INDIANAPOLIS – It’s the overriding emphasis each week. Every week.
Ball security. Possess the football.
And it was a hot topic in March when Chris Ballard and Frank Reich decided to hitch the Indianapolis Colts’ 2020 fortunes to Philip Rivers. There was no questioning the body of work – the durability, the competitive DNA, the Hall of Fame-worthy stats – but this was someone who, at age 38 and in his 14th season as the Chargers’ QB1, had suffered 20 interceptions, his most since leading the NFL with 21 in ’16.
The 20 picks were impossible to ignore. They were too many.
“Absolutely,’’ Reich said shortly after turning over his quarterbacks’ room and the offense to Rivers. “That’s unacceptable, and he knows that.’’
Fast-forward to week 16 of Rivers’ first season as a Colt.
While there are several factors in the franchise’s return to relevancy – a 10-4 record and No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture heading into Sunday’s meeting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh – none is bigger than Rivers directing an offense that, first and foremost, has taken care of the football.
There’s no better barometer of a team reaching the desired bottom line – a victory – than winning the turnover battle.
“There are a lot of factors that go into it, a lot of statistics,’’ Reich said, “but this is one that is always at the forefront.’’
Over the last two seasons, teams that have won the turnover battle – a plus-1 or better – have won 78.8% of the time (287-75-2).
The Colts and Tennessee Titans lead the league at a plus-12. They sit atop the AFC South at 10-4. Next in line: Miami (plus-10), Kansas City (plus-8) and the Steelers (plus-8). They’re 9-5, 13-1 and 11-3, respectively.
This season, the Colts and Steelers are 8-0 when they’ve taken more than they’ve given.
The Colts have not turned the ball over in seven games, including the last three, and are 7-0 in those games.
“It’s no secret,’’ Reich said. “That’s why it’s part of our double-positive that we talk about . . . winning the turnover battle and winning the big-plays battle.’’
The Colts proclivity for ball security began in training camp and is emphasized every day in practice. Coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense prides itself on forcing takeaways – 24 overall, 3rd-most in the league – and that forces the offense to be on its game every time it steps on the practice field.
“They’re constantly poking at it, and it’s all about the ball for them, too,’’ Rivers said. “It helps both sides of the ball.’’
The offensive efficiency has been two-pronged: Rivers has been able to balance maintaining his aggressive approach with limiting his interceptions, and the running backs have heeded position coach Tom Rathman’s take-care-of-the-ball-at-all-costs message.
Rivers heads to Pittsburgh with just nine interceptions. He hasn’t suffered one in the past three games and last 107 attempts dating back to the 45-26 loss to Tennessee.
Rathman’s group, meanwhile, has taken ball security to the extreme. Colts’ backs have fumbled once – Jonathan Taylor’s against Baltimore – on 351 rush attempts and 454 total touches. Over the last two seasons, they’ve lost two fumbles – Nyheim Hines’ was the culprit in ’19 – on 750 rushes and 923 touches.
While the possessive nature of the backs is off-the-charts impressive, Rivers’ ability to operate the Colts’ aggressive offense – 9th in passing yards per game, 5th in passing yards per attempt, 8th in scoring – while not littering the field with interceptions has been critical, especially considering his travails last season.
“Yeah, it is a balance because you don’t want to play scared,’’ he said. “Obviously had some turnovers, (but) really they came in bunches in a couple of our losses.’’
Four of Rivers’ interceptions came in losses at Jacksonville and Cleveland; two in each game.
“You know that correlation . . . lessens your chances of winning,’’ he said. “Obviously when you’ve thrown it as many times as I’ve thrown it in 14-15 years, whatever it’s been, you’re going to throw some to the other team. Certainly don’t want to,’’ he said.
For those keeping track, Rivers has delivered 419 touchdown passes, 6th-most in NFL history. He needs two more to move past Dan Marino.
But he’s also suffered 207 interceptions, 25th-most in league history.
“I feel like in a large part I’ve always emphasized taking care of the ball,’’ Rivers said. “Certainly had some stretches where I haven’t so much and didn’t so much last season.
“But I never have slighted that and not felt like that was important.’’
Interceptions are inevitable, but the idea is not only to limit them but have a situational understanding when it’s acceptable to put the football at risk.
Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni entered this season wanting to keep Rivers’ interception total in the “10-12 range.’’
“Frank says also a 3-to-1 ratio with touchdowns and interceptions,’’ Sirianni said.
Rivers is a tad behind the chains with that: 22 touchdowns, the nine interceptions. But over the last nine games – the Colts are 7-2 – he’s had 18 touchdowns against four interceptions.
Reich lobbied for the Colts to sign Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract in the offseason – with a return in ’21 if things went as planned – and he’s been rewarded with a solid bounce-back season from Rivers.
“I think Philip’s playing great football,’’ he said. “He’s making very good decisions, obviously very accurate with the football. Just need to continue to be disciplined yet still have that arrow in his bag that he can strike deep at any time.
“That’s what’s unique about Philip. Everybody knows that Philip is going to push the ball down the field. The magic is to find the right mix of being able to push it down the field and take chances, but still keep the turnovers down.’’
That will be critical Sunday in Heinz Field.
While the Colts are among the NFL’s best at protecting the football, the Steelers’ defense ranks 2nd with 25 takeaways and 1st with 17 interceptions. Each is a reflection of its league-high 47 sacks. They’ve had at least one sack in 71 consecutive games, an NFL record.
“Yeah, they’re a very good team at taking the ball away,’’ Reich said. “But we’re good at keeping it away. We just continue on the path that we’re on.’’
Rivers insisted the offense won’t allow complacency to seep in.
“I don’t think you’ve ever got it,’’ he said. “You never go, ‘Oh, wow, we figured out that. We’ve stopped the turnovers, so we’re good now.’
“It’s play-to-play, week-to-week. It’s always an emphasis. I feel like all the teams I’ve been a part of, we’ve always emphasized that. I don’t know that you can emphasize it any more than we have here.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.