INDIANAPOLIS – For effect, we should cue up a scene from “Cool Hand Luke’’ that still resonates.
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
That was the Captain’s message to Luke, one of his rebellious prisoners.
It also describes the status of the Indianapolis Colts’ pass protection.
Although the Colts were able to chase down the Kansas City Chiefs 20-17 Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium for their first victory of the season, they did so while putting their quarterback in harm’s way on far too many occasions.
Matt Ryan directed the 43rd game-winning drive of his 15-year career, but the Chiefs made him earn it. They hit him 10 times on his 42 drop-backs – honestly, that seems a conservative number – and sacked him five times.
Unacceptable, insisted Frank Reich.
“This is something, as you guys know, that we take a lot of pride in,’’ he said Monday. “That’s why it’s a little discouraging.
“We have to collectively put that together and find ways to be more consistent there.’’
Too often, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up blitzes and the Colts failed to adjust. The result: a defender with a clear path to Ryan.
“I felt like there were more free rushers yesterday than . . . I’ve seen in a long time against us,’’ Reich said. “We got to get that cleaned up. I know what the answer is, we just have to get it done.
“We have to communicate better. We have to coach better, we have to communicate better and we have to play better. It’s always going to be that combination of things.’’
The Chiefs wasted no time testing the line of communication linking Ryan with his offensive line and the rest of the pass protection components.
On the Colts’ first offensive play, cornerback Jaylen Watson blitzed off the right side of Ryan’s protection. His free shot at Ryan forced an incompletion to running back Jonathan Taylor. On third-and-5, safety Justin Reid poured untouched through the A gap and forced another incompletion, which was delivered as Ryan was being yanked to the turf.
“That’s miscommunication,’’ said CBS analyst Tony Romo. “That’s nothing more than the communication up front.’’
It was only the beginning of the siege.
If it wasn’t end Frank Clark blowing up a screen pass to Michael Pittman Jr. with immediate pressure, it was cornerback L’Jarius Sneed getting from Point A (the right side of Indy’s offensive line) to Point B (Ryan) in the blink of an eye on fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter. Ryan had little chance to find a receiver as Sneed smacked him, forcing a fumble that Jonathan Taylor recovered.
On a third-and-6 from the Chiefs 22 in the third quarter, linebacker Nick Bolton again crowded the line of scrimmage to threaten Ryan’s interior protection. He stormed through the A gap and pulled Ryan down for an 11-yard sack. It forced Chase McLaughlin to convert a 51-yard field goal.
“This is just not OK,’’ Romo said. “No one blocks the A gap. You cannot allow someone to run through the A gap.
“This is just the communication.’’
The breakdowns seem odd considering the primary components in aligning the protections are Ryan, a 37-year-old quarterback who’s started 235 games, and Ryan Kelly, the Colts’ three-time Pro Bowl center with 83 starts in seven seasons. They were able to work together during the offseason, training camp and their brief playing time during the preseason.
Despite the revolving door at the position – Ryan is Reich’s fifth starter in as many seasons – Reich gives his quarterback “free rein’’ at setting the protection.
“Obviously you get a guy like Matt who has a lot of experience,’’ Reich said. “It’s not a problem for him seeing it and understanding it. But it still takes time to work out.
“Maybe in three games he’s had one or two that he would like to have back in that regard, but he’s been pretty good with it.’’
Reich reiterated “there’s no one thing’’ regarding the leaky protection, which was highlighted by the half-dozen or so free shots delivered by the Chiefs.
“There are a couple of uncharacteristic things happening here or there,’’ he said. “We’ll get them cleaned up.
“It’s not any one person, any one thing.’’
Right guard Danny Pinter has endured a few rough moments during his first stint was a full-time starter. That includes on consecutive plays Sunday. First, tackle Chris Jones beat him for a pressure of Ryan. Then, Clark’s bull-rush overwhelmed Pinter and resulted in an 11-yard sack.
Reich indicated the Colts aren’t considering replacing Pinter.
“That’s not been discussed,’’ he said. “We’re always rotating guys through in practice, cross-training guys.
“There’s been no discussion on that at this point.’’
Whether it’s communication issues or the line stunts by Jacksonville, it’s imperative the Colts clean up Ryan’s protection, as Reich put it.
Ryan has been hit 28 times and sacked 12 times in three games. Only Washington’s Carson Wentz (15) and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (15) have been sacked more.
And then there’s this.
Ryan has been sacked five times in consecutive games for just the third time in his 225 starts and the first time since games 11-12 of 2019.
The Colts have ranked no worse than tied-9th in fewest sacks allowed in Reich’s four seasons. They were 2nd in 2019 with Philip Rivers (19) and 1st in ’18 with Andrew Luck (18).
Heading into this season, Reich’s protection scheme allowed five or more sacks just three times. Now, they’ve yielded that many in each of the last two games.
The last time the Colts allowed at least five sacks in back-to-back games: weeks 4-5 of 2016.
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.