INDIANAPOLIS – It’s Priority 1. Every play. Every game. Every week.
Take care of “The Duke.’’
Treat the NFL’s Wilson-made football – 11 inches from tip-to-tip, 22 inches in circumference, 14-15 ounces (don’t go there) – as if it was a family heirloom.
As much as Frank Reich and his staff harp on techniques and fundamentals and getting 1% better, they make certain the players fully comprehend the value of possessing the football.
If you’ve got it, keep it.
If you don’t have it, get it.
“We always talk about the ball is everything in this game,’’ Reich said Thursday. “The goal is at the end of every play, give it back to your team.’’
One of his lectures to the Indianapolis Colts might be (imagine Reich standing in front of the team, holding a Wilson in the air):
This ball is sacred. When this play is over, envision yourself walking over to the bench or the huddle and say, ‘Here guys, I brought it back to you.’
The man’s as serious as a forced fumble near the goal line with a game’s outcome very much in doubt. You know, like Darius Leonard tomahawking the football out of the grip of Houston wideout Keke Coutee. Or as serious as Carson Wentz suffering just one fluky interception through the first month of the season.
“That’s the mentality you’ve got to have,’’ Reich said.
That’s the necessary mentality every Sunday, or Monday in this case. The Colts look to build on last Sunday’s 27-17 win at Miami with another against the Ravens on the primetime stage at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
There are reasons for the Colts’ early-season issues:
- Wentz’s sprained ankles (they’re getting better, thanks for asking).
- Injuries to too many front-line players (T.Y. Hilton, Braden Smith, Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie, Rock Ya-Sin, Khari Willis).
- An offense that has been situationally inefficient (23rd on third downs, 30th in the red zone, 32nd in first-and-goal).
- A defense that ranks 8th in the NFL is fewest yards allowed on the heels of the win over the Dolphins, but still isn’t generating a steady pass rush, which stresses every other aspect of the unit.
But ball security hasn’t been a problem. And feel free to knock of the nearest slat of wood.
During their 1-3 start, the Colts are a plus-4 in the influential giveaway-takeaway category: eight takeaways against just four turnovers. Wentz has two turnovers – the intercepted shovel pass against the Rams and a fumbled snap on a fourth-and-1 sneak against Seattle – while Jacob Eason suffered an interception against the Rams and Nyheim Hines muffed a punt return against Miami.
The four turnovers are tied for the 4th-fewest in the league. Last season with Philip Rivers running the offense, the Colts suffered just 15, 3rd-fewest.
“Yeah, what I said to the guys today was we’ve been good this year, but we need to be better,’’ Reich said. “This is one of the better teams, if not the best team, at getting the ball out.’’
Thus far, the Ravens have been rather un-Raven-like. They reside in the middle of the pack with just four takeaways – three interceptions, two from cornerback Anthony Averett and one corner Tavon Young, and one fumble recovery. They were tied-for-10th last season with 22.
Since coach John Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008, Baltimore ranks 5th in turnover differential – a plus-56 – and has generated 334 takeaways.
The Ravens came to Indy in week 9 last season and exited with a 24-10 victory. They were greatly aided by Colts’ turnovers.
Jonathan Taylor fumbled late in the first quarter and safety Chuck Clark returned it 65 yards for a touchdown. Rivers’ only interception occurred early in the third quarter and one play after the Colts’ forced a Gus Edwards’ fumble inside the Indy 10-yard line. It was disputed, but upheld upon review, and Marcus Peters’ thievery led to a 1-yard Edwards’ TD and 14-10 Baltimore lead that expanded as the game unfolded.
In the 14-point win, 14 points came on takeaways, or Colts’ giveaways.
The catalyst for the Ravens’ larcenous ways is cornerback Marlon Humphrey. The team’s 2017 first-round draft pick has eight interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in 65 games, including eight forced fumbles last season, the second-most in NFL history.
“Obviously 44, Marlon Humphrey, is exceptional at it, but really their whole defense is good at it,’’ Reich said. “So what we focus on is you can’t run scared. I mean, we have to run hard and run physical, but we have to use our ball-protection principles with heightened awareness.
“The way that happens is you do it every day.’’
During training camp, ball carriers concentrate on protecting the football while defenders poke, punch and try to pry it out, even past the whistle that ends a play.
“Every rep there is a hyper focus out on the field in practice,’’ Reich said.
Wentz endured a turnover-filled 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles before being benched for the final four games. He suffered a career- and league-high 15 interceptions, and also fumbled 10 times, losing four.
Again, that’s not been the case over the first month of the season.
“He’s doing an excellent job of making good decisions, good ball placement, good ball security in the pocket,’’ Reich said.
Coordinator Marcus Brady and position coach Scott Milanovich continually stress the importance of protecting the football, whether that means not putting it at too much risk in the passing game or as defenders crash the pocket.
“But obviously most of the credit goes to Carson as far as not turning it over,’’ Reich said. “He’s playing the position in a good manner there.
“Now it’s just a question of continuing to make the kind of plays we know he’s capable of making, plays that are big plays in games.’’
Even with his careless 2020, Wentz remains one of the NFL’s more vigilant QBs. His 1.9% interception rate is tied with the Raiders’ Derek Carr for 7th-best in NFL history.
“Honestly, around here coaches just hammer us with ball security,’’ Wentz said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, the opponent, all those things. Coaches do an incredible job of showing, ‘This is how they like to attack on defense. This is the type of aggression they play with.’
“They’re always preaching it around here. For us, it’s just stick to what we know and what we do best. Take care of the football when we’re carrying it, take care of the football when we’re throwing it and just make a concerted effort. But at the same time, we don’t really change our routine on that front because we do preach it all the time around here.’’
It remains that fine line all quarterbacks must walk. Be aggressive and take risks when necessary, but never get reckless.
“You’re always toeing that line,’’ Wentz said. “Don’t force it when it’s not there, but you still have to play aggressive. You’re going to turn it over every now and then, (but) you’re just going to try and limit those opportunities that you give the defense.
“I’ve always tried to be a playmaker and make the plays down the field when they’re there, but at the at the same time, know how important that football is and we want to end every drive with a kick (a PAT or a punt).
“I kind of have that back and forth in my mind almost every play of aggression but discipline, aggression and discipline.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.