Coby Fleener's season is looking up with new Colts OC
After Week 2, I looked at where all of the NFL’s 0-2 teams stood, and what their panic level should be after back-to-back defeats to start the season. At the time, I ranked Indianapolis as one of the least concerning of those nine teams, under the assumption that a three-game run against the AFC South would turn their season around, leading to a run that would ease them away from the pack towards another comfortable playoff berth. That streak helped in the short term, but six weeks down the line, and the Colts have backed up their three-game win streak with three straight defeats, and once again, are facing the real prospect of failing to win a bad division.
In an attempt to jumpstart their season (for a second time), without the benefit of a three-game stretch against their division foes, the Colts have made a scapegoat of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, firing him and promoting associate head coach Rob Chudzinski to play-calling duties. Hoping for a change of fortunes on offense—and a change of identity—the key beneficiary could well be TE Coby Fleener, with Chudzinski having a reputation for having productive tight ends in his offenses.
In prior stays with the Browns as head coach, and the Panthers as offensive coordinator, Chudzinski has had some of the league’s most productive tight ends in recent seasons. With the Browns, he oversaw Jordan Cameron’s breakout season in 2013, when he trailed only Jimmy Graham in receiving yards while earning a positive PFF receiving grade in eight of his 16 games. His work with the Panthers and Cam Newton got Chudzinski his fleeting chance at an NFL top job, and in his final season at the helm of that offense (2012), Greg Olsen finished as our fifth-best tight end, in terms of receiving grade, with 843 yards on 69 receptions.
Chudzinski takes over an offense that was expected to improve this season, with veteran additions on the offensive line, at running back, and at wide receiver not delivering the expected results. Add into the equation injuries and a stark loss of form for Andrew Luck, and you have an offense searching for a spark to return it to its previous fine form. The key to that turnaround could very well be Fleener, who has been an inconsistent performer for the Colts since he entered the league in 2012, but hinted at delivering on his potential late last season with a pair of multi-touchdown games, and only his second and third 100-yard games of his career.
This season, Fleener has been targeted 42 times (tied for 12th-most among tight ends), but has failed to reproduce the impact performances of late last season. Part of the reason for this is where Fleener is getting the ball, and how he is able to challenge defenses as a result. Last season, Fleener ranked second in the league in average depth of target (aDOT), with his targets, on average, coming 11.7 yards down the field. This allowed him to work downfield and challenge linebackers to cover the space behind them and in front of the safeties. A year later, Fleener’s aDOT is 7.7 yards, tied for 27th among NFL tight ends.
By the same measure, two of Chudzinski’s former tight ends sit in the top five (Olsen and Gary Barnidge) in aDOT this season, and both ranked highly under Chudzinski ‘s tutelage, as well. This was how the Colts got some big games from Fleener last season, but they have not repeated that formula in 2015, marginalizing Fleener in favor of their re-tooled wide receiver corps—a unit that simply is not delivering. Fleener finished third on deep and intermediate targets (passes traveling 10+ yards in the air) for the Colts last season, but only T.Y. Hilton was more productive. This season, Fleener sits only fifth on the team in deep and intermediate targets, and the receivers taking Fleener’s targets are not matching his production from 2014 or 2015.
Fleener’s inconsistency over the course of his career may be infuriating, but at this point, the Colts’ attempts to upgrade their receiving corps—and Andrew Luck’s poor season—have taken this offense backwards, rather than forwards. They may not have a better week to alter the emphasis of their passing game than the opportunity they are presented with against the Broncos this Sunday. As we saw against the Packers last weekend, the Denver secondary is shutting down wide receivers for fun, and aside from T.Y. Hilton, none of the Colts’ receivers are producing at a level that seems likely to change that.
Getting Fleener more involved in the intermediate passing game would get the ball away from the Broncos’ cornerbacks. While their linebackers and safeties are playing well this season, the chance to get the ball to Fleener against Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan, and T.J. Ward might give the Colts a better chance of success than having their receivers challenge Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby down the field.