INDIANAPOLIS — When he was hired as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach earlier this year, Frank Reich likened his offensive approach to that of a boxer.
"A lot of jabs, stick and move, and then here comes the big punch," Reich told reporters back in March at the NFL Owner's Meetings. "And when you keep them off balance with the jab and you set up the big one, that's the way it works best and that's what we'll try to do."
But so far through three games, the Colts' offense has been mostly jabs — but has lacked the big punch. The team's 5.3 yards-per-passing-attempt figure ranks 31st out of 32 NFL teams.
So what gives? Is this just going to be more a dink-and-dunk approach? Is Andrew Luck still fully working his way back from last year's shoulder surgery? Is the pass protection holding up? Are the receivers getting separation?
All are fair questions — and, really, a three-game sample might not be enough to fully answer any of them.
But trends are trends, and after Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, one in which the Colts' offense appeared to utilize checkdowns perhaps more than usual, those with their hands on the offense the most are trying to figure out how to work in taking more calculated shots down the field.
"Yeah, I feel like you always need more chunks, definitely," Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said on Tuesday. "That's always a stat in the NFL that you want to see that your yards per attempt is north of six something. So obviously, we definitely want more chunks and we want to be able to – but we do take what the defense gives us."
A week after allowing 402 passing yards and four touchdowns in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — who had two 75-yard touchdown passes on the day — the Eagles seemed intent on not allowing that to happen again on Sunday against the Colts.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had his defensive backs playing deep for most of the game, according to Reich. So although the Colts called for a few deep shots here and there like usual, the risk in such a close game just wasn't worth the potential reward.
"There were times that we called some stuff down the field, but when we do it, it's kind of a touchdown [or] check-down mentality," Reich said. "Think deep, but if it's not there then check it down and try to stay in-phase. You can still get good, positive yards checking it down."
The Colts were able to get a positive play out of one of their only shots down the field on Sunday. Late in the first quarter, Luck launched a deep pass attempt down the right sideline towards T.Y. Hilton, and a pass interference call on cornerback Jalen Mills resulted in a 33-yard gain from the Philadelphia 48-yard line to the 15.
Five plays later, Luck found wide receiver Ryan Grant for a five-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.
The Indy offense, in fact, has gained more yards, 88, off defensive pass interference penalties than any other team in the league through three weeks — proof that the deep ball hasn't been completely non-existent.
But are there other factors at play? The protection hasn't been an issue; the Colts rank sixth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt. Perhaps it's due to the ball getting out quicker? NFL Next Gen Stats indicate Luck has an average time to throw of 2.52 seconds, which is the seventh-fastest in the league.
Many outsiders are also wondering whether Luck is yet to show the same "zip" on the ball that he had prior to his January 2017 shoulder surgery — a bubble that Reich is quick to burst.
While the team is yet to attempt many deep bombs down the field, there are other ways to tell that Luck's throwing ability and velocity are just fine.
"Obviously I wasn't here before, but what I've seen he makes all the throws," Reich said. "Look at the throw he made to T.Y. (Hilton) on the deep post corner route. There have been plenty of throws he has made down the field in my mind. The throw he made to Ryan Grant on the deep in-cut, you know nice ball, drives that ball in there on a deep in-cut. What I have seen is a guy who is really accurate, who can make all the throws. … I have no concerns about velocity."
So, yes, the Colts are intent on finding more deep passing opportunities, and they'll continue those efforts this Sunday, when they play host to the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"That number's really important," Reich said of the Colts' low yards per pass attempt figure so far. "I mean, if you look over the years, and if you're a stat person … that's an important number. Wins and losses correlate to that number. So we just have to do a better job of getting the ball down the field, giving Andrew opportunities, calling plays where he can get the ball down the field, get open down the field — it's all of us.
"And that's really the way we look at it," he continued. "That's the beautiful thing about this team, is, you know, we share in the good and the bad together. So we'll just continue to find ways to get that number up higher."