After missing out on the playoffs and finishing with a disappointing 7-9 finish in 2019, the Colts knew they needed to go back to the drawing board at the quarterback position.
The unexpected retirement of former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck early in training camp forced Jacoby Brissett into the starting lineup, and while the former NC State standout performed valiantly, he wasn't able to elevate the offense enough to make it back to the postseason. Without a high first-round pick to pick a potential successor, coach Frank Reich turned to savvy veteran Philip Rivers with hopes he had one last deep playoff run in him.
Though Rivers didn't turn in the best year of his career at 39 years of age, he brought much-needed stability under center for the Colts, who opened the season winning five of their first seven games. With a strong running game to supplement an improved passing attack and First-Team All-Pro selections Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner leading a top-10 defense, they won four of their final five regular season games to clinch a wild card spot.
Unfortunately, Reich's squad wasn't able to finish off an upset bid against the Bills in Orchard Park, dropping a 27-24 heartbreaker in the wild card round. Weeks after the loss, Rivers announced his retirement and took a high school coaching job, putting the Colts back in the market for a quarterback as they were one year earlier.
Aiming to fill the void with a long-term solution this time around, Indianapolis rolled the dice by trading a conditional 2022 second-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick to Philadelphia for Carson Wentz. Coming off two dismal years with the Eagles, the organization hopes the change of scenery and linking back up with Reich, who was his offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017, can help him rediscover his MVP form from four seasons ago.
With Wentz arriving as the new sheriff in the circle city and a talented roster around him, Indianapolis enters the 2021 season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and presents a challenging first test for Seattle. Here’s a closer look at the Seahawks season-opening opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and coach Pete Carroll’s evaluation of the Colts.
13th regular season meeting. The Colts hold a narrow 7-5 advantage in the previous 12 games, with the two teams splitting the past eight matchups.
This will mark the first time the Seahawks have faced the Colts since 2017 when they exploded for 36 second half points in a 46-18 victory at CenturyLink Field. Back in 2013, Indianapolis held on for a 34-28 victory the last time the two franchises met at Lucas Oil Stadium in the only matchup between quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. In four previous matchups in the circle city, the Colts were victorious three times, with the Seahawks only road win coming in a 31-3 blowout in 1997.
Departures: Along with Philip Rivers announcing his retirement and trading in his helmet and pads for a high school coaching gig, the Colts also lost long-time starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement after 10 seasons, creating a significant void along the offensive line. Defensively, two of the team's top pass rushers left in free agency, as Justin Houston signed with the Ravens prior to training camp and Denico Autry joined the Titans to jump to another AFC South rival. The two players combined to produce 15.5 sacks in 2020.
Additions: Aside from reuniting Wentz with Reich, Indianapolis didn't make many other splashy offseason additions. Sticking to form by choosing not to spend big in free agency, general manager Chris Ballard did sign former Chiefs starting left tackle Eric Fisher and Chargers tackle Sam Tevi as possible replacement options for Costanzo. Unfortunately, both players missed most of training camp, with Tevi landing on injured reserve and Fisher recovering from an Achilles injury suffered in January. To help offset Houston and Autry's departure, the Colts used their first round selection on athletic pass rusher Kwity Paye, who should see significant snaps right away in Matt Eberflus' defense.
The Colts hope to have both Wentz and Nelson in action for the season opener after undergoing foot surgeries in early August. But Wentz will be without one of his top targets in veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton, who underwent neck surgery and will miss at least the first three regular season games, while Nelson did not practice on Wednesday. Veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes also sat out with a calf injury and his status remains unknown.
Inside The Scheme
Last season, few teams employed 11 personnel with one running back, one tight end, and three receivers on the field more than the Colts. According to Sharp Football, they used this grouping on 69 percent of offensive plays, ninth-most in the NFL. Interestingly, they also utilized 13 personnel with three tight ends eight percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the league.
Away from personnel preferences, the Colts loved calling run-pass option plays, finishing second in the NFL in schemed RPOs per Pro Football Focus. This shouldn't come as a surprise given Reich's high RPO usage as an offensive coordinator with Philadelphia. What did surprise, however, was Indianapolis finishing 25th in pre-snap motion rate. That number could go up with new coordinator Marcus Brady replacing Nick Sirianni as the play caller.
Defensively, though coordinator Matt Eberflus cut his teeth in a Cover 2 scheme learning under the likes of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, the Colts used a wide variety of coverages in 2020. Per Sports Info Solutions, the team only ran Cover 2 variants on 18 percent of 561 opposing drop backs. Instead, they ran more Cover 3 with a single-high safety or quarter-quarter-half coverage at a 30 percent clip. Cover 1 looks with man coverage underneath were also called 18 percent of the time.
While Eberflus has adapted to his personnel with a multitude of coverages, he's remained one of the least blitz-happy coordinators in the game, preferring to generate pressure with four-man fronts. According to Pro Football Reference, Indianapolis sent five or more defenders on only 17.1 percent of defensive plays in 2020, the second-lowest rate behind only the Los Angeles Chargers. Despite rarely sending linebackers, corners, or safeties on the blitz, the Colts finished in the middle of the pack with a respectable 23.3 pressure rate.
By The Numbers
6.0: Yards per pass attempt by Wentz, tied for 33rd among qualified passers.
21: Sacks allowed by Colts' offensive line, second-fewest surrendered in the league.
1: Lost fumbles by Colts' running backs, the lowest total among all 32 teams.
40: Third down conversion percentage, which ranked 18th in the league.
53: Percentage of red zone drives ending with a touchdown, 21st in the NFL.
90.8: Rushing yards given up per game, the second-lowest mark in the league.
10.5: Yards allowed by Colts defense per pass completion, 20th in the NFL.
6.5: Sack rate on opposing drop backs, ranking 11th in the league.
6: Passes of 40-plus yards allowed, fourth-fewest among NFL teams.
53: Passes of 20-plus yards allowed, 10th most in the league.
--On his impression of Eberflus and the Colts top-10 defense: “They’re really good right now coming off of last year and they added a couple of elements too. They are really good up front, they are really consistent with their run front. That’s why they were one of the best run defenses in the NFL, because of their consistency and the way they play base defense. That’s the commitment that he’s had for a long time. They are mixing their coverages nicely and the things that they do but they are going to try to out execute you. They have bodies in all of the right spots that can run, hit, and play with the juice that you need to play really good defense. They are situated very well.”
--On Wentz reuniting with Reich in Indianapolis: "I think the thing that we are looking for is the relationship that Frank and Carson had when they were together. That world class season that they put together was obvious and so I’m sure that’s how they’re looking towards the future. That’s how I’m looking towards it because I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be that way. They have an offensive line, they have two terrific running backs, a nice receiver, and the tight ends can play and do special stuff. He has everything he needs and a coach that obviously communicates great with him... I’m sure that they’re thrilled, and you can even see it with clips of Carson running around, he’s just bouncing everywhere and is so jacked up to get out there and play because he’s missed some time. I think you can sense what their enthusiasm is like and what it might lead them to.”
--On Taylor and the Colts stable of dynamic running backs: “Both of those guys are an explosive play waiting to happen with the speed that they have. Sometimes guys run really good times and you don’t notice it, but you notice with these two guys. Both of these guys have rocket acceleration, are strong enough to break tackles, and make the most of good play that isn’t necessarily a good play. I think, I’m not sure about this but you guys could verify it, Jonathan (Taylor) had like 600 yards after contact last season. That’s crazy numbers, half of his rushing yards were after he was hit and had a chance to get tackled but he didn’t let it happen. Those are fantastic players.”