When scanning NFL rankings, one unmistakable trend is how many times the Indianapolis Colts’ offense has a “1” designation.
Unless you haven’t been paying attention, the Colts are No. 1 in total yards (444 per game), passing yards (328.7 yards per game) and points scored (31.5 per game). Third-year quarterback Andrew Luck is tops in passing yards (1,987) and touchdown passes (17).
“I think this is the first time I’ve heard about the number one offense,” Luck said Wednesday. “No one really cares who the number one offense is in Week 6, Week 7, and I guarantee no one in this room knew that besides you guys.”
OK, but there’s another No. 1 statistic that shouldn’t be overlooked — the Colts’ domination in time of possession. Luck’s offense has had the ball an average of 36 minutes, 28 seconds per game. No other team is even close. No. 2 is San Diego at 34:34.
It’s not like the Colts concentrate on ball control. They’re about moving the chains and scoring. Their 160 first downs are 18 more than the next team, Dallas.
“You know, I’ve never really thought about it as a keep-away game,” Luck said. “An old coach used to say, ‘It’s not how long you hold it, it’s what you do with it.’ If you’re keeping the ball for seven-minute drives and not getting points out of it, that’s not a good outcome. Obviously in certain situations maybe it is, but you want points. So I think points are more important than the keep-away game, but I know it does help if we can put long drives together and get some points at the end of them.”
Head coach Chuck Pagano mentions another contributing statistic — the Colts are No. 1 in third-down defense, allowing a conversion percentage of 29.7 (19-of-64).
“We’re running a lot of plays on offense,” the coach said. “Consequently we’re moving the chains and moving the sticks, the yards are adding up and the points are adding up and all those things. Our defense is chewing ice and sitting on the bench a lot longer, playing a lot less plays. I think their ability to go out, force three-and-outs, force punts and play as well as they’ve played on third down is a byproduct of time of possession. Every time we look up, it’s 48 plays, 50 plays, 52 plays on defense, so they’re a lot fresher. When your fresh, especially in the fourth quarter, it makes all the difference in the world.”
It’s not like everything is going according to plan, not that it ever does. The Colts have 11 turnovers — “We’ve got to clean that up,” Pagano admits — after turning it over just 14 times all of last season.
The run game ranks 16th at 115.3 yards per game and 26th in yards per carry at 3.7. When the Colts have tried to play smash mouth in short-yardage situations, more often than not they’ve been stuffed. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has strived for balance with 187 run plays called, but the Colts have attempted 264 passes.
After two opening losses, fans were turning out in droves on Twitter to roast Hamilton for play calls. A four-game win streak has quieted most social-media critics as the Colts (4-2) enter Sunday’s home game against Cincinnati (3-1-1).
“It’s like the quarterback,” Pagano said. “When things aren’t going well, they probably get too much criticism and probably too much credit when things are going good. That position, we all know what comes with that position. He’s done a great job. The entire offensive staff has done a great job. I think going into year two everybody’s much more comfortable with the system, with the scheme. We got players back. We’re healthier. We’re better upfront. There’s a lot of things that go into it. Pep and the staff have done a phenomenal job.”
As Luck always reminds, it helps to have his deepest group of pass catchers. Nine players have at least eight receptions. Seven have caught touchdown passes.
Opposing defenses have to decide which receiver demands extra attention. Right now, it’s T.Y. Hilton, who caught nine passes for 223 yards and one score at Houston. He leads the Colts with 40 catches for 604 yards. Reggie Wayne, still smooth and steady at 35 years old, has 34 receptions for 419 yards. The Colts’ tight end trio of Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle have combined for 39 catches, 441 yards and eight TDs.
When Luck arrived in the NFL in 2012, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made no secret he hated “dink-and-dunk” passes. Longer pass routes meant Luck holding the ball for a few more seconds and taking his share of hits.
Hamilton’s offense incorporates the short-range pass game, especially the utilization of the running backs. Ahmad Bradshaw’s 21 catches rank third on the team. He’s scored a team-high five touchdowns on those receptions to go with 176 yards. Trent Richardson has 15 catches for 132 yards.
But Luck, ever the perfectionist, insists the Colts still have a lot of room for improvement.
“You try to refine everything,” he said. “Obviously keeping the ball away from the bad guys. We’ve had turnovers, sacks, interceptions, negative plays. So that’s the goal, and you realize there’s a bunch of good players on defense that are trying to make that happen. That’s what’s fun about playing sports.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.