As Bruce Arians said on Tuesday, the Indianapolis Colts are "riding high" at the moment, and it's Arians' team that will be the next to try to rein them in.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to Indiana this weekend to take on a Colts team that has won five of its last six games and is fresh off a "statement game" in which it pounded one of the AFC's top contenders, the Buffalo Bills, by a 41-15 score. Running back Jonathan Taylor inserted himself into the NFL MVP discussion with a five-touchdown performance and the Indianapolis defense held Josh Allen to 209 yards while picking him off twice.
After an 0-3 start that was beginning to cast doubt on the wisdom of Indy's offseason trade for quarterback Carson Wentz, the Colts have gone 6-2 and are now just a half-game off the pace for the third Wild Card spot in the conference. The team's first five wins came against teams that are currently a combined 15-36 (the Dolphins, Texans, 49ers, Jets and Jaguars), but their Week 11 showing in Buffalo seems to identify the Colts as true contenders in the AFC. They are the NFL's fifth-highest scoring team, they rank 13th in scoring defense and, crucially, they have far and away the best turnover differential in the NFL at plus-15.
That last note speaks directly to the play of Wentz, the former MVP candidate who fell out of favor in Philadelphia after leading the league with 15 interceptions in 2020 and recording 58 fumbles in 68 games as an Eagle. This season, Wentz has only been picked off three times and the Eagles are second in the NFL with a 1.11% interception rate on offense.
The trade for Wentz in the offseason was the team's third crack at replacing franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, who abruptly retired right before the 2019 season. Jacoby Brissett got the first shot and then the Colts tried the seasoned veteran route with Philip Rivers in 2020. After Rivers also retired, the team went for the reclamation project in Wentz, the former second-overall pick. One reason it is working so far is that Indianapolis has built up a very promising offense with a series of big hits in the draft. That included guard Quenton Nelson (6th overall in 2018), wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (34th in 2020) and Taylor (41st in 2020). Nelson anchors one of the NFL's best offensive lines, allowing the Colts to take full advantage of Taylor's talents.
There are standout players at every level of the defense, too, though a rash of injuries at safety has forced the team to shuffle personnel at the back end. Another recent trade that has paid off for the Colts brought in All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and with defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry departing in the offseason the team reloaded on the edges with draft picks Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo. Paye's first two career sacks have come in Indy's last two outings.
Much like the vaunted Saints' class of 2017, the Colts built a good part of their core with impressive work in the 2018 draft, which started with Nelson in the first round and then delivered linebacker Darius Leonard and starting right tackle Braden Smith in the second round. That class also produced such ongoing contributors as defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay and pass-catching back Nyheim Hines. Leonard rivals Nelson as the star of that class, as he has amassed three Pro Bowl invites and two first-team All-Pro nods in just three seasons. More on both Nelson and Leonard in our Difference Makers section below.
The Colts' offense is just getting better as the season progresses, scoring 30 or more points in five of its last six outings. Meanwhile, the defense has held four of its last six opponents to 18 points or less and has been very opportunistic, recovering an NFL-high 12 fumbles to go with 13 interceptions. Nine different Indy defenders have a pick this year, led by three from nickel back Kenny Moore.
Despite their recent run, the Colts still have a lot of heavy lifting to do to make the playoffs. They are still 1.5 games out in the NFC South, and it's really more like a 2.5-game deficit because they've already lost to Tennessee twice. In the muddled AFC field they are one of eight teams that currently has either five or six wins. In addition to this weekend's matchup with the Buccaneers, the Colts also have final-month battles looming against the Cardinals and Patriots. The Colts are undoubtedly buoyed by their recent performance and feeling confident as the defending champs come to town, but they are also likely to be highly motivated by the challenge of hanging in the AFC stretch run. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they head to Indianapolis to take on the ascending Colts on Sunday:
In addition to his efficient work as a passer in 2021, Wentz is also quite mobile and he has nine career rushing touchdowns. After he took a league-high 50 sacks in his last year in Philly behind an injury-plagued line, Wentz has enjoyed working with the Colts' strong front line, which ranks seventh in sacks allowed per pass play. In addition to Nelson and Smith, center Ryan Kelly is among the best in the league at his position. Hines is a good changeup to Taylor who has 26 receptions this season and second-year wide receiver Michael Pittman, a contested-catch stud, is emerging as a star in 2021. In addition to those players, here are four Indianapolis standouts who will be among the toughest challenges for Tampa Bay in Week 12:
1. DT DeForest Buckner. The Colts gave up the 13th-overall pick in the 2020 draft to get Buckner from San Francisco, and coincidentally that pick eventually ended up in the Buccaneers' hands and was used to take tackle Tristan Wirfs. Though Buckner plays the three-technique position and primarily lines up inside the tackles he might occasionally go up against Wirfs, which would be an impressive battle. Buckner leads the Colts in both sacks (4.5) and QB hits (11), and according to NFL Next Gen Stats he has generated 33 quarterback pressures this season, or exactly three per game. That's the 20th-highest pressure total in the NFL and among players who primarily line up as interior linemen it ranks behind only Jeffery Simmons, Javon Hargrave and Aaron Donald. Buckner is a huge presence on the inside at 6-7 and 295 pounds, and his first season in Indianapolis was everything the Colts could have hoped for. He finished the 2020 season with 9.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits, 48 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two passes defensed and even a safety. Buckner also happens to be a force against the run; since he arrived the Colts' defense has allowed an average of 3.4 yards per carry when he's on the field and 4.8 yards per carry when he's on the sideline.
2. RB Jonathan Taylor. With Derrick Henry sidelined for Tennessee, Taylor has assumed the mantle of the NFL's best running back and he's on a tear unlike any the league has seen in a while. Taylor is riding an active streak of eight straight games in which he has amassed 100-plus yards from scrimmage and scored a touchdown. After getting into the end zone on four carries and one pass last Sunday, Taylor leads the league in total touchdowns (15) and rushing TDs (13) and he's also averaging a blistering 5.8 yards per carry. He also leads the NFL with 68 rushing first downs and with a total rush expected points added (EPA) of 34.2. the 226-pound back is powerful but also extremely fast and hard to catch when he hits the open field. On one 78-yard carry against the Jets in Week Nine he hit a top speed of 22.05 miles per hour, the fastest any NFL running back has run in the entire 2021 season. Bruce Arians isn't surprised by Taylor's success after seeing him at the 2020 Combine. "Oh, I loved him," said Arians. "I thought he was fantastic – big, active, speed, has got great hands. He can do it all and it was just a matter of time before, playing behind that offensive line, that he was going to be the force that he is. And that offensive line is very, very special and he's a special back so it will be a hell of a challenge for our run defense."
3. LB Darius Leonard. Like fellow 2019 draftee Quenton Nelson, Leonard earned a Pro Bowl invitation in each of his first three seasons, and he's only one first-team All-Pro selection behind Nelson. Leonard has been hugely productive since he first stepped on an NFL field, starting with a league-leading 163 tackles in his rookie campaign. He has averaged more than nine tackles per game in his first 53 outings and has otherwise filled up his stat line with 15.0 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, nine interceptions, 27 passes defensed and 13 forced fumbles. Though he doesn't have a sack yet in 2021 he does have two picks, five passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Those 13 forced fumbles are third-most in the NFL since 2018, and through the first nine weeks of the season he was tied for fifth among NFL off-ball linebackers with seven quarterback pressures, with an impressive 29.4% pressure rate on his forays into the backfield. Leonard is fast, agile, instinctive, tough and he very rarely misses a tackle when he's in range to make a play, which is often.
4. G Quenton Nelson. Notre Dame's Nelson was the rare guard who isn't projected to move to tackle to be drafted in the top 10, as Indy grabbed him sixth overall in 2018. He has not disappointed, essentially landing fully formed as perhaps the league's best interior lineman. Though he's missed some time with an ankle injury this season and tweaked that joint in the Colts' win on Sunday, Nelson has been as dominant as ever when on the field this year. Nelson isn't just a top player at his position, he's one of the NFL's most impressive performers at any position. Prior to the 2021 season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Indianapolis blocker as the fourth best player in the NFL, period. He was credited with allowing a total of three sacks over his first three NFL seasons combined and last year only gave up 15 QB pressures in the regular season and postseason combined. He is also one of the NFL's most powerful players in the run game, routinely moving strong defensive linemen and creating wide gaps for Taylor and his fellow backs to exploit.
With Taylor leading the way, the Colts have the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack and are second with a yards-per-carry figure of 5.17. As noted above, Indianapolis also has a top-10 offense in terms of avoiding both interceptions and sacks, and their ability to sustain drives has them controlling the ball for 31:30 per game, eighth-best in the league. The colts' defense is fifth in interception rate and Michael Badgley, the kicking replacement for an injured Rodrigo Blankenship, is perfect so far on nine field goal tries and 24 extra point attempts. Here are some more specific ways in which the Colts have performed well this season:
- Not only does the Colts' defense take the ball away frequently, but they turn those takeaways into points with regular. Fifteen of their 23 takeaways have resulted in a score, including 12 touchdowns for a league-high total of 91 points off turnovers. That's more than double the league average of 34 points off turnovers. No other team in the NFL has even 70 points off turnovers.
- Jonathan Taylor's 5.8 yards per carry is the product of a whole lot of big plays on the ground. The Colts already have 13 carries of 20 or more yards, tied for the most in the NFL and their average gain on those carries is 36.5 yards, the fourth-highest figure in the league. Taylor has already ripped off gains of 78 and 83 yards this season. Indy's 13 runs of 20-plus yards is more than double the league average of six per team.
- Indianapolis does not often hurt itself with sloppy or undisciplined play. They are drawing an average of 4.64 penalties per game, which is the third-best figure in the league, and they have been particularly good at avoiding flags on defense. The Colts' average of 1.36 defensive penalties per game is the best in the NFL.
- The Colts' red zone offense has not been particularly good, scoring touchdowns just 53.3% of the time to rank 25th in the NFL. So how is Indianapolis scoring the fifth-most points per game in the league? Because they have little trouble finding the end zone from beyond the opponent's 20-yard line. Indy's 10 touchdowns on plays from outside the red zone are second in the NFL only to Cincinnati's 14, and their 90 points overall from outside the red zone is also second to the Bengals.
As noted above, the Colts' offense has struggled in the red zone, but so has its defense, which is 29th in the league with a touchdown-allowed rate of 69.7%. Indianapolis also ranks 22nd or worse in yards allowed per play, per run play and per pass play. The Colts' passing offense ranks just 23rd in yards per game (216.1) and 21st in yards per play (6.62). In addition:
· The Colts' red zone defense looks even worse on a per-play basis. Indianapolis is giving up 4.24 yards per play inside the 20, which is the worst mark in the league, making them the only team to be allowing more than four yards per snap in that area of the field. The league average is 2.97. The Colts are also last with 4.88 yards allowed per play from the 30-yard line in.
· As efficient and error-free as the Colts' passing game has been with Carson Wentz, it hasn't been particularly reliable on first-down plays. The Colts have thrown on first down 316 times this year but only gained four or more yards on 151 of those passes. That 49.0% success rate is ranked 31st in the league, ahead of only Philadelphia's mark of 47.5. Meanwhile, Indianapolis opponents have gained four or more yards on 59.0% of their pass plays, the sixth-worst mark among NFL defenses.
· The Colts could very easily have an even better spot in the AFC playoff hunt if they had fared better in close games so far. Indianapolis has had four games decided by a single score or less, only one of which was a victory. Their three losses by six points or fewer have all come against prime playoff contenders – the Rams, Titans and Ravens.
· Indianapolis ranks 19th on defense in third-down rate, allowing 41.4% of opponent tries to be converted. The biggest problem for the Colts has been the longer third downs. On opposing third down attempts of more than six yards, Indy is allowing a conversion rate of 32.8%. That's the fifth-worst mark in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Obviously, we've already spent plenty of time on Wentz, the Colts' most important acquisition during the 2021 offseason. While pulling off that sizeable trade Indianapolis was mostly quiet in free agency, though it did find a replacement for retiring left tackle Anthony Castonzo on the open market, as noted below. Unrestricted free agents Chris Reed and Julién Davenport added depth to the offensive line and the draft brought a replacement for departed edge rusher Justin Houston. In addition:
1. T Eric Fisher. After Castonzo retired following a strong 10-year run as the Colts' left tackle and the draft didn't bring a new potential starter, the team picked up Fisher, who had been released by Kansas City in March. Davenport started at left tackle in the season opener as Fisher was just returning to the practice field after an eight-month recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but Fisher has protected Wentz's blind side in every game since.
2. DE Kwity Paye. The Colts made Paye, the former Michigan star, the 21st player off the board in last April's draft and the second edge rusher selected. Paye has started every game and has a sack in each of the Colts' last two outings. The rookie edge rusher also has 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
3. K Michael Badgley. The Colts didn't start the season with a new kicker but had to call in Badgley in October after Rodrigo Blankenship suffered a hip injury in Week Five.
1. Safeties Julian Blackmon/Khari Willis. A third-round draft pick in 2020, Blackmon only needed three games in his rookie season to supplant Malik Hooker in the starting lineup, and from that third game of 2020 through the first six games of this season he was on the field for 97.2% of the Colts' defensive snaps. However, his second season came to a premature end on October 20 when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a Wednesday practice. He is on injured reserve and will not return this season. The Colts' other starting safety Khari Willis, joined Blackmon on injured reserve on November 4 due to knee and calf injuries. Willis could return from IR and to the Colts' lineup if he follows the quickest possible recovery path, as he has now missed the required minimum of three games.
2. WR Parris Campbell. The injury bug has bitten Campbell, a second-round pick in 2019, for the third time in as many seasons. After he missed nine games as a rookie and 14 contests last year, Campbell played in the first five games of this season but suffered a foot injury making a 51-yard touchdown catch against Houston in Week Five. He has since undergone surgery and is not expected back until December at the earliest.
3. DE Tyquan Lewis. A second-round pick in 2018, Lewis was a fixture in the Colts' edge rush rotation for the first eight games of the season, seeing 61% of the snaps and contributing 2.5, six quarterback hits and an interception. Lewis was injured, in fact, on that interception, the first of his career, as he tore a patellar tendon on the return of his pick of a Ryan Tannehill pass in Week Eight.