INDIANAPOLIS – At the risk of hyperbole, the present is providing a glimpse of what could be an encouraging future.
Shining through that dark and dreary Monday night in Baltimore were three beacons of light that could be – need to be, in all honesty – cornerstones for the Indianapolis Colts offense as it moves ahead.
Quarterback Carson Wentz
Wentz set career highs with 402 yards, a 128.5 passer rating and 11.49 yards per attempt. He delivered seven completions of at least 20 yards and frequently extended plays with his mobility. And he’s still probably not 100% after severely spraining his right ankle against the Rams.
Running Back Jonathan Taylor
Taylor put up 169 yards from scrimmage on just 18 touches, including 116 on three receptions. He’s starting to assert himself in the run game despite judicious usage by the coaching staff – 14.6 carries per game; no more than 17 in any game – and continues to be a big-play-waiting-to-happen back. The 76-yard TD on a screen against the Ravens was the latest example. In the last three games, Taylor has had six plays that have chewed up at least 19 yards.
In his last 12 games, including the playoff loss at Buffalo, he’s averaging 95.5 yards per game and 5.2 per attempt with 10 TDs. Over a 17-game season, that’s 1,600 yards.
Wide Receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
The second-year receiver had 89 yards and a bullish 42-yard touchdown on six receptions. In T.Y. Hilton’s absence – he probably makes his first appearance Sunday against Houston – Pittman has filled the No. 1 chair. He leads the Colts in targets (43), receptions (29) and yards (368). He’s one of four players in the league with at least six receptions in four straight games, joining Green Bay’s Davante Adams, Carolina’s D.J. Moore and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson.
A variety of issues have contributed to the Colts’ 1-4 start: injuries to key players which have sabotaged growth and continuity, a pass defense that’s been routinely and embarrassingly exploited, the hip injury to placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship that proved so costly against the Ravens.
Carson Wentz, Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. haven’t been a problem. In fact, they represent a reason for optimism not only in the short term – starting with Sunday’s meeting with the Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium – but for the next few seasons.
The Colts addressed their long-term future at the most pressing position with the offseason trade with Philadelphia. Wentz was viewed as the answer, and the cost was a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 first-rounder if Wentz plays 75% of the snaps, or 70% if they reach the playoffs. After five games, he’s at 98.5%. The Colts also assumed the final four years of his contract, and this year and next are guaranteed at more than $43 million.
It’s fair to be concerned with the injuries he’s dealt with over the past two-plus months – the Aug. 2 surgery to remove a loose particle in his left foot and the badly sprained right ankle that rendered him immobile in the loss to the Titans – considering his injury issues with the Eagles.
But again, Wentz has more than fulfilled expectations on the field. He’s averaging 264.4 yards per game and 7.6 yards per attempt with seven TDs and one interception. He’s completing 65.3% of his passes, which would be the second-best figure for his career.
Frank Reich was the driving force behind the offseason acquisition of Wentz, and his support hasn’t wavered. He sees Wentz regaining the form that had him being the focal point of the Eagles’ organization, especially in the aftermath of his career outing at Baltimore.
“I thought Carson played well,’’ Reich said. “I thought he made a lot of plays. That’s what I’m used to seeing him do. Thought he looked in command and in control.’’
That’s been the case even though Wentz’s protection has been spotty. He’s been sacked 12 times and hit on another 41 occasions. All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson will miss a third straight game with an ankle injury and right tackle Braden Smith a fifth consecutive game with a strained foot. Also, left tackle Eric Fisher clearly hasn’t recaptured his Pro Bowl form after missing training camp and the opener while completing his rehab from a torn Achilles tendon.
Greatly assisting Wentz, though, have been products from the second round of the 2020 draft. Pittman was selected with the 34th overall selection. Taylor quickly followed (41st).
“Very encouraged by both of those guys,’’ Reich said. “You’ve seen it. Pitt just provides big-time playmaking ability, and the other thing he provides is a mental toughness that I think the team feels.
“We all feel that, like when he makes plays like he made out there on Monday night.’’
In the third quarter, Pittman came away with his first touchdown of the season, and it was highlight material. He dealt with inference from Anthony Averett, still made the contest catch and pulled Marlon Humphrey into the end zone for a 42-yard TD.
“We feed off that,’’ Reich said.
Earlier, it was Taylor providing nourishment. On the Colts’ opening drive, he caught a simple screen to the left from Wentz on third-and-15, followed the perimeter blocks of Zach Pascal and Ashton Dulin and ran through the Ravens’ defense for a 76-yard touchdown.
“I mean a (76-) yard screen pass to JT,’’ Wentz said, “I didn’t have to work real hard for that. The touchdown to (Pittman), I just had to give him a chance, and he went up and made a heck of a play. The guys around me, stepping up making big plays, that makes my life easier as a quarterback.’’
The big plays have increased as the season has unfolded, Wentz has regained his health, and the skill players have gotten more in sync with him. There were just seven plays that gained at least 20 yards in the first three games. There have been 14 in the last two.
“We all know to be consistently successful you need explosive plays in your offense,’’ Reich said. “(Taylor and Pittman) provide that for us, and we as coaches need to continue to do a good job of putting them in opportunities to create explosive plays for us.’’
Along with Taylor’s sustained presence, Pittman is stepping up in that regard. He’s had five receptions of at least 20 yards, including three in the last two games: a 20-yarder at Miami and the 42-yard TD and a 21-yarder at Baltimore.
The return of Hilton and getting Nyheim Hines more involved should only further energize the offense.
“Obviously we didn’t finish the way we wanted,’’ Wentz said of the collapse at Baltimore, “but there’s a lot of good. I think what we look at a lot is the explosive plays and how we can keep creating more of those. I thought we did a great job in the game of creating those whether it was an underneath throw or a screen or taking a shot down the field.
“Guys kept making plays, and I think we’re starting to get a little bit together offensively, and hopefully we can keep building off of that.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.