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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Titans

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Tennessee Titans on Sunday 34-26 to improve to 3-4 on the season and jump to second place in the AFC South, but it wasn’t all good and perfect.

After re-watching the film, here are some notes that I wanted to point out:

  • Andrew Luck is playing really, really well. This has been talked about quite a bit, so I’ll keep it short: Andrew Luck is playing at a very high level, and Sunday’s game was arguably his best performance of the season. He was in complete control of the offense and, when factoring in drops, was accurate on well over 80% of his passes. He averaged close to a first down every time he threw (9.1 yards per attempt), didn’t turn the football over, and threw three touchdowns. There’s been a ton to like about the Colts’ franchise quarterback so far this year, and on Sunday he was as good as ever.
  • T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle continue to step up. In the absence of other playmakers on offense, T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle have continued to step up. In three of the five games without Donte Moncrief, Hilton has gone for 130+ yards, and he’s caught a touchdown in four of those five games. He has been playing well and doing his job, rising to the occasion with other guys out. The same can be said of Jack Doyle, who had a career day on Sunday with nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. He’s become a better player than I thought he would be this year, and he’s actually been outplaying Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener through the first seven weeks of the season. And one of the things that shouldn’t be overlooked is that he has become a go-to target for Andrew Luck this year (like Fleener was), and the quarterback seems to really like and trust Doyle.
  • Offensive line getting better. One of the things that helped Luck on Sunday was that he had better protection than he’s been getting, and I think the reasoning was two-fold: firstly, the offensive line is getting better, and secondly, the Colts utilized a quicker passing offense on some plays. Both things should be encouraging to Colts fans. But the part about the offensive line in particular should be noted, because the unit is really starting to get things together it seems. They’re far from perfect (and they were far from perfect on Sunday), but they have some really intriguing pieces. Ryan Kelly has looked like the real deal all year, giving the team a good and reliable center. Joe Haeg has done a good job too and is a guy worth sticking with and developing. Denzelle Good has some of the physical abilities and talent and has shown that at times this year. And then the ever-reliable Joe Reitz is also in the mix. So the Colts have options, and the best part about it is that they are guys who can continue to develop. So while it’s not an immediate fix and while it’s still not perfect and while there will be plenty more miscues along the way, I think there’s been improvement and reason for optimism with the line.
  • Frank Gore is doing his job. Frank Gore has had a productive year and was at it again on Sunday, rushing for 61 yards and adding 22 yards and a touchdown receiving. He’s currently on pace to rush for 1,131 yards and five touchdowns this year (on 4.2 yards per carry) and to catch 46 passes for 215 yards and five scores this year (on 4.7 yards per catch) - which puts the 33-year old on pace for a 1,346 yard, ten touchdown campaign. The Colts will absolutely take that from their running back, and Gore has been doing a very good job. But one of his most useful skills for this offense has been overlooked: his pass protection. Gore does a very good job of getting physical and keeping his quarterback clean, and that’s an important part of his role in this offense.
  • T.Y. McGill needs more reps. The star of this year’s preseason, T.Y. McGill, again starred on Sunday, recording a sack, three quarterback hits, and a forced fumble in the game. And to be honest, that’s always been his game: he’s the team’s best pass rushing defensive lineman, which is why it’s strange that he hasn’t been playing more for a team desperate for pass rush. He’s actually been inactive for a couple of games, but he’s still tied for third on the team in quarterback hits this year (with four) and is one of only five Colts with at least one sack (he has as many as Robert Mathis). T.Y. McGill isn’t the team’s best defensive lineman and I’m not saying he should be starting, but he needs a role as a pass rusher for this defense.
  • What to do about the pass rush. We know that the Colts’ pass rush is a big concern, but they’re going to have to try to get the most out of it. Right now, I think that means giving T.Y. McGill and Akeem Ayers more snaps. The team’s best pass rusher is Erik Walden, who has five sacks, eight quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles this year, but Ayers has received much fewer reps and has still produced, as he’s second on the team with two sacks and also has three quarterback hits. I’ve been arguing for Ayers playing more snaps for weeks, and on Sunday it happened. He’s not a great pass rusher, but he’s better than Robert Mathis at this point and may be the best option the team has to put opposite of Erik Walden. Is it a fix? Absolutely not. But playing Ayers and McGill more (to add to Walden) could give the Colts a better shot at rushing the passer.
  • Linebackers stink. On the other hand, I don’t even know what they should do at inside linebacker at this point, because it’s a hot mess. The Colts’ confidence in their talent this offseason was clearly misplaced and inaccurate, as their linebackers have been terrible this year. D’Qwell Jackson is what he is, and expecting him to be anything more than a guy who racks up tackles at this point is unfair - and he’s their best player at the position, which isn’t a good thing. Since moving on from Jerrell Freeman Nate Irving Sio Moore, the Colts have turned to Josh McNary as their inside linebacker, and he has been bad (which he was again on Sunday). But Antonio Morrison hasn’t been good either, leading to Edwin Jackson getting some reps on Sunday. Jackson did a fine job on the 13 snaps he played, so perhaps the Colts should increase his workload. But at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a good fix for the inside linebacker position on the team right now, meaning that the linebacker position as the whole will likely continue to be the team’s biggest weakness all year (and perhaps beyond).
  • Cornerbacks continue to be a bright spot. After talking about the weakest spot of the defense, let’s mention the best: the secondary. The cornerbacks this year, for the most part, have done a good job. From Vontae Davis to Patrick Robinson to Darius Butler to Rashaan Melvin to Antonio Cromartie, there has been a whole lot of good with a few (highly publicized) mishaps and a couple of rough games. Robinson was the weakest of the unit so far this year, but on Sunday he played like the guy the Colts thought they were getting in free agency. A cornerback position of Davis, Robinson, Butler, and Melvin, considering what we’ve seen from them recently, looks very promising if they can continue to build on good performances.
  • About Chester Rogers as punt returner... I must add something about Chester Rogers as a punt returner, as he made a couple of really questionable and stupid decisions on Sunday - including fielding the ball near the five yard line on a punt. A lot of people have been in an uproar about it, and I think it reveals that perhaps the loss of Quan Bray was a bigger one than some (including myself) thought. I didn’t think it was a big loss at the time, but at the very least he gave the team a reliable return man. Now with Bray out they don’t have that, but I’m ok with Rogers remaining the punt returner. And here’s why: the errors we saw from him on Sunday are easily correctable with coaching. And while it might be a lot to ask from this coaching staff, I believe that Rogers can easily move on from those mistakes and be a solid return option. He’s got the physical talent and the playmaking ability, so as long as he doesn’t make stupid plays like fielding the ball instead of letting it bounce into the end zone, I expect him to be fine. That’s an issue of coaching, and so I think it’s fine to give him more opportunities to work things out and learn.
  • Thoughts on some coaching decisions. Speaking of coaching, I’ll share a few brief thoughts about some of the coaching decisions on Sunday that have been talked about quite a bit. But first, let’s give Chuck Pagano or Tom McMahon or Pat McAfee or whoever called that surprise onside kick some credit: that was a very good, aggressive play call. But toward the end of the first half, there were also two decisions from Pagano and the coaching staff that a lot of fans didn’t like. One of them I think was a really bad decision, while the other I think could go either way. On one occasion, Pagano decided to punt on 4th and 1 from midfield instead of go for it near the end of the first half. To be honest, I don’t hate that call. I wouldn’t have hated it if he had gone for it either, but in that situation the thinking was likely to try to pin the Titans deep, and then with limited time left prevent them from scoring before the half. That’s not terrible thinking, though the Colts defense is so bad it wound up backfiring. So while I would have been fine with them going for it there, I’m also not going to bash them for not doing so. But the decision to just take a knee with 33 seconds left and two timeouts? That’s a really bad one. We’ve seen before how a team with a good quarterback can get into field goal range in that amount of time (like the Lions against the Colts in week one), and with Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, and the rest of the offense playing well the Colts absolutely should have at least tried. Instead, they got scared and just wanted to get to halftime as quickly as possible. Sure, maybe something bad would have happened there, but there’s a chance of something bad happening on every single play of every single game. At the end, it comes down to trusting your players to perform.
  • A note about special teams. I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee are still the best in the business. Vinatieri hit both of his field goal attempts to extend his streak to 43 in a row, setting a new NFL record. McAfee averaged 51 yards per punt and had two of his four punts pinned inside the 20 (and it should have been more). And, of course, he successfully orchestrated a surprise onside kick. The specialists absolutely deserve a lot of credit.