INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Despite the avalanche of stats and analytical info associated with the NFL, it’s often a simple path to the bottom line.
There may be no better barometer of success than winning the giveaway-takeaway battle.
Next in line? Excel at the situational game within the game.
Be efficient on third down. Finish in the red zone.
We yield the floor to T.Y. Hilton.
“It’s very critical,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ Pro Bowl wideout explained. “Third down, you stay on the field and as a defense, you get off the field. We try to help each other out. As an offense, we want to stay on the field as long as we can to give (the defense) some breaks.
“In the red zone, you’ve gotta finish. That was a key thing in this win. We scored touchdowns. As long as we continue to score touchdowns, we’ll be a tough team to beat.’’
Sunday’s 30-23 win over the Houston Texans was a textbook example on the importance of an offense finishing what it starts. The Colts went 4-for-4 in the red zone – all Jacoby Brissett touchdown passes – while the Texans were 2-for-5. Indy’s defense bowed its back and forced Houston to settle for three second-quarter field goals after Texans’ drives reached the 14-, 4- and 8-yard line.
That was in stark contrast to the previous win at Kansas City. The Colts pulled off the 19-13 upset at Arrowhead Stadium despite getting one touchdown and four Adam Vinatieri field goals on their five red-zone trips. They also converted a subpar 5-of-14 third-down situations. They compensated with a withering ground attack (180 yards) that dominated time of possession (37:15-22:45) and picking up a pair of critical fourth-and-shorts.
In terms of situational success, the Chiefs game was an outlier. On the season, the Colts are among the NFL’s very best: No. 6 in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (15 of 23, 65.2 percent) and No. 7 on third downs (46.9 percent).
The Colts and Houston are the only teams ranked among the top-7 in each. Last season, Indy (4th in the red zone, 1st on third downs), Pittsburgh and Kansas City were the only teams in the top-8 of each.
“I think it starts with our players,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “We always talk about players, formations, and plays. I think it all starts with our players and starts at the top with Jacoby (Brissett), with him going through the right reads and figuring out where he is going with the football versus different looks.’’
As the goal line approaches and the field shrinks, defensive coordinators frequently dial-up man coverage.
“Then those guys – the receivers, tight ends, and backs – have to beat the coverage that is presented,’’ Sirianni said.
One issue that can’t be ignored. The Colts’ recent situational success has come with Frank Reich calling the plays. When he was offensive coordinator under play-calling head coach Doug Pederson in 2017, the Philadelphia Eagles offense ranked No. 1 in the red zone (65.5 percent) and No. 8 on third down (41.7 percent).
“Our coaches take the time to give us almost all the details they can think of they found on tape,’’ running back Nyheim Hines said. “After that, it’s the players. We go out there, we know the calls, we know what to expect. When you know what to expect, it helps us to attack.’’
Brissett’s development in the game-defining situations has been impressive. With few exceptions this season, he’s been decisive and efficient.
“It’s everybody making plays, right?’’ Reich said. “But it does start at quarterback and Jacoby has been doing a really good job.’’
The Texans, he added, “was one of those days. Houston goes 2-for-5. We go 4-for-4. When you’re playing two good teams, that’s what it’s going to come down to. You say that week-in and week-out, but it truly epitomized that (Sunday).’’
Brissett already has set a career-best with 14 touchdowns, and 13 have come inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. That’s the most in the NFL, ahead of Russell Wilson (12) and Matt Ryan (11). Nineteen of his 27 TD passes in his 21 starts with the Colts have been delivered in the red zone.
“It is just the players,’’ Brissett said. “I think the coaches are doing a good job of putting us in great situations on first and second down that lead to manageable third downs and the red zone.
“The mindset that we go into the game with, the plan is clear. So that makes us play faster.’’
In his 21 starts, Brissett has suffered just one red-zone interception – in overtime against the San Francisco 49ers in week 5 of ’17. In the subsequent 17 games, he’s tossed 18 touchdowns and is working on a streak of 71 red-zone passes with an interception.
As efficient as Brissett has been, Reich and Sirianni have been mindful to mix in heavy doses of the run game. The Colts have run 24 times on their 23 red-zone possessions and come away with rushing TDs from Brissett and Marlon Mack. Brissett rushed for four TDs in ’17.
“Generally speaking, the best red-zone teams do have a pretty strong run element to their red-zone game plan,’’ Reich said. “So over the course of a 16-game season, for us to be consistently good in the red zone, that’s going to have to show up.’’
As successful as Brissett and the Colts have been in the red zone, their toughest obstacle awaits. The Denver Broncos visit Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday afternoon and possess one of the NFL’s top red-zone defenses. They rank 3rd overall (8 TDs allowed on 21 trips, 38.1 percent) and haven’t allowed a TD on their last 10 red-zone opportunities, a stretch of four games.
Spread it around
One of the keys to Brissett’s red-zone success has been his supporting cast. He’s dished out red-zone TDs to six different players: Hilton (five), Zach Pascal (three), Eric Ebron (two), Parris Campbell (one), Jack Doyle (one) and Chester Rogers (one).
“What makes it so good is you can’t really key on anybody,’’ Hines said. “We’re not throwing to T.Y. every time, or Ebon.’’
There’s one interesting quirk to Hilton. He’s the unquestioned big-play component in the Colts’ passing game. He’s averaged 30.3 yards on his 48 career TD catches, including the postseason. But 10 of his last 12 have been red-zone TDs, including all five this season.
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