A lot of things went wrong for the Colts on Sunday night against the Broncos. They didn't generate a pass rush. The linebackers didn't play well and D'Qwell Jackson couldn't cover anybody. The Colts receivers struggled to create separation. Coby Fleener was bad. Andrew Luck didn't even play great at times. And then of course, they were going up against Peyton Manning and his record setting offense (and a good defense, too). Most glaringly, they had a plethora of missed opportunities.
With so many things to point to as to why the Colts lost, it'd be unfair and wrong to point to any one of them as the sole reason for the loss. But one that has to be right up there with the others I've mentioned is the coaching.
I don't intend to make this a weekly thing like it was last year at this site. At least, I hope I don't have to. But there were some baffling decisions made by the Colts coaching staff, both in the gameplan and the in-game calls. Let's take a look at some of the most glaring ones:
Did they Forget about Julius Thomas in their Game Planning?
Last year, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas caught 65 passes for 778 yards and 12 touchdowns despite playing on an offense with three good wide receivers. While he's not at the level of Jimmy Graham, he's in that same mold - a very dangerous receiving tight end who creates mismatches and who you simply must plan for. The Colts got beat by Graham in the third preseason game, and the Colts got beat by Thomas Sunday night. It really was amazing to me how, despite the Broncos not having Wes Welker, it looked like the Colts had absolutely no plan to stop Julius Thomas. Either they didn't have a plan or their plan sucked, one of the two. The Colts tried putting D'Qwell Jackson on him. Yeah, I could have told you that wasn't going to go well. The Colts tried putting LaRon Landry on Thomas. Yeah, that didn't work either. The problem that Thomas brings is that he's a mismatch. But with players like him, you have to be intentional about taking him out of the game. The Colts weren't worried about Demaryius Thomas, as they just put Vontae Davis on an island with him (which was smart and which worked). They put Greg Toler on Emmanuel Sanders. Yet they seemingly had no answer for Julius Thomas. What you need to do with a tight end like that is move the safety over to provide help over the top in addition to the coverage, yet there were even times when the Colts just put a safety on Thomas man-to-man alone and expected Landry to cover him. They placed D'Qwell Jackson on Thomas a lot, and that was a disaster (as you would have expected it to be). That's not good game-planning. It's one thing to have faith in your players, it's another to be unrealistic. The Colts needed to rotate a safety over to always be providing help against Julius Thomas while letting Davis and Toler work on the outside guys. Instead, the Colts defense was dominated by Thomas for three first half touchdowns. Were the Colts coaches so happy about not having to gameplan for Wes Welker that they forgot about Julius Thomas?
Did they Forget about what worked Last Year?
Last year, the Colts set the blueprint of how to beat the Denver Broncos. Their corners played physical at the line of scrimmage in an attempt to disrupt the timing, and it worked. Everyone saw that to beat the Broncos, playing physical to disrupt their receivers is the best bet. Yet when the Colts opened this year's game against Denver, they didn't do this nearly as much as they should have. They have a trio of corners in Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler that can go up against most receiving trios. They did it last year against the Broncos. This year, the Colts backed their coverage off. They didn't try to disrupt the receivers at the line or play super physical from the get-go. Some have suggested this was due to them not having a reliable option in Antoine Bethea at safety, and maybe that's it, but whatever it was the Colts opened the door to the Broncos to take advantage of the defense. Without any pass rush, Peyton Manning sat back in the pocket and picked apart the defense with underneath routes. Whether it was a screen, a short clearout, or any other combination of shorter routes, the Broncos ran their offense (for the most part) right underneath a Colts coverage that was surprising. The coaching staff made some adjustments in the second half, but their gameplan in the first half was very puzzling. Last year they showed how to beat the Broncos. On Sunday, they played right into the Broncos' hand with their decision to not play as physical up at the line. Again, the gameplanning was very questionable.
Playing it Conservative on 4th and 1
This was the Colts opening drive: a 22-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, a 6-yard run by Trent Richardson, a 7-yard pass to T.Y. Hilton, a loss of 1 on a run by Trent Richardson, a 10-yard pass to Trent Richardson, and an incomplete pass to Coby Fleener on 3rd-and-1. The ball was at the Denver 36. The Colts were on the road against the defending AFC champions and facing perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history leading a record-setting offense. What the Colts absolutely needed to do was come out and set the tone. Imagine what an opening scoring drive would to to set the tone of the game for the Colts. They were they to play. They had the early lead on the road in Denver. It would have been huge. And yet on 4th-and-1 from the Broncos 36, Chuck Pagano played it safe. Those who have watched the Colts play know that's nothing outside of the ordinary, but this one was rough. The score was 0-0 and it was early in the first quarter. But at the time we all knew it could end up being big, and looking back it was even bigger. The Colts opted for the 55-yard field goal try (which Adam Vinatieri barely missed, hitting off the upright) that ended up not happening due to a delay of game. Firstly, if the Colts couldn't get one yard on two plays, there are bigger problems. Why is Trent Richardson there if he can't plow up the middle for one crucial yard? Or why not at the very least throw it again, or run a quarterback sneak, or do something. Go for it. Everybody knew that Chuck Pagano, but most knew that he should have. If the Colts went for it and failed, Peyton Manning would have a short, 64-yard field. I get it. But given that he marched down an 80-yard field with ease after the Colts punted, would it have really made much of a difference? In that situation - on the road against the Broncos with a good drive going - Chuck Pagano needs to show a little guts. He needs to set the tone, that the Colts are there to win. Instead, he played not to lose - and lost.
Draws in Second and Long Situations
Alright Pep Hamilton, I'm looking at you on this one. The two draws on second and long situations were absolutely brutal. The first one came on a 2nd and 18 early in the second quarter with the Colts down 10-0. With Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, on the road already down ten points, Hamilton called a draw play to Ahmad Bradshaw. It gained two yards. The Colts had to punt after failing to convert on third down, and the Broncos promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. Wasted possession by the Colts offense because of Pep Hamilton. Then, early in the fourth quarter with the Colts trying to mount a comeback, the Colts faced a 2nd and 15 down 24-10. Hamilton called a draw play to Trent Richardson. It gained two yards. The Colts had to punt after failing to convert on third down, and the Broncos promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. Wasted possession by the Colts offense because of Pep Hamilton. Right there are two possessions in which the Colts essentially gave up. When you have a second and long situation, doesn't it make sense to run a passing play to at least try to make third down as manageable as possible? Apparently it doesn't make sense to Pep Hamilton. And it hurt the Colts Sunday night.
Another Slow Start
The Colts fell behind 24-0. And although it's a new season, Colts fans were left with a feeling of deja vu. It's the exact same thing we saw in a number of games last year. The Colts start slow, fall behind big, and then mount a comeback. It seems like that happens all the time with the Colts. We talked all offseason about how they need to change that and we noted how they had to set the tone early on. They didn't (see the point about the fourth and one). And the result was another slow start. "The slow start is something that I'm sure people are talking about and are going to ask just based on our history," Chuck Pagano said on Monday. "It's obviously something that we're trying to avoid. I look at that first drive and it was scripted and orchestrated perfectly until the third-and-one. If we execute and make that third-and-one on that drive, who knows what the rest of the story is starting that game out? Certainly I think it comes down to playing four quarters of good football on both sides of the ball and special teams and just executing better, doing our job better." So, Chuck, if you're using that opening drive as an example of setting the tone, then go for it. One of the biggest reasons behind the continual slow starts is the Colts playing conservatively and taking it easy. They look good in the second halves of games because they're playing the way they should be playing all game. The Colts slow starts has to point back to Chuck Pagano. And on Sunday night, we saw it once again.
The Colts coaching staff did some things right on Sunday: they used Vontae Davis perfectly, they made adjustments on Julius Thomas and with the coverage as a whole in the second half, they used Ahmad Bradshaw more as they saw the flow of the game. It wasn't all bad, but it was enough bad to warrant discussion. Nobody is calling for anybody to be fired. Nobody is calling for anybody to even be on the hot seat. It's been one freaking game, and one on the road against one of the best teams in the league in a game that the Colts only lost by seven. The team will be fine. But considering some of the questions that were raised about this coaching staff last year, this first game didn't do much to inspire confidence that things will be different this year. It's worth paying attention to this season, at least.