Wentz Remains Colts' Biggest Problem

Indianapolis Colts QB Carson Wentz
Indianapolis Colts QB Carson Wentz
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 17 - All football teams experience turbulence during their season at one point or another. Few teams, however, have had to endure the rollercoaster that is the Las Vegas Raiders 2021 season. Starting out 3-0, then losing a head coach to an email scandal, a former first-round pick to a fatal DUI accident, and another to threats of gun violence over Instagram DMs. A win over the Dallas Cowboys here, a loss to the Joe Judge Giants there, losing your top receiving target to a nagging injury down the stretch.

Teams with weaker constitutions may have folded at this point, looking to regroup in 2022. Not Las Vegas. On the brink of elimination, the Raiders have strung together three straight victories (none of them pretty) and now control their own playoff destiny headed into the final week of this season.

In the words of the late John Madden, winning is a great deodorant.

The Raiders failed to get the ball going on the ground for most of their 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Rushing for just 85 yards on 27 carries, the Raiders' 3.1 yards per attempt in this game was their lowest average since Week 4's loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. This was also the Raiders' only game of the season without a run of more than 10 yards. Instead of running it, Las Vegas leaned on a passing attack led by Derek Carr, Hunter Renfrow, and Zay Jones.

Carr was a little more careless with the ball than he has been throughout most of this season, throwing a pair of interceptions and nearly having a third picked off. What Carr lacked in ball security, though, he made up for with improvisation. Most of the Raiders' early passing attack relied on quick-timing passes, moving down the field with shorter routes and quick pickups. As the game progressed, however, Carr and the Raiders found themselves relying more on long-developing passing plays.

Some of these longer developing plays were by design. During their last drive of the first half, Carr connected with Jones for a 26-yard gain off of play-action, waiting for Jones to find a crease in the Colts' zone defense.

Other plays, however, came off the heels of pure improvisation. The eventual game-sealing pass to Renfrow in the final minute of the game came while Carr was under duress, side-stepping one Colts defender and getting the pass off before being taken down by a second. By extending plays with his legs and sustaining longer-developing passing plays, Carr gave Renfrow and Jones more time to get open against the Colts secondary, providing the chunk plays necessary to win a defensive bout. The Raiders quarterback eventually credited plays like the "off-schedule" pass to Renfrow as a key to winning this game.

"Those are the plays that you see so many of those great quarterbacks make, and I'm not putting my name in there," Carr said to ESPN. "I'm saying, like, you see Aaron [Rodgers] make them all the time. You see Patrick [Mahomes]. Those guys. Those are plays that aren't drawn up. It's just your receiver staying alive and helping you out and making plays on the ball.

"For me, I've watched those guys and you try and take things from everybody and learn from them and that was just, whether it's the protection or the routes covered, whatever it is, then you just try to find a couple of steps up to your right or up the middle, whatever."

On defense, the conversation for the Raiders starts with their line. This was a battle of the trenches; our defensive line stats rank Vegas 10th in the league in adjusted line yards, while our offensive line numbers rank Indianapolis seventh in run blocking. The Raiders never once stacked the box to stop Jonathan Taylor. Instead, the defensive line controlled the gaps, limiting Taylor's options as a runner. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Taylor's 7 rushing yards over expected was his lowest total since Week 8 against the Tennessee Titans.

Jonathan Taylor run chart

Las Vegas mixed in different looks pre- and post-snap to throw Carson Wentz off his game. Wentz had not practiced all week after entering COVID-19 protocols, so sprinkling in some extra trickery really muddied the waters for him. Most of Las Vegas' coverage against the pass was still Gus Bradley's base Cover-3 defense, but the interior linebackers played games with Wentz all afternoon. Wentz would make adjustments after seeing seven silver helmets rolled up to the line of scrimmage, only to have two of them bail out to the middle of the field. This caused Wentz to hold the ball longer, allowing Las Vegas to generate pressure without blitzing and forcing Wentz to bail out of a play to avoid taking a sack.

Wentz finished the game with an average time to throw of 3.24 seconds, fifth-highest among quarterbacks on Sunday per Next Gen Stats.

Where the Game Swung

Win percentage chart

Qtr Time Down Distance Location WP Change Play
4 0:54 3 10 IND 48 +35.7% Carr completes 24-yard pass to Renfrow
4 11:25 4 2 IND 11 +16.7% Carr to Renfrow, touchdown
2 0:04 3 1 LV 1 -11.9% Taylor rushing touchdown
4 0:58 2 10 IND 48 -11.7% Carr pass incomplete to Edwards
3 11:38 1 10 LV 45 -10.3% Wentz tip-drill touchdown to Hilton

The lack of explosive plays in this game is reflected in the win probability graph, where most touchdowns created double-digit shifts and two of the top four plays came from the last drive. The graph also shows how capable the Colts were of winning this game. This table isn't typically dominated by negative changes in win probability, but that's indicative of the Colts' chances down the stretch.

One of the most impactful plays of the game also happened to be one of the least likely touchdowns to be featured in a win probability chart this season. The 45-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton could have very well been an interception. Instead, it ended up being the go-ahead opportunity the Colts needed to stay in this game.

There's a small window where it really looks like Hilton is open. A quarterback with a better arm could have made that work with ease. Wentz, however, short-arms the ball smack in-between two Raiders defenders. In a Looney Tunes-esqe moment that would have left Bugs Bunny questioning its realism, the Raiders defenders collide at the exact right time, popping the ball up perfectly for Hilton to secure the touchdown.

By the DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
LV -8.8% -17.7% 8.2% 17.1%
IND -5.5% -8.9% -2.8% 0.7%
         
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
LV -17.4% -10.5% 8.2% 1.3%
IND -4.9% -11.8% -2.8% 4.1%

The Colts finish out slightly ahead of the Raiders before adjusting for opponent. This was the Colts' third-worst performance by offensive passing DVOA on the season and their worst performance in offensive rushing DVOA since Week 10 against Jacksonville. For the Raiders, this is their single best defensive passing effort by DVOA this season and their second-best total defensive effort this year.

The Horse You Rode in On

As it currently stands, Indianapolis holds the sixth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The team's recent string of victories had many thinking they may be the dark horse on their side of the bracket. Coming into this week, the Colts had won seven of their last eight games, boasting a 9-3 record since their 0-3 start to the season. This loss, however, really highlights their one major shortcoming: Carson Wentz.

I can give Wentz a bit of a pass for this game because of his lack of practice this week. We as NFL fans have been somewhat desensitized by NFL players—even quarterbacks—playing on Sundays after missing an entire week of practice without missing a beat. Wentz didn't have the same rhythm on Sunday. The Raiders mixing up looks after the snap slowed Wentz down, and some of that may have been alleviated if he had been in the building all week.

That being said, there are just some things you cannot simply chalk up to COVID protocols. Wentz's arm looked bad in this game, routinely missing targets in open space. Some, like the touchdown pass to Hilton, quite literally bounced his way. Others weren't as lucky. On Indy's second play of the fourth quarter, Wentz sailed a ball over the head of a wide-open Hilton.

Hilton has nothing but daylight ahead of him. If Wentz hits this, worst-case scenario it extends the drive on third-and-7. Best-case scenario, Hilton takes this to the house for a 77-yard touchdown and a two-score lead. Instead, the Colts punt and the Raiders follow with a six-play, 62-yard touchdown drive.

Indianapolis has more than enough in the tank to take on the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, so I think it's a pretty safe bet that it holds onto its wild-card spot. Taylor may be a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year, but he isn't enough to take this team deep into the playoffs. The Colts will go as far as Wentz can take them, for better or for worse. And Wentz is the quarterback in Indianapolis next year too. The Colts have an out in 2023 where they can cut him without a dead cap hit, but this is their guy for this playoff run and for all of 2022. Ask Eagles fans about Wentz—there will be some pretty high highs, and there will be some very low lows. How Indianapolis fares this postseason is very dependent on which Wentz decides to show up.

Comments

10 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2022, 9:53am

1 Nice writeup

Very good article. If Jacobs is healthy enough to punish the chargers run defense, Sunday night may be a game.

2 Thanks for this

Those views of Wentz underthrowing Hilton make it a lot clearer how open TY was and how underthrown the pass was (and maybe even late). I initially thought it was a horrible play design--two WRs within a yard of each other at the goal line?  But no, had Wentz thrown on time and accurately, Hilton would have had it at the 10 and loped in easily and Dulin would have only caught up with him to celebrate.

I thought Wentz was a big-armed gunslinger.  COVID didn't rob him of that. And he's not old.  So... injured?  Meh.  I also thought his best play earlier this year, the underthrown bomb DPI bait, was flukey.... now it's not a quirk, but a structural flaw that Reich better work around.  With another year to work on this stuff, hopefully Reich can tune the playbook better to the 2022 Wentz and not as if he's the 2017 Wentz. I love his mobility (after watching Rivers) and his ability to improvise... just not always his instincts for improv.

As I've read elsewhere, the bigger problem for Indy on Sunday was that they came out flat. (Coaches? Team leaders?)  It's simplistic and too easy to say they thought they had it in the bag and stumbled, but it looked that way. Now a little desperation in a city they haven't won in since 2013 might be a good get-right opp to warm up for a playoff road game.

3 I don’t buy the “came out…

I don’t buy the “came out flat” narrative. I can see someone saying that about the defense, since the Raiders marched down the field on the opening drive. I’d argue they just had a good game plan that the Colts had to adjust to. 
 

While Wentz’s decision making seems to have gotten better through out the season, his actual throwing seems to be getting worse. He is making fewer bonehead, WTF throws. I thought he generally made the right choices on Sunday. There were a couple of times when he should have tucked and run instead of throwing, but maybe that was COVID recovery (one of them was the fluke Hilton TD. Hilton was open earlier in the play, but Wentz saw him late). 
 

Where Wentz has gotten worse is with his throwing mechanics. He’s rushing throws and missing them. The over throw of the wide open Hilton being the worst. It was bad in the 3rd quarter of last weeks Cardinals game. I somewhat chalked that up to the fact the the Colts were playing random guys from the stands on the OL at that point. Against the Raiders though, it seemed like he was slow processing what he saw. He held the ball a long time, then the pass rush started closing in and he’d make a throw with poor mechanics. There were a couple of throws in the 2-minute drive to end the first half that were especially bad. One was a dump to a RB in the middle of the field, who had to go to the ground to catch it. A second was to a wide open Allie-Cox on an out route. Allie-Cox had to dive for it. Both inaccurate throws left the receiver on the ground with no opportunity to get out of bounds to stop the clock.  

4   While Wentz’s decision…

 

While Wentz’s decision making seems to have gotten better through out the season, his actual throwing seems to be getting worse.

This is really, really common among QBs, FWIW. One of the best things was when I read a QB mechanics coach in the offseason who said exactly this - that QB mechanics tend to get worse over the season because they're not working on them as consistently. Whereas their ability to read defenses improves because that's what they are working on (in game planning). I had been saying this for years, that passing seems to degrade over time pretty much totally separate from weather, but schematic advantages (e.g. from Belichick, Reid) tend to increase over the season.

In general I think I good coach can mitigate this by adjusting coaching over the year. Take the Hilton overthrow, for instance. It's a bog-standard Hi-Lo type read. But Hilton could've also just gone for a hitch or comeback and it would've been a much easier throw for Wentz, just without a touchdown possibility since he's not trying to hit him in stride. Less impactful, sure, but a first down works too.

5 Shouldn't you just keep…

Shouldn't you just keep working on this more throughout the season if you are a player who struggles with this? Like I play rec softball and my softball throwing mechanics break down if I don't focus on them so I spend a few hours a month just repping throwing to make sure I keep a focus on it. If I do this myself to play recreationally, wouldn't a pro team be doing so way more? They haven't shown QB practice much on hard knocks, but the RBs sure keep repping fundamentals.

6 It's not that they're not…

It's not that they're not trying to maintain them, it's that they're not focusing on them the way they do during the offseason. They can't. They're focusing on game planning, recovery, etc. You just physically don't have the time. Obviously during the offseason, that's what you work on the most, because you don't have games to deal with.

Here's the origin of that quote: https://www.si.com/nfl/colts/film/mechanics-of-wentz-maintaining-mechanics

 

7 Really interesting. This is…

Really interesting. This is probably why the not-first-generation players like the Mannings, etc. have had such success. They basically learned great mechanics from age 2 so they don't really have somewhere else to regress to. That 1% per week part makes a whole lot of sense. Although it's hard to believe Wentz looks like he's even close to 85% efficiency the last couple weeks.

10 I said last year that I feel…

I said last year that I feel that Wentz is just the kind of QB who needs buckets of practice time, which in the end would make perfect sense for why he had such a godawful year last year. Wasn't really sure why until I saw that quote in the offseason and realized "oh, jeez, it's because he's so off-schedule all the time." That article series was really hopeful for Wentz because of the people he's working with, but I think most of Wentz's problems are in his head - I wouldn't be surprised if he treats the mechanics stuff as if they were body workouts. As in, you don't need to think about why you're lifting, it's just the act of lifting alone that matters. Muscle memory (well, what people mean when they say it) isn't actually in the muscles.

Some part of me also wonders if that's what's going on with Russell Wilson as well, although woo-hoo Russ, you're having pretty much your best late-season performance in half a decade a year when it totally doesn't matter (although that bomb of a game versus the Rams still drags things).

8 That makes a helluva lot of sense

The QB position is pretty damn complicated and in season, it gets worse with film study, new plays added and changed, etc.  Offseason is when they can work the most on themselves (fitness, technique, mechanics, strength, etc).  As a wrestling coach, yes, we work on the basics a ton the first few weeks of every season and rarely later on--part of that is teaching new freshmen every year, but it makes sense for NFL/college QBs as well.  (Though backups and third stringers can continue to work on the fundamentals more than starters, I assume, if there's a coach to work on it with them.)  And just today, I had to review a lot of very basic stuff with a couple newbies who were lost, whereas the more seasoned kids just coasted on more advanced stuff (or goofed off).

9 The other thing is that some…

The other thing is that some of the "mechanics" of the QB aren't just about throwing, either - it's also eye and body discipline to avoid tipping defenders. Which could be why there's so much anecdotal evidence of backups doing well in a single game - their mechanics are still sharp because they haven't been quite as overwhelmed.

Manning's Detail series on ESPN+'s great for pointing out a lot of extra mechanics at QB as well, although I wish he went harder into the bad plays, too.