By TOM JAMES
SAN DIEGO —
Play smart. Protect the football.
If anybody is wondering how the Indianapolis Colts have gotten off to a 4-1 start this season, keeping penalties to an absolute minimum and not turning the football over to the opposition would be a good place to start.
Through the Colts’ five games this season, the team has been penalized 17 times an average of 3.4 times per outing. Indianapolis has also fumbled four times, losing two while having two passes intercepted.
The 17 penalties ties the Colts with Minnesota and Pittsburgh for the fewest in the National Football League. Indianapolis’ 147 penalty yards are the lowest in the league so far this season.
The team’s four turnovers ranks second in the NFL behind the Tennessee Titans’ three and is tied for the second-fewest committed by the franchise through five games (1964 and 2006). Interestingly, in both previous seasons, the Colts played for the league title.
An omen perhaps?
It’s probably a little early to make such grandoise prognostications. Still, Colts coach Chuck Pagano likes how his team has handled its business — from a penalty and turnover viewpoint — so far.
“Again, it goes back to what we always talk about is the enemy is always in your own camp. It’s hard enough to win football games without shooting yourself in the foot, without committing foolish penalties. Again, I think we had three [last Sunday against Seattle] and had one foolish penalty, [which] didn’t need to happen,” Pagano voiced. “Some of the other ones are going to happen from time to time. Again, our staff does a great job of educating these guys. We try to show them as many clips [of penalties and turnovers] as we possibly can. We talk about it a lot. We emphasize it a lot, no friendly fire, be disciplined with your fundamentals and techniques. Again, it’s too hard to win without shooting yourself in the foot and things like that. If we can avoid the friendly fire, obviously we’re going to keep emphasizing it because something’s working in our favor.”
In 2012, Pagano’s first year as the franchise’s head coach, Indianapolis fumbled 21 times and lost nine of them. Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck also threw 18 interceptions. The Colts were also penalized 94 times (an average of 5.5 per game) for 801 yards.
Heading into the offseason, playing smarter penalty-wise and doing a better job of protecting the football was a major point of emphasis for the Indianapolis coaching staff.
Luck admitted that all the work done last spring during organized team activity practices and during training camp is now paying huge dividends.
“[We’re] taking care of the football. I think we’re plus in the turnover-margin [plus-6] as a whole, which Coach Pagano preached about in the offseason. I think we’re doing a decent job at it,” the Colts quarterback said late last week. “But we can still improve a lot.”
The Colts head coach is a stickler for the details. He doesn’t let the little things slide by despite the time demands of practice and game preparation.
“We made a huge emphasis in training camp. We have officials, as you know, every day in practice, except Friday. We had them all through training camp, as you know. We show them a tape, I’ll show them a tape every week. The points of emphasis, the penalties that were called the previous week, we get a cut-up from the league every week, so I’ll go through that and I’ll pick out the ones that they need to see,” Pagano explained. “We’re always educating our guys on what the points of emphasis are, what they’re looking at, what they’re calling. So we’re constantly not only fundamentals, techniques and playing great situational football and giving them great examples from other games around the league week-in and week-out, but we make an emphasis to make sure that they know the game from a rules standpoint also.”
The extra work seems to have helped. Indianapolis has posted a 6-0 record in games under Pagano when the team did not have any turnovers.
So how much credence does the Colts coach give to the turnover question? It’s one of the first things he checks out on the stat sheet after every game.
“Turnovers, first and foremost. That’s the biggest tell [on a team’s success or failure] other than the score. Turnover margin. And we’re doing good there. Hopefully we stay that way,” Pagano said. “Turnovers is huge. And week-in and week-out, if you looked at who rushed for more yards in a game, typically a lot of weeks its a real high percentage. The team that rushes for more yards generally wins the game. So it’s turnover margin and then rushing would be two [of the things that he looks for].”
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
• Time: 8:30 p.m.
• Location: Qualcoom Stadium (Grass); San Diego.
• Records: Colts 4-1, Chargers 2-3.
• ESPN (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters).
• Colts Radio Network (Bob Lamey, Jim Sorgi, Matt Taylor), WNDA-1570 AM.
• Westwood One Sports (Kevin Harlan, Dan Fouts, Tim Ryan), WHBE-680 AM
• Colts: Chuck Pagano (15-6, 2nd year). Pagano has a 0-0 career-coaching record against San Diego.
• Chargers: Mike McCoy (2-3, 1st year). McCoy is 0-0 against the Colts.
• 25th regular-season meeting. Chargers lead series, 15-9. San Diego has also won two of three post-season meetings with the Colts.
• The Chargers have won the last two games, posting a 36-14 win at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010 and taking an overtime 23-17 post-season victory at San Diego in 2009. Indianapolis’ last road win in the series occurred on 11/23/08 as the Colts came away with the 23-20 victory.
• Interestingly, the Colts have a better regular-season record against San Diego on the road (6-4) than at home (3-11). Counting post-season games, the Colts are 7-5 at Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium.
• The series between the two franchises began in 1970 with the Colts winning the first game 16-14 in San Diego.
• Colts defeated Seattle 34-28. Chargers lost 27-17 to Oakland.
THEY SAID IT
• “It’s incredible. People lose perspective because they get caught up with where you are. But to think about these injuries and what people thought about us before the season started. And to be ranked by the power-ratings as the fourth-best team in the league is quite an accomplishment for the players and coaches.” — Colts owner Jim Irsay on the team’s 4-1 start after wins over NFC favorites San Francisco and Seattle.
• “Other teams have injuries too. But I don’t know if anyone’s had the type of injuries we’ve had at running back. We’ve lost two starting running backs [this season].” — Irsay discussing the losses of RBs Vick Ballard (knee) and Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) to season-ending injuries.
• ”A true professional. He’s not getting as many [opportunities] as some guys. But when he does, he shows up big, man. He doesn’t mope around. He doesn’t complain. He just keeps showing up, playing and waiting for his opportunity. When he gets it, he’s showing what he can do.” — Colts WR Reggie Wayne on the play of backup RB Donald Brown this season.
• “[San Diego QB Philip] Rivers presents his own problems, man. He is a gun-slinger. You can see it. I grew up watching him and [tight end] Antonio [Gates] going back and forth with each other. [Rivers] definitely can sling that rock. He puts the ball where he wants it. [We] have to play a lot tighter coverage. He just beings a lot of knowledge of the game, try to hide stuff. We’ve got a nice little string of quarterbacks we’re going to play [with Denver’s Peyton Manning returning to Lucas Oil Stadium next week]. We’re definitely going to have to be on our P’s and Q’s about disguising things and not letting [Rivers] see what we’re doing.” — Colts ILB Jerrell Freeman on the San Diego offense.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano is the younger brother of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
“Another ball game. It’s just another ball game,” the Indianapolis coach said. “We’ve played each other before. There’s no communication this week for obvious reasons. It’s another football game.”
STAT OF THE WEEK
• The Colts, with a 4-1 record, are holding down sole possession of first place in the AFC South for the first time since the end of the 2010 season. It’s also the first time that Indianapolis has been in sole possession of first place in a division without Peyton Manning at quarterback since the seventh week of the 1996 season. Current San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback when the Colts led the AFC East.
BY THE NUMBERS
• Indianapolis is second to Denver in 80-yard scoring drives this season. The Broncos have 12 while the Colts have put together nine such possessions.
• Keep running the football. Indianapolis has rushed for over 100 yards as a team for the first five games of the season, which tied a franchise record. In order to have success against the Chargers, the Colts must continue to be aggressive with their ground attack.
• Indianapolis has found success using the run game to help set up big strikes through the air during its current three-game winning streak. The Colts aren’t expected to deviate from its successful game plan.
• Defensively, Indianapolis has to keep up the pressure. The Colts have been very much a “bend but don’t break” unit all season long. While giving up yardage between the 20-yard lines, the defense has been able to settle down and force field goals instead of giving up touchdowns. Indianapolis forced two turnovers in last week’s win over Seattle.
• Colts RBs Trent Richardson/Donald Brown vs. Chargers run defense. Indianapolis ranks fourth in the league in rushing offense, averaging 142 yards per game. San Diego, meanwhile, is ranked 24th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 117.2 yards per outing. Something has to give.
• Chargers QB Phillip Rivers vs. Colts secondary. Rivers can be a magician with the football in his hand. San Diego’s passing offense is averaging 311.2 yards per game through the air and Rivers has a good group of talented receivers to work with. Indianapolis’ secondary is much improved but has been porous at times, especially early in a game.