What the Colts need to address to fix their passing game
The Indianapolis Colts have a problem with their passing game.
After two weeks, the team many pointed to as the clear-cut favorites in the AFC South stands with an 0-1-1 record. Indianapolis tied the Houston Texans back in Week 1, a team many have earmarked for an early pick in the 2023 NFL draft, and are now coming off a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Throughout the summer, glowing reviews poured in regarding their offense, now in the stewardship of veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. The routes and concepts were crisp, timing was back in the passing game, and the differences between their 2021 offense, and the 2022 version under Ryan, were night-and-day.
Then they got shut out by the Jaguars on Sunday.
What is the problem in Indianapolis? Is it Ryan? The offensive line? The supporting cast? Frank Reich?
As is often the case, there is more than one factor at play.
We can start with the protection in front of Ryan. On Sunday against the Jaguars, Ryan dropped back to throw 35 times.
According to charting data from Pro Football Focus, he was pressured on 14 of those snaps, meaning that he was pressured on 40% — nearly half — of his dropbacks against the Jaguars.
The result? Ryan finished the afternoon having completed 16 of 30 passes for 195 yards, no touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He was also sacked five times.
This comes as the Colts are spending $42.2 million along their offensive line this season. A big part of that is the recent, and well-deserved, contract extension for Quenton Nelson, but with this kind of spending, you would expect results.
The problems up front, and in the passing game, began early against Jacksonville.
On Ryan’s fourth dropback of the game, the Colts dial up a Mesh concept, with a pair of crossing routes underneath and Ashton Dulin running the deep sit route, over the top of the mesh. Jonathan Taylor runs the wheel route out of the backfield. Off the left edge, Josh Allen makes a move to the outside against left tackle Matt Pryor, which forces Ryan to climb the pocket. The quarterback, under pressure, makes a late throw which falls incomplete:
While Ryan was able to avoid disaster on this play, he was not so lucky the next time he dropped to throw:
Reich calls for a three-level route concept to the right, with Ryan looking to hit Dulin on the out route, which is the middle layer in the design. The problem? It begins this time on the right edge, as the Jaguars dial up a twist between K’Lavon Chaisson, a pass rusher kicked inside, and rookie edge defender Travon Walker, aligned outside Chaisson. Chaisson rushes upfield while Walker loops behind him, and to the inside. Both players end up getting pressure on Ryan, who tries to solve this problem of pressure in his face with a lofted, anticipation throw in the direction of Dulin.
It lands in the welcome arms of safety Rayshawn Jenkins.
These two early snaps in many ways tell a story about the Colts offense right now. Problems up front that Ryan tries to solve after the snap, but cannot. As the game wore on, problems continued, such as this play from the second quarter that saw Allen get home on a stunt, looping behind two interior rushers:
Other missed opportunities came as a result of Ryan perhaps trying to do too much, and not take easy layups presented to him. On this play from early in the fourth quarter, Ryan has an open receiver, as tight end Kylen Granson leaks out into the flat. Given the situation (2nd and goal from the four-yard line) you might expect Ryan to give Granson a chance.
Instead, he pulls the ball down and looks for another option, ended up in another sack:
The protection woes are something the Colts need to sort out, and quickly. Reich discussed the problems with protection when meeting with the media Monday:
Regarding protection: "It was not good... But when you watch the film, it's typically one guy... And we got beat on a couple [stunts and twists] that we don't normally get beat on."— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) September 19, 2022
This is true, but it's also not OK. Like Ryan Kelly said, "we're not playing 5 as 1."
As noted by center Ryan Kelly, getting to where the Colts are “playing 5 as 1” is the first step to fixing their offense. In two of these examples, stunts and twists were able to get home for sacks, as the defenders were not passed off fluidly up front. Sorting out the communication against these types of looks from the defense will be a big part of turning around this offense.
Because you know that until the Colts prove they can sort out these types of stunts and twists, they are going to see them over and over and over again.
However, the offensive line is not the entire story.
A tenet of Reich’s offensive philosophy is maximizing yardage after the catch. Two seasons ago, with Phillip Rivers at the helm, the Colts were one of the league’s best teams at generating YAC. They averaged six yards of YAC per reception, placing them sixth in the league.
That number dropped to just 5.2 yards a season ago, with Carson Wentz under center, placing the Colts 18th in the league.
With Ryan in the fold, the idea was that the offense would look more like the 2020 version of the Colts, attacking quickly and putting receivers in position to be successful after the catch. During training camp, Reich praised his accuracy as a passer:
But then there are guys that are at another level, in another zip code. I mean, his statistics bear out that he’s very accurate, but I probably didn’t fully appreciate just how good of a passer he was. In my mind, he’s in that elite category of accuracy, it’s just effortless. Just pure passing ability and accuracy. Or the way Matt talks about it, it’s D.T.A.—decision-making, timing and accuracy. His decision-making, timing and accuracy is elite.
Those traits: decision-making, timing, and accuracy are the prime ingredients for YAC. When you make the right decision with the football, get it out on-time and put it exactly where it needs to be given the situation, coverage and leverage, you are putting your receiver in a position to quickly transition from receiver to ball-carrier.
Giving him a chance to “catch it, turn and run:”
Michael Pittman Jr.— Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) May 25, 2022
On Matt Ryan’s accuracy: you just catch it, turn and run pic.twitter.com/zpRl5hVWfJ
On Sunday against Jacksonville, those “catch it, turn and run” moments were few and far between. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, the Colts gained 182 yards of YAC against the Houston Texans in Week 1, good for 5.7 yards of YAC per reception.
Against Jacksonville, Indianapolis gained 64 yards of YAC on 16 receptions, averaging just 4.0 yards of YAC per reception.
You can see on plays like this one how the Jaguars were able to close so quickly on throws, eliminating any chance for additional yardage:
Decision-making, timing and accuracy. Here, the throw is the right read, as Ryan targets Dulin on the in-breaker. The ball is out on-time, as Ryan makes this throw with great anticipation, but it is behind Dulin, who has to stop and adjust to the throw. That gives the safety time to close the gap, and this 11-yard throw becomes a 12-yard gain.
A few snaps later the Colts return to this design, with nearly the exact-same result:
(I know, I double-checked. This is indeed a different play). But again, the ball comes out on-time, but Dulin has to adjust, and a ten-yard throw results in a ten-yard gain.
When an offense like Indianapolis’ is at its best, ten-yard throws result in 20-yard gains, or more. The quarterback is making the right decision, the ball is coming out on-time, is put in the right spot, and quick throws become explosive plays.
But when all the ingredients are not in place, you have results like these. Ten-yard throws remain ten-yard gains, and eventually, the missed yardage starts to add up.
Now, it is more than fair to point out that the Colts were without two of their top receiving options, as both Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce were out with injury. And to his credit, Ryan did make some impressive throws, such as this one, that were dropped:
Still, Ryan had opportunities to make throws, and when those chances came, he was often off the mark. Perhaps the Colts’ best chance to score came early in the fourth quarter, when they faced a 1st and goal at the Jacksonville 4-yard line. On first down, Ryan looked to tight end Mo Alie-Cox on a corner route in the back of the end zone:
Alie-Cox is working to the back corner of the end zone, away from the coverage. This is, admittedly, a very tough throw. Ryan has to navigate, in essence, three defenders: The defender underneath, the end line, and the side line. Dropping this throw in the right spot is difficult. But these are the kinds of precision throws that the Colts expect Ryan to make. Instead, the throw is behind the tight end, forcing him to slow and adjust. The defender is able to recover, and makes a play at the catch point, helping to force an incompletion.
Indianapolis would eventually be pushed back — thanks to a sack and a penalty — and face 4th and goal from the 13-yard line. Ryan’s pass fell incomplete.
Then there was Ryan’s final pass attempt of the day, which resulted in his third interception. It perhaps perfectly summarizes the struggles in the passing game from Indianapolis on Sunday, as the quarterback faces pressure in the pocket, tries to solve the problems with a perfect throw, and his pass is well off-target:
If the Colts are going to improve in the passing game, they will need to put Ryan in the best situation to succeed. It begins with more consistency up front, and getting the “5 to play as 1” as Kelly put it. At this point in his career, Ryan needs to be able to drive into throws, and make passes from clean pockets. When protection woes start to mount, you can see missed opportunities in the passing game. The tenets of the offense — Decision-making, timing and accuracy — start to crumble, and the offense sputters on drives, rather than finishing them with points.
The task does not get easier this week, as the Colts take on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. But if Indianapolis is going to fix things on offense, they need to put Ryan in a position to deliver on those three core tenets of their passing game.