The Indianapolis Colts gutted out an ugly 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills to run their record to 7-4 and move a game clear of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC Wild Card Race. A far cry from the shootout everyone was expecting, the Colts earned their victory on the back of timely plays from their defense and a great performance by their special teams.
We'll talk about the defense and special teams, as well as the unit holding this team back, in this week's Monday Musings.
Colts fans have become accustomed to being on the business end of big special teams plays – week 11 against the Patriots, the Super Bowl against the Bears, the Mike Scifres game, are just a few of the countless examples we could provide – so Sunday's performance by the Colts special teams unit was a nice change of pace.
TY Hilton's performance was the most obvious standout. His 4 returns for 111 yards, including a 75-yard TD – by my count, the Colts had 9 (kick-off + punt) returns for TDs from 1998-2011 – in the 1st quarter, provided the Colts with good field position, and, yes, 7 crucial points, on a day in which the offense was struggling to move the ball. Hilton will have to focus on improving his ball handling – his devil-may-care attitude towards the football is going to give me a heart attack one day – but that can be improved through better technique and practice. What can't be improved through better technique and practice is his explosive speed and agility, which will serve him and the Colts well in the years to come.
The other standout performance on the special teams unit came courtesy of the leg whose arrival in Indianapolis helped create the illusion that the Colts had fixed their coverage units. Pat McAfee's "boomstick" helped neutralize one of the most explosive return games in the NFL. Of the 5 Colts' punts, the Bills were forced to fair catch 3 of them, and gained only 24 yards combined on the other 2. We see a similar story when we look at kick-offs where McAfee forced 4 touchbacks on 5 attempts.
McAfee was even able to have success in his weakest area: pinning teams deep. Twice on Sunday, McAfee, with the help of Gunners Sergio Brown and Joe Lefeged, was able to pin the Bills inside their own 10-yard line. If you count only drives that started after a McAfee punt or kick-off, the Bills average starting position was their own 20, a big help to the Colts defense.
If there was one negative for the Special Teams on Sunday, it was definitely their kick return, where Joe Lefeged and Tom Zbikowski need to learn the chants of the men who came before them: "take a knee." Every return is an epic battle to reach the 20, and far too often those battles end with a complimentary "holding" flag, forcing the Colts offense to start from inside their own 10. Save us all the trouble, guys, and just take a knee.
Yesterday's defensive performance seems to be a bit polarizing. My friend and colleague Kyle described it as "inconsistent", and others have suggested that the only thing that stopped the Bills offense was the Bills offense. For the second week in a row, I'm forced to play the role of Optimistic Team Homer, and I'm OK with that! Let's get this out of the way quick: Sunday's effort wasn't the kind of dominating performance that inspires catching nicknames and a full segment during an upcoming episode of NFL Network's Top-10. But it was good.
In the passing game, the Colts built on the strategy they deployed against the Patriots, using a number of disguised blitz and coverage schemes to confuse Fitzpatrick and the Bills' OL. While these tactics were thwarted by the quick recognition and release of Tom Brady, they were a huge success against Fitzpatrick, forcing him to move through his progressions and hold on to the ball longer than he wanted to. The Colts were also in position to come up with at least 2 easy interceptions, but drops and fumbles, they are a killer.
And unlike previous weeks, OLBs Freeney and Mathis were able to take advantage of the QBs hesitation, creating the kind of havoc we were used to seeing back when they were called defensive ends. When you put it all together, the Colts were able to completely shutdown the Bills passing game, holding Fitzpatrick to 17/33 (51.5%), 180 yards (5.5/attempt), 1 TD, 1 INT, and a QBRating of 65.2. To demonstrate their dominance a little better, 63 of those passing yards came on one long play to WR Stevie Johnson. If you remove that pass play, the Colts held Fitzpatrick to 16/32 (50%) for 117 yards. That's 3.66 yards per attempt, and only 7.3 yards per completion. Those are dominating stats right there.
The real disagreement over the Colts performance comes in the running game, where they surrendered 133 yards on 20 carries (6.65ypc) to RBs CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson. At face value, those numbers are pretty bad: you never want to give up over 4ypc, let alone 6.5. But taking a deeper look tells, in my mind, a different story. First, the Colts were able to contain Jackson, holding him to 16 yards on 6 carries. No deeper look needed there, at 2.7ypc, that's good stuff. Second, regarding Spiller: 88 of his 107 yards came on 4 plays. That means that on his remaining 10 carries, Spiller picked up 19 yards, or 1.9ypc. The Colts reduced one of the most dangerous RBs in the NFL to a boom-bust back who wound up doing no real harm? Maybe I'm grading on a curve, but I'll take it.
As for the topic of the Bills offense stopping themselves: I think there may be a little validity to that point. While the Bills were never trailing by more than 2 scores, and had it within 1 score for much of the game, they attempted only 20 runs compared to 33 passes, despite the running game being their more explosive option. Further, Spiller and Jackson are both deadly in the screen game, but the Bills attempted only 2 screens total (they actually attempted more, but those plays were wiped out due to Colts penalties). The Bills should be getting the ball into the hands of Spiller and Jackson as often as possible as they, not Fitzpatrick, are their best chance at winning.
With all that said, I'm still sticking by my claim that yesterday's performance by the defense was a good one. So there. Oh, and by the way, Jerrell Freeman (GO CANADA, EH?) has been promoted from "feel good story" to "darn good player." His performance against the Bills – 16 tackles (3 for loss), 1 sack, 1 QB hit – was as good as any across the league on Sunday.
Offensive Line (TERM USED LOOSELY)
Before this season I wrote, "the Colts offense will be as good as its offensive line allows it to be." I've repeated this line, both in print and on our podcasts, multiple times since. Sunday was a great example of that.
Entering Sunday's game, Buffalo had one of the worst defenses in the NFL ranking 29th overall in DVOA, 26th against the pass and 31st against the run. Their specific metrics were a mixed bag: their DL ranking 28th against the run and 8th against the pass. Everyone expected the Colts to score, and score often.
Why didn't they? In the passing game, Andrew Luck was sacked 4 times, hit an additional 7 times, and it seemed as if he was hurried on nearly every other passing play (I look forward to seeing Scott Kacsmar's "Following a Legend" this week, to see just how pressured Luck was). The Colts deep aerial attack never had time to get off the runway, and Arians and the offensive coaches didn't adjust by calling more short and intermediate routes.
On the ground, where the Colts have seen some recent success, both Ballard and Brown were bottled up, gaining just 67 yards – almost all after contact – on 23 carries. This wasn't a case of a back missing a lane, dancing too much, or being indecisive, this was a case of there being no holes. In fact, I would say that both running backs got the maximum available yards on nearly every running play. The Colts offensive line, particularly the interior, was whipped play after play, causing the offense to stall repeatedly.
Is it just a coincidence that the Colts OL has started to struggle the past 2 weeks? Is it just a matter of facing better defensive lines, needing to work on technique and play-calling, and adjusting to the opponent? Or is there another, more sinister cause (this paragraph should be read in the voice of the Ancient Alien Narrator. TRUST ME)?
Is it possible that the Colts offense started to struggle once Samson Satele, their starting C, returned from a back injury? Satele has struggled with knee, ankle, and back injuries all season, and many have wondered if he's been rushing back from these ailments. Personally, I was never a fan of Satele – he has never shown that he could be anything but an average pass blocker, and he's been inconsistent at best in the run game – and after watching him get tossed around like a rag doll on multiple occasions by Bills DT Marcell Dareus, I think it's time for the Colts to let backup C AQ Shipley show what he can do.
Shipley certainly lacks the speed, quickness, and agility to run a lot of the lateral plays the Colts are so fond of, but he's shown – in limited time – that he's much better in normal in-line blocking than Satele. If the Colts are serious about putting the best players on the field, doing everything they can to win, then it's time to make the switch at center, Samson Satele just isn't getting it done.
Now, Satele's play doesn't excuse or explain the Colts inability to block Mario Williams, who picked up 3 sacks on the day. Williams abused the right side of the Colts line, and Arians once again showed an unwillingness to provide help – in the form of a TE or RB – to his OTs facing tough match-ups. Could Castonzo and (more so) Justice have done better? Sure, but every tackle in the league, and I mean every, would have the occasional struggle if forced to block the best DEs in the league with little-to-no help. Double teams, chips, something has to be done to relieve the pressure not only on the OL, but on Andrew Luck as well, especially with a game against the Lions – who boast one of the best DLs in the NFL – coming up.
Sunday's performance wasn't pretty, and it was far from perfect, but it was a win, and the ugly ones count just as much as the pretty ones. And for a team coming off of a 2-14 season, fielding 112 rookies, and missing their head coach, well, even the ugly ones are kind of attractive. At 7-4, the Colts are remarkably close to making the playoffs and completing one of the most remarkable turnarounds in league history.