In case you missed it, Andrew Luck pulled an Andrew Luck and led the Colts back to a stunning comeback win in the fourth quarter of today's game. Behind 21 fourth quarter points, the Colts defeated the division rival Tennessee Titans on the road 35-33 for their first win of the season.
It's so much better to work through issues after a win than a loss. There's no doubt about it: winning, no matter how it happens, is always significant and always worth celebrating in the NFL - especially when your team was starting 0-3 in the face and managed to pull out a win to go to 1-2. But with all of that said, there are still a lot of issues for the Colts, and for much of today's game, those issues were just as prevalent as they were in the first two games.
The offensive line continued their poor play today with another bad performance. The Colts made about as big of an in-season change as you'll see a team make to their offensive line by switching up three of the five positions, and there were some positives - but the struggles continued. Luck was sacked several times and hit more often. We can't pin all of it on the line (Luck was responsible for some of the hits), but the line was not good. Anthony Castonzo had about as bad of a day as we've ever seen him have. And the biggest struggle for the offensive line today? Penalties. The Colts' line (not the whole team, just the line) was flagged seven times for 55 yards (four holding penalties and three false starts), wiping out four plays that gained 57 total yards. Hugh Thornton racked up three holding penalties and a crucial false start, all by himself. The penalties continue to pile up, and the Colts have now been flagged for 11 holding penalties on the season and four false starts. You can't have that from your offensive line, and it's often a sign of a poor group overall and a poorly coached group overall. So far, I think that's accurate for the Colts.
Another area of struggle for the Colts has been Andre Johnson. He has done next to nothing for the offense this year, and that continued today. He recorded no catches on one target - though a 37 yard catch and run was wiped out by a holding penalty. What I find more revealing than those (lack of) numbers, however: he wasn't a factor at all in the fourth quarter when the Colts were making their comeback. He did nothing, and Luck hardly even looked his way. T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Donte Moncrief, Coby Fleener, Frank Gore, and even Jack Doyle were all getting involved - but not Andre Johnson. I think that might say it all: Johnson has not had a good year (just seven catches for 51 yards on 18 targets this year) and his role in the offense might be decreasing quickly.
The pass rush is also a major, major concern. The Colts did manage to notch two sacks on Marcus Mariota (David Parry and Robert Mathis!), but overall they had trouble getting to him. Of course, it's crucial to note that Mariota did a fantastic job of evading pressure today and moving around, which hinders the Colts' pass rush. But they weren't getting any pass rush whatsoever with consistency, something that has been a problem all season so far. Trent Cole wasn't playing today, but he didn't have much of an impact at all in the first two games either. And Jonathan Newsome didn't do much today while filling in for Cole, either. Last year, the pass rush was as big of a concern as there was for the Colts, and it seems clear that those issues are still there. Only this year, because of the injuries to the cornerback position, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can't be as aggressive in sending extra pressure. Last year, he did a masterful job at it, largely because he could trust Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler 1-on-1 in coverage. This year? He's working with guys like Jalil Brown, Josh Thomas (who actually looked good today despite being signed earlier this week) and Eric Patterson. That limits what Manusky can do, and so at some point the players the Colts have added to be pass rushers simply need to step up. We haven't seen any of that so far. The Colts' three sacks on the season have come via the two rookie defensive linemen (Henry Anderson and David Parry) and the old veteran (Robert Mathis). That's it. And when the majority of your pass rush is generated by rookie defensive linemen and a 34-year old pass rusher on a very limited snap count, you probably have problems - something that is true of the Colts.
Another area of concern? The inside linebackers. They, quite frankly, haven't been that good this year. And really, the linebackers as a whole haven't been good this year. We already addressed the lack of pass rush, but the linebackers have also been struggling mightily in coverage. You can argue that the Colts coaches should be putting players in better situations or something like that (and I agree), but at the same time NFL players do need to be able to play better than the Colts' linebackers have done in coverage so far this year.
And then, of course, the injuries at cornerback hurt, and we saw the Titans and Marcus Mariota carve the Colts' defense up in the passing game today. Mariota completed 27 of 44 passes for 367 yards and two scores, but he was picked off twice (both by Dwight Lowery). The Colts' corners have been struggling in coverage too, but they just need to get healthy. Then, they should be fine.
Lastly, Andrew Luck. For much of this season, he hasn't been good. And that continued today as well, as he was just 7-of-16 for 116 yards and two interceptions in the first three quarters of today's game. He was very much a big part of the Colts' struggles today just like in the first two games. But then all of the sudden, Luck caught fire in the fourth quarter, where he completed 11-of-14 passes for 144 yards and two scores. And I think that we continued to see this fact very clearly: when Luck plays poorly, the Colts look terrible as a team. And when Luck plays well, he covers over a lot of the other issues. And that's exactly what we saw today, seeing it from both sides. That's the reason there's still hope for the Colts despite these issues: the Colts have had plenty of issues before, but Luck has covered over a lot of them. And if he can do that again (with play like in today's fourth quarter), the Colts might still be able to have a good season.