The Colts have had a rough week. In the Week 6 game against Washington, the Colts lost Joseph Addai, Pierre Garçon, and Dallas Clark. This string of injuries is reminiscent of November 2009, when within four days the team lost Tyjuan Hagler, Bob Sanders, and Marlin Jackson to season-ending injuries, and it was announced that starting cornerback Kelvin Hayden would miss a month with a knee injury. It is interesting that, in light of these similarities, there seems to be a lack of perspective this year. Over the past few days many have implied that the Colts are some sort of a lame duck.
There is no escaping that this may be the worst bye week in Colts history. But, you know what? The Colts aren’t dead yet! Other than injuries and off-field issues, things have been going well for Indianapolis. The Colts still have one of the best teams in the league and still have the best quarterback leading the way. No one will argue that the Colts are unbeatable this year, but even after everything that has happened, there are reasons to be optimistic.
The biggest development is the defensive turnaround. The defense has still made mistakes and fallen victim to miscues, but over the last two games it has stepped up in a way it had not since the Giants game in Week Two — and for the first time in years the defense is healthier than the offense. Two games will not inspire fear in the face of the Colts defense, but some things have started to come together that should benefit Indianapolis over the long haul.
Philip Wheeler isn’t a superstar strong-side linebacker, but he has improved noticeably from last year and has become a factor in more plays. He isn’t getting as many reps as Session, but he has been getting to the ball quickly and has been a consistent tackler.
Fili Moala has started to rise to the level expected of him after a disappointing rookie season. He’s a starter, leads the DTs in total tackles, and he and Muir have started creating pressure up the middle, the likes of which the Colts have lacked for a long time.
Jerraud Powers is fast becoming the best cornerback on the Colts roster and a fierce NFL defender. He has become a force defending the pass, has been effective against the run, and had had success in blitzing scenarios. Through six games, his 34 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, and 2 quarterback pressures is the most complete list of statistics of anyone in the Colts secondary. Powers is rated as one of the best corners in the league using the advanced statistics available at Football Outsiders. If he is any indication, the “third round curse” is clearly over, and the Colts may have a legitimate lock down corner.
Through two games Aaron Francisco has not been a detriment to the defense. He has made mistakes like everyone else, but he has not cost the Colts games. When Francisco made a spectacular catch to seal the Redskins game, the question that comes up is, “How many other guys would have whiffed and let Washington score a touchdown?” Francisco isn’t a Pro Bowler, and he probably isn’t even a legitimate starter, but in the Colts circumstances he has been a good option.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney is going through a dry spell in terms of sacks, while Mathis added another 1.5 sacks in Washington, but the biggest note is that the defensive ends continue to get pressure on the quarterback through double teams, blatant holding, facemasks, and opposing game plans focused on quick releases. In the first five weeks Freeney and Mathis had only 7 sacks between them, but 10 times that many hits and pressures. Freeney’s 10 hits and 28 pressures along with Mathis’ 8 hits and 22 pressures is an ever present reminder to quarterbacks and offensive linemen that one slip up, and they’ll be peeling someone off of the turf.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Colts have just as many things to feel good about. Despite preseason concerns about the offensive line, the lesser experienced side of the line has actually been very consistent in both run and pass protection. Jamey Richard has struggled with injury, but has been a consistently good blocker, and has shown improvement from one game to the next. Kyle DeVan has filled in for Richard on a couple of occasions, and despite some mistakes has been an exceptional blocker as well. Even with early injury concerns for Charlie Johnson, the left tackle position has not been the major cause of concern on the offensive line. Even Mike Pollak, who has struggled in four of six games, played well against Washington.
Anthony Gonzalez participated fully during both of the light practices last week. The fact that he is back, running at full speed and working on his rapport with Manning gives the Colts one of the many weapons expected to have a big impact at the beginning of the year. Gonzalez’s history of work suggests he is an exceptional all-around receiver with great hands out of the slot, and out wide. If he’s back and healthy, his return will help replace budding star Austin Collie who will miss a few games.
Blair White has also been practicing this past week despite reports that he suffered a neck injury. Manning has been working with White, focusing on timing and getting White more ingrained in the system. White promises to be an exceptional route-runner and adds to Manning’s weapons. It appears safe to assume that Garçon will be ready to go against the Texans, so the Colts (even without Collie) will be fielding a full complement of wide receivers – including tight end Jacob Tamme, who is expected to get significant time.
Another trend over the past three weeks is that Colts running backs have been performing better than expected. Colts backs who have carried more than 3 times have averaged 4.64 yards per carry (334 yards on 72 carries). A significant increase from the paltry 3.5 yards per carry the Colts averaged last year. While much of the increase can be attributed to Joseph Addai’s outstanding performance, even third string running back Mike Hart has stepped up over the past two weeks and has averaged over 4.2 yards per carry.
No timetable has been set on Addai’s return, but Donald Brown is expected to be available for the Texans game, and roster addition Andre Brown is known for his pass protection abilities. While none of the healthy rushers are going to be able to duplicate what Addai can do on their own, with a serious rotation, the combination of the three could be very effective.
At tight end, the Colts have seen Brody Eldridge step up as a blocker. The possible silver-lining of Dallas Clark’s season-ending injury is that blocking may improve with Eldridge taking many of his snaps. With Eldridge blocking at a significantly better rate than Clark so far this season (Eldridge has a rate of 77.2% good blocks to Clark’s 53.5%), Manning’s safety should be less of concern now. With Tamme filling in as a receiving tight end the Colts can still field a group with the same positive attributes, even with Clark not on the field. Clark was a big loss, but his backups are on this squad for a reason.
The entire league is weak this year. The Colts biggest competition is losing games to bad teams. The Texans lost to the 1-5 Cowboys. The Patriots lost to the Jets, the Jets to the Ravens, and the Ravens to the Patriots. San Diego has lost to Oakland and St. Louis. The Jaguars lost to San Diego. The NFC is just as bad with the Falcons toppling the Saints, then losing to Philadelphia who lost to the Washington team the Colts beat last week. The Vikings have been horrid, and the Packers are just as, if not more injured than Indy. The Bears lost to a bad Seattle team, and to the same Giants team the Colts trounced in Week 2. Those Giants are atop the leader board in the NFC.
The Steelers are the only threat in the league of being dominant, and the only serious competition they have faced so far this year was the Ravens. They lost that game, and they’ve got a tough schedule ahead. If the Colts had to endure this kind of injury luck in any other year, they might be sunk, but the parity in the league and a more manageable outlook for the remaining schedule (San Diego and Dallas games don’t look as daunting now), leaves the Colts with more than a “shot” at reaching the playoffs.
The final thing to remember is that the Colts have Peyton Manning. No quarterback in the league today can so drastically change the outlook of a game. As Nate Dunlevy of 18to88.com discovered, Peyton Manning has the best record over the past 5 years in games decided by 1 possession or less — 35-10. Tom Brady is second on the list with a record of 20-11. In other words, Manning is the guy who swings games for you. He is the guy you want to have on the field when the game is close.
He has weapons. He still has Donald Brown, Brody Eldridge, Jacob Tamme, Anthony Gonzalez, Blair White, Pierre Garçon, and Reggie Wayne as his top choices. Only 3 of Manning’s top 10 weapons will be out for the next few weeks. He still has more options than he can utilize in a single game, and all it takes is one guy to get open for Manning to make a throw. With the improved play by the offensive line, don’t count Manning out.
The injuries to Addai, Clark, and Collie are particularly troubling but the Colts offense has had an innate ability to compensate for losses in the past. No one is ever going to completely fill the hole left by the absence of influential and skilled players, but these are the times for others to shine.
Tamme could get a shot at tight end that he’s not had so far in his career. If Donald Brown gets healthy, he has the chance to reward the faith of the organization by filling in for Addai. Depending upon the length of Collie’s rehab time, Gonzalez may also reward his proponents by stepping up and filling in for an evermore productive Austin Collie. Chances like these are what allowed Austin Collie, Pierre Garçon, Melvin Bullitt, Anthony Gonzalez, Jerraud Powers, and Jacob Lacey to come into their own and prove their worth in the first place.
This has been a tough week for the Colts, but fans shouldn’t lose their heads. The Colts have taken a beating, but the skill sets of the players who will fill in make it is possible for the team to still thrive. It will be difficult. It will take adjustments, but this is a well built team and a well run organization. With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Colts are still a force to be reckoned with.
“Next Man Up” has worked for Indy in the past. In case fans have forgotten, take a look at these videos where the philosophy has become highlight worthy.