If the Indianapolis Colts are to get back into the win column Monday night, they’ll likely need to do something they have not been able to do consistently all season.
Push the ball down the field in the passing game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-7) have been stout against the run, ranking fifth in the NFL with an average of 3.9 yards allowed per rushing attempt. And, with outside linebacker T.J. Watt back in the lineup, the Steelers’ pass rush can be formidable.
But the secondary — even with ballhawk Minkah Fitzpatrick lurking at safety — can be had. No team has allowed more touchdown passes (22), and only one has surrendered more yardage per pass attempt (7.1).
Whether the Colts (4-6-1) can take advantage of those struggles remains an open question.
Indianapolis had just two completions over 20 yards in Sunday’s 17-16 loss against the Philadelphia Eagles, and one of those was largely the result of the run after the catch on an intermediate crosser to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
For whatever reason — and there are plenty — the Colts have been unable to take the top off opposing defenses all year.
“I think part of it is just you have to have enough time to be able to do some of the things you want to do, to push the ball down the field,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, who has averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. “We just haven’t been consistent enough throughout the year. I really think we’ve made some strides. We did some good things last week. We made too many mistakes.”
In recent weeks, wide receiver Parris Campbell has emerged as the most dangerous deep threat. His 35-yard touchdown reception provided the winning points in a 25-20 decision against the Las Vegas Raiders on Nov. 13, and his 31-yard reception in the fourth quarter against the Eagles opened the door to seal that game.
Instead, Indianapolis was unable to punch the ball in from Philadelphia’s 5-yard line. And the Colts are again left to answer questions about why their offense — ranked 31st with just 15.7 points per game — isn’t more explosive.
“I think it’s a combination of just finding more ways to get the guys the ball in space where they can catch and run, and then obviously when you want to push the ball down field, you’ve got to think protection first,” pass game specialist/assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier said. “So it’s finding ways to protect to be able to push the ball down the field in your spots. I do believe in keeping the quarterback from getting hit as much as possible, and I think that’s something that – obviously, there’s a risk involved when you want to push the ball down field a lot. But, also, (I) acknowledge the fact that you can’t just dink and dump it down the field all the time, and you have to find ways to push it down the field.”
That obviously starts with the men up front.
Indianapolis has surrendered 40 sacks this season, with Ryan going down 29 times – including four against the Eagles.
Rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann – a third-round pick who started at the position for just two years at Central Michigan – is learning on the job.
It certainly increases the degree of difficulty, but the offense clearly can’t continue on this same path.
The key, interim head coach Jeff Saturday said, is picking your spots. There’s a time and place for down-field aggression, and when those moments appear it’s up to the players to execute.
“Listen, if we can take shots, let’s take them,” Saturday said. “I’m all about trying to attack wherever we can, whatever is going to make the most sense. Again, games dictate that. Risk/reward dictates all those things. I think it’s easy when we’re all sitting back looking at it and go, ‘Oh, I would’ve taken a shot there.’
“You take in the score, where we are, what’s happening, the flow of the game. I think all of those things come into play. Listen, any time we can take the top off, I’m in favor. I tell (wide receivers coach) Reggie (Wayne), ‘Anytime we feel good about, let’s make that happen.’”