Although the outcome was predictable — in that the Colts lost the game — the final score was much closer than anyone expected. The New England Patriots have about as many defensive problems as the Colts do. In fact, the 2011 Patriots are a lot like Colts teams over the last seven years — juggernaut offense, loaded with talent, and a talent-starved defense whose success relies mostly on the offense putting up points and holding onto the football.
The biggest surprise of the game was when the Colts offense found its stride in the second half. Dan Orlovsky did not play a flawless game but did look more comfortable spreading the ball around to his targets than Curtis Painter did before him — 30/37 for 353 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception for a 113.2 quarterback rating. Running back Donald Brown also continues to move squarely into contention for the starting spot in the backfield — his yards per carry numbers were down to under 3 yards but his running style, speed, and vision were still indicative of a positive NFL future.Another offensive player who has earned a long-term future in Indianapolis? Wide receive Pierre Garcon continues to perform like he is ready to take his place among the league’s elite receivers. His speed and strength makes him extremely difficult to cover one-on-one, he is difficult to solo tackle, and his hands have been truly impressive.
Wide receiver Austin Collie had his biggest game since he went down for the season when the Colts faced Jacksonville in Week 15 last year. His 7 receptions for 70 yards, along with tight end Jacob Tamme’s 5 receptions for 49 yards, helped spread the field and force favorable one-on-one match-ups outside for Garcon and Wayne.
While long-time starting running back Joseph Addai was back on the field and took 13 carries for 39 yards — an average that was slightly better than Brown’s — he did not look as decisive as he has when completely healthy over the last couple of seasons. At this point, unless Addai can return to full health, it makes little sense for him to steal carries from a rapidly developing Brown.
One of the biggest concerns and disappointments for the Colts this year has to be the regression of rookie running back Delone Carter. He started the year with promise, and won the praise of the national media. Then, in Week 7, Carter fumbled the ball away against the Saints. Since that time — including that game — Carter has fumbled 3 times out of 32 total carries, and twice out of his last 13 carries.
On the defensive side of the football, the Colts 2011 struggles led the team to release defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Long-time linebackers coach Mike Murphy stepped into the role and had a few days to make some tweaks and prepare for Indy’s nemesis.
Murphy started the game by dialing in man assignments for the outside corners, who did a nice job covering their assignments. No one would have thought the Colts offense would put together their own offensive drive that would last over 9 minutes, or that the defense would hold the Patriots offense to only 3 points until late into the second quarter.
A few things changed that allowed New England’s offense to get things going. First, middle linebacker Pat Angerer went down with a knee injury. It’s the third time this season he’s been listed with knee issues but going down early in the game really hurt the team’s chances to effectively combat the dual-tight end threats of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Second, Indy’s top cornerback Jerraud Powers left the game early after making a play on a Brady pass in the end zone. The announcers indicated that Powers was favoring his left elbow, and that he walked directly off of the field suggests that it could be serious — his left arm did appear to hang lazily at his side as he walked to the locker room.
Finally, the defensive game-plan changed significantly. The tight coverage in the first quarter regressed back into an off-coverage, soft zone scheme. Nothing could play into the hands Wes Welker and the Patriots offensive game plan than that transition.
The run defense did a good job of keeping the Colts in the game in the second half, as New England was only able to gain 73 yards on 24 carries. Of course, not placing a great deal of emphasis on the run makes sense for the Patriots — as it has been for the Colts in years past — as their passing game dictates their offensive success.
It is worth noting that both A.J. Edds and Ernie Sims had good performances for the Colts at linebacker. While Edds is certainly not as capable as Angerer, he did well considering the circumstances and the shoes he had to fill. Sims, on the other hands, looked like the kind of hard-hitting striker he was when he played with Detroit — which could be a positive sign for his future in Indianapolis.
Another player who stepped in admirably was rookie cornerback Chris Rucker, who filled in after Powers left the game. His standout play was in man coverage against wide receiver Deion Branch in the second quarter. Brady targeted Branch deep down the left sideline but Rucker went stride-for-stride and turned his head back to track the ball — he nearly picked off the pass.
Look, there are very few silver linings or ways to make the Colts losses in 2011 feel good. There’s no magic word or spin that will wash the taste out of the mouths of Indianapolis fans. But there is more talent and development among individual players, and some new things between tried schematically on both sides of the ball that could pay dividends in 2012.
Until then, the best shot the Colts have to win games is to hope that Orlovsky’s performance in Foxboro was a sign of his ability to operate in the offense moving forward. They will also have to wait to play division rivals Jacksonville, Houston, and Tennessee in the final three weeks of the season as a win against the Ravens is unlikely.