This was supposed to be the Sunday that the Indianapolis Colts opened up the passing game.
The Cleveland Browns had been struggling to stop anything through the air, entering the game ranked 30th in passing defense, and near the bottom in points allowed and touchdowns allowed in the red zone.
The Colts couldn’t take advantage.
Colts head coach Frank Reich defended quarterback Philip Rivers after the 32-23 road loss to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“Yes, Philip is playing really good football,” Reich said. “That is the least of my worries. That is the least of my worries. We played a good football team today, and they did a good job. We knew we would have to score points.”
The Colts’ 240 passing yards aren’t bad on a normal day, but Cleveland was allowing 310.5 yards per game through the air, and although the Colts were trailing for much of the afternoon and often forced to pass, they couldn’t find the formula other teams had used effectively against the Browns secondary.
Indianapolis came out of the gate using the no-huddle and a couple of quick-strike passes, which yielded 20 yards and a first down, and countered the Browns pass rush. However, they did not stick with it for long.
The Colts’ 240 passing yards is the second-fewest that Cleveland has allowed, behind only Washington Football Team’s 206 in Week 3.
On paper, the yardage coupled with Rivers’ 21-of-33 passing performance and 7.4 passing yards per attempt doesn’t look so bad. However, it’s the results they yielded, as he dished out two critical interceptions and gave up a safety, all in the second half.
While the Colts could have turned the game around after halftime by making adjustments and playing clean football, they gift-wrapped nine points to the Browns defense in the form of a pick-six to start the third quarter and then the safety three drives later.
“We just couldn’t quite make enough plays on offense to stay in it,” Reich said. “Philip is playing good football. You are going to have mistakes when you get in situations like that. I know we would want the interception back, but the safety, like I said, is on me. You take that away and you get that one mistake, in my mind, that was the big factor. That mistake was not the big factor, the safety, but the one big mistake with Philip was the interception. That is it.”
There wasn’t much to dig into the interception Rivers threw to Browns safety Ronnie Harrison that was returned for a touchdown. Whether it was the depth of wide receiver T.Y. Hilton’s out route or Rivers’ pass itself, Harrison sniffed it out and had it beat from the start.
“It just wasn’t a good play,” Rivers said. “That is about the only explanation you are going to get.”
While the Colts technically entered the game shorthanded in their receiving corps without Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr., they’ve had a couple of weeks to figure it out, and a matchup against a defense that had been struggling previously seemed like as good of a time as any for it to happen.
T.Y. Hilton was more involved than any point in the young season, as his 95% participation in the Colts’ offensive snaps and six catches for 69 yards were all single-game team highs for the year. But with the success the top receiver was having, it seems he could have had even more, as he was far from his ceiling despite the quality outing.
While the occasional downfield shot has worked for the Colts this season — including two plays earlier in the game to Marcus Johnson and Ashton Dulin — Rivers was tied for 17th in the NFL on Sunday among quarterbacks throwing the ball at least 20 yards downfield with three attempts.
Through the first four games of the season, Rivers had been connecting with his tight end group, predominantly Mo Alie-Cox. On Sunday, with their top trio of tight ends healthy and available in Alie-Cox, Trey Burton, and Jack Doyle, Alie-Cox and Doyle were targeted just three times.
Alie-Cox, who entered as the Colts’ leading receiver, was targeted only once on Rivers’ early-fourth-quarter interception by Browns safety Sheldrick Redwine with the Colts trailing 29-20.
Perhaps more tight end involvement or using some simple momentum-starters like slant routes and quick comebacks could have benefited the passing game and helped them get on track in the second half.
The Colts now have one more game before their bye week to figure things out on the offensive side of the ball.
Between the players and the calls that they’re trying to execute, there is time to get it figured out, but the pressure is on.
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(Jake Arthur has covered the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for nearly a decade and is a contributor for the team's official website, Colts.com. He’s on Twitter and Facebook @JakeArthurNFL, and his email is email@example.com.)