Improvement needed from Philip Rivers-led offense, and that might be required against Browns

Indy Blitz

Philip Rivers #17 of the Indianapolis Colts takes the snap against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on October 04, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s Football 101.

Listen to Professor Philip.

“As an offense, our job is to score one more point than our defense allows,’’ he said Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “If that were to be 35, 38, 41, whatever it is, then our job is to score one more than that. If it’s 11, then we’d better get 12.

“Having that approach is probably the best way to go. Be ready to go with how the game goes.’’

The Indianapolis Colts have gotten a ton from their top-ranked defense and just enough from Philip Rivers and his No. 21-ranked offense during their three-game winning streak.

The defense is yielding averages of 9.7 points and 234.7 yards over the last three weeks. It’s scored one fewer touchdown (two) than it’s allowed (three), and let’s not forget it also has tacked up a pair of safeties.

“Our defense has been unbelievable,’’ Rivers said.

The offense?

“We’ve done enough offensively to win,’’ he said. “We’ve found the way collectively to win three of the first four.

“We’ve got to find a way to score one more point than our D allows. So far that hasn’t been very many, but we’re prepared to do whatever we need to do.’’

This would seem an appropriate week for Rivers & Co. to be prepared to do a little more.

Next up: the Cleveland Browns.

“On offense, they’ve got playmakers all over the field,’’ Frank Reich said.

That’s fact, not the usual coach-speak hyperbole. Even with leading rusher Nick Chubb on the injured reserve list with a sprained knee, the Browns have surrounded quarterback Baker Mayfield with wideouts Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, tight end Austin Hooper and running backs Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson.

Mayfield has thrown 115 passes – 23rd among QB1s – and leads the league’s No. 30 pass attack because the Browns are running it better than anyone. They’re averaging 204.5 yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt, both best in the NFL, and have generated a league-high 11 rushes that have gained at least 20 yards.

The Colts, by contrast, have one 20-yarder.

Since a season-opening 38-6 thrashing at the hands of Baltimore, Cleveland has matched the Colts’ three-game win streak, but done it in dramatically different fashion. The Browns averaged 39.3 points and 414 yards against Cincinnati, Washington and Dallas. Last week, they essentially erased the “D” in Dallas. They piled up 49 points and 508 yards, and did so without a 200-yard passer, 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver.

They simply overwhelmed the Cowboys with coach Kevin Stefanski’s creative play calling and offensive personnel.

“We’ve got the No. 1 defense so this is what it’s all about,’’ Reich said. “We’ll see how it stacks up.’’

Cleveland also is legit on defense. It leads the league with 10 takeaways – four interceptions, six fumble recoveries – and follows the lead of end Myles Garrett. After signing a five-year, $125 million contract in July, he’s responded with a league-best 5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

“This guy is one of the best players in the league,’’ said Reich.

That brings us back to Professor Philip and his offense.

The overriding question: if the Colts’ defense is unable to keep the Browns in check, will the offense be able to keep up? Or more to the point of Wednesday’s lesson, score one more point?

According to Football Outsiders, the Browns are averaging 2.95 points per drive, 4th-best. The Colts are at 2.12, which is 24th.

Indy’s biggest offensive issue through four games: overall situational efficiency and finishing what it starts. The Colts are an uncharacteristic 30th in converting third downs (34.6%) and 28th in the red zone (7-for-15 on TDs, 46.7%).

A less-than-robust running game has played a hand in each. The Colts are averaging a league-worst 3.5 per attempt.

That’s the glass-is-half-empty scenario.

The Colts are aware of their offensive shortcomings to this point, but insist everything’s fixable.

“Yes, we need to be better, and we can be better, and we will be better,’’ Reich said. “But we’re 3-1, so you’ve got to have the maturity to say, ‘Hey, OK, we’ve got to be better than this. We’ve got to be better in the red zone. We’ve got to be better on third down. We’ve got to run the ball a little bit better.’

“But you also have to have the maturity to understand context and situations and see the good things that you’re doing and have confidence in what you’re doing and the conviction in what you’re doing, and we do. I’m not worried. I know we’re going to get better.

“When we need to score more points, I trust we’ll be able to do that because we have the right people.’’

The offense wasn’t in foot-down mode from start to finish in last Sunday’s 19-11 win at Chicago because it wasn’t necessary. With the defense flexing its muscles, it was more prudent to rely on rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship’s four field goals – three capped red-zone trips – than do anything risky that might give the Bears hope.

“We’re playing it and calling it to win the game,’’ Reich said. “The only stat that really matters is the 1-0 (each week). I like looking at numbers. They mean something to me. You take pride in this and that.

“But at the end of the day, as a player and as a play caller, you’re really just trying to win the day. You have to adjust and adapt accordingly.’’

Historical perspective

It remains to be seen if coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense is able to sustain its current pace, but if so, that would bode well for the team. Since 1998 when Peyton Manning arrived on the scene, the Colts are a league-best 121-8 (.938) when their defense holds the opposition to 17 points or fewer. New England is next (160-15, .914).

That’s obviously a reflection of the offense holding up its end.

Also, the Colts are 30-76 (.283) when they’ve scored 19 points or fewer. Not impressed? You should be. That’s the NFL’s fourth-best mark since 1998, trailing Pittsburgh (45-78, .366), New England (28-61, .315) and Baltimore (43-96, .309).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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