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5 Questions with the Enemy: Chris Shepherd of Stampede Blue

We tap the knowledge of one of the lead contributors over at SB Nation’s Indianapolis Colts site in Chris Shepherd over at Stampede Blue.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are both employing backup quarterbacks this week, but that isn’t stopping this from being a quietly fun game with playoff implications.

To get the inside scoop on the Colts, this matchup, and more, we tapped one of the lead contributors over at Stampede Blue, SB Nation’s Indianapolis Colts site. Chris Shepherd gave us some great insight this week, so check it out:

1.) AC: A bit of a broad question, but what has Gardner Minshew shown the Colts in his time stepping in as the starter to make Indianapolis a playoff contender? He’s been a journeyman, but the guy has shown the ability to put up numbers and has always been scrappy since his days at Washington State.

CS: Minshew, frankly, has shown that he’s a backup for good reason. He’s a one-read quarterback who often panics when his first read isn’t immediately open. He runs himself out of clean pockets and into trouble far too often and leaves fans scratching their heads multiple times per game.

However, Minshew does excel when asked to make quick, binary, decisions. I would put his RPO decision-making up against almost anyone in the NFL- how much of an offense can you run off of that skill set? Well, that’s a good question. The key to the team’s success as it relates to Gardner Minshew is pretty straightforward.

Minshew has taken the majority of the team’s snaps at quarterback in 10 games. The Colts have won 7 and lost 3 of those games. In the 7 wins, Minshew has turned the ball over 3 times. In the 3 losses, Minshew has turned the ball over 9 times.

So, to answer your question, Minshew has stepped up by doing the thing good backups do, and he’s just not lost the team more games than it has won. Last week against the Titans, Minshew played his best game as a Colt, leading a late game-tying comeback and hitting multiple deep balls to Alec Pierce. That said, until I see him play that well again, I won’t believe his performance from last week was more than a welcome fluke.

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2.) AC: From the outside looking in, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Colts’ defense is No. 2 in quarterback sacks this year. They obviously have talent, but there has to be more than meets the eye here. Aside from overall talent, is it scheme, blitzing, quarterbacks faced, or some combination of all of the above to make them so formidable?

CS: The Colts blitz at the second-lowest rate in the NFL. Gus Bradley seems to hate bringing extra men at the QB. He will call some stunts up front, but schematically, Bradley’s defensive philosophy is that they’ll stop the run on the way to the quarterback. They live and die with penetration. So sometimes some of the stunts help, but more than that, it really is just that the unit is good across the board.

Any talk of the Colts defensive line has to start with DeForest Buckner. Buckner is almost impossible for the interior of an offensive line to block one-on-one all day long. Eventually, you’re going to have to give him help, and if you’re giving him help, you’re taking help away from someone else. When you look at the edges, you’ll see a lot of names you may only vaguely recognize. Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo, and Samson Ebukam are all having very good seasons and are all good (but not great) pass rushers.

The Colts also have solid depth across the defensive line and will constantly rotate guys to keep them fresh and play different players based on the situation. Eventually, two offensive linemen will have to account for Buckner, which will leave everyone else in a one-on-one situation, and because the Colts rotate defensive linemen so well, those one-on-one situations often come with a fresh rusher against a gassed offensive lineman. The Colts have invested heavily in their defensive line, and while it doesn’t have many big names, it is good, and it is deep, and the players fit the scheme.

3.) AC: What is an area(s) of the Colts’ defense that the Bengals can exploit, particularly with a backup quarterback at the helm?

CS: Grover Stewart has missed the past six games due to suspension. In those six games, the Colts gave up 153 rushing yards per game. With Stewart in the lineup, the Colts gave up 113.5 rushing yards per game. Stewart will return this week, and if I were the Bengals, I would see if Stewart is up to the task of stopping the run or if the Colts are going to be content to let teams run the ball at will.

The Colts have gone 4-2 despite giving up 153 rushing yards per game, but they’re getting their star run-stopping defensive tackle back. If I were the Bengals, I would make the Colts find their defensive identity on the fly with Stewart back in the lineup.

The other area I would attack would be with the talented Bengals receivers against a very young, very inexperienced defensive backfield. When I say the names Darrell Baker Jr. and Jaylon Jones, they probably don’t ring any bells for you. And they shouldn’t. Both men have played well as of late but I’m not sold on either, especially going against these Bengals pass catchers. If I’m Browning, I’m testing these corners.

4.) AC: AC: Talk to me about Shane Steichen. What has he brought to Indianapolis? Are they ahead of schedule in terms of competitiveness (particularly after losing their starting quarterback)? After less than a full season, he appears to be a potential long-term answer as their head coach...

CS: It would be tough to overstate how good of a job Shane Steichen has done- I could do it, but it would be tough. Schematically, the Colts have used two very different offenses this season. The offense we saw with Anthony Richardson at the helm was vastly different from the one we see Gardner Minshew running now. And we’ve seen Steichen go back and forth between those two vastly different styles and do so flawlessly.

His game planning has largely been solid, his in-game adjustments have worked, his decision-making has been good, and he’s dragging a one-read, backup quarterback along with him to playoff contention with a roster mostly made up of guys that won 4 games a season ago. Steichen isn’t perfect; no one is, but thus far, he looks to be a very good head coaching hire for general manager Chris Ballard.

5.) AC: DraftKings has the line at Colts -1. This game is at Paycor Stadium, Jake Browning is coming off of a huge game, but the Colts are winners of their last four. How do you see this one going and its outcome?

CS: If the 2023 Indianapolis Colts have taught me anything at all, it’s that they’re completely unpredictable. If the Colts get the win, it will be because the defense hits Jake Browning early and often and force him to make mistakes and miss throws on third down. On offense, they will need to run the ball effectively and not turn it over.

If the Colts lose, it will be because they’ve started a 7th-round rookie and a second-year former UDFA at cornerback, and those guys are playing, arguably, the most talented receiving unit in the NFL. If the Colts lose, I suspect the Bengals will have had success rushing the ball, working play action, and moving Browning out of the pocket, and the Colts will have had no answer for it, as Gus Bradly defenses so rarely have answers for a moving pocket. And if the Colts lose, it will be because on offense, Gardner Minshew had a vintage “Bad Gardner” day, and he’ll turn the ball over multiple times.

If you’re making me choose an outcome, I’m choosing the one where the Colts win. I do believe they’re the better team. The Bengals have bigger and brighter stars, but without their biggest star, I’d bet on the Colts to take this one 24-21- but I don’t feel good about it.

Our thanks to Chris for the great info. Go check out the other side of our conversation with him over there, too.