While Colts’ running game excels, passing game lags behind

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 29: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts hands off the ball to Marlon Mack #25 during the second quarter of the game against the Oakland Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offensive goal put on the board during the offseason is about to go down, and go down hard.

The target: 2,000 rushing yards.

The unfinished business: the Indianapolis Colts need 2 yards in Sunday’s season finale at Jacksonville to hit the mark.

Again, it’s going down.

“Let’s freakin’ hope so,’’ left tackle Anthony Castonzo said with a laugh Tuesday.

And let’s not dismiss the enormity of the accomplishment. The last time the Colts breached the 2,000-yard mark on the ground: 1994.

That’s a quarter-century ago.

The goal of 2,000 yards and a top-five ranking in the league – the Colts are currently at No. 4, averaging 133.2 yards per game – was more about establishing a “mentality and a philosophy,’’ according to Frank Reich. Also, his analytical research points to a top-5 rushing attack increasing a team’s chances at reaching the playoffs.

That once again is the case. Four of the top-five rushing teams have secured postseason berths; the Colts are the exception. The only top-five passing team reaching the playoffs is Kansas City (No. 4). Dallas (No. 2) still is in the mix.

“We said at the beginning of the year . . . I threw out top-five and told our offense, ‘Minimum of 2,000 yards. That’s our goal,’’’ Reich said. “Really, in my mind, when you look at all the rushing yards stats over the years, 2,000 yards is a great goal. Twenty-two hundred, you hit 2,200 and you’re doing something special.’’

The Colts are on pace for 2,131 yards, which would be the ninth-most in franchise history and the most since 1988 (2,249).

But while they’re on the cusp of reaching one rare benchmark, they’re languishing badly in the passing game.

“We’ve had our moments, good moments, in the passing game,’’ Reich said. “It obviously hasn’t been as productive as we want it to be.

“There’s no question we need to be better there, starting with the coaching, how we game plan, every aspect of it.’’

The raw numbers are eyesores:

  • 197.7 yards per game, 28th in the NFL. The Colts have averaged fewer than 200 net passing yards just three times since 1996: 2017 (180.8), when Andrew Luck was out with his shoulder issues and Brissett started the final 15 games; ’11 (187.2), when Peyton Manning was sidelined with his neck issues and Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky divvied up the load; and ’97 (196.4), when Jim Harbaugh, Paul Justin and Kelly Holcomb preceded the arrival of Manning.
  • 10 games with fewer than 200 net yards, which ties the 2017 output. The last time there was more: 1994.
  • 6.1 yards per pass play (which takes into account yards lost via sack). That’s 26th in the league.

That’s one of Reich’s trusty stats. It reveals overall efficiency. He describes it as “a magical number.’’

Ideally, the passing game needs to average 7.5 yards per attempt, and obviously, more is better.

“You know you’ve have an unbelievable year when you’re at 8 yards per attempt,’’ Reich said. “If you get north or 7.5, you’re doing all right. You’re really trying to get to 8. It’s not easy to get to, but when you get to 8, you know you’ve done something pretty good.’’

With one week remaining, nine teams are at 7.5 or better. Six have clinched playoff spots, and Dallas – No. 1 at 7.9 – still has a shot.

Brissett has had his moments. He’s averaged at least 8 yards per attempt five times in 14 starts. But four of those occurred before he sprained his left knee at Pittsburgh. Since then, his accuracy has declined (from 64.8 percent to 57.5) as has his yards per attempt (6.98 to 6.1).

In most cases, a top-five running attack would make it more conducive for a reliable passing game. However, defenses still routinely crowd the line of scrimmage, which makes the success of the Marlon Mack-led ground game even more impressive.

Reich insists the passing game’s inconsistency has been a shared venture.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into that. I don’t think there’s any one particular reason,’’ he said.

Despite the struggles in the passing game, the Colts remain one of the NFL’s better situational offenses: 13th in first-down conversions (42.1%), sixth on fourth down (60.9%) and seventh in the red zone (TDs 64.2%).

“That gives us some positivity to the passing game,’’ Reich said, “but we need to be obviously better all around.’’

At one point, he held his index finger and thumb an inch apart.

“I don’t think we’re far away,’’ he said.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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