NFL Week 16 is here! The Atlanta Falcons take on the Indianapolis Colts in what should have been a vitally important game for both teams’ playoff hopes. It’s still important for Indy, but for Atlanta, this game is more important for Arthur Smith’s job security than anything else.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Colts, so I’ve enlisted the help of Indianapolis expert Chris Shepherd. Chris is a senior writer over at Stampede Blue, SB Nation’s site covering all things Indianapolis Colts.
I brought five questions to Chris on a variety of topics, including the surprising success of the Colts under Gardner Minshew, the team’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, and more.
1. In a lot of ways, the Colts and Falcons looked to be on similar trajectories this season: both with young quarterbacks, both with some significant coaching changes, both with aspirations to take the next step and compete. I’d think most actually figured Atlanta would be further along than Indianapolis at this stage. Instead, while the Falcons have largely fallen apart offensively and become one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams, the Colts have found a way to succeed despite a major quarterback injury and completely new scheme. What do you think is the biggest catalyst for Indianapolis’ offensive success this season?
Chris Shepherd: The biggest difference for the Indianapolis Colts in 2023 has been the offensive line. I’ll spare you the in depth breakdown but just know they went into 2022 with a bums at left tackle and right guard. Three time all-pro left guard, Quenton Nelson, played poorly enough that most people believe he played through an undisclosed injury that we’ll never know about. Three time pro-bowl center, Ryan Kelly, put together the worst season of his career. And league average (to slightly above average) right tackle Braden Smith, played as well as he usually does. So all told the offensive line got it’s expected performance from one out of it’s five starters and it didn’t matter if 33 year old Joe Montana started for the Colts at QB last year.
This year, second year (former third round pick) left tackle Bernhard Raimann has developed into an above average starter and third year right guard Will Fries looks like a very good starter at right guard. Nelson is playing at a high level again and Ryan Kelly is back to looking like Ryan Kelly. All told, the offensive line isn’t an elite unit, but it is very good and that is a massive departure from a season ago.
2. Anthony Richardson looked like the real deal before suffering a season-ending injury, and I think most counted out the Colts as a legitimate playoff threat with Gardner Minshew entering the lineup. Instead, the Colts are a top-10 offense, and Minshew has found a way to be quietly effective alongside an elite rushing attack. Is Minshew outperforming expectations, and what’s been the secret to Indy’s success on the ground?
CS: Richardson, in the limited time we got to see him, absolutely looked like the real deal. Personally I’m trying not to get too excited about his return next season but it’s tough. On the field, off the field, everything about Anthony Richardson is exciting and the future looks bright. And the reason the future looks bright is because, like you said Gardner Minshew has this team battling for a playoff spot. And Minshew has them there because Shane Steichen is consistently putting him in a position to succeed.
With that said, Minshew, even with a perfect plan in place, is a wild quarterback to watch. One drive he’ll go out and confidently lead the offense down the field and you’ll start to think that the Colts are going to put up 50 points, only to have Minshew take the field a few minutes later, escape from a clean pocket, dance around behind the line of scrimmage and throw up a prayer that might go for a big gain or it might (somehow) bounce off a defenders hands. With Minshew you really never know what you’re going to get. His play is wildly erratic. At his best, he’s a good quarterback. At his worst I start wondering if Jeff George can still hit an out route.
The running game has succeeded due to solid play from the offensive line and from the Colts’ RPO game. Minshew does excel when asked to make RPO reads and unfortunately you can’t run an entire NFL offense on RPO calls, else the Colts would absolutely try to with Gardner calling the plays.
3. The Colts have been vulnerable defensively in terms of yardage and scoring, but they’ve made up for by being opportunistic—they’re among the league leaders in turnovers forced and sacks. How has Indy managed these feats despite what looks like a relatively vulnerable defense on paper?
CS: Defensively it’s been a weird year in Indianapolis. Some weeks they look like a better than average defense that can rush the passer and stop the run. Some weeks they give up 34 points to Jake Browning. Some of their high point totals came, in no small part, due to Gardner Minshew’s run of insane turnovers. In weeks 6 and 7 Minshew turned the ball over 4 times in each game and the Defense gave up 37 and 39 points respectively. So it isn’t like they’ve always been put in position to have success. Although, in week 8 they gave up 38 points to a terrible Saints offense, so there is absolutely blame to go around.
The only thing I would say the defense is consistently good at is rushing the passer. And even that is something an offense can game plan around. If teams keep extra blockers in and keep their quarterback clean, someone will get open. The Indianapolis secondary has been a weak spot most of the season. Rookie second round pick Julus Brents played in just his sixth game of the year last week. And when on the field Brents has looked like Indy’s best outside corner. Seventh round rookie Jaylon Jones and second year, former UDFA Darrell Baker have played well all things considered but I’m not sure they start for many other teams around the league.
The defense has some holes but due to Gus Bradley’s system, they tend to create big plays. In a lot of ways the defense matches Gardner Minshew’s chaotic energy. It isn’t always good but it usually isn’t boring.
4. The key to the Falcons offensive success is running the football well, and sadly for Atlanta, they’ve been extremely inconsistent in that area this season. Still, they’re going to try to establish a ground game every single week. How has the Colts run defense fared this year, and how concerned are you about Atlanta’s two-headed rushing attack of Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier?
CS: The rush defense is an interesting study and it all really comes down to one man: Grover Stewart. With Grove in the lineup (and healthy) the Colts defense has routinely kept rushing attacks in check. During his six game suspension the team gave up 153 rushing yards per game. In the two games since his return they’ve given up just under 93 rushing yards per game. Grove played through injury in weeks three and four against the Ravens and Rams and those teams ran for 186 and 164, respectfully. But in games where Grove isn’t listed with an injury designation (and he isn’t serving a PED suspension) the Colts are giving up 86 rushing yards per game. It’s difficult to overstate how important Grover Stewart is to the Colts defense and he’s only been healthy and on the field for six games this season.
The bad news for the Falcons rushing attack this week is that Grove is healthy and barring something crazy, he should play this weekend. The hope for Falcons fans is that despite everything I just told you is that over the Colts last two games they’ve given up 11 catches for 154 yards to running backs. A lot of that came against the Bengals who ran several successful screens and the Colts did a better job shutting down those plays against the Steelers but given how inconsistent this defense has been, Arthur Smith should be throwing screens at this defense early and often. Also, when Grove and DeForest Buckner leave the game, the middle of the Colts front seven becomes very, very soft. So as soon as those two rotate out, all bets are off. If Atlanta takes advantage of them being off the field and hits a couple long runs, the rushing totals at the end of the game might look very different than I expect them to.
5. The line this game has, strangely, moved significantly towards the Falcons after news of Taylor Heinicke starting broke. Atlanta is now 2.5-point home favorites in Week 16. What are your thoughts on the matchup and your prediction for the game?
CS: The Falcons could start me at quarterback this week and I would still question if Gardner Minshew will be able to move the ball on that Falcons defense. If you go back and look at how Indy has fared when teams have sold out to stop the run and dared Minshew to beat them... well it hasn’t been great for Minshew. This Indy offense needs to run, or at least have the threat of a successful run, to work at all. If the Falcons are as good of a run stopping team as we all think they are, I think 2.5 points at home is a very fair line.
In week 9 the Panthers sold out to stop the run and the Indy offense managed to score one touchdown, it needed two field goals and two pick sixes to win the game. In week 10 the Patriots sold out to stop the run and fortunately for the Colts, the New England offense was bad enough it couldn’t score more than 6 points so the 10 points Minshew managed to stumble his way into got the job done.
Now, having said all of that, post-bye-Minshew has been much better than pre-bye-Minshew but I can’t just pretend like I didn’t watch the first two-thirds of the season. Ultimately, I think the Falcons are going to stuff the Colts run game, Minshew is going to be better than he was earlier in the year but still wildly erratic. The Colts defensive backs are going to have Falcons fans thinking Taylor Heinicke is better than he is and unless the Falcons locker room has checked out mentally and I don’t know about it, I believe this one is going to go down to the wire.
A duel of over-performing backup quarterbacks that will end up going to the Colts 31-30. -at least I hope. There’s a chance Indy scores 17 points and I hate my life for three hours on Sunday, too.
Many thanks to Chris Shepherd for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a Colts perspective on things, follow Stampede Blue at @StampedeBlue.
Looking for more Falcons-Colts coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.