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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Steelers

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Chuck Pagano and the Colts love to “look at the tape,” and that’s what we do too as we take a look back each week at the game. The Colts lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-7 on Thanksgiving night, but due to the holiday this is still coming like normal on Tuesday.

Below are some of my notes upon re-watching the film from the Colts’ loss to the Steelers:

  • Scott Tolzien’s toughness and dedication can’t be questioned. Scott Tolzien was far from great on Thursday night as he got the start in place of the injured Andrew Luck, but he did his job. That is to say, he wasn’t necessarily the reason they lost. And the thing that stuck out the most about his game was his toughness. Twice near the goal line, Tolzien took off running and took quite the shot trying to score. Numerous times throughout the game Tolzien stood in to take a hit in the pocket. There was a play where Tolzien stood in the pocket in the face of pressure and took a big hit, but managed to throw it across the field to Dwayne Allen for a first down on a huge conversion. That wasn’t the only time a play like that happened on Thursday night either, so while Scott Tolzien wasn’t great, he did his job and nobody can question his dedication to the game or his toughness, because both were on display on Thursday.
  • Goal-to-go situations changed the game. There’s no doubt about it: the goal-to-go situations changed the game for the Colts on Thursday night. The Colts did score on one of them in the first half (set up by Pat McAfee’s fake punt), but they were then stopped on fourth down from the one yard line in consecutive drives. They mounted a ten-play drive that spanned 62 yards and three first downs but were unable to punch the ball in, and then the next drive as a 19 play, 89 yard drive with five first downs that also ended in no points. Those two drives were crucial to the outcome of the game (though one must also acknowledge that the Steelers offense may have done more had they not been backed up at the one yard line twice). To be clear, though, I’m not blaming this on the coaching staff one bit. I love the decision to go for it by Chuck Pagano, as with the Colts already trailing and knowing field goals wouldn’t win the game why wouldn’t you go for it there? That’s losing football to settle for the field goals, so give Pagano credit for the aggressiveness there. And the play calls? They were fine. I’ve heard people suggesting the Colts should have run the ball, but here’s the reality: in those eight goal-to-go plays on those two drives they ran the ball on six of the plays for a total of seven yards (though two of those runs were on quarterback scrambles, so you could count it as four pass plays and four run plays called). The only two throws came on fourth down, the latter of which would have been a touchdown had Phillip Dorsett simply hung on to the football. So the Colts didn’t execute near the goal line in huge situations, but I’m not placing any of that blame on the coaching staff. They made the right call to go for it, the play calls were fine, and the Colts just got stuffed.
  • Wide receivers must be better. One takeaway from the game is that the wide receivers simply must be better than they were on Thursday night. The good news for the Colts is that T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief have both shown that they can be better and so there’s not much reason to worry about them, but add it all together and it was a rough game. Hilton dropped a pass that would have likely been a long touchdown after he got behind the defense, Moncrief dropped a pass along the sideline inside the ten yard line, and Phillip Dorsett dropped the would-be touchdown at the goal line on the aforementioned fourth down. So that’s two dropped touchdown passes and another significant drop from the team’s top three wide receivers, which isn’t a winning formula - especially with a backup quarterback in the game. Drops have been a problem for the Colts all year, but they showed up in an even bigger way on Thursday. It wasn’t all bad in the passing game, though, as Hilton made a heck of a catch for a 32-yard gain at the goal line when getting hit, Moncrief had a solid game overall and caught another touchdown, and tight end Dwayne Allen stepped up and caught five passes for 49 yards.
  • Pass rush more non-existent than ever. All year long the Colts’ pass rush has been a major issue (and actually for several years now), but Thursday night was about as bad as it’s been. Or actually, let me re-phrase that: it was just as bad as it’s been every time the Colts play the Steelers. On Thursday night the Colts managed just one quarterback hit and no sacks in Ben Roethlisberger’s 20 pass attempts. Think that’s bad (it is)? Last year, the Colts recorded just one quarterback hit and no sacks in 39 pass attempts, and the year before they recorded no quarterback hits and no sacks in 49 pass attempts. So over the last three years, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 107 passes against the Colts and they’ve managed just two quarterback hits and no sacks on him combined!!! That’s absolutely terrible, and once again on Thursday night the pass rush essentially disappeared against the Steelers. The only guy who got to the quarterback was safety T.J. Green on a blitz, so it was a bad day all around for the Colts’ pass rush.
  • Vontae Davis had a rough day. One player in particular who had a rough game defensively for the Colts was their best player, Vontae Davis. Davis entered the game with an ankle injury and left the game early with a groin injury, and in-between he was torched by Antonio Brown. Davis seemed to shadow Brown, and Brown still beat him for two touchdowns. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Ben Roethlisberger had a perfect passer rating on Thursday when targeting Vontae Davis. So when not even the team’s best defensive player does well, it’s probably not going to be a good game for them overall.
  • Colts let the Steelers’ best players beat them. Along those lines, however, is one of the biggest problems I have with the team from Thursday night’s game: they let the Steelers’ best players beat them. Take Antonio Brown for example, who torched the Colts for three touchdowns. Brown has dominated the Colts (and pretty much every other team) in the past, yet the Colts decided to leave a gimpy Vontae Davis alone on him. The Colts needed to give Davis more help than they did, and they saw the results of not doing so. To be fair to the Colts, Antonio Brown is going to make plays against any team no matter how well they do guarding him, which is what makes him arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. But the Colts should have tried to do more to slow him down, yet they didn’t. And I think we can officially add Brown to the list of Colts-killers now along with the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster, as Brown has scored eight touchdowns on the Colts in his last three games against them, has three total touchdowns in each of the past two contests, and had at least two receiving touchdowns in all three games. That’s domination, so I don’t think the Colts were going to be able to stop him no matter what - but they could have put a bit more effort into trying to do so. It’s a similar story with Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown on 5.2 yards per carry. Again, the Colts let one of the Steelers’ best players beat them as they couldn’t contain the edge, especially early on. So no, I never thought the Colts were going to stop Brown or Bell, but I thought they might at least look like they’re trying to stop the Steelers’ best players. Is that too much to ask?
  • Special teams were the bright spot. The best of the three units on Sunday was the special teams unit, as aside from a rare Adam Vinatieri miss they were tremendous. Jordan Todman added a 43-yard kick return to start a Colts drive in Steelers territory, Chester Rogers flashed some ability on a nice punt return (though it was called back due to penalty), Pat McAfee did a nice job punting, the Colts didn’t let Antonio Brown return a punt for a touchdown on them this time (like they did last year), and McAfee hit Erik Swoope for a 35-yard gain on a fake punt to set up the team’s only score of the day. It was a great day for the Colts’ special teams units.