Improved red-zone work boosting Colts’ offense

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts’ return to relevancy can be traced to an offense that has gotten its act together in general, and been more proficient in the red zone.

You need proof? Consider the last four games – three wins and an overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans – that have them at 4-5 and on the fringe of the AFC wild-card playoff picture:

  • Four straight games with at least 30 points for the first time since 2010 when Peyton Manning was under center. The last time the Colts rattled off 30-plus points in five straight? In 2005, and during that team’s 13-0 start.
  • Averaging a league-best 34.3 points during that stretch. New England is a tick back at 33.5. The Colts’ 18 touchdowns lead the league – 10 Carson Wentz passes and eight rushing TDs, including six from Jonathan Taylor.
  • In the 42-30 win over the New York Jets, Wentz had a career-high 134.3 rating and directed the offense to the most points in the Frank Reich era and 532 total yards, the 10th-most in franchise history and 6th-most in the Indy era. Taylor, meanwhile, generated 172 yards on 19 carries and was the catalyst for a run game that churned for 260 yards, the most in the NFL this season.

Reich was quick to push a portion of the praise to his defense for the recent scoring surge. Despite ranking in the middle of the pack statistically – 20th in yards per game (367.2) and 16th in scoring (23.7) – it has piled up a league-high 20 takeaways. Linebacker Darius Leonard has accounted for nine.

“You just get one or two short fields a game and you score, that’s a big deal because all of a sudden it turns a 24-point game into a 30-point game,’’ he said. “We all know that 30-point games mean something.’’

Over the last four games, the defense has 11 takeaways and the offense has capitalized with seven answering touchdowns. The short fields Reich mentioned? The defense has given the offense possession in plus-territory (the opponent’s side of the field) six times, including at the Titans’ 7-yard line following an interception by Kenny Moore II.

But the overriding factor in the Colts’ point surge is rooted in better proficiency in the red zone.

“We started out the year, as everyone knows, atrocious in the red zone,’’ Reich said.

That’s being kind.

In the first five games, the Wentz-led offense was 7-for-19 (36.8%) scoring TDs on drives inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Blame Wentz, who still was searching for his comfort zone with the offense, or his sprained ankles. Or blame an offensive line dealing with left tackle Eric Fisher’s return from a torn Achilles and injuries to left guard Quenton Nelson (sprained right ankle) and right tackle Braden Smith (strained left foot).

But lately, things have started percolating.

“We’ve just been really good in the red zone,’’ Reich said.

Added Wentz: “Red zone early in the year as we all know was definitely something we needed to get better at. Doing a little bit better job as of late down there scoring touchdowns instead of just field goals.’’

The Colts have tacked up 12 touchdowns on their 16 red-zone trips over the past four games (75%), and that includes Michael Badgley’s 34-yard field goal as time expired in the first half against Tennessee.

Reich insisted the Colts aren’t taking their recent successes for granted.

“I mean, it’s a big deal down in there, but the guys have been executing well in the red zone,’’ he said, adding offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and the offensive staff “have done a good job of scheming some things up and putting players in a good position.’’

It’s been a collective venture.

Wentz has been on top of his game as the field shrinks. In the last four games, he’s compiled a 120.3 rating in the red zone: 10-of-13 with seven touchdowns. He’s mixed things up by spreading the TDs among four players: three to wideout Michael Pittman Jr., two to tight end Jack Doyle and one each to tight end Mo Alie-Cox and backup offensive lineman Danny Pinter.

But while the passing has been efficient, Reich has given Wentz a steady run game in the red zone. Consider the play-calling balance over the last four games: 22 rushes and five TDs, including four by Taylor; 13 passes and seven TDs.

 “It’s never one thing,’’ Reich said of the early troubles. “We just kind of kept harping on run our stuff, continue to try to scheme it up in a way to put the players in the best position and then their responsibility is to execute it.

“As coaches, we take that personally. When we’re not doing well in an area, we’re not like, ‘Execute better.’ We’re like, ‘We have to do better.’ I think it’s been a combination of both those things. I think we’ve gotten better figuring out with the players that we have this year and what do we need to do down there to be more efficient, and I think the players have done a good job of executing better.’’

The creative play calling has been evident and effective.

At San Francisco, Wentz executed a perfect RPO (run-pass option) with Taylor on third-and-goal from the 1 and scooted over the right side a touchdown.

Against the Titans, the Colts shifted to the wildcat formation, Nyhiem Hines took a direct snap and handed off to Taylor for a 1-yard TD.

And against the Jets, Pinter, a former tight end at Ball State, checked in as an eligible receiver on first-and-goal at the 2. He initially blocked, then slipped into the left side of the end zone – all by himself – and went to his knees to cradle a TD pass from Wentz.

“At the end of the day, (it’s) how many points you’re scoring, how many points you’re piling up,’’ Wentz said. “There’s a lot of things that go into it. We’re big on third downs here. Are we able to stay on the field and convert? Obviously, we’re an aggressive team, so we take into account going for it on fourth sometimes as well.

“Then red zone.’’

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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