INDIANAPOLIS – With the first quarter of the 2020 regular season complete, the Colts are sitting with a very solid 3-1 record.
Currently tied for 5th in the AFC, the Colts are in position to make the playoffs, having taken advantage of one of the easier schedules in the NFL through the first four weeks.
The Colts have the following slate of games next quarter: at Browns (3-1), Bengals (1-2-1), bye, at Lions (1-3), Ravens (3-1).
What have I learned from the Colts after the first quarter of the 2020 season?
1. What Is This Defense?
What a turnround it’s been for the Colts defense here in 2020.
Yes, DeForest Buckner’s arrival has greatly helped (see more below), but Matt Eberflus deserves credit for adjusting some things schematically, especially on third down, after a woeful season opener.
The Colts have been downright stifling on the defensive side of the ball, leading the league in points allowed per game (14 PPG), yards per game (236.3 YPG) and third-down efficiency (31.1 percent).
2. Run Game Struggles
This is the ’non defense’ surprise of the first quarter of the season—the Colts rank 32nd in yards per carry (3.52 YPC) through four games.
Yes, some kneel downs and four-minute situations can skew that a bit, but the Colts are still not getting it done enough in the run game (their RBs have averaged less than 4 yards per carry in first halves this season).
There’s been too many negative run plays and the time spent behind the line of scrimmage for the running backs is way too high.
Too much is invested (and needed) from the Colts offensive line to not see improvement from the run game moving forward.
3. Julian Blackmon’s Arrival
If Julian Blackmon was just covering kicks right now—some 10 months removed from tearing his ACL—it would be a feat in itself.
Well, the rookie safety is doing much more than that. He’s now starting in place of the injured Malik Hooker, and giving this team playmaking that they haven’t had in years from the free safety position.
Blackmon brings terrific instincts and ball recognition to the backend of the Colts defense.
It’s early, but Blackmon looks like an upgrade from Hooker.
4. Philip Rivers Still A Quarterback Improvement
The Colts have received better quarterback play in 2020. That was (obviously) the goal in making a substantial change at QB this past offseason.
Philip Rivers is completing 72.7 percent of his passes, with a yards per attempt number of 8.1—two numbers the Colts would have signed up before the start of the season.
Situational football must get better from Rivers though and there are still legitimate questions about what happens if the Colts have to rely on him to lead a late comeback.
For what the Colts have asked from Rivers so far though, he’s largely achieving that.
5. Depth Passing Early Test
The GM felt like he let the coaching staff down in 2019 by not providing enough depth to keep the Colts in the playoff mix deeper into December.
With injuries to RB-Marlon Mack (3 games), WR-Parris Campbell (2 games), S-Malik Hooker (2 games), TE-Trey Burton (3 starts), CB-Rock Ya-Sin (2 games), WR-Michael Pittman (1 game), the Colts have been able to withstand that, by going 3-1 and having an impressive point differential of plus 47 (the third highest in the NFL so far).
That’s an improvement for Ballard and his roster building.
6. Rough Contract Year Start For T.Y. Hilton
However you look at T.Y. Hilton’s start to 2020, it’s been a disappointment individually.
You’ve had drops showing up, and a total of 13 receptions for 162 yards, with no touchdowns.
Not only does the rough start further complicate a potential third contract between Hilton and the Colts next spring, his presence is needed majorly right now with the injuries to Campbell and Pittman.
Physically, the 30-year-old Hilton looks to be fine in creating some separation in his 9th NFL season, but he has had nowhere close to No. 1 wideout production since Andrew Luck retired.
7. DeForest Buckner’s Production
From a pure sacks/tackles for loss standpoint, DeForest Buckner is probably on the outside looking in for that All-Pro status.
But those numbers (1.5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss) don’t tell the full story for the impact Buckner has provided this defense. It also should be noted that Buckner has a really impressive 8 quarterback hits through 4 games.
At 6-7 and 300 pounds, Buckner brings a presence that was sorely needed to the three-technique position.
He commands heavy blocking attention from the opposing offensive line and that’s leading to other guys stepping up to provide more disruption from the D-line.
8. Poor Situational Football
The Colts know they are playing with fire in ranking 30th in third down efficiency (34.6 percent) and 28th in the red zone (46.7 percent).
That’s a surprise given Frank Reich and Philip Rivers’ history in those areas.
It’s a multitude of reasons for the struggles situationally. Moving the ball hasn’t been an issue for the Colts offense. But they must start capping drives better, knowing that upticks in the competition department are coming.
A lack of truly explosive plays is also something holding the offense back a bit.
9. Better Placekicking
At this point last season, the Colts were dealing with 3 missed field goals (4-of-7) and 3 missed extra points (8-of-11).
So far, rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is 12-of-14 on field goals and a perfect 9-of-9 on extra points.
Blankenship’s long field goal in the NFL is just 44 yards, but he’s still making kicks that the Colts were not connecting on this time last season.
It is worth noting that Blankenship was 4-of-4 on field goals and made his lone extra point while kicking in windier conditions at Soldier Field last Sunday.
10. Mo Alie-Cox Shines
Offensively, no Colts player has arrived on the scene more this season than Mo Alie-Cox.
The fourth-year tight end leads the Colts in receiving (194 yards, with an eye-popping 17.6 yards per reception).
Continued growth in Alie-Cox’s transformation from a collegiate basketball player to an NFL-er has the Colts having a needed weapon in the 6-5, 267-pound tight end.
Alie-Cox must continue to be involved more and more, and receive more than 2 targets (like he did last week), even though the tight end group is now healthy.