Most weeks, I would put together an in-depth game analysis so fans could mull over my observations, and better recognize where the Colts are flawed, which players are most to blame for the loss, and what changes could be made to resolve problems. This week is different.
Since the end of Sunday’s game until now I have witnessed widespread panic on the part of most “vocal” fans, and I am sure that some of that is to be expected as those who are not panicked have far less reason to plaster their opinions around the internet. When you are dealing with swarms of people who so quickly let their heads run away from them, the environment is not entirely inviting for those who wish to rationalize.
This story will not attempt to make light of a painful game, painful loss, or the current state of the Indianapolis Colts. It will also not attempt to change anyone’s opinions about this team, where it is headed, or defend management from its decisions that have helped lead the Colts to this point. The story will stand on its own as what I hope is a rationale perspective of the good and bad, and my perspective on what it all means.
It was painful to watch the Colts start the 2010 season in uncharacteristic fashion. In years past, Indianapolis had the upper-hand in early match-ups, came out of the gate hot, accrued the best single month win percentage of any team over the last decade. Last Sunday, much of that history was irrelevant.
The mantra often spread inside the Colts organization is that the “past is prologue” and that every year stands alone. What has made that statement somewhat hard to believe is that the Colts have enjoyed the longest string of regular season success in the history of the NFL, and have failed to consistently make the most of their playoff opportunities. The reasons for the team’s successes and failures are too varied to cover in a single story, so it will have to suffice that looking at history alone makes it seem more accurate to say that “history repeats itself.”
The game on Sunday challenged and affirmed both positions. History repeated itself when the Colts defense surrendered 250 yards on the ground against the Texans. The past seemed prologue in that the Colts have been the most dominant September team in the league and looked unprepared, out-hustled, and still in practice mode.
Many of the individual performances in the game were not surprising. Without Antonio Johnson, limited with an ankle injury, Fili Moala had to stay on the field for most of the second half during the Texans ground assault. Moala is not a run stopping defensive tackle and was not added to this defense for his abilities to play against double-teams or “hold the line.” Moala was drafted to play the under-tackle role, which requires the player to penetrate the pocket, primarily by getting off of blocks and winning one-on-one match-ups with guards. Seeing him fail to fill the “run stuffer” role is not and should not be surprising. Houston knew it, and they attacked it.
The problem with Moala getting man-handled is that the entire Colts defense is dependent upon each player properly carrying out his assignment. Linebackers fill gaps created by the defensive linemen doing what they are supposed to do in front of them. If Moala is getting blown out of his hole, and Houston’s fullback Leach is not needed to get a body on a defensive tackle, he will go to the second level and pummel linebackers who are on their way to their assigned gaps.
It is reasonable to believe that most of the Colts run defense’s shortcomings were due to having the second-year defensive tackle playing in an unfamiliar role. It is also reasonable to believe that when defensive tackle Antonio Johnson returns, his counterpart Daniel Muir will be free to move over into Moala’s spot and the defensive interior will return to where it was in 2009 and during preseason play. The defensive tackles have been stout against the run when Johnson and Muir play together. Without Johnson, Indianapolis is weak in run-stopping defensive line depth and that problem will likely not be resolved in 2010.
Speaking of the linebackers, handling a lead blocker is one of the responsibilities linebackers in the NFL have to be ready to face. They make their money on slipping free from those blocks to make plays. None of the Colts linebackers were particularly adept at this on Sunday. One had to wonder if Colts former linebacker Gilbert Gardner had found his way back onto the field.
I would also like to put my vote out there that rookie linebacker Pat Angerer should start taking defensive snaps in place of Philip Wheeler sooner rather than later. The problem I have with Philip Wheeler is that he has all the physical tools in the world to be an outstanding linebacker. What he lacks is either the intellect or motivation to make the most of that ability. Some will argue that Angerer is too small for the strong-side linebacker position, and those arguments are valid on their face. I will argue that I would rather have a player on the field that is “too small” for his position (I cannot imagine that happening on the Colts) but who plays with heart, intelligence, and has a nose for making big plays, than I would sit back on Sundays and watch a physically superior player completely incapable of doing his job.
The one bright spot for the Colts, which is somewhat surprising given all of the off-season observations, was the secondary. Even without Jacob Lacey on the field, overall, the Colts secondary was excellent. Bob Sanders went out early with an injury, which is devastating for me because I want him to play so badly, but Melvin Bullitt quickly got involved with an interception.
Justin Tryon, recent trade acquisition from the Washington Redskins, looks like a very impressive cornerback in the making. A couple of special teams mistakes may make that seem hard to believe, but the man has been on the team for only a week and has the wheels and desire on the field the make impact plays. He and Lacey will likely fight it out for the nickelback spot.
Kelvin Hayden is the sole disappointment in this unit. I do not expect players to play flawlessly, but it should be clear to anyone that the best cornerback on the Colts is second-year player Jerraud Powers. Powers played like a demon on Sunday. Hayden still seems like he has not found a way to return to form after he received a handsome paycheck from the Colts front office.
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest question-mark in my mind following a game that saw Peyton Manning hit ten times is: where in the hell was Brody Eldridge? If it was not completely obvious to the coaching staff that we were too often having our franchise quarterback hit the ground, I do not know when that will be clear. The biggest blocking addition to the team was not on the offensive line, not at running back or wide receiver, it was at tight end. It does not take a whole lot to figure out that if Eldridge had played more often and drew a single assignment from offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen, being “keep Mario Williams off of Manning, the rest of the play call, unless it is a run, is irrelevant,” could have kept Manning cleaner. I do not see the point in even having a player like Eldridge on the team if he is not going to be utilized in situations that so blatantly call for his services.
Other than the obvious game ball winner in Peyton Manning, who easily played one of the best games of his career, Joseph Addai deserves a lot of praise and respect for what he did. There is no clearer representation that statistics are misleading and incapable of telling the story of a game than in Addai’s case on Sunday. Sure, he only ran for 44 yards and only caught six passes for 29 yards, but his impact in the game was incredible. I fear to think of how bad things could have been for Manning if Addai did not force the Texans to respect the backfield with a 4.4 yards per carry average, making defenders miss, running over them, and playing like a man who was unwilling to give the game away. If Addai continues to run as he has over the course of the 2009 season, the 2010 preseason, and in Sunday’s game in Houston, the Colts will be a dangerous team offensively by the end of the year.
There were two frustrating components of the Colts offense on Sunday. The first, and most obvious, was that the offensive line was not ready to play. This is partially due to injuries keeping starting center Jeff Saturday and starting left tackle Charlie Johnson from practicing for the better part of three or four weeks, but cannot continue if the Colts hope to be successful in 2010. Jamey Richard is clearly not ready to be a starting guard in the NFL. Why the Colts chose to start him over last year’s starter Kyle DeVan is something I cannot understand. Get DeVan back on the field, please.
The other glaring gaff on the offensive side of the ball is Pierre Garçon’s hands, particularly early in the game. Not unlike Super Bowl XLIV, Garçon had an opportunity to put the Colts in great position to play the game their way on a third-and-eight in the second quarter. If he catches the pass, the Colts offense is guaranteed to continue driving down the field with a new set of downs. Given the way Houston’s defense lined up against the Colts on that particular down, if he catches the pass cleanly, he has a very good opportunity to run all the way for a touchdown. Instead, the Colts lose the possession and give it back to the Texans.
This kind of thing has to stop. Missed opportunities in a league as competitive as the NFL, against a team as good as the Texans, will lead to losses. Even with all of the offensive line’s failures, if a few catches are made, if the Colts make good on a few opportunities, if Collie realizes he is surrounded by defenders and protects himself and the ball by going down instead of going for extra yards, the game very possibly has a different outcome.
The good news is that these opportunities, as important as I believe they are, are all “fixable” and could help the Colts return to their prominence in future contests. The aspects of the game that may not have such easy fixes involve the coaching staff’s decision-making, handling of the off-season, and the players’ attitudes.
It should be very clear to anyone who watched Sunday’s game that the Colts players were tired midway through the third quarter — particularly on defense. It seems apparent that the conditioning work done during the off-season, and particularly in training camp, was insufficient to prepare the players to play a 60 minute football game. Having attended eight of the Colts training camp practices myself, I can tell you that they were hardly “grueling” in pace.
It should also be very clear to those who watched the Texans game that the players “gave up” at some point in the second half — particularly on defense. Instead of getting angry, frustrated, fueling them to stop what was happening on the field, they were dejected, broken, and looked like they were “tired of the responsibility” of keeping the game close. This is not an attitude that often characterizes the Colts. If that does not change, this will be a long season.
In terms of coaching decisions, there were too few adjustments to what the Texans did when they came out of the locker room in the second half. Gary Kubiak decided that a three point lead would be sufficient so long as the Texans could manage the clock, keep getting pressure on Manning, and pound the ball into the Colts defensive front. His changes worked. The Colts response? *crickets*
The Colts continued to spend much of the game trying to “get pressure” on a quarterback who was handing the ball off regularly. The Texans committed to running the ball on first, second, and third downs unless they needed eight or more yards. The defense remained vanilla, substitutions were either sparse or ineffective, the Colts continued their attitude of “we have to just do what we do better,” while getting demolished. This kind of thing is unacceptable, needs to get fixed, or the coaches really do not offer much to the organization.
Of course, witnessing what happened on Sunday leads all fans, including me, to get upset and not have a rosy feeling about the Colts 2010 product. Still, fans need to return to reality. Unless Sunday’s game, the Texans Super Bowl (that’s how they prepared for it), is indicative of the way the same starting defense from 2009, and same starting offense from 2009 (minus Ryan Lilja) will play for the entire year, it was an anomaly. A very frustrating, disappointing anomaly, but unlikely to be the way the team plays the rest of the way.
One thing is certain, the New York Giants game this coming Sunday has become extremely important. Not so much because losing the game would kill the Colts chances, or put the team too far behind to come back in the AFC South, but because the team needs to start playing Colts football the way it has for the past decade to help build confidence, fight, and desire back into its players. If the players do not come out hungry, determined, and attempt to release some of their anger on the unsuspecting Giants in Week Two, the Colts may have bigger problems than they can fix in time to keep the streak of 12 win seasons and consecutive playoff berths alive.