Jags Loss Leaves Indianapolis Colts at a Crossroads
NFL Week 2 - I love a week with options. But in a week full of upsets, it's hard to overlook the Jacksonville Jaguars' curb-stomping of the Indianapolis Colts.
Putting together Any Given Sunday is an exercise in tracking the biggest upsets every week in the NFL, and Week 2 offered us a lot. Multiple 20-point comebacks and 90-second turnarounds give us the excitement factor, sure, but there are two ways to define "biggest upset." The first is by difference between the teams. In this case, that would be the Jets, who were led by 37-year-old Joe Flacco as six-point underdogs over the Cleveland Browns, or Cooper Rush's Cowboys overtaking the Cincinnati Bengals as seven-point underdogs. But who wants to re-hash the Bengals offensive line woes?
The second measurement is scale of the upset. While the point spreads are a little tighter, the size and margin of victory is sometimes so wide that it must be talked about. By that measure, the Jaguars' 24-0 victory over the Colts was the upset of the week.
Indianapolis was the favorite to win the AFC South after an offseason that saw them land a new quarterback in Matt Ryan and a former Defensive Player of the Year cornerback in Stephon Gilmore. With the rest of their division either taking steps backwards or in active rebuilds, the Colts were practically penciled in for a division title. Their coming-out party was expected to begin with two division matchups against the alleged AFC South bottom-feeders, including the team that knocked the Colts out of playoff contention in Week 18 last year.
So far, their coming-out party has turned into a hiding-out party.
The game against Jacksonville did not feature a team with a capable veteran quarterback looking for a change of scenery, nor did it feature a stout, disciplined defense that can carry the team on its own. Instead, we saw a quarterback who has clearly lost velocity on his passes and a defense that looked downright inexperienced.
Indianapolis is built to be a run-first team with an option to fall back on its passing attack when given the opportunity. That begins with Jonathan Taylor, who saw just nine carries on Sunday. Taylor was unable to penetrate a Jacksonville defense who fit the run extremely well, giving Taylor nowhere to go. On the day 42 of Taylor's 54 rushing yards came from two 21-yard runs on the same drive in the third quarter. Beyond that, Taylor finished his afternoon with seven carries for 12 yards, including three snuffed out for no gain.
The inability to run forced Indianapolis to lean on Ryan, whom the Colts brought in after Carson Wentz performed below expectations in his one-year rental. Ryan proceeded to have arguably the worst game of his career. According to Stathead's Player Game Stats Finder, this is the only game in Ryan's career with at least 25 pass attempts, a completion rate under 60%, fewer than 200 passing yards, and at least three interceptions. Factor in the five sacks taken and Ryan's inability to find the end zone and it gets that much uglier.
This wasn't just some Matty Ice meltdown. Credit to the Jacksonville defensive front, which consistently provided pressure for Ryan and got home five times. But Ryan just looked … old. Placement was a big issue for Ryan most of the afternoon. Balls finished behind receivers, then over-corrections forced Ryan to throw the ball out too far in front of them.
Not only was timing an issue, but velocity as well. Ryan's first interception of the game came on an arcing lollipop well off its mark to a tightly covered receiver. Rayshawn Jenkins covered a lot of ground to beat Ashton Dulin to the spot, but Jenkins only had time to get there because of how much loft Ryan put on a ball that barely eclipsed 30 yards of air travel.
On the defensive side of the ball, Indianapolis just looked inexperienced as a whole. The Colts secondary squandered opportunities, dropping what should have been two, perhaps three interceptions. The lack of pass rush allowed Trevor Lawrence to have his first-ever NFL game without a sack. The Colts defense was stuck arm-tackling for stretches, allowing short plays to turn into first downs and would-be stops to turn into touchdowns.
The biggest issue, though, seemed to be a simple lack of discipline on the defensive side of the ball. The Colts defense bit on a lot of fakes and play-action. On their first drive, the Jaguars ran a play-action screen to Dan Arnold. From the top-down view of the play, Jacksonville put themselves in a position where they have an easy touchdown if one or two simple blocks get made. The blocks don't manifest, but the opportunity was certainly there for the score.
In the second quarter, 10 of 11 Colts defenders bit on a fake pitch, creating a wide-open opportunity for Lawrence to make a strike. If Lawrence had led Marvin Jones on that fake pitch pass, Jones would have had one man to beat before he was off to the races.
Jacksonville arguably left points on the board in this game. The Jaguars definitely look improved given the influx of offensive talent, but they still lack an elite, top wide receiver. There were certainly opportunities where Lawrence could have made a connection if the talent around him had been a hair better. He still makes some mistakes as a young, developing quarterback, but man, can he throw a really pretty pass.
By the VOA
I can't stress enough how historically unprecedented this performance was for both teams involved. First, let's start with the Colts. Offensive performances this pitiful are hard to come by. There were just four games in 2021 that featured an offense with a -85.0% offensive DVOA or worse:
- NO Week 2, -88.6% at Panthers
- NYG Week 17, -89.4% at Bears
- CAR Week 12, -92.6% at Dolphins
- HOU Week 4, -122.8% at Bills
These kinds of performances are especially rare for Indianapolis. By DVOA standards, Sunday's outing for the Colts was their worst offensive outing since 1992. In 30 years, we have not seen the Indianapolis Colts perform this poorly on offense. It should be noted that this game has not yet been adjusted for opponent, but unless the Jaguars find a way to keep up this early pace, this number should remain relatively similar. As for the Jaguars, Jacksonville played their fourth-best game by DVOA in franchise history.
Too early for team adjustments, but as of now, the Jaguars game Sunday was the fourth-best in franchise history by Total DVOA
1. 1999 DivRd v MIA: 120.8%
2. 2007 Wk16 v OAK: 115.8%
3. 2005 Wk10 v BAL: 108.7%
4. 2022 Wk2 v IND: 107.7% ⬅️
5. 2006 Wk5 v NYJ: 105.9%#DUUUVAL
— Cale Clinton (@CaleClinton) September 19, 2022
The Jaguars' -76.4% defensive DVOA also comes in as their fourth-best all-time, their best outing since 2006. No, the vaunted 2017 Sacksonville defense never had a game of this caliber by DVOA standards.
Indianapolis is now 0-8 in their last eight road games against Jacksonville (one of which was in London), losing each game by an average of 16 points.
Putting the Horse Out to Pasture
The most demoralizing part about this loss comes from the fact that so many members of the Colts harped on their Week 18 to loss to Jacksonville all offseason.
"No disrespect to Jacksonville, but I mean, they're the worst team in the league," said Colts owner Jim Irsay immediately after the game, according to NBC Sports. "You play well and hard for the first quarter or so, and they're looking to go to their locker room and clean it out."
Irsay even believed that the factors that led to the loss "I've never seen anything like that in my life. You say, 'My God, there's something wrong here. It needs to be corrected.' I think that we feel like we did."
From ownership to the coaching staff down to the players, this loss stung. The bitter taste of defeat permeated throughout the entire Indianapolis Colts organization. The lessons from the loss served as the North Star for the team's offseason plans: find a quarterback to replace Wentz, address needs in the secondary, find an extra pass-rusher.
This game was supposed to be the response. Nine months of offseason moves, stewing and ruminating on this defeat, the Colts were expected to come out and seek retribution. The Houston tie put even more pressure on Indianapolis to make a statement.
A shutout loss of this magnitude, in this fashion, against this Jaguars team, certainly makes a statement.
The Colts are stuck in no man's land. Since Andrew Luck's surprise retirement, the Colts have had four one-year quarterback fill-ins. The moves came out of necessity for Indianapolis. The Colts boast a roster just barely good enough to stave off a full blow-up. With the faith this team had in Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, there was a belief that the team could get this done if they had a league-average quarterback.
That faith is waning. Four years into this experiment, the roster's talent is dwindling. The wide receiver room is made up of players who are either still developing or completely inexperienced. The offensive line, once a strength for the Colts, is now just Quenton Nelson and some warm bodies. Outside of a few players, most of the defensive personnel is making routine mistakes, aggressively biting on play-action and missing tackles. Ryan has seemingly bucked the recent trend of age-defying quarterback play, looking every bit of his 37 years through two games.
This is not the call for the Colts to blow it up, not this early. That tie to the Houston Texans may feel like a moral defeat, but it helps them escape the conversation surrounding 0-2 teams and their very unlikely path to a playoff berth. However, this loss may tell Irsay that the charade is up. The yearly routine of finding a veteran quarterback on the open market to lead this team has proven ineffective and clearly run its course.
The depth is depleted. Units that used to serve as strengths are now league-average at best and concerning question marks at worse. Pumping veterans and trade capital into this team is not enough to take them from middle-of-the-pack to playoff competitor. Yes, the Colts have been without their best defensive presence in Shaquille Leonard and played without their top wide receiver this week in Michael Pittman Jr. That does not explain away standing second-to-last in total DVOA and second-to-last in offensive DVOA two weeks into the season.
Indianapolis' schedule only gets harder from here, still needing to play two games against last year's division winner, the entire AFC West, and a now-semi-competitive NFC East. Either a significant 180-degree pivot needs to occur overnight, or Indianapolis will see sweeping changes come January.