Wentz Remains Colts' Biggest Problem
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.
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
|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
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.