So far, so very good with Colts and protecting Philip Rivers

Sports

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers (17) looks to the sidelines during an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – Priority 1 every game for every defense – OK, after stopping the run, we get it – is making life miserable for the quarterback.

If you don’t believe us, listen to Brian Baker.

“You do need to have a consciousness of where the quarterback is,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive line coach explained Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “You need to be able to speed him up without allowing him to extend the down and you need to let him feel you.’’

Now, Baker gets to the bullet point.

“Whether it’s a completion, incompletion or an interception,’’ he continued, “it’s a positive down any time the quarterback’s got to get up to see what happened to the ball.’’

Consider that context for what the Colts’ offensive line has accomplished during the team’s 4-2 start. Yes, there’s a lingering concern with the run game that ranked 7th in the NFL a year ago. It’s yet to get going: 26th in yards per game (98.0) and 31st in yards per attempt (3.6).

But when it comes to protecting the team’s $25 million QB1 – that would be Philip Rivers – nobody’s doing it better.

“They have been unbelievable in protection thus far,’’ Rivers said. “I think the tape just shows what a heck of a group we have here.’’

So do the raw numbers.

The protection scheme – o-line, tight ends, running backs – has allowed six sacks, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the fewest in the league. Rivers has been on the receiving end of five of those, and his sacks-per-dropback ratio (1:40.6) is the league’s best. According to NFL box scores, he’s also been hit 13 other times.

And let’s be honest, his sack total has been inflated by his – to put it nicely – lack of wheels. Twice, Rivers has vacated the pocket and had room to at least gain 1 yard and avoid a sack, but failed to reach the line of scrimmage before a defender got to him.

Considering low sack totals are a badge of honor for offensive linemen, they’ve resisted the urge to implore Rivers to hit the afterburners when necessary.

“They hadn’t said anything,’’ he said with a smile, “but I certainly would have liked to get past the line of scrimmage or throw it away. There was one in the game the other day that I really scrambled right and I felt like I was moving pretty good and I thought I was going to be able to get a yard or two, but once I realized I wasn’t, I was quick to make sure I threw it away before I stepped out of bounds.

“I didn’t want another cheap sack counted for the guys, counted for our team.’’

Truth be told, the solid protection through six games is all the more impressive because of Rivers’ presence. As the two cheap sacks indicate, he’ll never be confused with Patrick Mahomes or Kyler Murray.

He ranks 6th in NFL history with 404 touchdown passes and 60,869 yards, but he’s also 11th with 450 sacks. Rivers has been sacked at least once in 201 of his 234 regular-season games, and at least three times on 66 occasions.

The five sacks are the fewest he’s suffered in the first six games of a season. His final year with the Los Angeles Chargers in ’19 started with 12 sacks in his first six games and ended with 34, the ninth time in 10 years he endured at least 30.

Players were at the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center Wednesday doing positional self-scouting. What were the positives while posting a 4-2 record? What areas require attention?

“I think we’re going to see a lot of things that we need to do better to give more time and make sure that nobody is near Phil,’’ left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “But it’s really been the whole offense doing their jobs and when you get everybody doing their jobs, good things happen and that’s helped the protection a lot.’’

The offensive line established itself as one of the NFL’s top units a year ago, but the protection scheme has been on a dramatic rise since it ranked 32nd in the league in 2017. That forgettable season it yielded 56 sacks and a sack on 11.5% percent of pass attempts.

Since then: 1st in 2018 (18 sacks, 2.8%), 10th in ’19 (32 sacks, 6.2%), and 1st this season (6 sacks, 2.97%).

It’s no coincidence the turnaround was boosted by the arrival of All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith in the 2018 draft and acquiring right guard Mark Glowinski off waivers from Seattle in December ’17. They crystalized a group that already featured Castonzo, a 2011 first-round pick, and center Ryan Kelly, a 2016 first-rounder.

“I’ve always thought from a pocket standpoint, obviously you have to have athletic tackles,’’ Rivers said. “Nowadays, they are blocking these guys that are 240 pounds that can run a 4.4. So we have that.

“A guy like myself is not looking to escape, so I’d much rather be able to step up. If you can just run (edge rushers) by 10 yards or so, that’s obviously super important.’’

One of the most critical aspects of providing a workable pocket is giving the quarterback room to step up, which allows the tackles to push the outside rushers past him.

“If you’re getting a ton of push in the interior, that’s when it’s tougher for a guy like myself, a more traditional pocket passer,’’ Rivers said. “The combination of our tackles’ ability to handle both the bull rush and the speed guy and then our interior guys really being able to anchor down and not allow too much penetration really creates that cut right in there – that pocket – to step in there and be able to see and find lanes to throw.

“A couple of games where we’ve thrown it over 40 times and it’s been unbelievable protection.’’

In Sunday’s 31-27 win over Cincinnati, the Colts fell into a quick 21-0 hole that essentially left Rivers operating a one-dimensional attack. He delivered 44 passes while the run game consisted of 14 attempts.

The only sack occurred early in the third quarter and was a result of good coverage by the Bengals. Unable to find a receiver, Rivers slipped out of the pocket to the right and was unable to reach the line of scrimmage before being pulled down by Xavier Williams.

“When you’re down 21-nothing and the other team knows you’re going to throw it, that can be a challenge,’’ Rivers said. “But our guys did a heck of a job.’’

While much of the focus always is on the offensive line, the quarterback plays a role in his own protection.

“I do think that getting the ball out of my hand on time or accelerating your progression based on what the coverage plays, based on what our reads are from a quarterback position – I’ve always thought that was very important,’’ Rivers said.

According to ESPN’s Next Gen Stats, Rivers’ snap-to-throw time is 2.5 seconds. That’s a reflection of the offense and him getting rid of the football, not the inability of the protection to do its job.

“I never think it’s one of those things where, ‘Shoot, I’m going to hang on to it a little longer,’’’ Rivers said. “Are there times that you do? Yeah, on some shot plays and . . . thankfully we have a group that can hold up in those situations.

“But at the same time, you want to get it out on time both to help pass protection and I think it helps the efficiency of the yards after catch as well.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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