This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Indianapolis Colts. To help preview a few topics from the Colts’ perspective, we reached out to Chris Shepherd from Stampede Blue and exchanged five questions with him.
Pokorny: “Jonathan Taylor has not gotten going statistically since returning to the team two weeks ago. What do you see from the star back, and will his workload start increasing soon?”
Shepherd: “Since December of last season Jonathan Taylor has played in two NFL football games and before this week he practiced a total of five times with his team. With a new head coach, offensive coordinator, position coach, a new offensive system, with a largely new blocking scheme, Taylor could literally count the number of practices he had participated in, on one hand. So while no one pays a running back $14 million per year to not play right away, it does make sense that they’re working him into the offense slowly.
Now, having said all of that. Shane Steichen’s offense works mostly out of shotgun formations and Taylor hasn’t excelled running out of gun in the past. Without writing a book on the potential reasons for why that might be or what the Colts might do to mitigate some of those concerns moving forward, I’ll just say that Jonathan Taylor, when healthy, is a special back. At some point this season, I expect him to look like he did in 2021 and 2022, before the injury. But I don’t think the Browns need to be too worried that they’ll be getting that guy this weekend.”
Pokorny: “What is the biggest weakness of the Colts’ defense?”
Shepherd: “The Colts secondary is easily the weakest part of the defense. Juju Brents is a rookie second round corner from Kansas State and he has been really good. But, he’s still a rookie. Starting opposite him is rookie seventh rounder Jaylon Jones. Jones has been fine in coverage but hasn’t been targeted nearly as often as Brents.
Safety Rodney Thomas has not played well which has left some Colts fans wondering why we haven’t seen more from second year safety Nick Cross. It’s a fair question, Cross is an uber athletic second year safety out of Maryland that the Colts felt strongly enough to move back up into the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft to select him. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley said this week that he needs to find ways to get Cross on the field more, but it didn’t seem like it was going to come, in place of Thomas. Which leads me to speculate that they’re willing to live with Thomas’ poor angles and physical limitations because they trust him to make sure the rest of the secondary is at least in position before the ball is snapped. They probably feel his presence is a net positive.
So, if the Colts could blend Rodney Thomas and Nick Cross, they’d have a good safety to pair with two rookies who are playing well all things considered. But if I were the Browns, I’d challenge Jaylon Jones early and often in this one. ”
Pokorny: “Who is the biggest liability on the Colts’ offensive line?”
Shepherd: “The left side of the line including LT Bernhard Raimann, G Quenton Nelson and C Ryan Kelly has been rock solid. The only people who thought they would be as good as they’ve been are their mothers. Right tackle Braden Smith has been solid when he’s been on the field but he missed last week with multiple injuries and I’m not positive that he’ll play this week, either.
So to answer your question it’s either right guard Will Fries or right tackle Blake Freeland. The thing is, Fries hasn’t been bad. He’s been average. And when your former seventh round, third year guard is playing average football and he’s the biggest liability on the line, things are going pretty well up front.
On the other hand Blake Freeland is a fourth round rookie out of BYU who started two games at left tackle when Raimann missed time with a concussion. His play on the left side was... well despite showing great athleticism the results weren’t always great. But last week, filling in on the right side for Smith, Freeland played well. I’m not willing to forget everything I saw in weeks four and five, but it was good to see him play so well on the right side of the line. He could develop into a contributor on the left side in the future, but he might have value on the right side right now. Or, he might be the biggest liability the Colts have up front. If nothing else, if he plays, he’s the biggest question mark.”
Pokorny: “Tell us about one player who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who could have an impact on this Sunday’s game.”
Shepherd: “Every off-season the Colts are usually near the top of the league in available cap space and the same 4-5 social media accounts claim that the Colts “have interest” in all of the biggest named free agents available. And every year Colts fans on the internet get excited for some reason, thinking that general manager Chris Ballard is going to be the guy to sign the next J.C. Jackson. Colts fans think Ballard is going to be the guy to give the Mike McGlinchey’s of the world 5 year, $87.5 million contracts.
And it never fails, Colts fans lose their minds every year when instead Ballard goes out and signs a guy like Samson Ebukam. Ballard gave Ebukam a three year $24 million contract, with a little less than $11 million guaranteed. Colts fans mostly all responded the same way, by not knowing who he was. But since landing in Indy Ebukam has been solid against both the run and the pass and is currently on pace to finish the season with 11 sacks.
Ebukam might have an uphill battle this week with star nose tackle Grover Stewart starting his six game PED suspension, but if there’s anyone that Browns fans don’t know, who could make an impact this weekend (that I didn’t name in one of the other answers) it’s most likely going to be Ebukam.”
Pokorny: “The Browns are early favorites against the Colts on Sunday (Browns -3 as of this question, per DraftKings Sportsbook). Who would you pick against the spread?”
Shepherd: “Last week I saw the Colts come out and refuse to run the ball into a loaded box against the Jaguars. And I get it, they were down big. Running into a loaded box isn’t the smart thing to do, but they’re missing their starting quarterback and nothing else was working. At some point it would have been great to see them bring in two tight ends, go big on big and try to use that offensive line to push the Jags around.
Instead the Jags were content to stay in their base 4-3 defense all day. They matched up with the Colts three receiver sets by going with a base defense. Had you asked me about doing that two weeks ago, I would have told you it was a dumb strategy. What NFL quarterback wouldn’t shred a base defense against a three receiver set? Then I watched Gardner Minshew turn the ball over four times and nearly turn it over at least three more times.
So you see, it’s not that I think the Colts would have won the game last week had they run the ball, it’s that they watched Gardner Minshew wet the bed and they decided it wasn’t even worth the effort to go big on big and give it a shot with Zack Moss, the guy who came into week six as the third leading rusher in the NFL and Jonathan Taylor, the $14 million per year man.
And because of all of that, I can’t say that I’d bet on the Colts even with the points. They might have a great bounce back game. They might surprise me. But honestly, without Anthony Richardson, they looked directionless on offense. The Browns defense is as good as it gets and Minshew couldn’t figure out how to beat the Jags base defense a week ago? Yeah, as much as I want to tell you I’m taking the Colts with the points, I just can’t do it.”
Thanks again to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions.