Colts’ red-zone issues? It’s solve them or else

Colts

Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts looks on in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 11, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – First the good news.

Rodrigo Blankenship has attempted (17) and made (15) more field goals in his first five games than any kicker in a Colts’ history that spans two cities and nearly seven decades. His 15 3s are the second-most by a rookie in his first five games in league history.

Don’t go away, there’s more.

Blankenship’s 56 points lead the NFL, are tied for the most by a Colt in the first five games (Mike Vanderjagt in ’03) and, again, are the second-most by a rookie in his first five games in league history. Dallas’ Richie Cunningham piled up 62 points – and pounded 18 field goals through the uprights – in 1997.

But there’s a caveat to Blankenship’s impressive pro debut.

“We’re making our kicker work way too much down there for three-point plays instead of one-point plays,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call.

And that brings us to the bad news that’s a lingering issue with the Philip Rivers-led offense: it isn’t finishing what it starts.

Five games into a season teeming with playoff aspirations and the Colts not only rank an unacceptable 27th in third-down efficiency (34.9%) but are a substandard 29th in generating touchdowns in the red zone (8-of-19, 42.1%). They’re 1-for-4 in each of the last two games.

Keep that up and those playoff aspirations likely will evaporate as the schedule strengthens. The Colts entertain Cincinnati (1-3-1) Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, but down the road lurk Detroit, Baltimore, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, the Las Vegas Raiders, two meetings with AFC rivals Tennessee and Houston and a rematch with Jacksonville.

“There’s no question we want to be better in those areas, and we need to be better in those areas,’’ Sirianni said. “Third downs are the things that continue drives and red zone is the difference between four-point plays.

“We’ve gotta be able to start scoring touchdowns in the red zone.’’

Penetrating the opponent’s 20-yard line isn’t the issue. Rivers has directed 19 red-zone drives, tied for third-most in the league and just two fewer than leaders Miami and New Orleans.

Too often, though, the end result has been a Blankenship field goal. His eight red-zone field goals only trail the nine of Carolina’s Joey Slye.

Kudos to Blankenship for cleaning up, but continually leaving points on the field is risky business. Consider the three teams ranked below Indy in red-zone efficiency: Cincinnati (35.7%), the New York Giants (30.8%) and New York Jets (25%). They’re a combined 1-13-1.

At the risk of piling on, consider the red-zone picture across the league. Twenty-seven teams are coming away with TDs 50% of the time, and 17 are at 65% or better.

To this point, the Colts clearly haven’t solved the problem.

“We just haven’t executed well enough,’’ Rivers said after Sunday’s 32-23 loss at Cleveland. “If we new the exact answer, we would have already solved it.’’

If that came off as a frustrated quarterback, he has plenty of company.

“It’s frustrating,’’ coach Frank Reich said, “so we have to coach it better. We have to play it better. There are some contextual or situational things built in there, but that’s not hardly all of it. We just have to get better as an offense in those two areas, and I’m confident we will.

“All I can say on it is that hasn’t been good enough. Thankfully our defense has played well enough that those field goals have been enough in three of our five games. We all know that field goals aren’t going to be enough to win some of the games that we’re going to need to win to go where we want to go.

“The good news is we’re 3-2, and we have a good history of players and coaches who have done well in this area, and we’ll figure it out.’’

Everything becomes more difficult as the field shrinks, which places a premium on execution. There’s been a consistent lack of that whether Rivers has delivered passes or handed off.

Rivers is 13-of-25 for 85 yards with one interception – the bobble/contested pass to Mo Alie-Cox at the 5-yard line against Minnesota – and all four of his TDs. The four TDs have gone to Alie-Cox (two), Nyheim Hines (one) and Zach Pascal (one).

Oddly, four-time Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton has been targeted just four times with two catches and 14 yards. All five of Hilton’s TDs in his injury-plagued 2019 came in the red zone.

“We’re still planning for him,’’ Sirianni said. “We still want him to get the football in the red zone, no exception. We’re scheming for all sorts of different guys down there.

“We’re still always trying to get T.Y. the football even in the red zone. It just hasn’t happened yet.’’

It’s imperative to bring a reliable run game to the red zone, but it’s been hit and miss thus far. The Colts have managed 89 yards on 31 carries (2.9), but the raw numbers can be deceiving because of the condensed field. Jonathan Taylor has been the unquestioned workhorse with 16 carries for 57 yards and all three of his TDs.

But again, inefficiency has seeped in as the goal line nears. Three of the five sacks allowed have come in the red zone. Also, the Colts’ third-down troubles have actually worsened. They’ve converted only 4-of-15 opportunities (26.7%) inside the 20, including a third-and-4 at the 6 in the opener at Jacksonville that saw Hines limited to a 3-yard gain. On fourth-and-1 at the 3, Hines he was buried for no gain.

The early-season issues are in stark contrast to last season.

While there were issues with the Jacoby Brissett-led offense, finishing drives wasn’t one of them. The Colts ranked 6th in the league (63.3%). In the first five games, nine of Brissett’s 10 TD passes came in the red zone.

“When we get down there we just have to find ways to finish,’’ Sirianni said. “Again, I know it starts with us as coaches, getting in the right positions. Then, it’s just execution. We’ve got to be able to run the football down there. We’ve got to be able to pass the football down there.

“Us as coaches have got to be able to get them in the right position.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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