fell behind two scores to the Cleveland Browns this past weekend, and the game script presumably called for more passing plays—and thus, more involvement of scat-back Nyheim Hines.
However, the Colts offense absolutely has to stay balanced with a late career Rivers behind center, regardless of the score. In shocking fashion, Taylor only received 12 total carries despite rushing for over 4.8 yards per carry on Sunday afternoon.
“Run the Damn Ball.”
For a unit whose power running game was supposed to be its calling card with a ‘meat and potatoes’ offensive approach, we just haven’t seen enough from it in recent weeks.
The Colts also lost the time of possession war 34:45 to 25:15 to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, which although can be a flawed statistic, was pretty telling of how the game actually went for Indianapolis.
3. Limited Colts Dynamic Receiving Options
The Colts receiving corps was supposed to be much improved, thanks to having a healthy Parris Campbell in the slot and a new early round rookie Michael Pittman Jr. playing along the outside on the other side of T.Y. Hilton.
Instead, both young wide receivers are currently on injured reserve, and the Colts current receiving corps looks a lot like last year’s (the only significant remaining addition is veteran tight end Trey Burton)—which was a 2019 unit that collectively failed to consistently separate and generate enough big plays offensively.
Both backups Marcus Johnson and Ashton Dulin played well in relief for the Colts receiving corps on Sunday, but one doesn’t run a blistering fast 4.31 forty time (Campbell) and the other isn’t huge at 6’4”, 223 pounds (Pittman Jr.).
Those are the type of unique athletic traits that make the Colts receiver room much more dynamic and much more difficult to defend for opposing secondaries.
Their losses compiled with veteran T.Y. Hilton having a very quiet season, and this is a receiving group that currently lacks any extra juice for the Colts right now.
It no doubt hurts the Colts’ overall offense too.
With Rivers behind center, who completely lacks the ability to escape pressure and extend plays with his legs, the Colts are already lacking any sort of dynamic ability from the pocket.
The receivers right now aren’t giving them anything extra in the dynamic department either.
With the inability to stretch the field or generate big plays in the passing game, opposing defenses can commit extra defenders into the box, which also limits the Colts ability to... you guessed it, effectively run the football. The two go hand-in-hand together.
4. Lack of Colts Red Zone Success
Perhaps one of the most surprising developments of the 2020 season is that the Colts have been among the worst teams in the NFL in scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
For perspective, the Colts have scored touchdowns on 42.11% of their red zone trips so far this season, which is the 29th worst mark in the NFL—as only the Bengals, Giants, and Jets are worse, which isn’t exactly great NFL offensive company.
That’s simply brutal, especially when the Colts scored touchdowns on 64.29% of their red zone situations during 2019, which was the 7th best success rate in the NFL last season.
One would’ve thought that with big bodied (5’10”, 226 pound) back Jonathan Taylor, the Colts would’ve been even better in the red zone, but that simply hasn’t happened this season for whatever reason.
The Colts need to make some adjustments or change the play-calling as the offense gets closer to the goal line, because what’s been occurring clearly isn’t working.
One of their bigger targets—especially with Pittman Jr. out (which would help around the red zone, as there’s less space to separate) is massive tight end Mo Alie Cox (6’5”, 267 pounds), but after catching consecutive touchdowns in as many weeks for the Colts (Weeks 3-4), Alie-Cox was limited to just one target and no catches on Sunday.
His tight end counterpart, Pro Bowler Jack Doyle, had 2 targets and also 0 receptions.
I’m no red zone scoring specialist, but between Taylor only getting 12 total carries and the Colts underutilizing their tight ends—although to be fair, veteran Trey Burton had 5 catches for 33 receiving yards, both of these pieces could better help in the red zone, no?
The Colts may need to look at better utilizing the power running game with Taylor and two tight end sets near the goal line.
If nothing else, an attempted change is in order.