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Sunday's Best

Week 5 Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: October 9, 2020, 12:54 pm ET

The Indianapolis Colts have a very good defense… but they’ve also played virtually no one offensively.  

They played the 3rd easiest schedule of opposing offenses on the season.  And that’s with the understanding that when they played the Vikings in week 2, the Vikings were far less efficient than they were now (since incorporating Justin Jefferson in week 3).  

The Jets and Bears have two bottom-5 offenses.  The best offense the Colts faced was the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 1 of a new offensive system from Jay Gruden.  After the Jaguars first two drives, they scored points in 5 of 6 drives, going for:

  • 75 yard drive TD
  • 75 yard drive TD
  • 27 yard drive TD
  • 48 yard drive FG
  • 3 yard drive FG

 

Gardner Minshew completed 19/20 passes at 8.7 YPA and a 63% success rate.  But since that point in time, the Jaguars and Minshew have turned into a pumpkin, and they’ve dropped three straight games.

For the first time this season, the Colts are facing an offense that is fundamentally actually a good offense and one that is playing well.

The Colts pass defense has been tremendous against 11 personnel on the season.  They are the #3 defense against 11 personnel passes. 

That works well when you’re playing the Jets, who use the most 11 personnel in the NFL.  They’ve also played the Jaguars, who use 79% 11 personnel (well above the 70% average).  

But the team that uses the least 11 personnel in the NFL are the Browns.

Instead, the Browns use 12 personnel to pass at the second highest rate of any team in the NFL.  And examine the Colts defensive splits when facing these passes:

  • 11 personnel:    6.1 YPA, -0.37 EPA/att, 41% success, 10.3% sack rate, 31% pressure rate
  • 12 personnel:    8.2 YPA, +0.36 EPA/att, 55% success, 0% sack rate, 20% pressure rate 

 

These numbers are night and day, and what matters most for the Browns and Baker Mayfield is the lack of pressure.  He struggles tremendously against pressure, but the Colts have struggled.

And this is not just a 4-game sample in 2020, either.  This Colts Defense (same coordinator and mostly the same starting roster) was solid against 11 personnel in 2019, and had a 7.6% sack rate with a 37% pressure rate.  But those numbers declined precipitously against 12 personnel.

The only team the Colts played in 2020 that wants to use less 11 was the Vikings.  But because they fell behind early, the Vikings abandoned passing from heavier sets, and instead threw from 11 on 20 of 29 dropbacks (69%).  And guess what?  When they were in 11, they recorded a 35% pressure rate and a 15% sack rate.  But from 2-wide sets, the Colts recorded a 0% sack rate and a 28% pressure rate.

The Colts may be without stud LB Darius Leonard and their second-best LB, Anthony Walker.  That’s their top-2 LBs.  Against a team like the Browns that will use a ton of heavy sets to get LBs in conflict, needing to decide whether to cover (and who to cover) or fill to stop a complex run scheme.

If the Browns use enough 12, and keep Baker clean, I think they'll put up enough on the scoreboard to help send this perceived "defensive battle" over the total.

Lastly, examine where Cleveland likes to target WRs (top left image below) on early downs.  Most often (darkest red shade) to the right side of the field, around 10-20 yards downfield.  Then look at where WR targets have been the most successful against the Colts Defense so far on early downs, by looking at the bottom right image.  

It's a perfect match.  The Browns already attack most often where the Colts are most vulnerable.  They don't have to change anything in order to maximize their odds of success.  

Cleveland early down WR passes vs Indy defense

On the other side of the ball, this Browns secondary actually looks worse, if that could be possible.  Hopes of getting Greedy Williams back are unlikely.  And now starting S Karl Joseph popped up on the injury report after hurting his hamstring in practice on Thursday.  

This secondary already previously lost starting S Grant Delpit to a ruptured Achilles.  If Joseph cannot go, or goes but leaves early, the Browns will turn to Ronnie Harrison, a player they just acquired on September 3rd, just days before the start of the season.  A player who played only 11 snaps last week.  

And he will be paired next to Andrew Sendejo, a starting S for the Browns who ranks 75th in the NFL in safety play.  In case you can’t do the math, teams play 2 safeties and there are 32 teams.  That’s 64 starters.  And Sendejo ranks 75th.  That’s not good.

After playing the NFL worst Jags defense in week 1, the Colts Offense has played defenses that have progressively been more and more stout.  First, the #13 Vikings.  Then, the #10 Jets.  Then, the #7 Bears.  All in all, even with the #32 Jags on the schedule, the Colts Offense has faced the NFL’s 13th toughest schedule of opposing defenses.

But this week, they finally get to face a below average defense for the first time since week 1.  The Browns rank 17th, despite playing the 7th easiest schedule of offenses.  The Browns rank 20th against the pass, despite playing the 4th easiest schedule of offenses.

This Browns Defense allowed 38 points to the Ravens in week 1.
This Browns Defense allowed 38 points to the Cowboys in week 4.

In between, they played two of the NFL’s worst offenses:  the Bengals and Washington.

The Bengals were on a short week, playing a rookie QB (Joe Burrow) on the road on Thursday after a week 1 loss to the Chargers.   It was his first road start, with minimal time to game plan or make adjustments after his week 1 game.  

And yet the Bengals still made 4 trips into the red zone and recorded scoring drives of:

  • 83 yards
  • 75 yards
  • 57 yards
  • 51 yards
  • 50 yards
  • 41 yards

in the game.  Those are long, sustained drives for a rookie on a short week.

Then, in week 3, the Browns had the benefit of extra time (10 days of rest) to prepare for Dwayne Haskins and the Washington Offense.  And they hosted the game.  And what happened?  The Bengals allowed 3 trips into the red zone and would have lost the game outright but for 4 turnovers from the Washington Offense.  

Washington literally punted just three times on 12 drives.  They, too, had drives of 75, 54, 49, 42 and 34 yards.  And we know how bad this Washington Offense really is.

The Colts Offense hasn’t needed to do anything offensively the last three weeks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.  And there is a very good chance, against this bad Browns Defense, they are able to be more productive than we’ve seen in the last month.
 

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.