Insider: Carson Wentz, Colts need to get big-play dynamic back in passing game

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  • Carson Wentz
    Carson Wentz
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Frank Reich
    Frank Reich
    American football player and coach

INDIANAPOLIS — A game two other teams played the first week of the season has stuck in Frank Reich’s mind as Jonathan Taylor’s meteoric rise to stardom has made his offense more and more run-heavy as the Colts fought their way back into the AFC playoff picture.

A game played by Saints quarterback Jameis Winston. Fifteen completions. Twenty attempts.

Five touchdown passes.

The kind of game this version of the Colts offense needs from Carson Wentz.

An Indianapolis passing offense that was often explosive in the first half of the season has lost some of its spark in the second half, averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt over the past seven games.

Wentz averaged 7.3 yards per attempt in the first nine games of 2021.

“I look at that number all the time, because I know it’s an important number,” Reich said. “And I haven’t liked how it’s been trending.”

Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, against the Houston Texans.
Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, against the Houston Texans.

Wentz’s drop in yards per attempt coincides with Taylor’s transformation into the overwhelming focal point of the Indianapolis offense. Taylor has run for more than 100 yards in seven of his past eight games, a streak that began the week before the Colts’ yards per attempt began to fall off in earnest.

Not that it’s Taylor’s fault, or that Indianapolis should get away from its MVP candidate.

Behind Taylor’s emergence, the Colts have been one of the league’s better offenses this season, ranking second in the NFL on the ground, seventh in scoring and seventh in offensive DVOA, a per-play statistic created by Football Outsiders that measures a team’s performance weighted against the difficulty of its schedule.

“We need to continue to ride him,” Reich said. “He’s at the center of our offense.”

An offense that has increasingly been built around its superstar back, emphasizing parts of the playbook that are built around the running game.

For example, the Colts’ passing game finally got on track against Las Vegas when Indianapolis was forced into its two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Wentz has been good in the no-huddle this season, and it’s something Reich knows better than most coaches, given his history as a player in Buffalo’s K-Gun offenses and his history coaching Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck.

Because of Taylor’s emergence, Indianapolis hasn’t emphasized the no-huddle offense this season.

“It’s not been our identity this year,” Reich said. “One of the reasons is when you start going no-huddle, you’re very limited in the run game, and since we’ve got the guy we’ve got back there, we’re trying, in many ways, to center things around him.”

Taylor’s brilliance has played a role in the run game’s emphasis.

So has the schedule. Indianapolis has played a string of defenses that set up better for the run than the pass; Buffalo, New England and Arizona are all built to stop the pass and somewhat susceptible to the running game.

By riding Taylor, the Colts have been hitting defenses where it hurts.

But the emphasis on pounding the ball, even against stacked fronts, may have taken some of the dynamite out of the Indianapolis passing game.

“I do think a lot of it is the byproduct of us becoming so run-centric,” Reich said. “The way we have to look at it is: If we’re not going to throw it 35 or 40 times, you’ve got to find a way to get in rhythm and make the most of opportunities.”

That’s the reason Winston’s performance has stuck with Reich as the season rolls along.

The lesson is not that the Saints quarterback threw a ton of touchdown passes, but that New Orleans was able to consistently produce big, game-changing plays with its passing game even though Winston’s attempts were limited.

In theory, the way Taylor is running the ball should have opened things up for the Colts offense to be even more explosive. Every defense Indianapolis faces is now stacking the box to stop Taylor, a strategy that should leave open opportunities down the field.

“We’ve got to get a little bit more of that dynamic back in the pass game,” Reich said.

Wentz’s arm, mobility and playmaking ability on the move should also lead to big plays, and at times they have has opened up the offense. Indianapolis has been able to use the deep ball far more often than it has at any point since Luck was still under center in 2018.

More: The season the Colts went 1-15: 'It was more or less an experiment in torture'

By the same token, the Colts are limited somewhat by the lack of production at wide receiver other than Michael Pittman Jr., a lack of consistent downfield playmaking by the tight ends and defenses that have been hyper-aware of Taylor and Nyheim Hines making catches out of the backfield.

“We’ve got to execute better, we’ve got to scheme it better, we’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that we have,” Reich said.

Indianapolis does not have to alter its Taylor-centric identity to get the passing game going.

The opposite should be true.

If the Colts can get back to making big plays down the field, this offense’s run-first identity can reach its full potential.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts need to get big-play dynamic back in passing game

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