Short-yardage lapses still plaguing Colts

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Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) plays against Cleveland Browns middle linebacker B.J. Goodson (93) and Sione Takitaki (44) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

INDIANAPOLIS – In what to this point represents the most significant win, one season-long concern remained front-and-center.

The Indianapolis Colts took temporary control of the AFC South last Thursday with their 34-17 win over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville in spite of their short-yardage travails.

“A couple of those could have really cost us,’’ Philip Rivers conceded Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “We’ve gotta hone in.

“It’s just trying to get a yard.’’

Twice, rookie Jonathan Taylor did precisely that. That included shrugging off a hit in the backfield on a tone-setting fourth-and-1 at the Indy 45 on the Colts’ opening drive and moving the chains with a 2-yard run. In the fourth quarter and on what might have been a preview of coming attractions, Jacoby Brissett replaced Rivers for a third-and-1 at the Titans 2 and burrowed into the end zone between center Ryan Kelly and right guard Mark Glowinski.

But on four other third/fourth-and-1 occasions . . . zilch.

The opening drive stalled on a failed fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 29. Jadeveon Clowney got quick penetration against right tackle Braden Smith, allowing Malcolm Brown to stop Jordan Wilkins for no gain. Tennessee maintained its early 7-0 lead.

The Colts trailed 17-13 at the half but opened the third quarter with a methodical 15-play drive that covered 73 yards, drained 7½ minutes of the period and reached the Tennessee 1. They needed another yard and didn’t get it. On third-and-goal at the 1, safety Kenny Vaccaro knifed in from the edge and pulled down Taylor for on gain. On fourth down, the offensive line provided Wilkins with no seam to the end zone.

“It’s kind of crazy when you look at it,’’ Rivers said. “The 7-to-10 (yards to go) third downs we’ve been really good percentage-wise and not so much short yardage, which certainly isn’t something we’re OK with.

“But we had a bunch of them so that means we’re doing a pretty good job on first and second down if you have that many third-and-shorts. We just have to do a better job of executing in those situations, whether it be run or pass. I don’t think it’s been one thing in particular. We just need to do a better job.’’

The Colts share the AFC South lead with the Titans at 6-3 and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker as they ramp up preparations for Sunday’s meeting with the Green Bay Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But offensively, they’ve taken the hard road, at least situationally. That includes ranking 25th in red-zone efficiency (TDs 55.9% of the time) and 30th in third-down conversions (37.5%).

Coach Frank Reich’s aggressive approach has resulted in the Colts sharing the league lead by going for it 18 times on fourth down, but they’re 14th on conversions (61.1%).

The offense was 3-of-5 on fourth down against the Titans, the most team’s most fourth-down attempts since 1991. But 80% isn’t good enough.

“I do not like not making third-and-1, third-and-2,’’ Reich said. “Even on fourth downs, I mean, if we’re going for it on fourth down, I expect 100%.

“So, we have to coach it better and we have to play it better.’’

It’s been a hit-and-miss venture whether Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni spread defenses out or turn to their jumbo package that includes multiple tight ends and rookie Danny Pinter as an extra offensive lineman.

The raw numbers are hard to digest, especially when it’s universally agreed the Colts feature one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. That’s certainly been the case in pass protection where Rivers, arguably the league’s least-mobile QB1, has been sacked just eight times while attempting 313 passes in nine games.

Run blocking, though, has been a different matter. The Colts rank 20th in yards per game (105.8) and 29th in yards per attempt (3.8).

The most glaring deficiency has been executing the run game in short-yardage situations. That was a strength a year ago, but a persistent weakness thus far.

It first reared its head in the season-opening loss at Jacksonville. In position to take a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter – fourth-and-1 at the Jaguars 3, the Colts were turned away when Nyheim Hines was held for no gain. In the third quarter, Taylor was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1, forcing Rivers to convert a fourth down with a 28-yard completion to tight end Jack Doyle.

Consider the short-yardage facts. The Colts:

  • have converted just 11-of-19 (57.9%) of their third/fourth-and-1 attempts this season. Taylor is 8-of-11, Wilkins 2-of-6, Brissett 1-of-1 and Hines 0-of-1.
  • were one of the NFL’s best in 2019: 21-of-28 (75%). The overriding reason? Brissett, thrust into the starter’s role following Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, was 10-for-10. Marlon Mack was next in line at 6-for-12. For his career, Brissett is 13-for-14. He lacks straight-line speed, but brings power with his 6-4, 238-pound frame.
  • converted 16-of-24 times (66.7%) in 2018, Reich’s first season as coach and Luck’s final as QB1. Mack was a season-long force (8-of-11). Luck and Wilkins each was 3-of-4.

The Brissett dynamic shouldn’t be glossed over.

It’s clear the offense belongs to Rivers, the $25 million QB, but he’s not a threat to tuck it on third-and-short and burrow behind his o-line for a first down. His last rushing TD was a 2-yarder at Denver in 2011 and, according to IndyStar, his last quarterback sneak was five years ago.

“It’s not like I would never do it with Philip, but definitely want to do it with Jacoby,’’ Reich said, adding the coaching staff must give Brissett occasional pass options when he’s used in short yardage to keep defenses off balance.

Whether it’s more of Brissett on third/fourth-and-short or everyone doing a better job with normal personnel, something’s got to change.

“That is one area that we definitely have to improve on,’’ Reich said. “We’re not going to make every one. Just look around the league, it happens all the time every week.

“I’m realistic in that regard, but we need to make a few more than we’re making.’’

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