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2020 AFC South Season Preview: Indianapolis Colts

The AFC South season preview continues with the Indianapolis Colts. GOSH DARN IT!

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After 2018 concluded, Colts general manager Chris Ballard gazed into the mirror and liked what he saw a little too much. The Colts finished 10-6, played postseason revival, knocked the Texans out of the Wildcard Round, and saw their season end at the valiant right arm of Patrick Mahomes. Despite sitting on a vault of cap space, Ballard bet on his own ability to draft, and the coaching staff to develop young talent, to morph the Colts from a revitalized playoff contender to a Superbowl sniffer. Justin Houston, Devin Funchess, and Spencer Ware were the only free agent additions worth mentioning. Everything else stayed the same.

It was a disastrous offseason. Andrew Luck prepared to start the 2019 season, but unknown to the rest of the world, Luck had already played his last game. Somehow, like the royal blue chevron on the helmet, Ballard was fortunate for not going all in on a Jacoby Brissett led team. The Colts were average across the board. Completely acceptable. Then a wild Brian Hoyer appeared, and a loss to the Texans on Thursday Night Football started a four game losing streak that suffocated their playoff hopes.

This offseason, Ballard learned from his previous ills. He made two monumental decisions that will dictate the Colts’ 2020 season. He signed Philip Rivers to replace Brissett as his starting quarterback, and he sent a first round pick to San Francisco for DeForest Buckner, who was immediately rewarded with a four-year, $84 million contract for having to move to Indianapolis.

At age 39, Rivers is coming off the worst season of his career since 2012 from an efficiency perspective. In the span of a season, he threw 9 less touchdowns, 8 more interceptions, averaged 0.7 less yards an attempt, dropped from 3rd to 13th in DYAR, and from 3rd to 15th in DVOA.

Philip Rivers 2018 & 2019

Year Completions Attempts Cmp% Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Yards An Attempt Sacked DYAR DVOA
Year Completions Attempts Cmp% Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Yards An Attempt Sacked DYAR DVOA
2018 347 508 68.30% 4,308 32 12 8.5 32 1316 27.20%
2019 390 591 66% 4,615 23 20 7.8 34 714 6.60%

The Colts are betting Rivers’s 2019 drop off was because of the environment he played in. Rivers spent 2019 trapped in the telephone booth. The Chargers constantly played from behind, the defense was injured from the beginning of the season and dropped from 12th to 21st in DVOA, the run game was ineffective following Melvin Gordon’s holdout, and the offensive line limited Gordon and Austin Ekeler and forced Rivers to quickly eject the football. One of the most fascinating questions entering the 2020 season is if the Colts are right, and Rivers’s 2019 season was a dip because a stale set of circumstances, and not the beginning of the end.

The enormous leap in interceptions is the biggest concern for his age 39 season. He threw 20 in 2018, and had 26 adjusted interceptions, which accounts for passes dropped by defenders and removes hail mary attempts. That was eight and ten more than he threw the previous season. The jump came on downfield attempts. Rivers threw 12 interceptions on passes over 15 yards, doubling his mark in 2018. This occurred while his average depth of target jumped from 8.2 yards (20th) to 9.0 (10th).

Some of these interceptions were exasperated endgame heaves. Like this attempt, down 24-17 with :54 left and the ball on his own one yard-line, his internal clock hollering and the pocket compressed, he overthrew a vertical route covered by cornerback Cameron Sutton (#20) who was playing off-man coverage against Mike Williams (#81).

With a deteriorated arm, the margins are infinitesimal. Cracks seeping light are no longer open for him to attempt passes. Occasionally he gets wild, breaks his rib cage open, and attempts throws that are no longer available to him. This is a silly decision. Justin Simmons (#31) is the rat defender sitting on the drag, but the receiver outruns him. With two routes into the flat, and each one covered, Alexander Johnson (#45) is able to look back inside to the hook. A quicker read, and a younger arm could maybe come up with this. Rivers can’t at this stage. Oh, we were young once.

Arm strength isn’t the end all be all for quarterbacks. There has to be some base line level, and other things, like ball placement, and intelligence can make up for a flaccid noodle. The ball moves faster than the body, and the brain moves faster than the ball. Rivers is a perfect example of this. When he’s on, and he’s at his best, he can quickly recognize a defense, compute the best throw available, and scoot the offense along the field in a calm and efficient manner. Quickly finding mismatches like defensive tackle Deyon Sizer (#92) covering the flat to defend a swing pass to Ekeler (#30).

And here, against a cover zero blitz, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (#25) lined up in off-man against a Keenan Allen (#13) out route, Rivers anticipates Allen’s break, and puts the ball right on the sideline to move the chains on second and ten.

Arm strength is passed being a concern for Rivers at this point of his career. It doesn’t exist. The ball is a plastic bag once it floats from his side arm sling. His deep passing success mainly came from Williams and Keenan Allen making absurd NFL Street style catches. These catches were still made in 2019, but not at the same rate, and Rivers occasionally found himself on the sideline red faced and chewing on his teeth wishing it was still 2018.

Although the downfield interceptions are rough, Rivers can still be a great downfield thrower of the football when he isn’t under pressure. He still makes beautiful throws. Out of an empty backfield with five receivers, Rivers finds Ekeler on a double move against a linebacker. The ball is on the outside shoulder, away from the safety, and delivered right on time.

On this completion to Mike Williams, the Packers were in cover three. Rivers finally gets the middle of the field open with the safety Adrian Amos (#31) driving on the dig run by Keenan Allen. This leaves Williams, against outside leverage, running a deep skinny post to this vacant spot. Rivers casts the ball in front of himself before being detonated. From there Williams makes a routine Mike Williams catch.

And sometimes he simply closes his eyes, gets it close enough, and his receivers answer his prayers.

That being said, there were other times when Rivers stared through defenders, and made mind bungling impetuous decisions. Throws like this have to be removed from his game this season. There’s no excuse for him not accounting for Tyrann Mathieu (#32) after he rotates with Juan Thornhill (#22). This put Mathieu in a robber position in a Tampa 2 Robber defense, where he played the intermediate middle zone and jumped in front of the deep dig.

Or here, on 1st and 10 at the 20, with :18 seconds left and down by a touchdown, tossing a go up and get it to the muscle rat Ekeler against Drew Sorenson with this positioning is gross negligence.

Still, most of the downfield errors can be chalked up to Rivers trying to comeback and win football games. Last season the Chargers ranked 21st in plays run while leading with 288. Down and trailing, Rivers was stuck dangerously floating the ball downfield in an attempt to yank his team back. It didn’t work. Interceptions proliferated and the Chargers continued to lose games in every way imaginable.

After a 6-1 one possession record in 2018, the Chargers went 2-9 in 2019. Los Angeles lost games because two touchdowns were nullified by penalties on the same drive that ended in a fumble at the goal line against Detroit, Melvin Gordon fumbled at the goal line against Tennessee when a field goal would have sent the game to overtime, they fell down 0-24 to Duck Hodges because of a scoop and score after Rivers threw a pass behind his receiver and a tipped pass interception set up easy field position, an awful defensive pass interference penalty set up a Denver game winning field goal, and of course, Rivers threw multiple interceptions careening game winning drive attempts into the abyss. Rivers is 58-71 in one score games over his career. This season we’ll finally have an answer who’s the one branded with a dark mark—the Chargers, or Rivers himself.

The interception numbers should drop in 2020. The sheer number of exhausting desperate downfield passes won’t exist next season. And if Rivers wipes well and cleans up the occasional skidmark his interception totals could drop back to his 2018 figure.

The biggest reason for a Rivers resurgence is the change in his offensive line. The Colts have one of the five best offensive lines in the league, and next season they are returning all five of their starters.

Brissett didn’t do much with his opportunity last season. Brissett had 2.93 seconds to throw, the second highest mark in the league, and was pressured on 33.9% of his drop backs, ranking 29th. His passing DVOA without pressure was 38.5% and he only averaged 7.6 yards an attempt. He spent his timing searching for the perfect wide open throw instead of creating offense on his own.

This was diametrically opposed to Rivers. Philip had 2.63 seconds to throw, which ranked 35th, and despite getting the ball out quickly, he was pressured on 30.4% of his drop backs, ranking 23rd. Whenever the pocket was clean, and he had to time throw without worry, he had a passing DVOA of 55.5% (11th) and averaged 8.4 yards a pass (9th).

Next season he won’t have to deal with playing behind Trent Scott and Sam Tevi, who each allowed seven sacks, and occasionally Russell Okung and Trey Pipkins, along with a rotating cast along the interior. Sad sacks like this should be a thing of the past.

He’ll have the time to sit and read, instead of regurgitating the ball as soon as he gets it. When Rivers has time to throw, he’s still one of the ten best quarterbacks in the league. Time to flip through every progression like this was rare in L.A., but it won’t be in Indy.

The Colts’ offense matches Rivers well too. He’s played for Frank Reich before, both as his quarterback coach, and as his offensive coordinator. He can use his eyes to manipulate the defense and hit a wide variety of crossing routes. He can find open receivers after carrying out play action fakes. And despite of the turnover troubles downfield last season, these throws still have to be made. Unlike Brissett, the anti-Jameis Winston, who was too cautious to even attempt deep passes, Rivers still has the touch to put the ball in some nice spots downfield. With the rushing attack the Colts have, he should get plenty of opportunities to do so against single high looks.

The fit isn’t entirely perfect though. Rivers doesn’t have the same level of receivers he had with the Chargers. T.Y. Hilton is an excellent vertical threat, but he isn’t made of the same stuff as Keenan Allen or Mike Williams. Hilton isn’t jumping over anyone. He wins by torching corners and creating easy catches from the comfy cushions speed creates. Jack Doyle and Mo-Alie Cox are fine receiving options, but they can’t run corner and post routes like Hunter Henry can, where Rivers utilized Supercuts balloon touch passes to lead him past pursuing linebackers. If Zach Pascal sticks in the slot, he should be able to provide some semblance of this for Rivers.

The Colts cushioned this by drafting Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round. At 6’4” 223 pounds he’s as close to Williams as you can get. He hulks over cornerbacks pressed across from him, and wins with his size and ability to dominate the catch point.

His production was consistent last season too. He can do more than play jackpot in the deep end of the pool. Pittman can run deep comeback and curl routes against off-man, cover three, and cover four. In general, he has a good grasp of how to find holes in the zone coverage. The Colts need him to make an immediate impact right away. He has to at least be a cover band version of Williams to complete Rivers’s downfield passes with sublime catches. He can’t be Limas Sweed.

Rivers also doesn’t have the same receiving talent at the running back position. Over the last two seasons Rivers completed 256 passes for 2,389 yards and 16 touchdowns when targeting Austin Ekeler, Melvin Gordon, and Justin Jackson. Using his eyes to get linebackers chasing the seam to open the flat is a vital aspect of Rivers’s game.

Marlon Mack and rookie Jonathan Taylor will soak up most of the snaps in the Colts backfield. Mack has caught 33 passes the last two seasons, and Taylor did nothing in the passing game until last season when he caught 26 passes, but looked natural when used in this facet in the game. Nyheim Hines is the prime pass catching back. He was the Colts third most productive receiver the last two seasons catching 107 passes for 745 yards, but he isn’t Ekeler or Gordon, and isn’t going to be running slants from the wide receiver position, or torching linebackers down the sideline.

If Rivers’s performance continues to drop to mediocre, or even below average, or if Brissett has to take over because of an unreal injury, the Colts’ offense should still be competent. Every run design conjured up can be blocked by this unit. Mack continued to prove he’s a running back who can carry a rushing attack on his own, and this season, he should be even more effective sharing the load with Taylor, whose leg churning run style, excellent vision, and understanding of both zone and power schemes, will have an easy transition to the NFL. Even if the Rivers experiment is silty with glacial melt, a weak arm, and confounding decisions, the Colts could still be able to win games with a quarterback attempting a Ryan Tannehill number of passes.

Rivers should bubble back to fringe top ten status. Playing without a constant headache will be a remarkable difference in his life. Reich should be able to develop an offense that works for Rivers without having to make dramatic changes. Although the skill position isn’t what it was in L.A., Pittman is a perfect match for Rivers, and Taylor could be, if the hands he showed last year transition to the NFL.

Aside from Darius Leonard, the Colts’ defense lacked difference makers. Although they didn’t have a major weakness, they lacked incredible talent who could continually disrupt plays throughout the entirety of a game, and strangle drives on their own. The Colts believe they acquired exactly this by trading for DeForest Buckner. Last season Buckner had 7.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 25 hurries, after picking up 12 sacks, 7 hits, and 30 hurries in 2018.

In 2019 the Colts ranked 21st in pressure rate at 34.8%, accrued 41 sacks, and ranked 26th in adjusted sack rate at 6.6%. And most importantly, only 15.9% of their sacks came from interior defensive linemen, the 26th lowest mark in the league. The Colts had an ineffective pass rush once again without a true difference maker at this position.

The wild thing about Buckner, is that in spite of the draft pedigree, and the consistent production, he’s still only 26 years old, and has room to improve both as a run defender and a pass rusher.

In the run game, Buckner primarily chased the ball, probably because the 49ers played Nickle 70% of the time. Maintaining his gap, taking on double teams with leverage, and creating for others wasn’t his specialty. At 6’7” and playing on the interior with long arms, he would soak up ball carriers. Running backs would run into the web he spun past the line of scrimmage. These weren’t run suffocating plays though. His average run tackle came 3.0 yards past the line of scrimmage and he had only 9 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. He floated and chased and defended the run more like a linebacker, than like a defensive tackle.

In Indy, he’ll need to be more of a creator. Playing as a ‘3’ technique next to nose tackle Grover Stewart, his job will be to make it as easy as possible for Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, and Bobby Okereke to make clean tackles. His biggest hold up is his pad level. At his height, it’s difficult for him to get the leverage necessary to deal with double teams even though he has the strength to do so. Big hip to hip duece blocks move him (#99) more often than they should.

As a pass rusher he really has one move. He’s a big fish with the strength to swim upstream. One arm will grab the shoulder and yank down the offensive lineman so the other can come over the top and get around the block. From there, Buckner is as inescapable as death.

The majority of his sacks from the last two seasons came from his great motor, his ability to chase down and devour quarterbacks, and from that long sweeping swim move that pantomimes a windmill. Grab a juice box. Here’s all 22 of Buckner’s sacks from the past 2 seasons.

Yet, for his size, he should be a better bullrusher than he is. Squatty guards can sit on his bull rush, and if they time the swim right, it leads to him drowning and flailing. His hands need to be sharpened. Slight miscues like punching the shoulder instead of the chest neutralize his rushes. The chop-rip is a must have move for any interior rusher. He doesn’t utilize it enough. And with his arm length, he should be able to stab an extended arm to create separation and a path to the quarterback. The repertoire isn’t expansive enough for a player of his talent and caliber.

The move to the Midwest should help Buckner. Matt Eberflus is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league. He turned a cast of nobodies into the 10th ranked defense by DVOA in 2018, and saw nearly the same defense regress to 17th last season. The way he employs zone coverages, especially how he uses his linebackers in coverage, and blitzes his defensive backs, are the main paths to his success. It’s reasonable to expect he can get more from Buckner than San Francisco did.

The 49ers mainly used Buckner as a ‘3’ technique. Occasionally overloading one side of the line scrimmage to ensure one on one matchups, and placing Buckner at nose tackle to run stunts was as exotic as it got. They didn’t need to manufacture much with the defensive line talent on the roster. Eberflus can be diabolical. There’s always some wild ideas spinning around his head. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Buckner get more reps at the defensive end position against weaker tackles where he can use his strength and especially his long arms to overwhelm them.

Buckner not only provides a production jolt to a numb rush, but he moves everyone down a notch. Justin Houston is a very good player, but at his age, and after all the stitches, is no longer a dominant force. He can demoralize Cameron Erving, but Laremy Tunsil is a wall he can’t climb. In theory, he should now be able to get more one v. one matchups against lesser tackles with more attention devoted to Buckner.

The biggest question the defense faces is if they can get consistent production from either Al Quadin-Muhammad, Ben Banogu, Kemoko Turay, or Tyquan Lewis. These players have all flashed, but they haven’t been able to consistently win their matchups. Playing behind Buckner and Houston is a perfect opportunity. The Colts need one of them to have something better than a four sack season.

Buckner and Banogu working together is a perfect tandem. Buckner can manacle multiple blockers as a hammer, get linemen to incorrectly turn their shoulders towards him, and create easy holes for Banogu to use his athleticism to loop through.

For the Colts’ defense to break past above average, they need Buckner to be a Calais Campbell type of player, who can control the entirety of the line of scrimmage from the interior and exterior, and open up and create for everyone else on the defensive front. So far he’s produced and has been a Pro Bowl caliber player, but he still has components he needs to refine to fully unlock his potential, and become the type of player who can anchor a defensive front.

Playing behind them is a secondary that lacks a true difference maker, but has a wide collection of talent. Rock Ya-Sin showed he has the body to play zone corner, but had issues jamming receivers, staying on top of the route, and was constantly turning and blindly chasing and grabbing—you know, the problems rookie corners usually have. Despite the grim cornerback blitzes, Kenny Moore dropped from 22nd to 77th in success rate and wasn’t the same coverage corner he was in 2018. Indy added Xavier Rhodes in free agency, but Rhodes has been disastrous the previous two seasons, and too often he’s lost at the stem of the route. He’ll play in a zone heavy scheme again in Indy to try and restart his career, but at this point it looks like an athleticism issue, not something scheme or technique can solve. And T.J. Carrie is completely replaceable, something the Colts need with Marvell Tell opting out due to the ongoing pandemic.

Malik Hooker is the most intriguing player in this secondary. His career has been frustrating after an injury ruined his rookie season. He’s made mind melting plays, like picking off Philip Rivers with one hand in the endzone.

But overall, his brain hasn’t put him in the right spot enough to be a true difference maker at the free safety position. He won’t be playing next to Clayton Geathers though, and he should be able to worry less and play more freely with Khari Willis next to him, and fearsome Utah rookie Julian Blackmon playing third safety and acting as the next man up. Hooker has the athleticism and talent. He just needs to get his body in a better position to make plays.

The Colts 2020 season is taking place in the afterglow of failed July 2019 Superbowl aspirations. Yet, unlike last season, that took place after a safe offseason thanks to an inflated ego and an abrupt quarterback change, this season is coming after the Colts made two substantial high impact changes to their team. The difference from Rivers, playing even average football, from Brissett and Brian Hoyer, should be worth two wins. Buckner coalescing with a young defense that’s continuing to grow should turn the Colts’ defense back to above average.

Indy should compete for a AFC South title in 2020. If that fails, they should be in the running for a Wild Card spot. They have the highest floor in this division, and if Rivers experiences a personal palingenesis and breaks back to 2018 heights to provide a Wal-Mart shirt version of ‘Old Dudes Rock’ 2011 Peyton Manning, Indy would be the top five team the computers see them as. As much as I love the hooting-tooting dagnabbit hollering Philip Rivers, and think he improves in 2020, 2018 felt like a last chance, not something for him to return to. Regardless, the Colts should be a good, but not great, football team in 2020. That’s a hell of a lot better than what their monotonous 2019 was.

Prediction: 9-7