INDIANAPOLIS — They don't call it a gamble for nothing. When a team goes for it on fourth down, it either converts and the drive continues, or it doesn't and it ends — it's as simple as that.
For the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, their three fourth-down attempts did not go as planned, and those plays were major contributing factors to a 6-0 shutout loss at TIAA Bank Field.
"At the end of the day it came down to execution. Offensively, we just didn't execute at the level and that ultimately falls on me," head coach Frank Reich told reporters Monday in his weekly conference call. "It's my job to put the players in the best position and we didn't get that done yesterday."
The Colts' first such shot came on 4th and 1 with a scoreless game early in the second quarter. With as close as the Colts were to hitting paydirt, it's a little easier to decide to go for the touchdown rather than taking the three points on a field goal.
Knocking on the door of the end zone at the Jaguars' one-yard line, quarterback Andrew Luck took the shotgun snap and shoveled the ball to running back Jordan Wilkins, who was cutting in towards the end zone to the left. Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue charged Wilkins enough to knock him off balance, sending him to the ground for no gain.
Reich said Monday that the shovel-pass play was one of "an unbelievable amount of scenarios" he had went over with offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni before the game.
"That was the play we believed in, that was the play we practiced a lot. We just didn't get it down," Reich said. "Ultimately, like I said, they ended up – I give them credit it was a good chess move by them. They outcoached me on that, they played a coverage that they had not shown in that situation and it's not that we didn't have an answer for it. We did have an answer for it, the shovel part of it was the answer.
"That was not what we were anticipating that play to end up as, but it was the answer in case they did that and then we were just a little bit off on our execution and so we just didn't have the guys prepared to execute that exactly like we needed to."
On the Colts' next drive after the defense forced a Jaguars three-and-out, the Colts would find themselves again going for it on 4th and 1.
In Jacksonville territory on its 31-yard line, Colts tight end Eric Ebron went in motion before the snap and received the handoff from Luck heading toward the right side of the offense. When he reached the outside of the tackle box, he was met by Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack, who undercut his legs and sent Ebron airborne. Linebacker Telvin Smith then collided with Ebron while still in the air, forcing the ball out of Ebron's grasp. Jack lunged toward the ball and recovered the fumble.
The play didn't work out as planned, sure, but those tasked with executing it? They're in favor of being aggressive in those situations.
"We need that. We need that. That lets you know how much trust they have in us. That lets you know how much work we put in for those situations," Ebron said after the game. "[Reich] trusts us, like aggressive call? Yeah, he trusts me to do that. I need to get that first down. I need to lower my shoulder and run him (the defender) over. I did it the last time. I've done it before to get the first down."
Of the three fourth-down calls on the day, Reich said that handoff to Ebron might've been the only one he'd have back if he could. He said he weighed the risk of a potential big play versus just doing whatever it took to get the couple feet needed to move the chains and get a fresh set of downs in Jaguars territory.
"It was a high risk-reward. We have had some others of those in 3rd-and-1s and 4th-and-1s this year where we have gotten some big, chunk plays. I had envisioned that play into breaking out – not just a first down but possibly a 20 or 30-yard gain. We had a half yard to go," Reich said. "If I had those three to look at over again that would be the one that I would question myself the most on. Just run it up the middle. We had half a yard, run a quarterback sneak or just run a dive play up the middle and get the half yard. I took the risk for the big play and I was wrong."
The Colts' final fourth-down attempt was another opportunity to put points on the board while deep in Jacksonville territory, but with 2:38 remaining in the game there's no guarantee you get the ball back to even be able to tie the game or go ahead with a touchdown.
With the Jaguars up 6-0, the Colts lined up inside the red zone at Jacksonville's 19-yard line. Out of the I-formation behind a six-man offensive line, everything sure looked like an impending run play. But Luck took the snap, faked the handoff to Wilkins and looked for fullback Ryan Hewitt, who was running out into the right flat.
Before Luck could get anything going, Jaguars safety Ronnie Harrison came in unblocked and corralled Luck for the sack.
"It's a pretty strong go, especially with our defense playing the way they were playing. We had a play that we really liked that had multiple options on it," Reich told reporters after the game. "If it's man to man, it goes to T.Y. (Hilton) probably. If we don't get it and had them backed up and our defense goes three and out, we'd get it back in field goal position. That's why all the numbers say 'strong go' there. The call was a call we practice a lot and we like that call."
The Colts would get one more opportunity to try to earn a game-winning touchdown and extra point, but ultimately ran out of time.
As Reich mentioned, the Colts' defense playing like it was gave him more confidence to take chances, which feeds into the decisions to go for it on fourth down while on offense. Although the Colts lost, the defense allowed just six points — both on field goals — and yielded just 211 total yards of offense.
The Colts' offense, despite its struggled against Jacksonville, had been red-hot during the team's five-game win streak leading up to the game. Indianapolis was averaging 411 yards of offense and 34.6 points per game in that stretch. You don't just lose trust in a unit like that and its ability to convert on 4th and short in an instant.
"We just have to be in tune. We weren't in tune. We were missing easy throws, easy plays, simple play calls that we have [executed previously]. [We] just weren't connecting today," Ebron said. "I like losses like this because it makes you look back and it makes you think and you never let it happen again. Yeah, we got shutout, [but] we can't get shutout again."