It was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights moment.
In the spotlight was Frank Reich – head coach of the enigmatic Indianapolis Colts. It was the post-game press conference, and Frank was explaining that – respecting the top ranked run defense of his opponent that day (the world-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – his Colts decided to pursue promising matchups in the passing game.
It was exactly one week earlier that the Colts seemed to legitimize their season. In splitting the first ten games, the Colts had managed to cling to the .500 mark with only one of their wins coming against an opponent (San Francisco) that currently sports a winning record (and they were not a .500 team when the Colts faced them). Oh, they had played some of the better teams close. They had lost one-score games to the Rams, Ravens and Titans. But that signature win was always one mistake away.
And then they went to Buffalo in Week 11 to play the then-East division-leading Bills. They shredded them. On a cold and blustery afternoon in Orchard Park, the dome-residing Colts took it to Buffalo in a complete team victory, 41-15. The highlight of the rout was the Indy running game, featuring an offensive line that is arguably football’s best and the NFL’s leading rusher – a dynamic young back named Jonathan Taylor. Taylor logged 185 of Indianapolis’ 264 rushing yards – an impressive total against a Buffalo defensive unit that ranked (at the time) third in the league against the run. Taylor scored 5 touchdowns that day.
It was the second time in three games that Indy had surpassed 200 yards on the ground, and they had ascended to fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 147.9 yards a game. This is a Colt team that can truly be scary when they run the ball.
But against the Bucs, they folded up the running attack early. Taylor jogged into the locker room at the half with just 8 carries and only 25 yards. The team – on the strength of 2 Carson Wentz scrambles – managed just 47 ground yards in the first half.
Here’s the thing, though. The Colts carried a 24-14 lead into the half. You know those matchups in the passing game that Coach Reich mentioned? They worked like a charm.
Most of them involved tight end Jack Doyle, who bedeviled the Bucs throughout a first half that saw him catch 4 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. And once it involved a little-known, third-year wide receiver named Ashton Dulin, who took advantage of Tampa Bay’s concentration on Michael Pittman and T.Y. Hilton to slip open over the deep middle and haul in a perfectly thrown, 62-yard touchdown strike.
For thirty heady minutes, the Colts had put their game against the world champs into the hands of Wentz, and things couldn’t have gone much better. Carson finished the half 16 of 24 for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns – adding up to a 131.4 rating.
The second half began in the same vein. Taking the opening kickoff, Carson completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards as he drove the Colts to the Tampa Bay 20 yard line. It was here that the game would turn.
Shaquil Barrett – one of the Super Bowl heroes – sprinted around the edge to sack Wentz. The ball shook free, and Barrett recovered. From there, it took Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense 6 plays and 2:52 to negotiate the 65 yards for the touchdown.
Carson finished the game completing just 6 of his last 13 passes (46.2%) for just 54 yards (4.15 per pass), with no touchdowns. His two second half interceptions (he had thrown just 3 all season to that point) were responsible for half of the four second-half turnovers that saddled the Colts with a very costly 38-31 loss (gamebook) (summary).
But here’s the kicker.
The first 18 plays that Indy ran in the second half were all called passes – during which time the Colts fell from a 10-point lead to a 31-24 deficit.
It wasn’t until there was 10:06 left in the game that Jonathan Taylor got his first carry of the second half – a 5-yard burst up the middle. That would be the first play of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that would temporarily tie the score at 31-all. Taylor would carry the ball on 8 of the 10 plays – his only carries of the second half – and he would slice easily through the Tampa defense, scrolling up 58 yards on those carries (7.3 per).
They wouldn’t have the opportunity to run again. Brady would drain most of the rest of the clock driving the Bucs to the go-ahead touchdown. A 72-yard kick return by Isaiah Rodgers gave the Colts the ball on the Buc 32, making things interesting. But Carson missed on his final two passes, having the last one picked off as time ran out.
The loss leaves Reich awash in questions that have no easy answers. Could the Colts have run the ball against the Bucs if they had stayed with their running game longer? Or was Tampa lulled into pass rush mode after 18 consecutive passes? Can Carson Wentz be the big game passer that he appeared to be in the game’s first half? Or is he really the Wentz who contributed 3 of the team’s 4 second half turnovers?
And – most perplexingly – if he’s both (which is not an unlikely answer), then how do you know when to take the ball out of his hands and return to the running game.
If they had taken the excellent first half that Carson had given them with his arm, and then came out running the ball in the second half, who knows what might have happened. But the only way that Frank could have known to do that was to know going in that Carson was going to struggle in the second half. In a critical, late season game against a top opponent, Carson Wentz was the answer. Until suddenly he wasn’t.
It’s a tender situation that Coach Reich will have to feel his way through for the rest of the season – a season which now may not include a playoff opportunity.
Indy Needed This Game
More than just a win that got away, this loss could go a long way to pushing the Colts out of the playoffs. They are now 6-6 and one of a half-dozen AFC teams that are all sitting either at .500 or within a game of the .500 mark. They play Houston this week, and then have their bye.
It will be the first two games after their bye (in Weeks 15 and 16) that will now – in all likelihood – tell their fate. They play at home against the torrid New England Patriots, and then travel to Arizona to play a Cardinal team that will probably have all its pieces back by then and will be in the fight for their conference’s top spot. Neither of these is a very good matchup for the Colts, but they are now in a position where they will need to win one of those games. If they lose both, the best they will finish is 9-8, which almost certainly won’t be good enough.
If the Colts don’t make it, that could be very good news for a team like Kansas City. The Chiefs are currently sitting at the top of their division, but their closing schedule is fairly brutal. Three of their final four are road games at the Chargers, the Bengals and the Broncos. Kansas City has played much better lately, but I still think it will be a down-to-the-wire struggle for them to get into the dance. If the Colts do fall short, that could make all the difference for the Chiefs.
Trying to Figure Out the Champs
On the other end of this intriguing matchup from last Sunday are the world champion Buccaneers. While, on the one hand, Indianapolis’ offensive game plan was a smashing success (in the first half, anyway), the Colts were also able defensively to mostly derail football’s top scoring offense.
They denied Brady the deep-strike weapons that have characterized this team. Brady threw only one pass at a target more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and averaged just 5.85 intended air yards on his throws. This means that his average target was less than six yards from the line of scrimmage. His two primary targets – Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – were limited to a combined 10 targets. Together, they managed 7 catches for just 40 yards.
Tom Brady – who entered the game as football’s fourth rated passer (104.3) – ended his afternoon with just 226 passing yards and a rating of 88.6. He averaged just 9.04 yards per pass completion. It could have been a dicey situation for the champs, but Tampa Bay found a way forward. They decided to do what Indianapolis was unwilling to do – take over the game with their running attack.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a curious relationship with their running game. Perhaps you remember that in the big game last February the Bucs ran through the Chiefs to the tune of 145 yards, with Leonard Fournette (aka Playoff Lenny) accounting for 89 of them. The dynamic of that game, of course, was very different. Tampa Bay jumped out to the early lead and turned to the running game to control rest of the contest. Eighty-five of those yards came in the second half.
That was the surprising thing about Sunday’s game. Almost always, the Bucs respond to a deficit with their passing attack. In a Week Eight loss to New Orleans they ran the ball only 14 times even though they averaged 5.1 yards per rush. The next week – in a loss to Washington – they ran the ball just 13 times – although they gained 4.1 yards per attempt. These two losses came on the heels of a 182-yard rushing explosion in a win against the Bears.
Tampa Bay can clearly run the ball better than most teams. They just don’t like to do it. They brought in TB12 and lined up all of those receivers to fill the air with up-the-field passes. Coming into the Colt game, Brady had thrown the second most passes of any quarterback in football (423) and the Bucs’ 219 rushing attempts ranked as football’s second fewest.
But the ground game bailed them out in the second half last Sunday. Fourteen running plays (gaining 87 yards) balanced 15 called passing plays (gaining 94 yards) to guide the come-from-behind victory. Again, it was Playoff Lenny who scampered around left end for the 28-yard touchdown run that provided the winning margin. Fournette paced the 142-yard team effort with 100 rushing yards of his own (on just 17 carries). He scored three of the four rushing touchdowns that the Bucs achieved against a Colt defense that had allowed only 4 rushing touchdowns all season. Leonard also caught Brady’s only touchdown pass, capping off his four touchdown day.
Don’t get me wrong. Tampa Bay’s passing attack is plenty potent. But it can be dealt with – especially when they willingly make themselves one-dimensional.
This offense also gets much scarier when they decide to run the ball.
Clear Sailing Ahead?
There is, of course, a lot of football to play. But over the last few weeks the stars have been aligning somewhat for the Bucs, and a path to the top spot in the conference is beginning to emerge. Much of this is the result of the recent struggles of the Cowboys, who seemed in great shape to take the top spot until they dropped their last two games. They are now sitting in fourth place.
The other piece of great news for the Bucs is the deterioration of both the Saints and Panthers – division opponents against whom Tampa Bay will play half of its remaining schedule. With no more division foes that seem capable of bringing them down, the Bucs now have 6 winnable games in front of them. The most challenging of those, of course, will be their Week 14 match-up against Buffalo. That game will be at home, giving them an edge.
If they do get past the Bills and finish the season 14-3, that will put significant pressure on the two teams ahead of them to also win out. The Packers – currently 9-3 and the second seed – still have to go in to Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 15. A tough draw. The conference’s current top seed – Arizona (9-2) – also has a challenging road contest ahead when they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in Week 17.
If the Bucs and the Cards both reach 14-3 on the season, the Bucs would get the nod based on their record against common opponents. Having already beaten Dallas, Chicago, and, now, Indianapolis, the Bucs would need only to win both of their remaining games against Carolina to finish 5-1 against their common opponents (the Bucs lost a Week Three game to the Rams). The Cards would finish 4-2 against those same opponents. They have already beaten the Rams and lost to the Panthers. This scenario would predict them finishing out with wins in Chicago and then at home against the Rams and the Colts, with that Week 15 game against the Cowboys being the potential second loss.
The opportunity is there, but in a wildly unpredictable season, the Bucs have no margin for slip ups.
The Bills Also Turn to the Running Game
Buffalo is another team that has a conflicted relationship with its running game. In Devin Singletary they have a premium running back who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the course of his three-year career. But for that career, he is only getting 10.4 carries per game – and just 8.9 carries a game this year – a career low.
In Buffalo’s 3-1 start, Devin carried the ball 49 times (12.3 per contest) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. But beginning with the Week Five and Six games against Kansas City and Tennessee, Singletary was abruptly shoved to the sidelines. Over the next six games (a span in which Buffalo went 3-3) Devin never carried more than 7 times in any game, and finished with just 34 total attempts (5.7 per). And, yes, he was still averaging 4.6 yards per carry in those games.
Last Thursday, this Buffalo squad faced off against a New Orleans team in possession of the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 89.8 yards per game). This wouldn’t seem to be the game that the Bills would re-discover their balance.
And yet, as Buffalo took its 10-0 lead into the half, they had done so with admirable balance. Quarterback Josh Allen had thrown 16 passes and the Bills had run the ball 16 times.
First, the 16 runs included 2 scrambles by Allen on plays that were called passes. Josh was also sacked a couple of times – so the actual first half play calling was 20 passes and 14 runs. Still better balance than we’ve usually seen from the Bills.
Second, the balance in approach didn’t yield a great harvest in yards. The 16 runs produced 55 yards (3.4 per), with no run exceeding 9 yards. Singletary gained 7 first-half yards on 4 attempts. This is very much in line with the difficulties most teams have in running the football against New Orleans.
Given the early struggles, I expected the Bills to mostly discard the running game in the second half. To my surprise, Buffalo answered their 16-rush first half with 16 more running plays in the second half – with 11 of those carries going to the almost forgotten Singletary.
In the macro, the second half results were very similar to the first half. The 16 running plays advanced the ball just 58 yards (Devin’s 11 rushes amounting to just 37 yards). But the balance played enormous benefits in the passing game.
Throwing the ball just 12 times in the second half, Allen completed 10 of those passes (83.3%) for 137 yards (11.42 yards per attempt) and 3 touchdowns as Buffalo opened up the game on its way to a 31-6 victory (gamebook) (summary).
All of the running opened up the play-action game for Allen and the Bills. Of Josh’s 28 passes, 12 made use of a run-fake – fully 42.9% of the passing attack. And the results were cheering. Allen completed 10 of the 12 play-action passes for 124 yards and 3 touchdowns to offset an interception. His passer rating on these throws was an excellent 122.9.
While the direct effects of Buffalo’s running attack were fairly modest (113 yards on 32 rushes), the indirect benefits showed in a more diversified and dangerous passing attack.
This is another offense that becomes much more challenging to defend when they remember to run the ball.
Are the Rams Soft?
The running games had much tougher sledding in Lambeau in Sunday’s late contest between the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams. Although they won the games 36-28 (gamebook) (summary), Green Bay only earned 2.9 yards per rushing play (92 yards on 32 attempts). Along the way, though, second-year running back AJ Dillon opened some eyes. He finished with just 69 yards on 20 carries (3.5 per), but should have had far fewer.
His 20 carries produced 22 yards before contact by the defense. But AJ broke a career-high 5 tackles in the run game (he would break another after a pass), and gained 47 yards after contact (2.4 per carry).
It was the kind of occurrence that has some wondering if the Rams – losers, now, of three in a row – are soft. And not just physically soft. Is this Ram team emotionally soft as well?
Coming out of the half trailing just 20-17, the Rams turned the ball over twice in the second half, never made it into the red zone, and watched quarterback Matthew Stafford complete just 12 of 24 after intermission. Over the last three weeks, there have been chances for this team to fight their way back into the games, but the fight hasn’t seemed to rise to the opportunities.
I feel that you dismiss the Rams at your own peril. I grant you that they look vulnerable at the moment. But they’ve also had some significant roster churn recently. I don’t think the Ram team that you’re seeing right now will be the Ram team that you’ll see in a few weeks. This is a team that’s better than they look.
That being said, their offensive philosophy does lean toward the soft. Previous editions of the Sean McVay Rams have featured the running game as the foundation, with the passing game building off the running game. It was a system in which every play looked like it was a zone run, which then added a lot of play-action and boots by the quarterback to get him safely outside the pocket.
All of that smoothness – as well as the toughness that comes from a run-first mentality – is pretty much a thing of the past. In the second half against the Pack, McVay called 25 passes against just 7 runs – contributing materially to Green Bay’s 20:50 – 9:10 time of possession advantage. For the game, Green Bay nearly doubled the Rams in possession time 39:40 to 20:20. After that much time on the field, even the toughest defense will look soft.
Of Stafford’s 38 passes, only 4 came off of play action. For the season, Stafford is throwing off of play action just 18.3% of the time (the league average is right at 23%). They ran the ball 20 times in last Sunday’s game – including a Stafford kneel-down that ended the first half. Not enough.
A re-commitment to the running game would dramatically change the way that defenses approach this Ram team. Historically, they have been a much tougher offense when they were a run-first operation.