Lombardi: Why there is hope for the Colts this season

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Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay is a passionate collector.  From his Colts to rock music, American history and pop culture, Irsay is willing to spend whatever it takes to add value to his anthology.  His passion will be on display when The Jim Irsay collection begins touring the United States soon with dates in Nashville, Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles.  His Colts will begin their American tour in Houston Week 1 as they try to rebound from their awful ending to the 2021 season. 

Irsay has been around the game a long time.  Like most owners, he has experienced the highs and lows of NFL football -- and unlike most other owners, this is the only business he has known for his entire life. He has experienced great teams, knows great players and understands the importance of a great locker room.  Much like how he values guitars, Irsay knows what great leadership looks like and when he attacked former starting quarterback Carson Wentz for a lack of leadership, he wasn’t flying off the handle playing some off-key tune -- he was speaking from experience.  Irsay said: "For us, it was something we had to move away from as a franchise. It was very obvious."  How could anyone, except the Washington Commanders, disagree with that statement?   

After losing to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16 last season, all the Colts had to do was win one more game against the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars.  Wentz was out all week of practice for the Raiders game and when he took the field his lack of practice was evident -- and he failed to deliver critical throws.  His poor play carried over into the next game with a complete clunker against the worst team in the NFL, and the Wentz era in Indianapolis had to end.  Give the Colts credit: They paid dearly for Wentz, (a first-round pick in 2022) and they still walked.  Most teams would keep lying to themselves Wentz would turn things around; Irsay wasn’t going to let that happen.  So, onto 2022 and the season offers much hope. 

To be fair, it wasn’t all Wentz’s fault in Jacksonville -- the defense has to take a large portion of the blame in the finale.  One of the many hidden problems for the Colts during the 2021 season was their defense.  Yes, they could create turnovers, leading the league in that category, but they had no other strength. When they couldn’t pry the ball loose, their inability to get off the field in critical game situations was apparent. The 2021 Colt’s defense was like a home run hitter in baseball who hits 40 homers a season, bats .220 and strikeouts 200 times.  It was feast or famine.  And the turnovers created distracted those from recognizing the limitations of the defense, starting with their vanilla scheme, devised by coordinator Matt Eberflus, now the head coach of the Bears. 

Eberflus is from the Tony Dungy, Rod Marinelli school of defense, which wants players to not over think and play fast.  They want to keep the scheme simple, allowing the players to fly to the football, create violent impacts and force the ball loose.  Often it can work, especially when the talent level is supreme.  Examine the 2021 numbers closely:  The Colts were 25th in red zone defense, 31st in touchdown passes allowed, 20th in yards allowed rushing and 19th on third down. Those are all critical areas of the situational football. 

Just look at Indianapolis’ record last season based off turnover margin:

Positive: 7-2 record

Even: 1-3

Negative: 1-4

For the Colts to go over their posted 9.5-win total (according to DraftKings), they must improve their overall defense. 

The addition of Gus Bradley as the new defensive coordinator will help keep the scheme simple, allowing players to play fast. With the addition of John Fox as the defensive consultant, specializing in red zone and third down, the Bradley scheme can expand in versatility and creativeness. The blend of these two coaches, different in their approach, yet working towards one common goal, could enhance the Indianpolis defense and give the players more scheme assistance.  One of the benefits of being a run-controlled offense is that the pace of the game is slower.  Last year the Colts defense was only on the field for 28:16, which is outstanding, yet their opponents ran as many plays (1,050) as their offense (1,052).  The time of possession becomes moot when the opponent is capable of running as many plays. Plays are always more important than time.  Fox and Bradley must address this issue, and if they are able to continue to cut down the time and then the play count the defense will greatly improve.

However, everyone knows the key to the Colts returning to the playoffs lies with the production they obtain from the quarterback position.  Matt Ryan, who just celebrated his 37th birthday on the May 17, will be the difference for Indianapolis this season.  After being sacked over 40 times the last four years in Atlanta, Ryan will finally get some protection from the Indianapolis offensive line.  Ryan doesn’t have to be the straw that stirs the drink, he needs to be the point guard -- distributing the ball and allowing running back Jonathan Taylor carry the load. 

When Ryan had a running game in 2016 in Atlanta, he had a career year, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt.  Last year that number dwindled down to 7.1 in part due to the lack of skill on the Falcons and Ryan being constantly hit.  Ryan still can throw the ball effectively with accuracy and timing.  He is tough and durable, having only missed three games during his 14-year career.  He stands in the pocket, is willing to hold the ball and his eye level hasn’t gone down, which is remarkable for someone who has been hit as often as he has in his career.  With head coach Frank Reich tailoring the offense to fit the skills of Ryan, they should be effective moving the ball and not make the bad mistakes often associated with Wentz. 

The skill level at the receiver position of the Colts will need to improve as well.  Receiver Michael Pittman isn’t a true No. 1 receiver, even though he had 88 receptions last year, with 129 targets and averaged 12.3 yards per catch. What does help Pittman and every other receiver on the Colts is everything they do in their passing game comes off the run action, which allows receivers to get down the field.  The offense is receiver friendly and Reich calls the game with the ability to help get players open.  Second-round pick, rookie Alex Pierce will need to take a huge step as should Paris Campbell, who has all the skills to be a deep threat, but needs to stay healthy.  Campbell has only played in 15 games in three seasons, so counting on him to stay durable is a huge leap of faith, which means Pierce needs to come through. 

Both runners, Taylor and Nyheim Hines, had 80 combined catches in 108 targets (a great ratio) as they are a huge part of the Colts passing game and serve as a safety net for Ryan.  Taylor is one of the best runners in the game, but his 9.0 YPC average in the passing game makes him multi-dimensional causing great problems for the defense.  Taylor isn’t as explosive or flashy in the open field as Alvin Kamara of the Saints, or Austin Ekeler of the Chargers, yet his yards per catch is in the same range (Kamara 9.3, Ekeler 9.2).  We don’t think of Taylor in the same vein as Kamara or Ekeler, yet his numbers in the passing game tell a different story and he’ll improve this season with Ryan under center (Taylor is a great fantasy pick in 2022).

When you factor in the Colts playing in the AFC South -- and playing the NFC East this season -- it easy to understand why they would be a great play for an over win total.    By Week 7 of the season, the Colts will have played everyone in the South, and will have only one divisional game remaining (Week 18 vs the Texans), which makes it vital they start their season fast.  I’m a believer in Reich in large part because he is toughminded for an offensive coach and doesn’t shy away from mistakes.  He knows the time is now for his team to take the next step forward, and that starts with dominating the South. 

Every year, we think the Colts are a good play on the over win total due to the South being down, yet since Reich has been the head coach, he is only 14-10 against the South teams.  The Colts need a 6-0, or 5-1 record versus the South if they are going to make their run.

There is much to like about the Colts entering the 2022 season, as they addressed some of the off-the-field issues needed to show improvement.  Now is the time to show the on-the-field progress and add another item to Irsay’s collection: an AFC South title.   

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