Suddenly, negative plays plague Colts’ offense

Jerome Baker #55 of the Miami Dolphins sacks Brian Hoyer #2 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 10, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– For so long, they were a relatively clean and efficient bunch. There were the occasional hiccups – rushes that lost yardage, sacks, turnovers– but they were at a minimum and generally overcome.

Negative plays weren’t an overriding issue for the offense as the Indianapolis Colts got off to a 5-2 start that had them perched atop the AFC South and as the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Suddenly they are.

“There’s been a few more than normal,’’ Frank Reich said.

Added offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni: “Yeah, I feel like we’ve had a couple more than we had in the past, than last year. I think if you looked at the numbers that would indicate that.

“We were down last week from what we were the week before, I know that. But if you look at the whole year relatively speaking, I think we are definitely up a little bit.’’

So we looked ‘em up. And Sirianni and Reich are correct.

Injuries have impacted the Colts’ recent slide, a two-game losing streak that has dropped them out of the mid-November postseason grouping. A sprained knee has forced Jacoby Brissett to miss the last six quarters, although he should return Sunday against Jacksonville. T.Y. Hilton has missed the two losses and likely will miss a third straight game. The passing game also has missed the presences of Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell.

But the uptick in negative plays is undeniable and troubling. Consider:

  • The running game has had 30 rushes for minus yardage in nine games. That’s third-most in the NFL. Last season: 33, tied for 6th-fewest. There have been 12 in the last three games, including six against Denver.
  • After yielding 7 sacks in the first six games, the pass protection – that’s the much-hyped offensive line, running backs, everybody – has sprung a serious leak. Brissett and Brian Hoyer have absorbed 10 at the hands of Miami, Pittsburgh and Denver.
  • Like every coach, Reich preaches ball security. His message found receptive ears early as the Colts suffered just six turnovers – three interceptions, three lost fumbles – in the first six games that cost them 13 points. But in the last three weeks, there have been seven turnovers, and the opposition has turned them into 30 points. That’s 30 of the 55 points posted by the Broncos, Steeler and Dolphins being directly aided by Colts’ gaffes.
  • Using negative rushes, sacks and turnovers as benchmarks, the Colts had 33 in the first six games, 29 in the last three. And that doesn’t include dropped passes (still too many) and penalties.

This is not complicated. An increase in negative plays impacts offensive rhythm and efficiency. Instead of second-and-6 or better, a loss on 4 on first down makes it second-and-14.

Over the first six games, the Colts were among the league’s best at converting third downs (38-of-81, 46.9 percent). That’s dipped to 35.1 percent over the last three (13-of-37).

“We always think that negative plays are the things that contribute to losses,’’ Sirianni said. “Offensively, we really believe that whether it is a dropped pass, I know you don’t lose yardage there, but you go from first-and-10 to second-and-10, right?

“Whether it is a penalty, whether it is a negative run, negative pass, a sack or a turnover, those are critical to the success of the offense.’’

In the second quarter against Miami, Hoyer drove the offense to a first-and-10 at the Dolphins 25. Then: Mack lost 3 yards, Hoyer was sacked for a minus-9, a third-down Hoyer incompletion and a Rigoberto Sanchez punt rather than an Adam Vinatieri field goal attempt.

At Pittsburgh, a first quarter drive reached first-and-goal at the 7. Then, Brissett was smothered for a loss of 3 on a RPO keeper followed by consecutive sacks and Vinatieri’s 25-yard field goal. A third quarter possession reached the Steelers 34 but fizzled after it faced a second-and-24 due to back-to-back penalties on right guard Mark Glowinski. A fourth quarter drive stalled due to, again, consecutive sacks.

Brissett declined to elaborate on the cause of the increase in negative plays.

“We have to get into the positive now,’’ he said. “That’s how you stop the negatives, by being positive.’’

Reich was more expansive.

“We strive to play clean every week,’’ he said. “We really do, but there’s a lot of variables in that. The No. 1 variable is what we control and how we play. The No. 2 variable is how good is the defense we’re playing.’’

The officiating crew, Reich added, also factors in.

“They’ve been calling the games great,’’ he said. “I’ve really been happy with how they’ve been calling it.

“What we have to focus on is what’s in our control and that’s what we try to do.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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