It’s Week 8 of the NFL season and the 3-4 Washington Commanders will be facing a 3-3-1 Colts team in Indianapolis.
The two teams are in the midst of significant transitions at the most important position on the field, with Taylor Heinicke looking to start a winning streak and Sam Ehlinger getting a permanent promotion into the starting role over the aging Matt Ryan. Both teams had high expectations coming into the season, having “built around the QB position” for years, only to fall painfully short when they’ve tried to plug veteran QBs into their systems. The remainder of this season will play a critical role in determining whether the decision makers in each franchise ultimately stay in place.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Chris Shepherd of Stampede Blue five questions about the state of the Colts and what to look for in this game.
1) When Matt Ryan was announced to the Colts in the offseason, I fully expected it to be the disaster that it has been. It was clear he was shot for a couple of years in Atlanta. How do Colts’ fans feel about his benching and the elevation of Sam Ehlinger? Are they officially in tanking mode at this point?
Matt Ryan really hasn’t been the problem. He’s been fine outside of the fumbles and everyone likes to point to the fumbles without mentioning that if you don’t let your QB get hit, he’s far less likely to fumble. Ryan hasn’t been great but he’s 4th in the league for passing yards and has led three, 4th quarter comeback wins- 3 more than they had all of last season. The plan was never for Ryan to have to elevate those around him, it was to have him manage games at an elite level- something he’s very capable of doing. Instead they’ve relied on him to win games for them and this isn’t 2016.
Fans are hopeful for Ehlinger. The only QB that has a chance to succeed behind what has become a terrible offensive line is a mobile one and Ehlinger fits the bill. For fans it’s good news either way. Either Ehlinger is going to prove to be the best 6th round QB since Brady or he’ll suck so bad they’ll be in a position to draft a QB early for the first time in more than a decade.
This was a decision made by Jim Irsay. Coach Frank Reich came out and said all of the right things but he alluded to it coming from the owner. I believe Irsay has the same motivations fans have - he’ll see what kind of a player Ehlinger is and most likely have a much better draft pick than had Ryan finished the season. So if that’s tanking, then yes. One thing I’m sure of is that Fran Reich isn’t going to tank. He’ll play the QB he is told to play but he’s going to game plan his tail off to try to make it work and get wins. I expect him to pull every rabbit out of every hat he has over the second half of the season.
So the owner wants to throw in the towel, the coach won’t and the GM who is responsible for this mess (but still really good at many aspects of his job and a guy I have very mixed feelings about right now) hasn’t said a word.
2) Two years ago, the Colts looked like one of the most promising teams in the league. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about how they had recently had one of the best drafting operations in the league. What went wrong?
On defense the Colts have been excellent for most of this year. Their raw numbers look worse because the offense has put them in some terrible positions.
What went wrong? Back in 2018 Chris Ballard set about fixing what had been a porous offensive line for nearly a decade at that point. He drafted Quenton Nelson in the top 10 and Braden Smith early in the second round. He also added a few players via free agency and picked up Mark Glowinski via wavers from the Seahawks in season. After some early season shuffling they figured out a group of five that would go on to become one of the best lines in the league.
After 2020, left tackle Anthony Castonzo retired and after 2021 Glowinski left in free agency. But that still left a core of Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith. When those guys are healthy they’re more than good enough to make up for lesser players at LT and RG but instead Nelson and Kelly have been disappointing all season long and there’s plenty of speculation that they’re either currently playing through injury or that the injuries both men have suffered in the last three years are taking their toll as both have regressed to average starters at absolute best. Smith struggled early on but has played more like his old self for the past few games.
So why is that bit of history important for this question? Because Frank Reich built his offense around having a strong offensive line. The Colts offense, as designed, will only go as far as the offensive line will take it and so far the line and the offense as a whole has been terrible.
So the answer to your question is that losing key players and not replacing them with starting caliber players on the offensive line and injury induced regression have killed the Colts offense.
It’s also worth noting that even though the offense has been bad, the team still has a .500 record and is only a half game behind in the division. The Titans aren’t great and they have an absolutely brutal stretch of games coming up. The AFC South is bad enough that a 7-10 team might actually win the thing.
3) The Colts pass defense appears to be significantly better than its rush defense. Assuming that’s true, do you think a fairly conservative, ball control offense with a heavy dose of Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson is the shortest path to victory, ala the Titans’ strategy?
The Colts are content to let teams run but good luck scoring touchdowns. They’re also one of the best in the league at forcing three and outs. The best way to beat the Colts is to get up by more than 8 points. Three field goals will work just fine. Running to get in field goal range is an effective strategy. Make your kicks and you’re golden. On defense never put more than six defenders in the box. The Colts can’t win one on one blocks with consistency anywhere other than at RT right now so it would be best to leave plenty of guys in coverage and force them to pass behind a terrible offensive line. First team to 20 wins the game.
Also a quick point to make on the Titans game, without a pick-6 that immediately followed the worst uncalled face mask I’ve ever seen, the Colts probably win that game. I’m not a guy that blames officials for losses and the Colts had plenty of opportunities to make up for that bad call but neither offense was good and that missed call had a massive, undeniable impact on the outcome of the game.
4) How hot are Frank Reich and Chris Ballard’s seats this year? What’s the probability that either or both could be gone if the Colts miss the playoffs?
Ballard is likely safe. Frank Reich is likely going to get fired and while most fans are probably happy about that, most fans are morons. Frank Reich is human and has made mistakes but he’s a good offensive coach who has been put in a completely impossible situation and he’s going to take the fall for it.
5) What are you expecting the final score of the game to be this week? DraftKings Sportsbook has the over/under set at 40. How many points do you expect to be scored overall?
Like I said first team to 20 should win if the Colts first 7 games have told us anything. With that said it’s tough to know how effective the Colts offense will be with Ehlinger running the show. But I’m not putting a lot of faith in the idea that a second year former sixth round pick making not only his first start but taking his first snap in an NFL game, in week 8, is going to come out and light up the score board. Call me a cynic if you want, but if I were going to bet on this game I’d take the under and not look back.
Commanders - 15
Colts - 13
Thanks again to Chris for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Colts.
As of right now, Vegas has the Colts as 3 pt favorites. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Colts win by 4 or more?
Colts win by 2 or less, or Washington wins.
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 39.5 points. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
40 or more total points are scored.
39 or fewer total points are scored.