In the past couple of weeks, it finally felt like offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was finally finding his rhythm. It wasn’t perfect, but it seemed he was contributing to the offense’s success with good play calling.
On Sunday against the Texans, however, Chudzinski’s game fell flat - just like pretty much the rest of the team.
Chud’s offense was stagnant for much of the game. The receivers couldn’t get open with consistency, something we’ve seen often this year and something that Chud didn’t seem to have answers for. The offensive line struggled to protect Andrew Luck, and the offense didn’t seem to adapt much. And Frank Gore got just ten carries on the day (though that was likely to him missing some snaps as he got checked out on the sidelines). None of this is taking away from the bad execution by the players on Sunday, but Chud didn’t help things much either. Perhaps the two biggest plays of the game illustrate both truths well - that neither the players nor the coaching were good enough.
3rd-and-goal, 2:36 left in third quarter
The first one came late in the third quarter, with the Colts facing third and goal from the Texans’ three yard line, trailing by six. The Colts seemed to be seizing the momentum after a touchdown on the previous drive and now with a goal-to-go situation, but that’s when Jadeveon Clowney grabbed it right back for the Texans and made a play that not only shaped the course of the game but of the AFC South race this season. Clowney blew by Dwayne Allen for a strip-sack of Luck, and the Texans ultimately recovered.
Therein lies a big problem, however: why was Allen one-on-one with Clowney in the first place?
Sure, you could choose to criticize Allen for not making the block, but there’s something to be said about a coach putting his players in a position to succeed - and Rob Chudzinski most definitely wasn’t doing that here. Jadeveon Clowney is the biggest threat the Texans have up front defensively, and everyone knew that entering the game. So to ask Dwayne Allen, a tight end, to block him one-on-one in a crucial situation near the goal line isn’t winning football. That’s on the coaching. Allen didn’t make the play, but the coaches shouldn’t have put him in a position to have to do so. And it sure seemed to be the called protection, not just a blown assignment by someone.
“That was the protection,” Chuck Pagano tried to explain after the game. “Again, I will have to take a look at it. I saw it like everybody else saw it. The kid made a play.”
Clowney did indeed make a play, and perhaps he would have done so against any other player too - but that wasn’t a good design by Chud.
4th-and-1, 1:24 left in the game
Then later in the game, the Colts faced a fourth and one from the Houston 42 with 1:24 left in a 22-17 game. This one yard was what wound up separating the Colts from possibly driving to take first place in the division and falling almost out of the playoff race.
And it was in that situation that the Colts ran a questionable play that ultimately wound up failing. So let’s walk through that one too.
The Colts lined up for the play with some mismatches to exploit, but the Texans called a timeout. Before the timeout, Houston had a defense in geared to stop the pass, and they had their corners playing quite a ways off.
After the timeout, the Texans came out with the interior of their defense bulked up, most notably with Vince Wilfork entering the game.
Whatever play call the Colts had before the timeout, they changed it afterwards. “Obviously we had a different play call,” Pagano said after the game. “They did a nice job, they called a timeout, got it in right at the right time. They took a picture of what we were doing, they made substitutions, we changed our call and they executed and obviously we didn’t.”
The Colts proceeded to run a play in the shotgun that wound up resembling a screen pass, but one that had options. “There were multiple options on the play,” quarterback Andrew Luck said. “Part of it was a screen and not a great decision by me.”
On the play, it appears as if either Jack Doyle might have been Luck’s first read (since Luck said he did have options, meaning that it probably wasn’t just a decoy for the screen), but neither were open right away. Also very significant is the fact that Wilfork was able to beat left guard Jon Harrison quickly off the ball, making him a free rusher at Andrew Luck. Luck was already running out of time.
That’s where this play wound up resembling a screen pass. Another rusher beat Joe Reitz (meaning the Colts had multiple linemen beat on the play), but a couple of other linemen (Ryan Kelly and then Joe Haeg) broke off to begin blocking for the screen pass to Robert Turbin.
Here’s where that pressure by Wilfork becomes incredibly significant. Because he was able to get off of Harrison’s block almost immediately, Wilfork was able to hit Luck as he threw, disrupting the pass just enough to cause it to fall incomplete. With a better pass, it’s possible Turbin could have gotten the first down, because as long as Kelly made the block he would have had room.
To recap: the Colts changed up their play after the timeout on 4th and 1 and went to the shotgun, opting not to run the football with Robert Turbin as the short-yardage back (or even the read option with Andrew Luck), instead opting to go with a play that essentially wound up being a screen pass. That’s a low-percentage play in that situation, especially for a Colts team that almost never executes a screen play well. Then to top it off, pressure quickly got to Andrew Luck and disrupted the pass, which if better might have been enough to convert the play anyway. That’s a play call that just didn’t make any sense.
So, as a result, the Colts lost to the Texans and essentially sealed their fate of missing the postseason this year. The two plays that we looked at wound up being arguably the two most significant for Indy’s offense, and neither of them was a great play call and neither of them was executed well, either. When you think about it, that’s a perfect representation of not only the Colts’ game on Sunday but their season as a whole.