The Indianapolis Colts lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-7 on Thursday night. What did we learn from the game? Here are three takeaways (and we're using the term "learn" loosely):
Supporting cast lets Scott Tolzien down
Scott Tolzien was not great on Thursday night, nor was he anything special. He made plenty of mistakes, but he also made some nice throws, displayed his toughness, stood in and took some big hits, and put forth a lot of effort. He completed 22 of 36 passes (61.1%) for 205 yards (5.7 yards per attempt), a touchdown, and two picks - not bad for a backup on a short week. This loss wasn’t on Scott Tolzien. Ultimately, here’s the reality: everybody knows that Tolzien isn’t great, so what he did on Thanksgiving night is everything that could have realistically been expected of him, meaning that the Colts needed their other players to step up - and that didn’t happen. There were plenty of drops (including big ones from each of the team’s top three wideouts in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett), there were offensive line struggles, and there were defensive failures. There’s absolutely nothing about that which is unique to this one game, as we’ve seen the team struggle with drops, line struggles, and defensive failures all year, but with Tolzien under center the team needed everyone else to step up.
Instead, the Colts gave up 28 points and couldn’t stop Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown all game (though not many can). The Colts gave up three sacks and eleven quarterback hits. The Colts had two dropped touchdowns, among other drops. The Colts’ run game was sluggish all night, with Jordan Todman (who played on just the final drive) finishing as the leading rusher and Frank Gore averaging just 1.9 yards per carry. Even Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal, adding to the woes (though other than that the special teams units deserve a lot of credit). Ultimately, that’s just who the Colts are: they’re not great. Credit them for their fight and the fact that they actually hung in there, but they just didn’t give Scott Tolzien enough help. He’s not Andrew Luck, but unfortunately the supporting cast played exactly like they have often this year with Luck in the game. The Colts needed them to rise to the occasion, and they absolutely didn’t do that.
Injuries are a big storyline
One of the biggest takeaways from tonight’s game was the injury situation. If we’re being completely honest, most Colts fans expected the team to lose, and a number of them thought they’d lose even if Luck had played. So the loss went about as expected, as without Luck the Colts weren’t able to keep up with the Steelers offense in scoring. But the injury situation is a storyline that will linger moving forward, and it’s one that bears watching. The Colts entered the game without Luck (concussion) and safety Clayton Geathers (concussion), meaning they were already down two key guys. Then during the game they lost center Ryan Kelly (shoulder), cornerback Vontae Davis (groin), wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (back), and outside linebacker Robert Mathis (elbow) all left the game and didn’t return. That’s six very prominent and notable players currently dealing with injuries, which definitely isn’t a great situation.
The good news for the Colts is that they have a long time in between games, essentially like a mini-bye week since they don’t play again until Monday night in week 13. That gives the injured players ten days in between games to recover, so hopefully most, if not all, of these guys will be back for the game against the Jets coming up. They absolutely need them too, as they’re already in a tough spot when it comes to the playoff race.
Colts playoff hopes are starting to fade
Thursday’s game was never a true “must-win” for the Colts like the AFC South matchups are, but at this point every game is a huge one for Indianapolis, and with another loss their playoff hopes continue to get a bit dimmer. If the Houston Texans win on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers (4-6), then the Colts will be two games behind Houston and will also be without the tiebreaker advantage. That would mean that over the final five games the Colts would have to essentially make up three games on Houston. If Houston loses then the Colts would need to essentially make up two games over the final five weeks. In order to do that they will not only need to take care of their own business but they’ll also need the Texans to stumble, and the Colts face a tougher remaining schedule (remaining opponents have a .490 win percentage this year and three of five opponents have a winning record) than the Texans (remaining opponents have a .411 win percentage and zero of six opponents have a winning record). The Colts aren’t in a great situation right now when it comes to the playoff race, and while Thursday night’s game isn’t a crushing one by any means it’s just another in a line of defeats for the Colts that have put them in a significant hole in the postseason chase.