INDIANAPOLIS – Philip Rivers remains the focal point for criticism as the Indianapolis Colts deal with the end of a three-game winning streak this week.
That comes with the territory for highly compensated quarterbacks, and there is no question the 38-year-old must improve if the team hopes to contend for its first AFC South title since 2014.
But the passing game – and its triggerman – are not the only areas of concern for an offense that has produced just eight touchdowns through the first five weeks and just two on its last 22 drives.
Quite frankly, Indianapolis still is trying to find its identity.
That was the case for the first six weeks in 2018 as injuries shuffled personnel and the Colts got off to a 1-5 start. That team finished 9-1 down the stretch and advanced to the divisional playoff round.
Last year’s team found its niche as a power-running team early in the season but couldn’t overcome roster attrition – and kicking foibles – as a 5-2 start morphed into a 7-9 finish.
The jury’s still out for 2020. But the running game, expected to be a strong point, has not lived up to its billing thus far.
Indianapolis entered Tuesday ranked 31st in the NFL with an average of 3.6 yards per rushing attempt despite ranking eighth with 149 carries. That’s not a highlight on the resume of an offensive line that believes it is the best in the league, but there are faint signs things could be turning around.
Two weeks ago at Chicago, the Colts controlled the clock on their final scoring drive – running the ball 11 times and milking more than seven minutes off the fourth-quarter clock to seal a 19-11 victory.
At the same time, rookie Jonathan Taylor appears to be finding his sea legs. The power rusher out of Wisconsin has averaged at least 4 yards per carry each of the past three games and posted a career-high 4.8 yards per carry in Sunday’s loss against the Cleveland Browns.
That could start to help Indianapolis make up for the loss of star running back Marlon Mack – whose home-run ability and 4.4-yard career average have been sorely missed since an Achilles’ tendon injury ended his season in Week 1.
“As much as I love and appreciate how good of a player Marlon is, I thought (Sunday) was Jonathan’s best game,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “I thought he really ran the ball well. I thought he saw it well. I wish we could’ve had more opportunities to get the run game going. I really think Jonathan was seeing it well.”
Taylor has just 42 carries over the past three games, but this could be the week his workload increases.
The Cincinnati Bengals (1-3-1) – who visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m., CBS) – rank 29th with 795 rushing yards allowed and 30th with an average carry of 5.2 yards surrendered.
That could be the key to getting the offense back on track.
Rivers wasn’t brought in to put on a cape and carry the offense on his back. At this point in his career, that’s a role he’s ill-suited for and one that leads to the kind of mistakes that sank Indianapolis last week. His Pick 6 on the opening drive of the third quarter put the Colts in a 17-point hole they could not climb out of, and he threw a second interception as well as being called for an intentional grounding penalty that led to a safety as repeated comeback attempts faltered.
The power running game was a feature of this offense even when Andrew Luck was the pilot two years ago, and it might be the best path for Indianapolis again moving forward.
“In the running game, we’ve kind of been lacking the last couple weeks, and it was good to get that going,” center Ryan Kelly said Sunday. “But I think if we’d gotten that going maybe a little bit earlier – and that’s on us as players to execute when it’s called – we’d stay out of those obvious passing situations and have them on their heels a little bit more.”
It all starts with the big boys up front.
A veteran offensive line was supposed to help smooth out some of the early season hiccups after preseason games were canceled and training camp practices were limited.
The loss of left tackle Anthony Castonzo to a groin injury complicated matters at Cleveland, but it’s high time for the line to begin taking control of games.
“Just like every position, I think we’re all just continuing to get better,” Indianapolis offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “The offensive line is no exception. They didn’t have the preseason, either, and they are just continuing to get better, play the games and continue to get better.
“I think they are definitely on the rise and playing a little bit better each week.”
The Colts continued to churn the practice squad Tuesday, re-signing cornerback Christian Angulo and releasing linebacker Jonas Griffith.
Angulo previously was signed to the practice squad Oct. 6 and also has spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Hampton.