Colts must improve NFL-worst red-zone offense

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 01: Chester Rogers #3 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the football upfield against Nick Vigil #59 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Colts defeated the Bengals 13-10. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The difference between where the Indianapolis Colts are and where they could be is a play here, a play there.

Too often, those critical plays and game-determining opportunities have been wasted in the shadow of the opponent’s goal line. Jacoby Brissett and the Colts offense have been at their worst in the NFL’s money district, the red zone.

“We’ve got a lot of room to improve,’’ Chuck Pagano admitted Wednesday.

In fact, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Contributing to the 3-7 record the Colts take into Sunday’s rematch with the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium has been the offense’s utter lack of competency inside the 20-yard line. Over the last six games, they’ve generated just three touchdowns on 14 red-zone opportunities (21.4 percent).

On the season, the Colts have managed a league-low 10 TDs on 24 red-zone excursions. That’s a league-worst 41.7 percent, and a dramatic drop from a year ago when the Andrew Luck-led offense scored TDs on 66 percent of its red-zone drives, fifth-best in the league. The percentages in Luck’s first three seasons: 54, 56 and 55.

“We’ve got to produce down there,’’ Pagano said. “You can’t settle for field goals.’’

There’s no time like the present to buck the trend, and no better opponent than the Titans to drive home the importance of being more effective as the goal line approaches.

“It’s one of the major points (of emphasis) this week,’’ Pagano said. “We just talked about it in the team meeting as far as the formula and keys to this game. It’s red-zone efficiency on both sides. We’ve got to score touchdowns and we’ve got to force field goals.’’

In the first meeting Oct. 16, the defense did its job in the first half by limiting the Titans to three field goals, one after they had a first-and-10 at the Indy 19.

But the offense couldn’t fully capitalize.

The Colts’ opening drive penetrated Tennessee’s 20-yard line, but they settled for Adam Vinatieri’s 36-yard field goal after Donte Moncrief dropped a perfectly-thrown third-down pass by Brissett in the end zone. A second red-zone trip resulted in Brissett’s 8-yard TD to tight end Jack Doyle.

However, a major opportunity to create separation came and went after Indy faced a first-and-goal at the 7 with 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter. A 1-yard scramble by Brissett was followed by two errant passes and Vinatieri’s 25-yard field goal.

The Colts led 13-9 at the half, but it could have been a fatter margin, and the Titans would have faced a much larger deficit than 19-9 when linebacker John Simon returned a Marcus Mariota interception for a touchdown on the Titans’ opening drive of the third quarter.

Allowed to hang around and hang around, Tennessee outscored the Colts 21-3 in the fourth quarter en route to a 36-22 victory.

For a team with such a small margin of error, not cashing in on a higher percentage of red-zone opportunities has been debilitating.

Part of the blame rests with shoddy pass protection. On 34 drop-back situations in the red zone this season, Brissett has been sacked six times and forced to scramble on three other occasions.

But Brissett’s newness to the offense – he arrived via trade with the New England Patriots Sept. 2 – and lack of comprehensive work on red-zone situations during the offseason can’t be ignored.

His overall passer rating of 86.7 ranks 22nd in the league. In the red zone, it drops to 72.8 (10 of 25, 87 yards, three TDs, one interception). According to ESPN, the only QBs with a worse rating are San Francisco’s C.J. Beathard (15.2), Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer (41.1) and Green Bay’s Brett Hundley (53.3).

“Whenever you’re in the red zone, everybody is right there,’’ Brissett said, “and that’s when everybody is playing their best football because they know you’re trying to get into the end zone.’’

At a position with so much responsibility, excelling in specific situations – converting third downs, being efficient in the red zone – is imperative, even for a young QB. Brissett is 24 and makes his 12th career start Sunday.

“I don’t know if that’s the evolution or the last step of the evolution, but that’s the one (step) that’s the toughest and would come the slowest,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said last month. “Everything is tight. There’s tight windows. There’s less space.

“The packages, the things you do are very specific to that area of the field. So, the reps and the time that you have on task are critical in that section of the field.’’

Everything is more difficult. The Colts are averaging 3.5 yards per rush during the season, but 2.6 in the red zone. Even so, seven of their eight rushing TDs have come from inside the 8-yard line.

“Everybody’s just got to get on the same page,’’ Gore said. “The field gets smaller, so it’s harder. Just got to get on the same page and do your job.’’

Added wideout T.Y. Hilton: “You always want to get touchdowns, but this is a hard league to score no matter what. We’ve just got to be better and we will be.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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