It was a frustrating game for Colts fans, who saw their defense force five turnovers and never had the luxury of feeling like the game was completely in hand. When the Colts led early by 17, conventional wisdom would have said that Indianapolis would win the game for sure, based upon the theory that down two scores to the Colts at any point in the game is a losing proposition for any team.
There is a problem with that theory right now, and that problem is that the Colts today are not the Colts when they were healthy and with all of their starters on the field. Add into this that the Colts played very conservative with key players throughout much of the game, including limiting Freeney and Mathis’ snaps throughout much of the second and third quarters, and the Bengals were given an opportunity to keep the game close.
The biggest disappointments in the Colts win over the Bengals resulted from rusty and/or unfamiliar play by Jacob Lacey and Jeff Linkenbach. Linkenbach seems out of position at right guard, after he spent the entire preseason at right tackle, left tackle, and left guard. He also seems built much more like a tackle so the move seems odd. Lacey struggled with his tackling and with discipline when he faced up his assignment, allowing himself to get juked and give up extra yards.
Right tackle Ryan Diem continues to struggle, allowing multiple hits, resulting in incompletions and sacks. Given his struggles it is still difficult to understand how the Colts and offensive line coach Pete Metzalaars can continue to justify his starting spot over a younger, more athletic Linkenbach, who has looked good when he has had opportunities at tackle.
The rest of the Colts struggles primarily were due to their favorite season-long issues — consistency. There continue to be sporadic tackling issues. There continue to be too many drops by players like Brandon James and Pierre Garçon. Garçon dropped a touchdown pass that hit him in both of his hands that would have put the game away. James, like Garçon’s little (literally) brother seems to do great when he’s driving or falling down, but if he has passes hit him directly in his hands when they’re stretched out in front of his face, he struggles.
Speaking of Brandon James, it was interesting that the Colts picked up James primarily for kick return duties, along with draft pick Ray Fisher, and when he was brought up to the active roster in the Bengals game he was only allowed to field punts while Cornelius Brown held onto the kick returning responsibilities. If B. James is really on this roster only for his potential as a fair catch artist on punts and as an emergency wideout, it may be time to move on to someone else. He broke records in college as a kick returner and should clearly be the most experienced and most dangerous return threat on the team. If he is not, why is he with the Colts?
Defensive tackle Daniel Muir made some great plays in the game, got penetration and stuffed a couple of runs. Then he gets called for encroachment, and sometimes under-performs on other downs and drives. No players is going to be perfect, of course, but it seems like Muir’s season has followed this up and down flow.
While the defense played a solid all around game and generated five turnovers, which were created by different individual players, too often the middle zone was too soft and allowed the Bengals easy receptions to put together long scoring drives. Once Jermaine Gresham found the soft middle of the zone, he abused the Colts defense until he finally fumbled away the Bengals chance at a comeback victory. If he holds onto the football, this gaping hole showed no signs of stiffening up, leaving Indianapolis vulnerable to a last minute defeat.
The biggest defensive performers were Kavell Conner, Tyjuan Hagler, Jerraud Powers, Kelvin Hayden, and Eric Foster. Conner continues to impress fans as a late round rookie draft selection who lays hard hits and is devastating in run support. Hagler builds on his Colts legacy by also hitting his opponents hard, staying disciplined, and generating big plays. Jerraud Powers suffered from his own inconsistency when he allowed Chad Ochocinco to beat him on an out route in the end zone for a touchdown. This is not the kind of mistake Powers has a habit of making, and he surely could be rusty after missing multiple games, but otherwise he continued to play very tight coverage, make secure tackles, and wreak havoc on the left side of the field.
Kelvin Hayden has put together a few solid games in a row. He too still suffers from taking plays off, missing tackles, getting juked, and getting beat deep too often. Still, in this contest he managed to get his hands on passes, lay hard hits, and read the quarterback well enough to get his second pick six of the season.
Eric Foster has put together his best season to this point in 2010. He far more regularly generates pressure on opposing quarterbacks by getting penetration from the defensive tackle position. He also uses his speed and agility to move down the line of scrimmage to make plays on ball carriers who attempt to turn the corner, stopping them for much shorter gains than they would otherwise generate. While rookie Jerry Hughes gift wrapped Carson Palmer for his sack on Sunday afternoon, he managed to get in Palmer’s face, and be a disruptive force in the backfield on his own multiple times (as he did in Philadelphia).
Speaking of Hughes, there are definite signs that the rookie is beginning to develop into an NFL pass rusher. In the last three games his role has increased, he has taken more snaps, and he can be seen converging in the backfield on unsuspecting quarterbacks. This is a positive sign for Indy’s future at the position and if his current pace continues he could be a legitimate sack threat on his own in January and February.
The biggest team defensive performance that should encourage Colts fans is that the Bengals ground game never had a chance. Linebackers and defensive linemen regularly maintained gap discipline and held ball carriers to short gains, and the occasional stuff or loss of yards. Even Dwight Freeney, who Eagles fans think is terrible against the run, had at least one stuff and a tackle that held Cedric Benson to only two yards on another carry. The Bengals generated only 72 yards on 20 carries for a 3.2 yards per carry average.
The offense showed signs of buckling under the weight of all the bodies that have piled on top of it this season. Austin Collie’s absence was sorely missed and put a lot of pressure on Jacob Tamme and Brandon James. This allowed the Bengals to make half time adjustments to shut down Tamme and continue making life difficult for Wayne. Add in Garçon’s key drops and it was too much for the Colts offense to look like its old self.
Donald Brown had his best individual running performance, showing some signs of running harder, generating yards after contact, and broke off a 21-yard run late in the game. Still, the return of Joseph Addai or Mike Hart will give the Colts offense options it does not have with just Brown and Javarris James in the backfield.
Although it is repeated too often this season, the Indy and Colts fans should be happy to get a win dealing with their current health concerns. As always, style points do not apply in the win and loss columnb and this victory allowed the Colts to stand alone atop the AFC South, and keep pace with AFC contenders in the playoff race.
As long as Jacob Tamme’s injuries are not serious enough to hold him out of the big game against the Patriots in Foxboro, there is a decent likelihood that Indianapolis will get more players back and have a better opportunity to play as well on both sides of the ball as they are capable. Next Sunday’s game will be a big test for the Colts but, for now, they can get out the heating pads and ice packs without an extra bruise to the ego or another loss hanging over their heads.