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Cowboys vs. Colts: Previewing the Indianapolis offense

The Colts have been really hot lately, and it’s largely due to their offense.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys and Colts have a lot of things in common. They both wear blue and white uniforms, both have highly visible and heavily involved owners, and in the 2018 season, both were once considered to be dead in the water before going on huge runs. After starting out 1-5, the Colts have won six of their last seven games to get to 7-6 coming into Sunday’s matchup against Dallas, who of course have won five straight to rebound from their dismal 3-5 start to the season.

But the Cowboys were supposed to be in this position, competing for the playoffs and worrying about seeding. The Colts, however, have a first-year head coach in Frank Reich, who wasn’t even their first choice for the job, who ended up keeping several assistant coaches that Josh McDaniels had hired before he bailed on the Colts at the last second. Andrew Luck is playing football again for the first time since the 2016 season. The Colts weren’t supposed to be this good yet, but they are. And a lot of that has to do with Reich, who calls offensive plays, and Luck.

Reich had been the offensive coordinator for the Eagles the past two seasons, although he didn’t call the plays there due to Doug Pederson claiming that role. Still, Reich came into Indianapolis and inherited an offense that realistically featured only two good players: Luck, who at the time wasn’t even a guarantee to play, and receiver TY Hilton. But the Colts had a lot of cap space and 11 picks in the upcoming draft to put together a bit of a foundation.

The first priority was fortifying their offensive line, which has been one of the NFL’s worst units for a while and the reason why Luck missed all of last year. So the Colts spent two of their first three picks in the trenches, selecting Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and Auburn guard Braden Smith. Nelson has been manning the left guard spot and keeps impressing each week; Pro Football Focus currently ranks him as the 12th best offensive guard in the NFL, which is just nuts. Smith was asked to move to right tackle, where he’s started every game so far and been good, albeit nowhere near as impressive as Nelson.

But it hasn’t just been the two rookies pulling their weight on this offensive line. Ryan Kelly, the former Alabama center, has been one of the best at his position this year, while veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo has been as consistent as ever. In fact, a few weeks ago PFF went so far as to rank the Colts offensive line fourth in the league so far. The unit even went on to not allow a single sack in five consecutive weeks.

Not surprisingly, the improvements in protection has led to Luck’s own resurgence, and he’s having a pretty phenomenal season whilst reminding us all why he was once the next big thing at quarterback. So far, he’s completing nearly 68% of his passes for 3,759 total yards (289 yards per game) with 34 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Luck is also leading the sixth best passing offense in the NFL despite not having too many well-established weapons.

As should be expected, Hilton leads the team in virtually every receiving category. He has 62 catches for 986 yards and six touchdowns, and his 98 targets also leads the team. However, tight end Eric Ebron has 96 targets, and has caught 58 of those passes for 654 yards and a team-lead 12 touchdowns. Fourth-round rookie running back Nyheim Hines is third on the team in catches with 52 which he’s turned into 314 yards and two scores, while Chester Rogers has 42 catches for 389 yards and a score. Ryan Grant, who came over from the Redskins in free agency, has also pitched in 309 yards and a touchdown.

Offensively, it seems as if everything has come together for the Colts, especially as of late. Luck showed a bit of rust in the beginning of the year, but he gained more confidence each week and now in six of the last seven games, all of which have been wins, Luck’s QBR has been over 100 each time. A lot of it has to do with the low number of sacks. Of all the quarterbacks who have started every game of the season, only one has been sacked less than Luck, and it’s Drew Brees.

In New Orleans, the reason Brees gets sacked so rarely is that he gets the ball out of his hand very quickly. Reich has taken this same approach with his offense in Indianapolis. Whereas previous offensive coordinators sought to take advantage of Luck’s supreme throwing ability with deep shots, Reich has drawn up a lot of quick passes that in many ways mirror what offensive wunderkinds like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, as well as Sean Payton, do. In turn, this has helped the offensive line out too, as they aren’t asked to hold their blocks nearly as long.

But despite all of these positives, the Colts still have one of their same old problems on offense that they’ve had since Edgerrin James left: the lack of a stable ground game. Indy’s rushing attack ranks 24th in the league in yards per game and are averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The aforementioned Hines has carried the ball 76 times for 289 yards and one touchdown. Fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins has 318 yards on 57 carries, but it is second-year player Marlon Mack who leads the offense with 131 carries for 616 yards and five touchdowns. In total, this rushing offense leaves a lot to be desired, as their DVOA rating for the ground attack is a rating of -8.6%, or the 19th most efficient rushing attack in the league.

At the end of the day, this Colts offense isn’t going to run the ball down a defense’s throat and chew up the clock, as only seven teams have a lower average time of possession than their 28:52. Where the Colts are most effective is running a combination of creative routes that allows Luck to get the ball out quick and do his thing. If he gets in a rhythm and has a good day, the Colts usually get a win. Luck is 1-5 in games with a QBR under 100, and he is 6-1 in games with a QBR over 100.

His most recent poor game, the Colts’ last loss, was to the Jacksonville Jaguars. In that game, the Jaguars’ talented secondary was able to prevent the deep shots and not allow a whole lot of yards after the catch, which effectively handicapped the offense in a very similar manner to what Dallas did against Brees and the Saints. As a result, Luck was forced to hold onto the ball longer and in turn he was sacked three times, the second highest amount in a single game for him all season. To stop this hot offense, Dallas will need to play like they did against New Orleans.

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