Bengals 17, Colts 23 – Quick Reaction

Kelvin Hayden returns another interception for a touchdown. (Brent Smith | Reuters)

The Indianapolis Colts (6-3) managed to survive against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-7) on Sunday, and in doing so, grabbed sole possession of first place in the AFC South.  The Colts started fast, and appeared poised to run the Bengals out of the building, but inconsistency from the offensive line, a Carson Palmer trip to a time machine, and yet another officiating blunder allowed the Bengals an opportunity to steal a win at the end of the game.  Jump for my quick thoughts on today’s game.

Injuries are starting to take their toll on the Colts offense.  With no Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, or Joseph Addai, teams are able to focus on Reggie Wayne and Jacob Tamme, and the remaining receiving options aren’t able to make the most of one-on-one coverage.

Speaking of Tamme, he had a few tough drops today, but his route running is really improving and he’s starting to become a more complete receiving option.  That said, he was clearly injured during today’s game, and would disappear for long stretches.   With Clark on IR, the Colts are going to need Tamme at 100% health and at the top of his game if the offense is going to perform at an elite level.

Pierre Garçon is regressing faster than a speeding Ryan Diem.  With teams focusing on Wayne and, to a smaller extent, Tamme, Garçon has had some one-on-one situations.  Inconsistent route running and hands have made him completely ineffective.  His inability to have a vice-grip on the ball during the onside kick, combined with his 15-yard penalty for removing his helmet, almost cost the Colts the game at the end.

Speaking of regression – the offensive line, which went in to the Bye week playing at a high level, has played the last three weeks at a level of unspeakable ineptitude.  Not only are the running lanes that were present at the beginning of the year gone, but pass protection has been so bad that Manning’s sack numbers have almost doubled the past two weeks.  If the OL continues to struggle, teams will continue to play tight man coverage, press the Colts receivers at the line of scrimmage, and blitz Manning relentlessly.  Manning’s average sack time, before Sunday’s game, was under 2.5 seconds.  A human quarterback would have three times the sacks Manning has taken this year.

Manning has looked human the past few weeks, which just proves that if you take every good weapon away from the best quarterback in the league, he will eventually just be an above average quarterback.  The big difference between this week and last week was Manning’s lack of turnovers.  Until the Colts get “healthy”, they are going to be in a lot of tight games.  The offense won’t move the ball efficiently or effectively on every drive, but they must avoid killer turnovers if this team is going to survive this stretch.

The defense was the reason the Colts won this game.  Five turnovers, including three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and two fumbles.  The defensive line was dominant against the run, but faltered in pass rushing.  It could have been by design, as Carson Palmer seemed determined to make killer mistakes regardless of the pressure applied to him.

Jerraud Powers reminded everyone just how much the Colts missed him against the Eagles.  Beyond his great coverage skills, Jerraud Powers is one of the best tacklers on the team, and running plays seldom if ever get beyond him.  Having him at 100% for the rest of the season will go a long way towards helping the Colts defense continue to be an above-average unit.

Kelvin Hayden started off strong, taking a Carson Palmer duck to the house for six points, but his play started to slip as the game wore on.  His coverage on deep plays remained shaky, and he was lucky that Terrell Owens developed a bad case of alligator arms.  That said, if Hayden can maintain the level of play he has shown the past three weeks, he and Powers combine to make one of the best starting CB tandems in the league.

The Colts’ nickel back, Jacob Lacey, had a bad day at the office.  Lacey’s struggles came not in coverage, but in tackling, as he allowed multiple short passes to be turned into big plays.  Inconsistencies are understandable at this point, given the Colts’ injury situation, but not every team will serve up gift-wrapped turnovers like the Bengals, so injuries or not, players need to start playing a more consistent game.

The Colts are embarrassingly deep at linebacker, with the back-ups performing as effectively as the starters.  Going into the season, it seemed as if Pat Angerer would be the only viable back up for the LB unit.  The past two weeks have shown, however, that Kavell Conner, Tyjuan Hagler, Philip Wheeler, and Pat Angerer are all capable of providing starter-level play if needed.  In years past, an injury to Gary Brackett would have been a death sentence for the Colts’ defense, today it was just an minor inconvenience.

The coaching staff is really making it hard to support all of their decisions.  First, Jeff Linkenbach was inserted at guard, while Ryan Diem was allowed to continue his lifelong mission of killing Peyton Manning.  Second, not being prepared for the 4th-and-1 punt fake by the Bengals was unforgivable.  Marvin Lewis was gesturing the entire time.  The Bengals were in a funky formation.  At that point you have to take a time out.  On top of that, Caldwell continues to make bad decisions on 4th-down plays near midfield.  His special teams units are not good enough to pin teams inside their five yard line.  His defense is not forcing a lot of 3-and-outs.  Allow your best player — Peyton Manning — to control the game.

Final word:  The officiating during the past three games has been embarrassing.  The Chad Johnson “catch” with two officials standing 10 yards away from him, the onside kick which was clearly in Pierre Garçon’s hands when he was touched ‘down’, and the lack of a tripping call on the Tyjuan Hagler interception (which was described perfectly by Walt Anderson as a trip) were all horrific calls that fans could see in real time on television.  The Colts simply do not have the overall talent and ability to overcome multiple bad calls against them.   And shoddy officiating against the home team is adding insult to injury.

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