Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore
Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

Indianapolis Colts Stats from 2018

Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 10.3
ATS: 8-7-1; average line -1.1
Over/Under: 8-7-1; average total 47.7
Close Games Record: 4-4
Turnover Differential: 0.1
Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 116.5 (31st)
Offense: 7th in EPA per play (+0.10);  5.95 yards per play
Defense:  10th in EPA per play (+0.01);  5.5 yards per play

Frank Reich Came, Saw And Conquered

It was a completely different Indianapolis Colts team from years before. General manager Chris Ballard has done an outstanding job since he took the position in 2017. He got fortunate that Frank Reich fell into his lap, but these two look like a dream case scenario for the Colts. There is no doubt in my mind that Indianapolis is going to be a perennial playoff team in the future. Andrew Luck was back in full strength, the offensive line rose to the top-five territory, and Frank Reich looks like an incredible play-caller. They went 10-6 along with a playoff win over the overmatched Houston Texans. But as great as their long-term future looks, this wouldn’t be an objective team preview without looking at a few disturbing things from 2018.
The Colts were a 10-6 team, all things being equal. But there is one thing that’s slightly concerning to me: their defense. Indy played the most manageable defensive schedule in the league, as measured by the opposing average -0.018 EPA per play. Their pass defense ‘only’ ranked 16th in EPA per dropback. Over their 9-1 stretch to finish the season, the best offense they have faced ranked 14th in EPA per offensive play (Dallas). Seven of their ten opponents ranked in the bottom-ten.
They were a zone-heavy defense that played recognizable zone coverage 59.3 percent of the time (#1 in the NFL), and also played cover-2 at the highest rate by a mile, according to Sports Info Solutions. Indy rushed the passer with four or fewer players 83 percent of the time, one of the highest standards in the league as well. They wanted to keep the game in front of them, and they only created pressure at a 28.1% clip, 24th in the league. That scheme can easily get exposed by good quarterbacks who can dissect your zone coverage. That’s what the Chiefs did in the divisional round. Going forward, keep in mind that the Colts defense is likely going to regress.

The Indianapolis Colts Offense is not Permitted to Lose a Step

With defensive regression in mind, the Colts need to hold at least their offensive level and nothing points in the opposite direction. Frank Reich seems to be an incredible play-caller. To me, the first step in evaluating an offensive play-caller is checking the situational play-calling tendencies on the macro level. For instance, Reich called 61 percent passes on 1st & 10+ in the first half (#4 in the NFL) while averaging 2.8 yards more per pass than per run. That’s most likely still too low, but it’s +EV play-calling. The rest is the scheme, quality of personnel, and also variance.
Being able to run the ball helps, too. You are still running the ball on 39 percent of the plays. But such a split gives your offense a head start and reduces the amount of difficult third-down situations. As a result, the Colts had the second-smallest distance to go on third down (6.3 yards) and the highest conversion rate (48%) in the NFL. The latter should regress a bit.

Indianapolis Colts Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Indianapolis Colts Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The offense is returning Andrew Luck with a full off-season and all five offensive line starters. Tight end Jack Doyle comes back from injury and will join Eric Ebron – Doyle was Indy’s first tight end when healthy last year. The Colts also added Devin Funchess and rookie Parris Campbell to their receiving corps. Campbell provides speed and athleticism underneath whereas Funchess will try to capitalize from this prove-it deal. Last year’s rookie Deon Cain missed 2018 entirely and could provide more depth. That’s not a grand receiving corps, and they are somehow more dependent on the scheme. Overall, the offense is not permitted to lose a step, and it’s unlikely they will.

Houston, Do We Have a Problem?

The Indianapolis Colts defense is returning ten of eleven starters. But as mentioned before, I don’t expect them to hold their level of 2018. They added Justin Houston, which was a great addition and should boost the pass rush. But otherwise, this defense is still very young and needs to execute at a high level with the combination of zone defense and a low blitz-rate. Houston and Jabaal Sheard form a decent edge knife, whereas the interior is not exceptional. Indy is hoping to get more production out of the edge-rush rotation with second-year players like Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay or rookie Ben Banogu. Mike linebacker Darius Leonard is a stud, but the depth is thin aside of him.

Indianapolis Colts Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Indianapolis Colts Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Free safety Malik Hooker got a top-15 coverage grade by Pro Football Focus last year, but to me, it seems like they are wasting some of his talents by playing cover-2 at such a high clip. He’s got the range to play centerfield. Because of injuries and ability, the Colts couldn’t get the strong safety position right last year. Three of their first four cornerbacks on the depth chart – Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore, and second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin – will be 24 years old or younger in week one with a combined 2.407 snaps of NFL experience. Last year’s coverage grades by Desir, Moore, and Wilson ranked 28th, 50th, and 70th out of 130 qualifying cornerbacks – against the most manageable schedule as measured by EPA and DVOA. I think the better offenses in the league will have no issue scoring points on the Colts.

2019 Schedule

Win-loss wise, Indy played the second-easiest schedule in 2018 (0.465). According to Pinnacle win totals, it’s not projected to get significantly harder. With current odds, the projection is 0.4902, which ranks 26th overall. However, their predicted defensive schedule based on 2018 EPA/pass numbers differs a lot and ranks 9th. A lot of that has to do with playing against the NFC South, of which all four teams ranked top-14 in pass EPA last year. Carolina will have a healthy Cam Newton; the Bucs have Bruce Arians as their head coach now.
Three more games against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Steelers within the AFC are everything but a cake-walk. Add the Texans, and Indy is going play against nine teams that ranked in the top-14 in EPA per dropback last year, including five(!) in the top-6. Also, we should expect a slightly improved Jaguars offense with Nick Foles and John DeFilippo.

Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS
Pinnacle Win Totals vs. Implied SOS

Technically, their program is comfortable. The Colts will play on the west coast once, and they will play all games inside a dome or Florida weather after November 3rd. But they will finish the year with three road games out of four along with a three-game stretch against the NFC South. A decent situational spot to potentially fade the Colts occurs in week 11 when the Colts host the Jaguars before traveling to Houston for a Thursday night game. Indy will play the Dolphins at home before whereas the Jaguars come out of their bye week.

Indianapolis Colts 2019: Defensive Regression Galore

The Colts should easily compete for the divisional crown in 2019. They have the essential pieces together: quarterback, offensive line, coaching, and a good-enough receiving corps. Their offense should once again dictate a lot of matchups. But their defense and its schedule is a deadly combination that should also lead to more shootouts and more demanding games for Indy. Less Derek Anderson and Ryan Tannehill, more of Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Big Ben.
Markets have pushed their win total to Over 9.5 -143 by now, which equals an actual line of 9.86. That’s where I would cut, too. If the win-total moved to 10 at some point in the summer, I would see some value on the Under. Don’t get me wrong – they are a decent team. But it’s not like we should expect them to cruise to 13-3 and the first seed in the AFC. There are too many good offenses on their schedule.
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