According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell (subscription), there is currently reason for ‘cautious optimism’ regarding Matt Ryan and the Indianapolis Colts stalling offense, despite the unit’s early season struggles:
Matt Ryan (and the Colts offense) might be toast
The Colts pulled out their first win of the season Sunday, but it wasn’t thanks to much help from their offense. Their defense and special teams won the day against Kansas City, while the offense scored two touchdowns. One came on a 4-yard field after a muffed punt by Chiefs return man Skyy Moore, while the other required an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on defensive tackle Chris Jones to extend a drive.
Frank Reich’s offense ranks 32nd in DVOA through three weeks. That’s down from 13th in the NFL a year ago, and that was a season with the much-maligned Carson Wentz at quarterback. The Colts’ latest veteran signal-caller is Ryan, and with the 37-year-old throwing more interceptions than touchdowns over three games to start his Indy career, there are concerns they might have acquired a lemon from the Falcons.
With aging quarterbacks, the first concern publicly is always that their arm strength has gone. It’s too early in the season to draw conclusions in ink, but there are reasons to be worried about Ryan. On deep throws (passes traveling 16 or more yards in the air), he is 6-of-14 for 151 yards with three interceptions. His QBR on those passes is a mere 34.5, which ranks just below Joe Flacco for 28th in the league. Ryan was far better in every category as a deep passer last season.
There are some extenuating circumstances here in a 14-pass sample. Rookie wideout Alec Pierce dropped a would-be touchdown in the opener on a good throw. Ryan still looks like he’s growing comfortable in Indianapolis’ offense and with his new receivers, so there have been moments in which he has looked hesitant with his throws or put them in places where his receivers didn’t end up running. Hopefully, those issues recede as the season goes along.
The Colts also still seem to be sorting out their pass protections, which is strange for a team with a veteran quarterback in Ryan and a star center in Ryan Kelly. They looked flummoxed at times against the Chiefs, who were able to do things NFL defenses simply shouldn’t be able to do. It’s one thing for an edge rusher to win one-on-one against a tackle, but they were blowing the core components of pass protection. They allowed unblocked rushers up the A-gap (on either side of the center) on three different plays and an unblocked rusher up the B-gap on a fourth. That’s unforgivable for any offensive line, let alone a good one. Indianapolis also blew a protection on a L’Jarius Sneed fourth-and-1 strip sack.
Right guard Danny Pinter, a full-time starter for the first time after Mark Glowinski left in free agency, looked overmatched Sunday. He was run over altogether on one sack by edge rusher Frank Clark, while Jones repeatedly gave him trouble. Those are two great players, to be fair, but Pinter also struggled to move from one assignment to the other when the blitzer he was expecting to come didn’t arrive, regardless of who that blitzer was. Indy doesn’t have much depth on the interior, so he’s going to need to figure this out on the fly.
Leaving aside Ryan’s teammates, there are real worries about the lack of zip on his passes. He has to be able to hit shots into holes against Cover 2 or back-shoulder passes in this offense, and even when he has completed those throws, they’ve been more like lobs than the sort of driven passes we typically see from NFL quarterbacks. It might be telling that Indy took only one single shot downfield against the Chiefs, a 50/50 ball Ryan completed to Pierce in the shadow of his own end zone for a 30-yard gain.
It’s fair to note Ryan isn’t exactly playing with great playmakers at receiver, although that shouldn’t impact the zip on his throws. With Pierce and Michael Pittman Jr. missing the Week 2 loss to the Jaguars, Ryan’s targets at receiver have gone to Ashton Dulin, Kylen Granson, Mike Strachan and Dezmon Patmon. Pittman can be a borderline No. 1 wideout when healthy, and his absence was a huge hindrance, but there’s no depth within this receiving corps.
Parris Campbell, finally healthy after missing most of the past three season because of injuries, hasn’t been noticeable on the field. His 110 routes lead the team, but he has mustered only 47 receiving yards on eight targets. The 2019 second-round pick, drafted just ahead of DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson and Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin, is averaging just 0.43 yards per route run this season. Out of 95 qualifying wideouts, that figure ranks 94th through three weeks, ahead of only Arizona’s A.J. Green.
Where Ryan still succeeds is distributing the ball on quick game. Given the opportunity to use his brain and experience before the snap and make a short throw after the snap, he has been effective. His 82.0 QBR on throws within 2.5 seconds of getting the snap ranks eighth best, while his 82.8% adjusted completion percentage (a measure that weights difficulty by air yards and removes throwaways and drops) on those attempts ranks first.
You can make an offense out of quick game, especially if you run the football effectively. Jonathan Taylor’s fantasy managers are beginning to worry after two consecutive middling games by the superstar back, but I’m not concerned. We’re not seeing teams stack up defenders near the line of scrimmage against him, as just under 15% of his carries have come against a loaded box, which is way below players such as Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry.
Taylor averaged an outrageous 1.7 yards over expectation per carry a year ago, meaning he gained an average of nearly two yards more than what a typical back would do with the same blocking on the same play, per the NFL Next Gen Stats model. This season, he has not been quite as effective, but he’s still 0.4 yards over expectation, which ranks 15th in the league for backs with at least 20 carries.
Matt Ryan’s 42.7 Total QBR ranks 23rd in the NFL, while his completion percentage (64.1%) is the lowest it has been since the 2011 season. Photo by Jenna Watson/IndyStar Staff/USA TODAY Sports
The big plays have been missing for the 2021 All-Pro, however. Taylor produced eight gains of 30 yards or more as a runner last season, which led the league. He also carried the ball more often than anybody else, but given his rush attempts, he generated a 30-plus-yard gain once every 41.5 carries. This season, on 61 attempts, Taylor doesn’t have a single run longer than 21 yards. This likely isn’t much more than randomness.
Taylor will get better as the year goes along, and the Colts should be able to sort out some of their pass-protection issues. From their perspective, though, they’ll be hoping Ryan’s arm doesn’t decline. They would be on the hook for $18 million in dead money if they need to move on from the 2015 MVP after the season, a hit that will hinder them if they extend Taylor’s contract and need to find a new signal-caller.
Ryan never was expected to be a long-term commitment, but he was supposed to be an upgrade on Wentz and a short-term stabilizer. Right now, the Colts look like they’re still a work in progress on offense, which is dangerous in advance of a divisional matchup against the rival Titans on Sunday.
Panic level: Cautious optimism ... for now
Barnwell highlights many of the Colts concerns offensively right now:
1. Is Matt Ryan washed up?
Even with middling results so far, the 37 year old veteran quarterback still has some good, productive football left in my eyes and can help a potential playoff team win games. The Colts offensive line has done a poor job of protecting Ryan in pass blocking, and it’s limited his ability to take calculated shots downfield. His receivers have also struggled creating separation at times—as it’s a work in progress outside WR1 Michael Pittman Jr.
That being said, Ryan hasn’t been blameless either. Perhaps he’s still learning the new offense and his receivers, but there’s been times where he’s simply held onto the football entirely too long which has led to big plays or turnovers for the opposing defense. He also has to remember his limitations, as he’s not Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen rolling out of the pocket—and he can only escape duress for so long. He has to remember his mental clock and get rid of the football before the alarm sounds.
It’s also fair to wonder whether Ryan shares some blame—along with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly in some of the Colts ongoing pass protection issues, and calling out the proper calls, as there’s defenders and blitzers routinely unaccounted for that are disrupting the pocket.
Ryan never had a rocket arm—even in his prime, and while he’s been regarded for throwing an accurate deep ball, he was presumably also aided by having some big bodied wideouts to throw to as a longtime member of the Atlanta Falcons, including Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, while Roddy White and Calvin Ridley were/are both talented wideouts as well in their own right—and having had half of his games in a dome. There’s a decent chance he’s lost some zip there, but right now, he’s not even been given a fair chance to make plays deep for Indianapolis.
As we saw in his late game-winning drive against the Kansas City Chiefs this past weekend, Ryan can still excel at reading a defense and making short/accurate throws. The hope is that the completed medium and deeper throws will come in time with improved pass protection collectively.
My stance has been that while Ryan is no longer his 2016 NFL MVP form, he still is good enough for a team to make the AFC playoffs with—and potentially win a playoff game, maybe even two. That being said, expectations should’ve been realistically tempered for those Colts fans thinking the franchise was acquiring a still elite NFL quarterback at this late stage of Ryan’s exceptional playing career. The best bet is that he’s closer to 2020 Philip Rivers in play and form, which the Colts would assuredly take right now.
In the twilight of his career, he’s not going to carry an NFL offense anymore, but with a strong enough supporting cast, a team can win play in and win some meaningful games with Ryan behind center.
2. Where are the big plays offensively?
The Colts cannot seem to generate many big plays in either the running or passing game. While the passing game can be attributed to poor pass protection, the Colts are also struggling to generate lengthy runs for All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor, which is a surprise to start the season—especially after last year’s success.
The downgrade from veterans Mark Glowinski/Chris Reed to Danny Pinter at starting right guard has hindered the unit in both run and pass blocking—along with standout o-linemen such as Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith uncharacteristically struggling at times this season.
However, it’s not all on the Colts offensive line up front either, as the Colts’ running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, have to do a better job of recognizing/picking up the pass rush in the pocket, as well as effectively executing their blocks downfield:
One thing coming out of the Colts' building this week: the protection issues aren't *all* on the offensive line. Coaches/players have mentioned RB/WR culpability as well, and Matt Ryan took some blame today.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) September 28, 2022
The Colts should be able to take more shots downfield in the passing game by better picking up stunts, twists, and any incoming extra blitzers.
The running game and Taylor should also get more ‘cracks of daylight’ by the Colts receivers being better at blocking as the season progresses (right now, it’s a group that appears to miss both Jack Doyle and Zach Pascal, at least in that regard—as there’s young players being deployed in new roles and still learning). It’s also possible the Colts could make a starting offensive line change, replacing Pinter, or shuffling players around soon.
From that perspective, there is at least some reason for cautious optimism that things should get better offensively for the Colts. Right now, it’s hard to think things could get all that much worse—given the talent on that side of the ball and particularly up front.