Carson Wentz ‘much better’ as Colts’ rematch with Titans looms

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz (2) celebrates after scoring against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s debatable whether we’re seeing Carson Wentz, circa 2017-ish.

What’s not up for discussion and is more pertinent: we’re seeing a much different Carson Wentz – a much healthier Carson Wentz – than the Tennessee Titans saw in week 3 and will face Sunday in a critical rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Much better,’’ he said Wednesday.

That Sept. 26 afternoon in Nashville was a three-hour study in how a mobile quarterback was robbed of anything resembling that mobility, and how it impacted his ability to play the position and contributed to the Indianapolis Colts’ 25-16 loss to the Titans.

Wentz suffered sprains to both ankles in the previous week’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams – Aaron Donald did much more damage to the right one – and didn’t practice until Friday of game week, then on a limited basis.

To his credit, Wentz was on the field for all 61 offensive snaps against Tennessee. But he was more non-impactful participant than play producer.

Unable to move around in the pocket and extend plays, he completed 51.3% of his passes and averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, both season lows. More damning, when it came time to escape the pocket and perhaps move the chains with his feet, his feet wouldn’t allow it.

“A handful of times I was like, yeah, I’m stuck in mud out there,’’ Wentz said.

The offense finished with 268 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per snap, again, season lows.

 “It’s definitely different for us,’’ offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “Schematically I assume it’s probably going to be very similar. I mean, they are going to have their wrinkles because it’s the second time we’re playing them, but it was different for us gameplay-wise.

“We were trying to get the ball out of Carson’s hands as quickly as possible. He was limited as far as movements and things like that. It will change. Obviously, he feels more comfortable now moving around as you guys saw in that (San Francisco) game.’’

As Wentz gets further removed from the ankle injuries, the more he resembles the quarterback the Colts envisioned when they acquired him in the offseason trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“This is the guy I knew in Philadelphia. He can be a big-play machine,’’ Frank Reich said after Wentz passed for a career-best 402 yards in a 31-3 demolition of the Houston Texans.

In the 30-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers and the nasty elements at Levi’s Stadium Sunday night, Wentz not only passed for two TDs for a fourth straight game, but once again could trust his legs.

In the second quarter, he gave the Colts a 13-12 lead with a 1-yard TD on a deceptive RPO (run-pass option) around the right side. In the fourth quarter and in the driving rain, Wentz kept a drive alive that resulted in Michael Badgley’s 42-yard field goal by breaking containment on second-and-15 and scrambling for 17 yards. He would convert a third-and-2 a few plays later only to have it erased by a holding penalty against right tackle Matt Pryor.

It’s clear: Wentz is capable of doing Wentz-like things again.

“For sure, no doubt,’’ he said. “When there are plays there to be made – improvising or scrambling, running or whatever that is – I’m not going to shy away from it,’’ he said. “We’re going to try and make those plays.

“Still be smart, protect myself, all those things, but that’s the type of player I am and the competitor I am.’’

Over the last four games – three wins and the collapse in Baltimore – he’s 77-of-113 (68.1%) for 1,003 yards with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a fat 119.5 rating. Wentz and Peyton Manning are the only Colt QBs with a four-game stretch of multiple TD passes and no interceptions.

He will stand alone if the streak hits five.

More important, though, Carson Wentz is playing like Carson Wentz, pre-2020, of course.

Reich offers a knowledgeable perspective on now and then. He was Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator in 2016-17, and helped Wentz author an MVP-caliber season in ’17 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 14.

For those interested, here’s a comparison of Wentz in ’17 and this season:

  • 2017: 143-of-232 (61.4%), 1,852 yards, 17 TDs, four interceptions, a 104.0 passer rating. He was sacked 19 times.
  • 2021: 141-of-219 (64.4%), 1,695 yards,11 TDs, one interception, a 102.8 rating. He’s gone down 15 times.

 “That was a great year when I was with him,’’ Reich said, “but I probably need to do a better job of focusing on he’s here now. I’m really looking for the Colts’ version of him where he just keeps getting better and better.

“But what we are seeing is he’s playing good football. I really like the way he’s pushing the ball down the field, how aggressively he’s thinking but still making good decisions, checking it down when he needs to.’’

Wentz’s aggression has increased as his ankles have healed. In the last four games, he’s had 16 completions that have gained at least 20 yards, and six that have covered at least 40.

“A lot of it is getting more confidence in the system, in the players and then just more reps,’’ Reich said of Wentz’s week-by-week development. “More practice reps have bred more confidence not only in him but in our whole team, and it’s been good for me as the play-caller and working with him again, just getting a feel for our offense with him as our quarterback.

“It doesn’t just happen like that. It’s just a little bit of a feel as we go.’’

Wentz was a bit evasive when asked if he’s starting to feel like the player he was in 2017 and ’18.

“I’ve been confident in who I was as a player and everything all the way through,’’ he said. “I think it’s been fun just seeing the development of this offense and myself, the coaches and just all the pieces coming together.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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