INDIANAPOLIS — Jacoby Brissett had three passing attempts inside the Tennessee Titans’ 20-yard line last Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
All three of those plays resulted in touchdown passes, including the eventual game-winner to T.Y. Hilton with 4:42 left in the fourth quarter.
That success within the red zone has been a theme through the first two weeks of the season for the Indianapolis Colts’ offense. And while it’s a small sample size, it’s certainly something the team hopes to see continue heading into Sunday’s 2019 home opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
That red zone success has started with Brissett, who has been the league’s top quarterback within his opponents’ 20-yard line through two weeks this season. He’s completed 7-of-10 passing attempts within the red zone, five of which have been for touchdowns (eight other quarterbacks are tied for second in this category with three red zone touchdown passes).
Oh, and of those three incompletions, one was dropped by tight end Jack Doyle, one was caught by wide receiver Devin Funchess, who barely landed out of bounds along the left side of the end zone, and the other was caught and then bobbled by tight end Eric Ebron in the back of the end zone.
Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said the Colts’ success in the red zone so far — the team’s 83.3 percent touchdown rate on drives that get into the opposing team’s 20-yard line ranks third in the NFL — can mostly be attributed to two primary factors.
“First, it starts with Jacoby and just making the right read and the right throw – an accurate throw. So he has done an excellent job down there,” Sirianni said this week. “And our guys have done a great job of getting open when they need to get open on their guys and finding zones when they needed to find zones.”
For example, in the Colts’ 2019 season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers, Indy faced a 3rd and Goal situation from the Chargers’ 3-yard line with 10:06 left in the second quarter, trailing 7-0. Brissett lined up in the shotgun with running back Marlon Mack to his right, with Hilton the lone receiver in the slot to his left, and with two receivers — Zach Pascal in the slot and Funchess out wide — to his right.
Brissett sent Mack in motion, and the running back took off sprinting to the right, causing three defenders — two linebackers and a cornerback — to shift over just a couple steps his way. On the snap, Hilton took advantage of the small opening, sneaking into that zone created by the pre-snap motion and hauling in the touchdown pass from Brissett.
That Brissett-to-Hilton red zone connection has been a successful one for the Colts, as Hilton has an NFL-best three receiving touchdowns within the 20 this season. Five of his six touchdown receptions last year were also within the red zone.
“Usually (defenses) in the red zone play what they play and you want to have good staples that have answers versus everything because we know when you are good in the red zone that teams change it up on you a little bit,” Sirianni said of the challenges that come with designing effective red zone schemes. “So we just want to have staples that are good versus anything. It’s just getting those reps over and over again. Then just finding your playmakers to make plays. I think that’s what we have done. Our guys that make plays, they have done it in the red zone.”
Then there’s the guys up front making things happen for the Colts’ offense. Midway through the first quarter of last Sunday’s game against the Titans, Indy faced a 2nd and Goal from the 3 and gave the Tennessee defense somewhat of an exotic pre-snap look. Brissett was lined up in the shotgun with Mack to his right, with Doyle lined up in the slot to the right and to his left were Pascal in the slot and Hilton out wide. Ebron, meanwhile, was lined up just behind left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
Brissett sent Pascal in motion, and the receiver joined him in the backfield opposite of Mack to the left of the quarterback, moving three Titans defenders over to the right with him. On the snap, Brissett faked the handoff to Pascal on more of a zone read look, and guard Quenton Nelson, who was pulling on the play, as well as Doyle, provided excellent exterior blocks for Ebron, who caught the shovel pass from Brissett, lowered his shoulder on two defenders at the goal line and got in for the score.
“Honestly, (it starts) up front,” Brissett said this week. “They’ve been doing a good job of getting us down there. Then guys just capitalizing and making plays. I think what you saw last week was a collective effort in the red zone. Everybody sees the touchdown passes, but on Eric’s touchdown there was three guys in the end zone on their backs. It makes it easy.”