The Indianapolis Colts lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-27 on Sunday, falling to 1-3 on the season at the quarter mark of the season.
It hasn’t been pretty for the Colts so far this season. Consider: the Colts are in last place in the worst division in football; and three of the Colts’ four opponents are 1-3 on the year, with two of them getting their only victory to date over the Colts. It has been a very poor start to the season for the Colts, and Sunday’s game was the ugliest one yet.
Now granted, Andrew Luck managed to pull the Colts back in the fourth quarter like he always does, but it was a disappointing game overall and a really ugly one. So let’s take a moment to review the game, as I’ve included some thoughts that I want to point out after reviewing the tape.
- Offensive line a concern. The Colts’ offensive line struggled on Sunday, which was obvious to anyone who watched the game. Here are three numbers that help reflect that: the Colts gave up six sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and nine tackles for loss on Sunday. That’s terrible, and while not all of it can be attributed to the offensive line, a lot of the blame certainly does lie with the unit up front. Right guard Austin Blythe was the worst offender on Sunday among the starting five linemen, but I’m willing to forgive that: he’s a seventh round rookie center forced to start at guard in his fourth game. Of course he should be expected to struggle, and the Colts should have seen that coming. So while Blythe was the worst lineman on Sunday, I think left tackle Anthony Castonzo was far more disappointing. He’s the highest-paid lineman on the team (and the third-highest-paid player period), and he’s supposed to be the least of their worries up front. Instead, he’s added to the problems in a big way this year. He struggled quite a bit again on Sunday, and these are issues we’ve now seen going back to last season too. I do think those struggles are very concerning for the Colts, because they’re continuing to try to build their offensive line (and it’s clear it’s a work in progress). It seemed as if they have their left tackle, left guard, and center set, but if Castonzo keeps struggling maybe we’ll have to take that left tackle position out of the “set” group. With so many rookies up front, the team’s highest-paid lineman needs to play better than he has, and his struggles are starting to become more concerning each week we see them show up.
- Drops really hurt the offense. If you listened to general manager Ryan Grigson’s interview on 1070 the Fan Monday night (or read our recap here), you surely noticed the emphasis he placed on how much the dropped passes hurt the offense - and he’s right. The Colts dropped five passes on the day, and using my most conservative estimates I think those five plays would have gone for an additional 45 yards - which would have made Andrew Luck 32 of 42 (76.2%) for 279 yards, and who knows what he would have continued to do with those drives kept alive. Because that’s another thing: three of the five drops came on third down, and two of them would have been for enough yards to convert (another drop that came on second down also would have been enough for a first down). Those drops absolutely killed the offensive rhythm in the first half, there’s no doubt about it.
- Akeem Ayers flashes. With Robert Mathis continuing to really, really struggle, the Colts are going to need to start moving away from him. As hard as that is for some to admit or embrace, here’s the reality: Mathis continued to play a high number of snaps (he was in on 71% of them on Sunday) yet continued to do next to nothing. The problem has always been that the Colts don’t really have the talent to replace him, but they signed Akeem Ayers a few weeks ago and he flashed on Sunday. In just 19 snaps he managed to record three tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hit. Look, Ayers isn’t the answer to the Colts’ pass rush woes, but he did a nice job on Sunday and I think the Colts need to give him more snaps while decreasing Mathis’s playing time.
- Antonio Cromartie didn’t play well. So I think it’s pretty obvious and well-known that Antonio Cromartie struggled on Sunday, and the Colts gave him less playing time in the second half of the game because of it. The Jaguars continually picked on him, and when he wasn’t getting beat he was committing a penalty. But here’s the problem: I think most people would have expected Allen Robinson to fare well against a 32-year old Antonio Cromartie. Even though Cromartie played well in the first three weeks (and this game shouldn’t diminish that fact), Allen Robinson presented a mismatch. So in other words, fans shouldn’t be shocked when Cromartie struggles in that situation. I know the Colts like to keep Vontae Davis on one side of the field, but I wonder if it might have been better to have him shadow Robinson on Sunday. I usually don’t bring up the “shadow corner” issue with Davis much because I think there are positives and negatives to the Colts doing so, but I think it has to be considered in circumstances like Sunday’s game. Either way, Antonio Cromartie needs to play better if he hopes to keep earning playing time, but I wouldn’t overreact to just this one game quite yet. If it keeps continuing, though, then it’s an issue.
- Safety position is a bright spot for the defense. If there’s one good thing we can say about the Colts’ defense, it’s that their good players are still good. Entering the season, I think many would have agreed that their top four players were (in various order) Kendall Langford, Henry Anderson, Vontae Davis, and Mike Adams. So here’s some good news defensively: all four of them are still playing at a high level, so the Colts don’t really have any new worries they’ve discovered this year. In addition to that, however, I think the safety tandem of Mike Adams and Clayton Geathers has been working very well. Both guys have done a good job this year when healthy, and I think it should now be clear why the Colts were so confident in letting that be their safety duo this offseason. Geathers has looked really good and natural, while Adams has quietly continued to be very reliable and a good player. They have both individually and together as a duo been a bright spot defensively.
- What’s going on with Josh Ferguson? One thing to mention when it comes to the offense is the use of Josh Ferguson. He is clearly their number two back right now and has seen a lot of playing time - much more than anyone expected. But while I’m obviously in the minority here, I don’t think he’s been as terrible as many fans say. He has caught 17 balls for 117 yards on 21 targets (averaging 6.9 yards per catch) through four games, putting him on a 16-game pace for a 68-catch, 468 yard season - who wouldn’t take that out of an undrafted rookie as the change-of-pace back? He also has the second-most yards after catch of any player on the team and has a better yards per catch average than any of the other running backs. There have really been two main concerns with him. The first is pass protection, but he’s gotten better in that area, and on Sunday actually did a good job in that regard. And the second is drops, as he’s had two in the last two games (both on third down). That is a legitimate concern, and if it doesn’t change moving forward then Ferguson’s playing time likely will need to. BUT, at the same time, he has just as many drops in the last two games as Dwayne Allen but with more catches and yards than Allen in that same span. So I’m not really getting the Josh Ferguson criticism right now. He is what he is - a change-of-pace receiving back - and I think he’s done a good job for a undrafted rookie in his first four NFL games. But again, I’m in the minority on that view.
- About that critical two-play sequence... There was a lot of reaction to that critical, game-deciding two play sequence late in the fourth quarter. You know the sequence I’m talking about: on 3rd-and-10 with 1:48 and the Colts down three, Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a nine-yard gain. Then on 4th-and-1 with 1:42 left, Luck threw incomplete across the middle of the field to Dwayne Allen. After failing there, the game was essentially sealed in the Jaguars’ favor, and a lot has been made about those two plays since the conclusion of the game. There are two questions that have come up as a result: should T.Y. Hilton have stretched for the first down? And should Andrew Luck have run it on 4th-and-1? I don’t think questioning either move is accurate. As for Hilton, it appears as if he initially thought he could outrun the defenders around the edge for the first down, but when he couldn’t he tried to stretch the ball out for the first down - but his foot had just come out of bounds as he did so. It wasn’t so much a lack of understanding of where the sticks were or a lack of effort as much as it was about him not quite being able to reach it across in time. It happens, but let’s not criticize Hilton for not trying to stick the ball out - because he did (see picture 1a below). Then with Luck, I think the criticism about that play is unfair (which I wrote more about here): all offseason he heard repeatedly from the coaches, media, and fans about the need to protect himself, and then on 4th-and-1 he had an open Dwayne Allen. Of course he’s going to take that throw! The problem was simply that the Jaguars defender made a great play. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that. The decision was fine and the throw was fine, it was just a great play by Jacksonville. Maybe Luck could have gotten the first down with his legs, but the throw he made wasn’t a bad decision (see picture 1b below).
- Does Andrew Luck hang on to the ball too long? One last thing that I wanted to mention here actually doesn’t really come from me, though I’m including it because I absolutely agree with it upon watching the game (and re-watching it). It’s Rick Venturi’s answer to whether Andrew Luck holds on to the ball too long. I don’t always agree with Venturi, but he’s a good listen every Monday on 1070 the Fan with JMV and he was asked whether Luck holds on to the ball too long, and here was his answer:
“And I said this last week, is that if you want him to get rid of the ball, if you want him to get rid of the ball you have to throw quick-breaking, quick-rhythm passing. If you throw seven steps, deep overs, deep scissors, deep digs, those are maximum protect and they’re maximum protected because they take a long time to develop. I mean, we’re having free blitzers and people are telling me he’s supposed to get rid of the ball when he’s throwing a downfield scissors! It’s crazy! It’s absolutely crazy. You get rid of the ball if you’re on a sprint-out and something’s not there, or if you’re on a three step drop, bang, get rid of it, or if you’re on a five step drop, bang, get rid of it. But it’s not going to happen when you’re pushing the ball downfield. It really is not. That is the biggest misconception in town right now.”