Although it is difficult to sugar coat a Colts loss in a game they absolutely needed to win in order to create some confidence in a weary fan base that the team can survive long enough for a potential Manning return, there are some positive things to take away from the losing effort.
For the first time since Joseph Addai’s rookie season, paired with Dominic Rhodes, the Indianapolis Colts appear to have a two-headed rushing attack that is effective. Rookie Delone Carter is a hard-nosed runner with enough speed to have a very productive season and allow Indianapolis to convert their long-time Achilles heel — the third-and-short running situation.
The offensive line has used the first two games to create some push for Colts runners, though the unit still needs to be more effective in providing the not-so-mobile Kerry Collins with a cleaner pocket. Jeff Linkenbach continues to struggle on the right side more often than the Colts can afford. It still seems like this would be a good opportunity to get rookie tackle Ben Ijalana some repetitions.
Although the offense was unable to punch the ball into the end zone, there was some poor officiating and inconsistent hands from players who are typically very reliable. After Collins attempted to get the ball down the field to Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, where defenders were draped on Garcon’s back and impeded Wayne’s ability to finish his route, the offense stalled and returned to a conservative game plan that allowed the Browns defense to relentlessly attack the line of scrimmage.
Dallas Clark and Austin Collie each had a pair of drops that hurt offensive drives, which were difficult to get moving through the air as is. With Collins struggling to get acclimated to the Colts offense, the team cannot afford to have their veteran receiving options dropping passes.
On the other side of the ball, the defense had a solid performance. Peyton Hillis could not get anything going until very late in the game after the Colts special teams allowed a 48-yard Josh Cribbs punt return. The combination of an offensive three-and-out and the long punt return putting the Colts defense’s back against their own goal line finally proved to be too much and Hillis broke a 24-yard run for a touchdown.
Until that play, the defense allowed Hillis only 61 yards on 23 carries, a 2.7 yards per carry clip. The defense forced four fumbles, including one recovered to add to their turnover count in 2011. On the day, the defense forced five punts, one turnover, and allowed only one touchdown and one field goal on drives starting with normal field position. Off of long kick and punt returns, the defense gave up two touchdowns — it also allowed a field goal on a very short field after a Collins fumble.
For much of the day, the unit was stout, effective against the run, and gave the offense numerous opportunities to win the game. It is a positive sign to see that a unit that will need step up big in Manning’s absence was able to do so against Cleveland.
If it is not already clear, the special teams woes are still a glaring problem in Indianapolis. No team can afford to give up exceptional field position two or three times a game without expecting to give up points on the scoreboard — and expecting massive point generation from an offense still learning to take on a new form will probably result in disappointment for another couple of weeks.
The question remains the same after the tough home loss. Can the offense come together soon enough to win games Indianapolis should win against vulnerable opponents? It will need to win games against the Bengals, Chiefs, Bucs, and Titans to give Manning a fighter’s chance of keeping the Colts in playoff contention — assuming he returns this season.