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Opponent Scout: Jonathan Taylor heads tough challenge for Chiefs linebackers

For the linebackers having to step up, starting with the Colts running back is a baptism by fire.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

In this weekly Opponent Scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect the matchup.

In Week 3, the Chiefs are hitting the road to take on the Indianapolis Colts. Here’s what you need to know about Kansas City’s latest opponent:


The Colts are in the fifth season of head coach Frank Reich, who is working with his fifth-different starting quarterback in veteran Matt Ryan. Indianapolis has started the season with two divisional road games, tying the Houston Texans in Week 1 — then getting shut out 24-0 by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

So far this season, the Colts have scored the fewest points in the league (20), but rank 13th in total yards. They have turned the ball over six times in two games. They have the 23rd-ranked third-down conversion percentage and the 28th-ranked red-zone conversion rate. This unit is currently 31st in offensive DVOA.

The Colts’ defense has worked to their ranking of 17th in points scored and 11th in total yards allowed. The Colts’ third-down defense ranks in the middle of the pack, while their red-zone conversion percentage is the highest among all NFL defenses (3/3, 100%). Indianapolis comes in ranked 18th in defensive DVOA.


The Colts’ offense has not been able to play the way it has wanted to for most of this season. They have fallen into early deficits in both games, but the early stages of those contests give you an idea of how Indianapolis wants to move the ball.

Running back Jonathan Taylor is by far the best and most impactful player in this unit. Even with opponents constantly loading the box, Taylor is averaging 5.4 yards per carry while totaling the third-most carries in the league. They will hammer a variety of run schemes, but mostly outside zone — where Taylor can use his elite talent to explode through tight seams for chunk gains.

Among the different run plays they’ll roll out, this particular changeup to a typical outside zone play can really take advantage of overambitious defenders — especially linebackers trying to get a beat on Taylor. This misdirection handoff has produced some of Taylor’s biggest runs over the years. Defenders on the back side of a run will have to be disciplined in their pursuit angles.

With a highly-efficient run game comes more effectiveness on play-action passes. It’s similar to the impact Derrick Henry has on the Tennessee Titans' passing attack, where defenders are so pressured to slow down the downhill, dominating back they get caught overcommitting on play action more often.

Matt Ryan won an MVP playing in an under-center, play-action-heavy offense — and it’s because he is great at throwing the intermediate routes over the middle that opens up with an impactful play fake. They’ll want to lean on that for the passing game because it protects Ryan from too many straight dropbacks.

This season, Ryan has completed only six of his 18 attempted passes against pressure, with three interceptions and a league-worst 7.8 passer rating. He has been sacked (7) more times when pressured than he has completed a pass.

However, the expected return of wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and rookie Alec Pierce from injury will likely help Ryan’s confidence in his progressions and throws.


The Colts’ defense is headed by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who spent the previous five seasons as a defensive play-caller in the AFC West. Both sides know each other’s schemes very well, but one has had much more success than the other.

The foundation of Bradley’s defense is primarily aligning in a Cover 3 shell, meaning there is one safety deep while the other is consistently playing in the box, in the slot, or around the line of scrimmage. At its core, it gets the run defense an extra defender to help smother opposing run games; they are allowing only 2.7 yards per rush attempt, the second-lowest rate in the league.

In pass coverage, it generally means plenty of Cover 3 zone or Cover 1 man, which gives opposing quarterbacks the opportunity to open up the vertical passing game. That’s what happened in Week 1, when the Houston Texans scored twice on a route combination that attacks the weakness of Bradley’s scheme: up the seams, between the cornerback and safety.

Indianapolis is trying to rely on the front seven to dominate their matchup and make it hard for the quarterback to attack those vulnerable spots. All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard has the kind of range and length to take away those throws; he is set to return from a back injury, but the studs of the defensive front — defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (hip) and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (back) — were limited on Wednesday.

The well-known duo up front is joined by disruptive defensive tackle Grover Stewart, who was constantly in the backfield against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2. This season, he has accounted for seven “stops” — a PFF statistic that tracks tackles that led to a “failure” for the offense. That mark is tied for the highest among all interior defensive linemen.

The bottom line

The Colts’ offense will want to play patient football, running the ball efficiently and queuing up play-action concepts at the right moment. Their style of offense will naturally test the Chiefs’ shorthanded linebacker group but will also stress defensive linemen to play gap sound and make life easier on their teammates behind them.

The Indianapolis defense should look very familiar to quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and that is not good news for the Colts’ secondary — even with cornerbacks like Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore. They will need their teammates in the front seven to be disruptive enough to limit Mahomes’ opportunities downfield.

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