INDIANAPOLIS -- When Indianapolis Colts tight ends coach Tom Manning pitched a new short-yardage play to head coach Shane Steichen last week, it immediately struck a chord.
"I said, 'Shoot, that looks pretty good,'" Steichen said. "'That looks like a walk-in touchdown. Let's have that one [in the game plan] for sure.'"
The concept was simple: Load up in a heavy formation as if to suggest the Colts were going to utilize a power run to eke out a first down. Linebacker Zaire Franklin, of all people, was assigned to line up at fullback. Then, after selling the run, the idea was that tight end Mo Alie-Cox would leak out, and hopefully, be left wide open.
The play was intended for use in the red zone. But when the Colts faced fourth-and-one at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 49-yard line in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, Steichen deviated from that plan.
He yelled into his headset, "Zaire!" That was the name assigned to the play. And it worked to perfection when quarterback Gardner Minshew hit Alie-Cox for a 30-yard gain. Three plays later, running back Jonathan Taylor scored what would be the decisive touchdown in a 27-20 win that kept the Colts in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
The play and the decision to use it were small examples of a larger trend: Steichen's willingness to play to win and to instill confidence in his players by placing his trust in them.
"He's the type of coach that prepares for every situation, and he banks on other teams not preparing for those other situations," Franklin said. "He's not afraid to put a wrinkle in. He's not afraid to be aggressive. And I think that energy and that mentality ... is infectious to our team."
The big play to Alie-Cox was one of four fourth-down attempts by the Colts on Sunday. Indianapolis converted three of those and scored 14 points on drives involving a fourth-down conversion -- a season high.
This is not to say the Colts are one of the league's top-performing teams on fourth downs. They have a 50% success rate this season -- 14th in the NFL.
Instead, it's more about Steichen's aggressive disposition and how that has positively impacted his team's mentality. The Colts rank fifth in expected points added from their fourth-down decisions -- meaning their fourth-down decisions generally are choices that can directly impact the scoreboard. And when it comes to attempting fourth downs, the Colts rank seventh at 24.4%.
Sometimes, Steichen's aggressiveness gets the best of him. Against the Browns in Week 7, Steichen curiously dialed a deep pass drop and throw from the Colts' own end zone that resulted in a sack and forced fumble by star edge rusher Myles Garrett. Cleveland scored a touchdown on the play.
A 60-yard field goal attempt in that same game was blocked and resulted in a short field for the Browns' offense. Steichen later lamented both decisions. He said, for example, that he regretted a pass play that led to a loss of yardage and, consequently, a longer field-goal attempt for kicker Matt Gay.
But from the day he entered the building, Steichen suggested the Colts would not play scared. And he has delivered on that promise. And there is an added benefit beyond the mere pursuit of each individual victory.
"He lets it hang," Minshew said. "That's what you want: A coach that will trust you and put you in those situations. He can be aggressive, but I think that comes out of trust. It's good when you have a coach that trusts you like that."
Said receiver Michael Pittman Jr.: "You have to earn that trust because if it doesn't go right, then everybody looks bad and it falls back on [Steichen]."
In another example of Steichen's aggressive inclinations, it is notable that the Colts opened Sunday's game with a heavy passing attack even after two straight games in which Minshew and the passing game were unproductive. And it worked; the Colts' 394 total yards were their most in four games.
Now, the confidence produced by the trust players spoke of has the Colts in a position few would have predicted: After losing starting quarterback Anthony Richardson to shoulder surgery, and after a three-game losing streak that suggested the season was going south, the Colts are in the heat of the AFC wild-card chase.
They currently occupy the seventh spot in the AFC standings, which would translate to the final wild-card berth. And don't be surprised if Steichen dials up a few more plays like Sunday's stunner as the Colts chase the postseason in the weeks to come.
"When we show we can execute plays," running back Zack Moss said, "that gives him more confidence to do certain things at a time in the game that coaches normally wouldn't."