Colts' Focus on Ball Protection Critical in Three-Game Winning Streak
INDIANAPOLIS – In a very real sense, little about their approach has changed.
Peyton Manning, the Colts' eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said this week the Colts have put no more emphasis than usual on not making mistakes, and on not committing crucial, momentum-shifting turnovers, in recent weeks.
There has been no increased work on the area in practice.
No particular pointed discussion in meetings.
The reality, Manning said, is that the team's recent improvement in protecting the ball offensively – an improvement of an already-strong area, and one that has been a major reason for a critical three-game winning streak – has come about for the same reason the team has improved in many areas.
They're just, plain playing better.
The key now, Manning said, is to continue that improvement, particularly this week.
"It (ball protection) is always an emphasis," Manning said this week as the Colts (6-4) prepared to play the San Diego Chargers (4-6) at Qualcomm Stadium in a crucial AFC game San Diego, Cal., Sunday at 8:15 p.m.
"It's something we've done a better job of the past few weeks, and that will be critical versus these guys. These guys are always capable of creating a lot of those."
The Colts, after committing 10 turnovers in the first seve games of the season, have committed none the past three games, a streak that has included victories over AFC East-contending New England, AFC North-leading Pittsburgh and Houston.
The Colts' turnover ratio for the season is plus-6, seventh-best in the NFL. Over the last three games it's also plus-6: six forced and none committed.
For the season, only Miami and Washington have committed fewer turnovers, and the Colts have lost fewer fumbles – one – than any team in the NFL.
How imant is protecting the ball against San Diego?
The Colts last season committed 19 turnovers in the regular season, second-fewest in the NFL, and finished the season 13-3. They played San Diego twice, committing nine turnovers – six in the regular-season meeting and three more in the postseason.
The Chargers won the regular-season meeting, 23-21, a game in which Manning threw a career-high six interceptions. San Diego then beat the Colts, 28-24, in an AFC Divisional Playoff in the final game at the RCA Dome. Manning was intercepted twice in that game and wide receiver Marvin Harrison lost a fumble deep in Chargers territory.
"They really strive on getting those turnovers," Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. "That's our biggest focus right now, is we have to take care of the ball. We have to sort out all the different looks they give, and make sure everyone knows they're on the same page."
Said Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy, "That was the difference in the two games we played them last year. We turned the ball over nine or 10 times. We lost both games by two or four points – whatever. So, you have to go in saying, 'Hey, if we protect the ball we have a chance to win.'''
Manning said while keeping the giveaway statistic low is key, just as crucial Sunday – and in the coming weeks – will continuing a recent trend of overall efficiency.
"A lot of the basic, fundamental things will be important," Manning said. "(Not committing turnovers), trying to score touchdowns in the red zone, trying to avoid the negative plays, those are things you always want to build on. We've been better with the turnover ratio.
"We still need to improve on our penalty discipline, and obviously would like to create some more big plays if possible."
But ball protection, typically a strength for the Colts since Dungy's 2002 arrival, has been particularly so in recent weeks.
In a two-game late-October losing streak, teams intercepted four passes against the Colts, with Green Bay returning two for touchdowns in a 34-14 victory in Green Bay and Tennessee intercepting two more passes, one of which set up a short touchdown drive.
In three of the Colts' four losses this season – at home against Chicago, at home against Jacksonville and at Green Bay – opponents scored defensive touchdowns with the outcome still in doubt.
In the last three games? No interceptions. No lost fumbles.
And most importantly, no losses during a stretch in which the Colts have gone from under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade to holding the No. 5 spot in the fight for six AFC postseason berths.
"That certainly impacts what you do," Dungy said. "We talk about it a lot, being on the plus side of that plus-minus, and that's going to impact your record as well."
The Colts haven't had a stretch of three games without a turnover since 1996.
"It's not easy to do," Dungy said. "If you have zero, there's a high, high percentage you're going to win the game."
Dungy said while the goal for each game is not to commit a turnover, a realistic goal is about one a game.
"If you have 16 turnovers (in a season), you're probably going to be way up in the plus (in turnover margin) and you're going to win most of your games," Dungy said. "You like to think that's going to be an interception and not a fumble. So, if your quarterback can keep it to less than one interception a game, you're really in good shape.
"That's kind of what we shoot for. We say, 'Zero is the target, you can live with one. More than one, you're probably going to lose.' "
Dungy made turnover reduction a major point of emphasis upon his 2002 arrival, and in his six previous seasons, they have ranked 22nd (2002, 32 giveaways), 2nd (2003, 20), 2nd (2004, 17), 4th (2005, 19), 4th (2006, 19) and 2nd (2007, 19) in fewest turnovers committed.
And like Manning, Dungy said there has been no change in approach in recent weeks.
"It's no different," Dungy said. "In 1996 and 1997 in Tampa, we had the same message. When you protect the ball, you have more opportunities, so you score more. With the weaponry we have and the players who can make plays – we had 81 plays on Sunday. If you turn it over and you only have 60, you're not going to score as much. . . .
"We've just been able to do it. We know what it takes and we know when we don't turn it over, we're hard to beat. But if you put yourself in situations where the other team gets ahead, sometimes you can just have a little bad luck, but if you take care of the ball, you're going to usually have a chance to win in the fourth quarter."