We are entering the final five weeks of the 2018 NFL season and we have seen some teams really set themselves apart from the rest. You look at the Saints, Rams and Chiefs, who are all putting up North of 35 points per game as the league’s three highest-scoring teams and have lost a combined four games. Then there’s teams like the Texans, Bears and Seahawks who are stringing together winning streaks right now and on Sunday night we will see a matchup of two other highly talented teams in the Chargers and Steelers, who only have three losses on their resume. I don’t want to undermine what some other teams have done and obviously this is the time of the year a sleeping dragon like the Patriots starts waking up, but I just want to say there are a lot of actual contenders right now. However, I think there is one team that not only looks very dangerous right now, but I believe is on its way of becoming a perennial threat to compete for the Super Bowl – and that’s the Indianapolis Colts. To explain why I believe they are set up for a bright future, I will talk about different key factors for them going forward. Here they are:
The investment in the offensive line:
Basically ever since the Colts drafted Andrew Luck first overall back in 2012, he has carried this franchise on his back and taken a load of hits to do so. Through his first five years in the league, Luck took an average of 116 hits per season – the highest mark of any team in the league – and his rushing attack wasn’t in the top 20 once during that stretch. Since their defense was below-average in all but one of those years as well, Luck had to throw the ball a ton to keep up with the opposition as well. While he held on to the ball for too long, trying to create big plays, and didn’t protect his body enough early on, their offensive line was horrendous for pretty much his entire rookie contract. This took a toll on the young signal-caller. He dealt with a sprained shoulder, a lacerated kidney and abdominal injuries in 2015, about a month into the 2016 season he frayed his labrum and had to play through pain the entire year. Once the season wrapped up, he had initial surgery. However, he never returned for the upcoming season and even went to Europe to see specialists. It wasn’t until the middle of June of 2018 that he first threw an NFL-regulated football for the first time and now he finally looks like the old Luck again. The organization decided to never let that happen again, by investing heavily in the guys protecting him.
First-round pick Anthony Castonzo was pretty much the only dependable starter for Indy at left tackle since they drafted him a year before Luck and he got rewarded with a big contract in 2015. However, the Colts also spent first round picks on center Ryan Kelly in 2016 and just last April Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Those three guys make for as good a left side of an O-line as there is in the league. While I understand he is just a rookie, I believe Nelson is on his way into the Hall of Fame if he can stay healthy. I thought it was pretty much a coin toss between him and Saquon Barkley for the best prospect in the draft and both are already clearly top five at their respective position. The guard has also made those two first-rounders next to him better.
So with three excellent starters in the line-up it was time to secure the right side of the line. With the talented yet often injured Jack Mewhort deciding to retire after the Colts had just re-signed him for 2018, there was work to be done. Chris Ballard had already claimed former Seahawks fourth-round pick Mark Glowinski off waivers a week before last season ended and then signed Matt Slauson early on this offseason to compete for the right guard spot. While he had Le’Raven Clark and Denzelle Good rotating through at right tackle, he realized that Auburn’s Braden Smith had tackle size and decided to bring him in and develop him to stay on the edge full-time.
Slauson did a good job at right guard before he got hurt five weeks into the season, but Glowinski has stepped in and been fantastic for them ever since. Right now he is earning the fifth-best PFF grade among all players at the position. With Castonzo missing the first five games of the season, it was Clark, Good and Joe Haeg splitting time at the tackle spots, but since week five their other rookie Braden Smith has been out at right tackle for every single snap with Castonzo back on Luck’s blind-side. Now they have their two book-ends, a veteran who has finally found a home at one of the guard spots, an excellent center and a once-in-a-generation type guard in Big Q. However, not only are they all very talented individually, they are communicating exceptionally well and have been outstanding since coming together as a unit.
We all heard about those four straight games in which they didn’t allow a single sack and at times keeping their QB completely untouched before holding the Dolphins to one of those on Sunday, but even more importantly for this offense, they get after it in the run game. We have all seen that video of Nelson levelling the Jaguars’ Barry Church and my first notes on Smith in the draft evaluations were about his nasty attitude. The Colts can run power and zone equally as well, they can pull out on the edges as well as up inside on linebackers and all that opens up easy opportunities off play-action for them. I will get into their running schemes a little more later on. Luck finally has a reliable rushing attack to complement him and with the natural power they have on the interior, he has room to step up into the pocket. The Colts are tied for the least among of sacks surrendered (11) and they are averaging the best mark of yards per carry in the run game (4.5) since Andrew Luck was drafted.
T.Y. Hilton and a tremendous tight-end duo:
When Luck first took over this recently Peyton Manning-led team, he was surrounded by veterans. Whether that was Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis rushing off opposing edges, veteran safety Antoine Bethea or a perennial Pro Bowl receiver in Reggie Wayne. However that team without a capable starter under center had just gone 2-14 to secure that first overall pick. Former general manager Ryan Grigson drafted Luck’s Stanford teammate Coby Fleener and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen with the next two picks to give him a couple of security blankets at the tight-end spots. Both flamed out rather quickly and were let go without much resistance. However, while there were no other real quality pass-catchers have drafted since then, with that second pick in the third round of 2012, they got their one true weapon at receiver in Florida International’s T.Y. Hilton.
Obviously Reggie Wayne had another Pro Bowl year with Luck as a rookie in 2012, but injuries started to take over and when the Colts decided to not re-sign him two years later, it didn’t take long for Wayne to ask for a release from the Patriots. So it was T.Y.’s turn to take over as Indy’s number one receiver. Even as a rookie, when he started just one game, Hilton already put up 861 yards and 7 TDs on 17.2 yards per grab. While starting as a deep threat primarily, the 5’10” target has developed into a complete receiver. He still has the burners to go over the top, but he also has quickness in and out of his breaks to create separation that way and he is dangerous after the catch with hesitation moves and the acceleration to defeat pursuit angles. He has cracked the 1000-yard mark in every season outside of his rookie campaign when Luck has been under center and he has made the Pro Bowl four consecutive years now. This season Hilton is already less than 300 yards away from reaching 1000 and he has only appeared in nine games.
While Hilton is a true number one receiver to me, I don’t think the Colts have any real second or third option at the receiver spots and there’s no reason to talk too much about that position group, but rather I am looking at two outstanding weapons at tight-end. People seem to forget that Eric Ebron was a top ten pick four years ago by the Lions. When you watched Detroit’s offense and how they utilized tight-ends you understand some of that lack of production by the highly touted draft choice. He was on the field for 60 percent of the offensive snaps just one season at Motown and that was his best year statistically. However he also dropped a ton of balls and seemed to lose confidence in his own ability as time went along and the fans even started booing him. So I thought a change of scenery could really help him anyway, but nobody saw this coming. Ebron has already surpassed 500 yards and actually is tied with Antonio Brown and Tyreek Hill for the league-lead in receiving touchdowns at 11. He is a jump-ball monster at the goal-line, he can stretch defenses down the seams with his speed and Indy puts the ball in his hands in so many ways, like that jet sweep they flipped to him against Jacksonville.
Yet with all the limelight on the free agent acquisition, people seem to forget about the other guy at that position in Jack Doyle. The former Western Kentucky tight-end went undrafted in 2013 before being added to Tennessee’s practice squad. Indianapolis claimed him off waivers despite those two guys at the position they drafted in 2012 and another guy on the roster. The following season he jumped onto the scene with almost 600 receiving yards and not only became one of the best players on the team, but also a locker room favorite. I know he missed weeks three to seven due to a hip injury this season and just went on IR because of a hit to his kidney, but let’s not forget he is one of the most versatile guys at the position when healthy. Doyle puts in the work as a run-blocker and isn’t afraid of protecting the edges against premiere edge-rushers, while being an excellent target on simple drag and flat routes underneath as well as making spectacular catches down the field. He has already been released from the hospital and while he can’t play anymore this year, he shouldn’t have any lingering effects for 2019.
All three of these guys I just talked about are under contract for next year and Hilton won’t become a free agent until 2021. With the way the receiver has looked so far, he should still be a number one target for another multi-year deal and it will be interesting to see how much the Colts value those two tight-ends. They definitely know how to utilize them both, splitting tasks as well as being on the field at the same time. Like I said, I don’t really believe in their receiving corp outside of those guys, but they have enough money and draft picks to surround their quarterback with more weapons.
Frank Reich’s creative play-calling:
We all remember those prolific Colts offenses with Peyton Manning at the helm and not only did I believe Luck should have been Rookie of the Year due to the responsibilities he had for his team and how he pulled off late game heroics, he put up prolific numbers throughout his first five years outside of that injury-riddled 2015 campaign. However, while he did so with a defensive-minded head coach during that stretch once Chuck Pagano came back to them after chemotherapy in 2012, I thought Bruce Arians was the only coach who ever drew up an offense to help Luck reach his potential. I never had that much trust in Pep Hamilton or Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinators. So when the Colts tried to bring in Josh McDaniels as head coach, but were left standing at the altar, they decided to go with former Eagles OC Frank Reich. Twelve weeks into the season, I truly believe Reich deserves Coach of the Year consideration for what he has done with this Colts offense. If you want to know the impact Reich can have on an offense, instead of looking at Indianapolis scoring 29.5 points per game (fourth in the NFL), just look at where the Eagles are compared to last season. Their offense is completely stagnant for large portions of games, while Reich keeps defenses off balance with constant movement and a multitude of looks.
Indy mixes things up with a variety of formations. They might start the game off with an empty set and then come back with 13 personnel the very next snap. And while they do run simple toss and dive plays out of those sets, they can also go play-action and attack vertically. Reich also likes to run a lot of two-by-two sets with twins on one side and two tight-ends to the other. He will start working the receiver side first and then come back to running towards the strong side when the defense stops respecting it. With all the motions and different alignments he forces defenses to give away coverages and he tests the principles the opposing defensive coordinator has installed by creating weaknesses for them, that they have to correct and adjust mid-game subsequently.
The biggest difference for the Eagles this year has been the decline of the running game and when you watch the Colts you can see what Reich brought with him. He uses clever run designs with multiple pullers and misdirection to freeze defenders. He sets the opposition up with inside zone plays to make them flow one way and then comes back to use that pursuit against them by creating easy blocking angles on trap and counter runs. Reich also has the offense running jet sweeps with speedy guys like Nyheim Hines and then comes back to fake them and toss the ball the other way to make the guys on the second level hesitate and allow his backs to get to the edge.
Once the running game is established, they excel at drawing up deep bombs off play-action, often with clear-out routes, and then come back with checkdowns towards the vacated areas for free chunk plays of 15-20 yards. The zone game opens up bootlegs with tight-ends coming across the formation, crossers on different levels on comeback routes on the outside. They also have little wrinkles likes screens towards receiver stacks and moving tight-ends into the backfield, but more importantly than all of that, Reich understands how to stress defenses by exploiting their own principles.
On this second-and-twelve play around mid-field, the Colts come out in a two-by-two set with a tight-end to the right. T.Y. comes in a short motion that way and runs a spot route to take away Jalen Ramsey, who is supposed to cover the deep third to that side. However when there’s only one receiver over there, the Jaguars run a combo-coverage, in which Ramsey basically plays the wideout man-to-man if he releases inside. Since Nyheim Hines is running that little swing route that way as well, Barry Church doesn’t think about carrying the tight-end fading down the field and he is wide open for a 53-yard touchdown. This is just one of many examples in which you can see Reich’s understanding of defensive tendencies and how to take advantage of them.
Over the course of their five-game winning streak, the Colts have scored an average of 34.6 points per game, they are rushing for an average of 147 yards, they are converting about 55 percent of their third downs and 76 percent of their red-zone trips. Their offense has been more balanced than ever with Luck right on pace for 30 attempts per game over that stretch, after attempting a ridiculous 62 passes earlier this year versus Houston. That’s called efficiency. While they air it out a lot by nature (I mean why wouldn’t you with a quarterback like that?) and they have to put up points considering their defense allows just under 25 a game, I love how Reich and the offensive line have taken pressure off their franchise QB.
Key pieces on defense:
Like I mentioned already – over the course of the Pagano era the Colts had a bottom half defense in all but one year and they have allowed an average of about 24.5 points per game during that stretch. While they started off with some of the veterans I already mentioned on that side of the ball, it wasn’t until this year that they had a real difference-maker on defense, if you take Robert Mathis’ outlier 2013 season out of the equation, in which piled up 19.5 sacks and forced eight fumbles. While I still think there is a lot of room for improvement and they still need some more players, they have started putting together a talented unit.
I will mention some of the key offseason moves and draft picks Chris Ballard has made as general manager in my next point, but for now I want to talk about the play of some of those guys. Since defensive end/outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard was signed to a three-year deal last season, he has been one of the mainstays for a mostly struggling defense. Last season he racked up 67 total pressures and 30 total run stops (for no or negative yardage), which are both incredible marks. He hasn’t quite reached that level of play this year, but he is still a valuable asset. Margus Hunt has turned into a different beast this season after forgettable years in Cincinnati, disrupting plays from the D-end spot as well as on the interior as part of sub-packages. Indy also brought in Al Woods and Denco Autry these last two offseasons and they have both played more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps. They also drafted four more defensive linemen these last two years and 52nd overall pick Kemoko Turay out of Rutgers is a guy I believe could really develop into a star pass rusher for them. The Colts have a multitude of bodies on their D-line, who can creative negative plays and bring excellent pursuit in the run game, as well as being able to condense the pocket.
At the second level however is where they might be set up better than anybody else in the league. Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker are a special linebacker duo. Walker was an absolute steal in the 2017 draft, falling all the way to the 161st overall pick. I had him as a third-round prospect in my evaluations, but I had concerns as well due to some lack of fast-twitch muscles that held him back from breaking up passes around his area and catching smaller ball-carriers on the edges. Like I suggested, he shed some additional weight that slowed him down and now he looks lighter on his feet than he ever did at Northwestern. The second guy was the Colts’ first pick in round number two last April – Darius Leonard out of South Carolina State. The small-school standout popped out to me at the Senior Bowl and when I put on his tape afterwards. I fell in love with his instincts, violence and hunger. Both those guys beat blockers to the spot continuously, trust their eyes and just don’t miss tackles. While Walker comes off the field some on passing downs as the Colts like to substitute to really light packages, Leonard is a monstrous contributor on those. He is a tremendous asset to their pass rush and has been used as a dog blitzer a lot, racking up six sacks already.
Let’s finally get to the secondary. That’s the group that I think still needs some work. The key piece to the entire defense maybe is free safety Malik Hooker. I looked at him as the prototype you want at the position coming out of Ohio State, especially in Matt Eberflus’ single-high safety heavy scheme. He brings crazy range and premiere ball-skills to the table, which enables him to make plays all the way outside the numbers and scares offenses away from letting the ball hang up in the air. He is also still improving his open-field tackling. Clayton Geathers has been solid for them at the opposite safety spot, but none of those guys in that backfield have really made a name for themselves. Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore lead them in snaps among corners and they have played pretty well for them, but there’s a reason both guys were claimed off waivers in 2017. I like Nate Hairston in the slot and I was pretty high on Quincy Wilson as a press-corner, who they both drafted last year. With all that being said, defensive back is definitely the area Indy wants to invest in next. If they grab a true shutdown corner next April, it makes things easier for all those other guys around him and this defense could take the next step.
Obviously the Colts defense is still on its way, but they have some of the key pieces to build around. If a couple of their defensive linemen start stepping up and they add some corner help, they can definitely do enough defensively to support the offense. Hooker and Leonard are guys who can force turnovers and Matt Eberflus just starts installing his defensive scheme. They are still putting together personnel to fit the transition to a 4-3 front and they are already improving a lot in terms of 20+ yard plays allowed.
Chris Ballard collecting draft capital and other assets:
About two years ago I said that the Colts and the Jets were competing for who had the worst roster in the NFL. From their 20 draft picks between 2013 and 2015, there are only two players remaining on this Indy team today. So in the midst of the playoffs at the start of 2017 they had to bring someone in to turn things around and build a team that could compete for a championship down the road. With that in mind, they decided to hire Chris Ballard as their GM after he had worked as director of player personnel and then football operations for the Chiefs.
When he first started the job, instead of reaching for high-priced free agent he opted to sign some under-the-radar guys like Jabaal Sheard, Al Woods, Margus Hunt and others to bolster the defensive front. While they decided to release some other guys, none of those contracts really restricted the organizations going forward. When April rolled around, Ballard put together an outstanding first draft class and I thought he showed veteran savvy with the patience he put on display. With three trades for quarterbacks ahead of their first pick and the way the board shook up, nobody from the 10th pick on was really a threat to pick a safety and the Colts ended up with Malik Hooker at 15 overall, who I thought was a top five prospect. With a rangy free safety in his pocket, Ballard went for a physical press-corner in Quincy Wilson and a gifted edge rusher in Tarrell Basham the next two rounds. However, it’s what he did later on drafting future starters in Marlon Mack, Nate Hairston and Anthony Walker that really stands out to me.
He also was one of the few people I can remember that actually got the better in deals with Belichick, receiving a fourth-round pick for tight-end Dwayne Allen because he knew what he had in Jack Doyle and then giving up former first-round pick Phillip Dorsett the following September, who clearly failed to reach expectations, in favor of Jacoby Brissett, who ended up starting all but the season-opener in 2017 with Luck recovering and to me is better than about five or six starters in this league. Since the rebuild was still in progress the Colts, they had to let go of Chuck Pagano and find a new head coach. In one of the weirdest sequences in recent memory, Josh McDaniels decided to pull back and remain the Patriots offensive coordinator, after the Colts had already set up his opening press conference. However, not only did I like Ballard’s comments of the rivalry being back on, his second option in Frank Reich might be the best hire among all new coaches. Indy also ended up with the third overall pick in this year’s draft and that will prove to be a major key in this process.
With the Jets desperate for a franchise quarterback, Ballard robbed them for two second-round picks this year and another two in 2019, plus their fifth overall pick obviously. After making what the GM called “the easiest pick in his career” by selecting Quenton Nelson, he drafted my Defensive Rookie of the Year in Darius Leonard and another starter in Braden Smith with the next two selections. When the 49th pick rolled around and he realized none of the next four teams were looking for an edge guy, he traded down to 52 and still got Kemoko Turay from Rutgers, who I already said I think could develop into a true impact player, and with the additional fifth-round pick he got running back Jordan Wilkins, who started their first three games. Ballard also drafted a former Big Ten D-lineman of the year in Tyquan Lewis, a gadget player in Nyheim Hines and although he got hurt, a sixth-round steal in Clemson WR Deion Cain.
These two draft classes combined with some of the key free agents and the fact that they didn’t just throw money at the big names on the market has put the Colts on its way to building one the premiere rosters in the league, after I thought they had one of the worst just a couple of years ago. Ballard has assembled a load of young talent, still has an extra second-round pick next April and the only team ahead of them in total cap space are the Browns, as they have more than 50 million dollars to spend next offseason.
Andrew freaking Luck:
At the start of this article I already talked a little about Luck’s injury history that forced him to miss some games, limited his play on the field to some degree and ultimately led to him sitting out an entire season. Let’s be realistic here – when you come back to your job after about a month of abscence it may take you a day or two to get back acclimated. If it’s one-and-a-half years that process can really take a while. Andrew Luck did not throw a football for more than 500 days. It’s not like he just didn’t play full-contact football, he did not even toss it around a little. Can you imagine the type of dedication it takes to rebuild all that muscle memory and make throwing an effortless motion again? Not to mention the type of impact this can have on your psyche and how you have to get yourself ready mentally again to be able to deliver passes with 300+ pounders running full speed at you. Luck worked his butt off to get here and with more help around him, he now looks better than ever.
Before I get into his play this year, I want to quickly recap what the former number one overall pick did to start his career. From his rookie year in 2012 to 2014 he led flawed Colts teams to 11-5 records and playoff berths in three consecutive seasons. He was a Pro Bowler in all of them and in ’14 he did not all lead the NFL with 40 touchdowns in the regular season, but he also carried a team all the way to the AFC Championship game whose leading rushing on the season was Trent Richardson. When you look through that roster and consider where the few bigger names were age-wise, there is no way you would think they can go that far. The year after that he fought through multiple issues as I already mentioned and then in 2016 he still put up over 4000 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to 13 INTs despite playing through pain. With all that said, those numbers are far from what he is capable of with time in the pocket and weapons around him.
As far as raw ability goes, you can put the names of Aaron Rodgers and now maybe Patrick Mahomes up there with Luck, but he might trump them all. He was considered a generational type prospect and the easiest evaluation since John Elway for a reason. I’m not sure there’s a quarterback in the league with a stronger lower body than the Colts star. He made a living off delivering shots down the field with defenders draped all over him when he first came into the league. However, he can also use those legs to burn defenses once he starts to scramble, averaging about five yards a carry. He has made edge defenders pay on zone-reads, who think they can slow-play it and he has shaken safeties in the open field. Yet he is at his best when using those legs to maneuver around in the pocket with two hands on the ball and then throws lasers across the field. Going back to the draft-process in 2012, Luck threw a 75-yard bomb at his pro day and to be honest I’m way more impressed when I see him firing 30-yarders towards the opposite sideline evading the rush and throwing off balance. Luck can not just throw on the run. He gets passes out off the wrong leg, from his backfoot and at times even moving one way and throwing at a completely different angle.
For as good as his physical tools are, he does not rest on them one bit. His intelligence, study habits and will to win are far greater than his arm strength or athleticism. Even though he knew he would have gone first overall in 2011 had he skipped his senior year, he decided to return to Stanford to finish his architectural design degree. There he was asked to run a detailed Cardinal offense and had tons of freedom at the line of scrimmage since his redshirt sophomore campaign. You rarely see Luck hesitate because of what defenses do post-snap. He diagnoses defensive looks, confirms what he sees once the play starts and gets the ball out with determination. The way he stares so hard in one direction to open up throwing lanes and then comes back the other way is incredible. Like I already mentioned, I didn’t think his offensive play-callers did him a lot of favors early on, which forced him to hold on to the ball and play backyard football. With Reich in his ear now, there is some pressure taken off him as clear looks are there and believe me – when Luck has an easy target he will get the ball there.
What the Colts did to Luck through his first six years was borderline criminal, when you look how many hits he took and how he was under constant duress. While he can escape the pocket and make those Rodgers-type magical throws, he truly is a prototype quarterback who wants to stay within the structure of an offense. That’s why the ability to step up into the pocket and get the ball out on time and to his targets is what he is most effective at. Luck has put up big numbers ever since he entered the league, but I want you to look at two of them in particular – completion percentage and sacks taken. Before the start of the 2018 season, he was completing less than 60 percent of his passes throughout his career and he was sacked almost 36 times per 16 games despite running the ball himself more than 60 times a season. Right now he is completing 68.4 percent of his passes and has been sacked just 11 times despite injuries on the O-line early on. I trust Chris Ballard to continue to build around his superstar and when he does, I think Luck is back on track to becoming an all-time great.
After starting the season 1-5 the Colts have now won five straight and are tied with Baltimore for the sixth seed in the AFC. They are also just two games behind the division-leading Texans, whose own eight-game winning streak they could end this Sunday. They could also easily lead this division by now had a fumble not cost them the season-opener and if they decided to go for the tie in their first meeting with Houston. While there are a couple of 5-6 teams still in the hunt and Baltimore has a rather light schedule ahead, who even cares if Indy makes the playoffs this year? I don’t trust their defense quite enough yet to go to New England or Kansas City anyway. This is not about 2018, but rather the future. The Colts have a quarterback who is on his way back to elite status, a wall of an offensive line, true impact players on defense, an excellent coaching staff (which also includes one of my all-time favorite maniacs in Bubba Ventrone as their special teams coordinator) and enough money plus draft picks to invest in skill players on offense and cover-guys on defense. Look out for this Indianapolis team. They are already dangerous this year and they will scare the crap out of people when they start spending some of that money.