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Recap NFL Week Ten: Colts 23, Bengals 17

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We have written a lot this season about how the Colts defense needed to 'turn a corner' and, at some point, carry this team through some tough patches. Gone are the days of excuse making, with the old 'the Colts only invest in their offense' being the fall back reasoning for the shortcomings of the defense. But with multi-million dollar contracts dished out to players like Antoine Bethea, Kelvin Hayden, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis, that excuse is no longer acceptable. While the offense licks its wounds, playing practice squad players at receiver, running back, and tight end, the pressure has now fallen squarely on the defense to scratch out wins in a manner somewhat foreign to us Colts fans.

Yesterday, the defense did its job and finally started living up to its billing.

Five turnovers. Three sacks. 72 yards rushing surrendered (3.5 a carry). 17 points allowed. A damn fine afternoon for a group of players who have, for the most part, under-performed this season.

Let's start with the obvious: The Colts offense looks like crap right now. The 'myth' that just about anyone can be plugged in and have Peyton Manning make them look like an All Pro should, hopefully, be shattered after watching the last two weeks. Since Dallas Clark went down, this offense has looked terrible. That is, of course, not an indictment of Jacob Tamme, who has played courageously in Clark's place. It's just that Tamme is not Clark. He lacks Clark's overall big play ability, which would always help receivers like Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon get open. Without Clark, and Joseph Addai, and Brody Eldridge, and Austin Collie, and Mike Hart this offense has looked slow, uninspired, and predictable.

Now, despite missing the key contributions of those players, it's inspiring to see young, energetic kids like Javarris James, Pat Angerer, Brandon James, and the before-mentioned Jacob Tamme step up and play their guts out in relief. Their play often isn't pretty, but their effort is 100% and their dedication to win oozes out of every pore. The silver-lining of injuries is, often times, you see what kind of stuff your team is made of. Most teams up and quit when key people go down.

The Colts are tougher than that, and deserve some applause for how well they are playing despite the injuries.

Jim Caldwell deserves some claps as well. We can question play-calling and the shuffling of personnel, but since that Week One egg this team laid in Houston, I have not seen these Colts loose focus. They are hanging tough, and Caldwell should get some credit for that.

Now, some general recap notes:

  • Why, in God's name, did the Colts let Tyjuan Hagler just walk away this past off-season? The guy is one of the better linebackers on this entire team. When Clint Session and Gary Brackett get healthy, I would have no problem seeing Hagler return as the starting SAM. Angerer is a good kid and looks like the MIKE of the future, but Hagler seems better suited for SAM. His 35-yard INT return was outstanding. Stepped right in front of the receiver. I was hoping he'd score on that play.
  • Philip Wheeler: Your career is on life support.
  • For the second year in a row, Mike Pollak was benched in favor of some no-name, undrafted guy who was clearly outplaying him. Pollak is yet another first day draft bust from Bill Polian. And yes, I say the word bust because Tony Ugoh (another o-linemen taken in the second round in 2007) was a bust as well. When linemen are drafted high in the early rounds, the expectation is that they develop into starters. Instead, both Ugoh and Pollak were benched by players drafted in later rounds, or went undrafted. Polian is terrible at drafting offensive linemen. Moving forward, the Colts might need to think about bringing in high priced free agent linemen. Wasting high draft picks on that area is killing us. That said, nice to see Jeff Linkenbach get on the field. It was long overdue.
  • Clyde Christensen's play calling has been terrible two weeks in a row. If the Colts score a TD following the Hagler INT, this game is over. Instead, the calls were run, run, pass, kick field. Too predictable. Clyde, you have Peyton friggin Manning as your QB. Mix it up a bit.
  • Antonio Johnson returned to the team and, for the first time since Week Three, the Colts held an opponent under 100 yards rushing. I don't think that is a coincidence. Johnson is better than Fili Moala and Daniel Muir, and having him back is a big boost to the run defense.
  • The 4th-and-one busted run by Brian Leonard was a result of Cornelius Brown and Mike Newton failing to contain the interior. Brown over-pursued, and Newton just wasn't in his gap assignment. Both are fifth string scrubs who have no business playing real games in this league. They are playing now because the strong safety and corner positions this season have been decimated. 
  • Gijon Robinson is a nice special teams player. However, he is an awful tight end.
  • Special teams coverages and blocking were terrible, but that's expected. Injuries hit special teams the hardest. Prior to Clark going down, the best STer the Colts had was Tamme. Now, with Tamme starting, the ST unit loses a quality player.
  • Pierre Garcon continues to play small.
  • Polian passing on Gene Aktins in the third round was a mistake. Aktins is a player. Saw some nice things from him yesterday. Meanwhile, injury prone corner Kevin Thomas (who the Colts reached for in Round Three) languishes on IR.
  • Again, Aaron Francisco is not a good safety, but he is making plays when they fall into his lap.
  • Adam Vinatieri is quietly having a very good season. Matt Stover would not have been able to make that 47-yarder before halftime. He's kicked 90% of his field goals, the highest percentage for him since 2006. He's also 5-6 from 40+ yards out. Money.

Overall, to be 6-3 and standing alone on top of the AFC South at this point is a significant accomplishment. We've seen the Texans implode in recent weeks, and yesterday the Titans got dominated on the road despite unveiling recently acquired receiver Randy Moss. We also saw the Steelers get waxed at home by the Patriots one week after the Patriots were utterly dominated by the Browns.

If this Colts team gets healthy, if Bob Sanders get return in December and not manage to get a hangnail on his first snap, if Joseph Addai can return to fix this running game, if Austin Collie can bounce back from his concussion... then I like our chances.

Problem is, that's a lot of 'ifs,' and all of them need to happen if their team is to win it all. While we wait for them to happen, it is nice to see the defense finally step up and make some things happen. They'll need to do it, and then some, next week when the annual WAR OF 18-12 plays out in Foxboro.