Frank Reich: Colts can overcome ‘mess’ of 1-4 start

Sports

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman (11) leans for a touchdown with Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) on his back during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

INDIANAPOLIS – The vision remains, but it’s taking high-powered binoculars to get a clear picture of it.

That’s the overriding byproduct of failing to extend a 120-game streak of protecting a 16-point fourth quarter cushion, and wondering how it all went so very wrong in Monday night’s 31-25 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

“Painful, painful loss,’’ Frank Reich said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re early in the season. It’s not as early as we’d like anymore, but it’s still early.’’

Where the Colts go from here hinges on how quickly they put Monday night behind them physically as well as mentally on a short week. Instead of taking a 2-3 record and serious momentum into Sunday’s meeting with the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium, they’re 1-4.

They’ll look to each other.

“You look to your left and your right and you gain strength from the brotherhood that we have in that locker room,’’ Reich said. “You draw strength from where we’re going and the belief and conviction that you have in what we’re doing. I’m confident all of our guys will do that. We have a strong group of men as leaders who have the kind of substance that can overcome kind of the mess that we put ourselves into here.

“It’s possible to win a game and not get better and it’s also possible to lose a game but continue to make progress and make strides. I’m confident in the direction we’re headed.’’

The Colts have been in this position before and lived to tell about it. They opened the 2018 season – Reich’s first as head coach – 1-5 only to reel off wins in nine of their final 10 to earn a wild-card playoff berth.

But let’s not kid ourselves. At 1-4, the Colts have pretty much exhausted any margin for error, and that probably includes contending for one of the AFC’s three wild-card berths.

At the same time, the AFC South remains in play and the next five games should determine whether that’s a realistic vision, or a mirage.

Consider the next five weeks for the Colts and 3-2 Tennessee Titans:

  • Colts: Houston (1-4), at San Francisco (2-3), Tennessee (3-2), New York Jets (1-4), Jacksonville (0-5).
  • Titans: Buffalo (4-1), Kansas City (2-3), at Colts (1-4), at the Los Angeles Rams (4-1), New Orleans (3-2).

As the Colts turn their attention to the Texans, here are a few cleanup thoughts from the stunning loss to the Ravens. Since their relocation in 1984, the Colts had been 120-0 when holding at least a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. Losing the 19-point lead – 22-3 with 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter – is tied for the 9th-biggest blown lead in franchise history.

On the defensive

If the Colts are going to make anything out of this season, they’ve got to get their defense fixed. Yes, it remains one of the NFL’s best against the run. But it’s categorically one of the league’s worst when dealing with the pass.

It has allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a ridiculous 124.9 passer rating (tops in the league), complete 73.2% of their passes, average 9 yards per attempt and deliver a league-high 15 TD passes.

After halftime Monday evening, Lamar Jackson completed 29-of-33 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns. For perspective, consider this nugget posted by ESPN’s Field Yates. There had been 4,017 games in NFL history with a quarterback passing for 400-plus yards, but Jackson’s 86% completion rate was the best. Ever.

Coordinator Matt Eberflus insisted he dug deep into his playbook in an attempt at slowing Jackson. The Ravens’ final six drives averaged nine plays and 77 yards and generated four touchdowns and one field goal. On the sixth drive, Jackson fumbled at the Indy 1-yard line after an 88-yard possession.

“When things don’t work, you always go back and look and say, ‘Hey, what could we have done better schematically to put our players in better position to make plays?’’’ he said Tuesday. “In the course of those drives we tried various things . . . where we had our two-minute menu and our third-down menu that we were using there.

“We had simulated pressures, we had one pressures that were two-high, we had zone pressures that were single-high, we rushed four, played quarters, we played quarter-quarter-half.

“We have to do better as coaches. We have to do a better job of setting guys in position. We always do that when things don’t work. That’s what you do as a coach: ‘How can I put my guys in a better position to make the plays that they need to?’ We have tremendous talent. I believe in our players.’’

Perhaps, but either Eberflus was unable to dial up the proper scheme or his players were unable to execute and make a play or two that mattered.

The pass rush remains a major disappointment. It got to Jackson for 2 sacks, but the defense was credited with just three other QB hits. Too often, Jackson was able to stand in the pocket and wait for his receivers to find holes in the zone or exploit one-on-one coverage.

Injuries complicated matters. Starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin missed the game with an ankle injury and the other outside starter, Xavier Rhodes, left the game early in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Also, starting safety Khari Willis returned after missing the Miami game with ankle and groin injuries, but was limited to just 19 of 73 defensive snaps.

Eberflus had to lean heavily on the bottom of his secondary depth chart: corners Anthony Chesley, Isaiah Rodgers and BoPete Keyes, and safeties Andrew Sendejo and George Odum.

Injuries also have had have an impact.

“You’ve got to be smart,’’ Eberflus said. “Certainly that does impact what you’re thinking there because everybody is thinking about matchups at that time.’’

Again, not much has worked.

About that conservative third-down call

Reich called 63 offensive plays against the Ravens that generated 513 total yards, the Colts’ most since week 3 of 2014. But he would like to have a do-over with one play late in the fourth quarter. The Colts led 25-17 with 5 minutes remaining and faced a third-and-8 at the Baltimore 15. Instead of going with an aggressive call, Reich called a run that resulted in Jonathan Taylor being tackled for a 4-yard loss.

On the next play, ailing kicker Rodrigo Blankenship had his 37-yard field goal blocked by Calais Campbell.

After the game, Reich said he wished he had “gone for the jugular’’ and had Carson Wentz throw into the end zone. As it turned out, video review revealed the pass play he and Wentz were considering wouldn’t have been successful against the Ravens’ defense at that time.

Also factoring into Reich’s decision to get into position for a field goal that would have given Indy an 11-point lead with 4½ minutes remaining was Blankenship converting a 43-yard field goal on the previous drive. Blankenship suffered a hip injury during pregame warm-ups, but told the coaching staff he would be effective on field goal attempts in the 45-yard range.

“I’m not going to lie,’’ Reich said. “I knew he was compromised, but when he made the 43-yarder, I thought ‘We’re good.’ I had no one on the medical staff coming up and saying, ‘Hey you’ve got to really be careful.’’’

Along with the blocked field-goal attempt, Blankenship pulled a PAT wide left and was wide left with a 47-yard attempt on the final play of regulation.

Injury update

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Andrew Sendejo are in the NFL’s concussion protocol while the team placed backup safety Ibraheim Campbell on the practice squad injured reserve list with ankle and knee injuries.

Reich was unable to provide an update on the severity of Blankenship’s hip injury.

Also, it doesn’t appear T.Y. Hilton is ready to return to practice after undergoing neck surgery in September.

“Not sure on T.Y.,’’ Reich said. “I don’t think it was this week, but I think we’re getting close.’’

Reich also expects rookie Dayo Odeyingbo to get on the field this season. The team’s second-round draft pick remains on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon.

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.

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