INDIANAPOLIS — The number was hard to ignore.
Twenty-six or twenty-seven passing plays in a row, depending on whether or not a Carson Wentz scramble that was nullified by a holding penalty is included in the total.
An unusual streak for a Colts team that has the NFL’s leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, and ranks 11th in the NFL in running-play ratio this season, handing the ball off on 44.1% of its offensive plays so far.
Frank Reich was grilled about the streak after Sunday’s 38-31 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, given that it included three second-half series that ended without points, allowing Tampa Bay to erase a 24-14 lead.
Initially, the Colts head coach had few problems with the streak in his post-game press conference, citing the way the Buccaneers stacked up to stop Taylor, and Indianapolis’ lack of success running the football in the first half.
After watching the tape Sunday night and Monday morning, then going through a long conversation with general manager Chris Ballard, Reich felt the same way in his day-after press conference.
“I didn’t have very many regrets on the way this game was called, I’m not going to lie,” Reich said. “Do you want to call one or two more runs somewhere along the way? Yeah. Sure. OK, one or two more runs somewhere, but it wasn’t because of a lack of execution, and it wasn’t because we were getting stuffed. We were going up against the No. 1 run defense, and they came out saying to themselves, ‘Jonathan Taylor’s not going to beat us, we’re going to make these guys throw to beat us,’ and that’s the approach we had to take.”
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Reich broke down the streak Monday afternoon.
First of all, the initial eight plays of the streak happened while the Colts were running a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, a successful two-minute drill that ended with Carson Wentz firing a touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton.
Throw that part of the streak out. The fact that Indianapolis ran the ball at all on that drive was a surprise.
Putting the two-minute drill aside, Reich said the Colts ran 15 plays on first and second down in the third quarter.
“Eight of those 15 plays are directed to Jonathan, three passes and the rest were RPO runs,” Reich said. “Because we have Jonathan Taylor and the offensive line we have, teams get very creative with run blitzes and heavy boxes. One of the ways to combat that is formationally to do things. Another way is RPOs, and so we’re going to continue to, not major in RPOs, but it’s going to be a part of what we do.”
The Colts call RPOs, or run-pass options, with the intent of handing the ball to Taylor, but the play includes a wrinkle: Wentz is asked to read a numbers advantage pre-snap, or a “conflict defender” post-snap. Wentz is not making a choice haphazardly, or on his own whim, as it’s been described at times; the defensive formation, or the act of a single defender, dictates what the quarterback does on the play.
Indianapolis used so many RPOs against Tampa Bay because Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is a master at stopping opponents’ rushing attacks by disguising heavy fronts and run blitzes.
An RPO forces the disguise to reveal itself by asking Wentz to read a single telltale defender, and at times it can open holes for Taylor by creating better angles for the Indianapolis offensive line.
“You have to be able to adjust post-snap,” Reich said. “When you create a conflict defender, that puts the offensive line at a better angle and better leverage on the man they’re supposed to block, because you’ve given the conflict defender to the quarterback.”
Bowles built his game plan on stopping Jonathan Taylor, and he did not stray from that game plan in the second half, even while Wentz continued to shred the Tampa Bay secondary.
The Colts ran six RPOs in the second half that became passing plays because of Wentz’s read. On those six plays, Indianapolis picked up 40 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per play.
Wentz made the right reads on all six.
“I bet, if we’d handed those off, we maybe get 15 yards on those plays,” Reich said.
Knowing how well Taylor has been playing, Reich intended to stick with the running game Sunday, but he’s gone against Bowles enough in his career to know that Tampa Bay might force Indianapolis to throw.
And that’s exactly what the Buccaneers did, shutting down the Colts running game in the first quarter. Indianapolis didn’t start getting going until the Colts turned to the pass in the second quarter. Indianapolis built a 10-point lead, and although the Colts wanted to run with that lead, the Buccaneers kept forcing Wentz to pass by the way they were stacking the box and blitzing the run.
Now, the Colts could have called running plays that had no passing option installed.
Reich acknowledges that.
“Chris and I were talking about, ‘There’s something about the attitude of calling downhill runs that have no other option. You’ve just got to call it and run it,’” Reich said. “I understand that’s a big part of the game, and that’s got to be a big part of who we are, so we’ll continue to mix that in there. There is a time and place for that. Really felt like the way for us to win this game against this defense, we were going to have to throw it a little bit more than normal.”
If the Colts hadn’t been playing a team that was so good against the run, Reich might have called a few more of those plays.
Tampa Bay has the players and the scheme to shut a running game down.
When Indianapolis finally got back to the run in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers were playing differently because they’d taken the lead.
“When we’re ripping runs up there in the last quarter, and it looks like, ‘Well, why haven’t they been doing this the whole second half?’ we were one score down,” Reich said. “They were expecting us to throw it, they were making it look like it was a heavy box and they’re bailing out. Two or three of those gash runs Jonathan had in that last quarter, they’re up there heavy to start.”
The Colts know other teams will try to use Tampa Bay’s blueprint. Jonathan Taylor is the NFL’s leading rusher, a superstar in full bloom. Every defense Indianapolis faces is going to try to find creative ways to stack the box, run blitz and force Indianapolis to throw the ball.
But other teams don’t have the Buccaneers front seven, spearheaded by mammoth nose tackle Vita Vea and the speedy linebacker tandem of Devin White and Lavonte David. Other teams don’t have the same track record of shutting down good running teams with Bowles at the helm.
“Now that Jonathan is really kind of coming into his own in ways that’s taking the whole league by storm, we’ll continue to find ways that we can just call runs that don’t have to worry about the extra elements,” Reich said. “Right now, the RPO thing is a very good tool, and we’re being very successful with it.”
Even if it sometimes makes it look as if the Colts abandoned the run altogether.Internet Explorer Channel Network