The dark days of January and a loss to Jacksonville that cost the Colts a playoff place seem a long ago. As shocking and unacceptable as that loss was, there had been signs for a few weeks that all was not right with the Colts and, in particular, their offense. Those issues don’t explain the loss to the Jaguars, but they do help explain the loss to Las Vegas and suggest Indianapolis would have struggled had they made the playoffs.
I’d like to take you back to Indianapolis’ loss to Tampa Bay last season. They were coming off the back of a rout of the Buffalo in which Jonathan Taylor rushed for 185 yards and scored five touchdowns. The Buccaneers proved to be a much tougher opponent for Taylor, restricting him to 83 yards as they handed Indianapolis yet another agonizingly close loss.
Tampa restricted Taylor by stacking the box against him. You might think this would create more opportunities for Wide Receivers like Pittman as they have fewer defenders covering them, but Pittman was held to 53 receiving yards. While disappointing, the loss to Tampa wasn’t all that concerning. After all, the Buccaneers boasted perhaps the best run defense in the league, with Suh and Vea up front, backed up by David and White.
However, to their loss, Indianapolis found that teams would be able to successfully stack the box against Taylor even when deploying far less able personnel. This was evident in the last two games of the season.
The 108 yards and 77 yards Taylor got against Las Vegas and Jacksonville, respectively, would be a good day at the office for many running backs. But Taylor had established himself as the best Running Back in the league and had carved up both Las Vegas (150 yards) and Jacksonville (253 yards) at the end of the 2020 season.
Taylor should have been able to dominate the two poor rushing defenses once again and secure wins for the Colts. However, defenses were able to stack the box against Taylor because they knew that if they just covered Pittman as well, Wentz and the Colts’ other weapons couldn’t hurt them.
This is likely because the Colts' passing game began to falter with Wentz, making Indianapolis overly reliant on Taylor. Generally, when Taylor had a great game, the Colts still won, but teams realized they could focus on stopping Taylor without being punished by the Colts' passing game.
A lot has changed in Indianapolis since the end of the season. Indianapolis may not have pursued a trade for a premier Wide Receiver, but they have a new Quarterback in Matt Ryan, a talented rookie WR in Alec Pierce, and two huge TEs in Jelani Woods and Andrew Ogletree.
How does the Colts' offense in 2022 deal with stacked boxes better than they did in 2021? In short, they have to increase the costs to defenses of stacking the box by punishing them in the passing game. They'll have to do that by being less reliant on Michael Pittman.
It's reasonable to expect Alec Pierce to have a similar rookie season to Michael Pittman, who had 503 receiving yards. Although hopefully, Pierce can score more than the one touchdown Pittman got in his first year. Apart from Pierce, Indianapolis will be hoping Allie-Cox, Granson, Dulin, and Patmon are able to develop, alongside Parris Campbell, if he can finally stay healthy. Pittman can continue to improve, building on his 1,082 receiving yards last season to get closer to 1,500 this year.
We also shouldn't forget about Nyheim Hines, who Chris Ballard and others have emphasized should have a significantly bigger role in 2022. That role should include both rushing and passing plays, as evidenced by his training with the Wide Receivers at various points this offseason.
The Colts' offense under Ryan is likely to look more like it did with Phillip Rivers, although Ryan looks to have retained more arm strength than Rivers did by the time he arrived in Indianapolis. Ryan certainly doesn't possess Wentz's arm cannon, but he's smart, accurate, and quickly gets rid of the ball. This should help him implement even the most technical plays Reich schemes up and allow him to effectively think on his feet when the intended play isn't possible.
Last season we saw a huge difference in the Colts' offense in the first and second half of games. Generally, the Colts' offense was very effective when running the plays Reich designed in the first half but significantly less effective when Wentz had to make more decisions himself or where defenses had been given a chance to read the offense.
The offense led by Ryan should be harder for opposing defenses to read, while Ryan should also be capable of making his own reads of the defense and of sticking more closely to the plays called by Reich.
We can see that Ryan had a significantly higher passer rating for Atlanta last year against stacked boxes than Wentz or Brissett did as starters in Indianapolis. However, his rating was meaningfully lower than Rivers in 2020 or Luck in 2018. There's little use in focusing too much on Luck in 2018, given he was an elite QB and that the Colts' offense was focused on passing. Rivers, however, is a useful comparison given the similarities between the Quarterbacks.
I suspect Ryan can improve his pass rating this year to close to Rivers in 2020. Ryan will be playing behind a significantly better offensive line in Indianapolis, whilst Taylor and Pittman probably give him better weapons given the injuries to Ridley last year.
If Ryan can be significantly better against stacked boxes in 2022 than Wentz was last year, it makes it far riskier for defenses to prioritize stopping the run. If defenses stack the box to stop Taylor and focus their coverage on stopping Pittman, Ryan's other weapons will face limited coverage.
Like last season, Indianapolis doesn't have that clear number two receiver that will strike fear into the hearts of defenses. But with the expected improved performance from Ryan, I think the likes of Pierce, Hines, and Allie-Cox should be enough to take advantage of one-on-one matchups. There could also be specific situations like the Red Zone where the height of the Colts' receivers creates mismatches.
Despite the lack of a big-name addition to the Colts' receiving corps, I don't think too much of an improvement in their passing offense is required to force defenses to change their approach. It is, after all, much easier to win your matchup when you face single coverage, and you can do far more damage if defenses don't have any deep safeties to deal with any blown coverages.
If the Colts' passing game outside of Pittman can improve, it will be much harder for defenses to focus on Taylor and Pittman. If defenses start to concede too many points to other players, they'll be forced to change their approach. I suspect this is what will happen, leading to Taylor and Pittman facing more normal defenses than they saw in the second half of last season, giving them more opportunities to impact the game.
With that being said, if the Colts existing weapons aren't good enough to punish defenses that focus on stopping Taylor and Pittman, they may regret not aggressively pursuing a free agent like TY Hilton or Will Fuller. However, aside from OBJ, it's not clear that any of the free agent WRs beyond those signed in the first wave of free agency are guaranteed to move the needle.
Indianapolis will be heading into the season with a new QB and a largely unproven receiving corps. That could be a recipe for another season of disappointment. But if the young skill players can develop and Reich can get the most out of them, the Colts could rejuvenate their offense and ensure Taylor and Pittman can't be shut down.
How successful do you think the Colts' offense will be against stacked boxes this year? Do they have the Wide Receivers they need? Let us know your thoughts at @TheBlue_Stable and @BenchSebastian.