INDIANAPOLIS – With points already proving hard to come by in Indianapolis’ Week 5 meeting with the Denver Broncos, the Colts’ first-and-10 opportunity from the Denver 15-yard line just before halftime finally offered a realistic chance of reaching the end zone .
At long last, the idea of the Colts scoring a touchdown seemed plausible in a game that will be remembered for the offensive ineptitude of both participants.
And then it happened, again: A Matt Ryan fumble.
Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb beat Colts left tackle Bernhard Raimann with an inside move and closed in on the Colts’ quarterback. Ryan spun away from Chubb, only to be met by oncoming linebacker Josey Jewell, who grabbed hold of Ryan. A split second later, defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones finished off the 37-year old. Ryan was spun to the ground by the two defenders in the same manner an alligator would handle its prey.
But the key moment in this sequence came just before Ryan went down. As he prepared to attempt an escape, he was holding the ball perilously in his left hand. Ultimately, he was never able to fully protect it before being converged on by a pair of defenders weighing a combined 500 pounds-plus.
Is it any wonder the ball came loose?
“Because he has been playing for so long, it is a habit that he has to break,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said of Ryan’s tendency to be careless with the ball when contacted by defenders. “We have to keep drilling it and keep drilling it, and he’s just got to protect it better during the game.”
Left guard Quenton Nelson recovered Ryan’s fumble, but the result of the play was a 17-yard loss. That made the Colts’ ensuing playcalls quite predictable. Ryan was sacked on second down and completed a short pass on third-and-38. The Colts settled for a 52-yard field goal.
So much for reaching the end zone.
Ryan leads the NFL with 11 fumbles heading into Week 6. It’s a stunning total that nearly matches a career high for the veteran of 15 NFL seasons (12 in 2015). Although Ryan has lost just three of those fumbles, the impact of the negative plays is significant, as evidenced by the earlier example.
At first, there was a sense inside the organization that the fumbles were an anomaly that Ryan could quickly overcome. His history suggested as much. But the issue has lingered for five weeks. Now, with defenders seeing the fumbles on film, they approach games against Ryan with a heightened awareness, looking for vulnerabilities in how he handles the ball.
“It’s like a piranha,” coach Frank Reich said. “It’s blood in the water. You show that on tape and now it’s a feeding frenzy.”
So, Ryan and his coaches have been studying the issue in a search for solutions. In the process, they’ve discovered that the lack of ball security in dangerous situations is a common thread through many of Ryan’s fumbles.
To be fair, Ryan is getting hit way too much, and his fumbles are directly related. The Colts rank 31st in ESPN’s pass block win rate measurement, leaving Ryan under constant siege. Ryan and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford were the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL entering Week 6 (21 sacks each). But that doesn’t give Ryan license to be careless with the ball. So, the offensive coaching staff is emphasizing appropriate drills with Ryan to make better ball handling a matter of muscle memory – which can be easier said than done.
“Obviously, live action is different than practice drills, and he has to translate that,” Brady said.
For his part, Ryan says the issue is generally only present when he’s trying to make plays under duress. But, given his limited mobility, it could be argued that Ryan is sometimes fighting a losing battle there. That seemed to be the case on that second-quarter fumble in Denver, with Ryan trying to escape when he had nowhere to go, holding the ball loosely in the process. The fight he put up was admirable, but was it prudent?
“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “We need to make those plays and extend them. But we need to do just a little bit better job of when I go to make that (throw), making sure it’s secured.”
Ryan correctly added that several of his fumbles – like the one he committed in the fourth quarter against Denver – have occurred when he was hit from his blind side while preparing to attempt a throw. Those are nearly impossible to avoid.
“The handful that were mid-throw, I’ve got nothing for you on that,” he said.
But for those instances when Ryan is exposing the ball, quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich says it’s generally happening when Ryan is trying to make a sudden movement in the pocket. That’s the exact moment when being mindful of ball security can be most difficult. That’s why Milanovich could be seen using a padded “poker” to pester Ryan during passing drills in Thursday’s practice.
“Because when you drop back your eyes are downfield,” he said. “They need to be downfield, but then you have to react … We’re trying to kind of simulate a pocket breaking down. It’s not perfect. I’ve never found the perfect drill.
“But I’ve seen improvements. There were a couple last week where he did a really good job of climbing the pocket and keeping two hands on it. We just need to keep working on it.”
The Colts don’t have a choice. Indianapolis is already the lowest-scoring team in the NFL. About the last thing it can afford is a few more ill-timed fumbles from Ryan.