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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Lions

NFL: Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts lost their regular season opener to the Detroit Lions 39-35 on Sunday, but it was a thrilling game filled with plenty of good offense and plenty of bad defense.

After each game, I’ll look at the tape and try to identify some thoughts that I either didn’t see the first time around or didn’t get to point out. That’s what I’ll do in this weekly “Upon Further Review” series, as I’ll highlight some aspects of the game that I noticed upon watching film in a notebook-style format. So here we go with some notes from the Colts’ week one loss:

  • Andrew Luck was phenomenal. I’ve talked about this before so I’ll make it really brief here, but Andrew Luck played about as well as I’ve seen him on Sunday. A part of that was because of the protection he got from his offensive line, and Rob Chudzinski deserves some credit too (he got much better as a play-caller as the game went on), but that shouldn’t take anything away from Luck. He made the right reads, looked off defenders, made all the throws, displayed good pocket presence, and really limited the mistakes. It was an impressive outing - as impressive as any he’s had while with the Colts.
  • Offensive line was very good. As I mentioned, the offensive line certainly helped Luck on Sunday too. Though there were a few hiccups early (two sacks derailed two drives in the first half), the unit played very well overall - arguably as good as the offensive line has played since Luck has been in Indy, too. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who struggled in the preseason, showed no signs of those struggles on Sunday and did a good job. Left guard Jack Mewhort, who made a remarkably fast recovery to be able to start, played well. Center Ryan Kelly, the team’s first round draft pick, definitely lived up to his draft status in his NFL debut. Right guard Denzelle Good, making the move inside this year, played very well also. And right tackle Joe Reitz, who also has dealt with an injury in recent weeks, also did a solid job. When Reitz is the weakpoint of your offensive line yet still does a solid job overall, that has to be encouraging for the Colts.
  • Running game did it’s job. I’ve seen some suggest that the Colts still didn’t have much of a running game on Sunday, but I’d argue that the backs in fact did their job well. The Colts as a team rushed for 82 yards on 19 carries (averaging 4.3 yards per rush), and the backs accounted for 61 of those yards while averaging 3.8 yards per rush. There’s nothing amazing about that, and you could say that Frank Gore “only” rushed for 59 yards (though averaging 4.2 yards per carry). I would argue, however, that the entire point of the running game for the Colts - and I’ve said this for a long time now - is simply to be good enough to open things up more for the passing game. That’s the point, and I think the run game accomplished that on Sunday.
  • Three-wide is the best option. The Colts are best-suited for a three-wide offensive attack, and that’s what we saw them employ on Sunday. Donte Moncrief, T.Y. Hilton, and Phillip Dorsett were the three leaders among skill position players in snap counts for Indianapolis on Sunday, and all three stepped up. Hilton was the most-targeted receiver (with 12) and caught six passes for 79 yards, including a crazy catch late in the game down near the goal line. Moncrief also caught six passes for 64 yards and a score, which was the capper on the touchdown drive late in the first half that gave the Colts’ offense a spark. And Dorsett was perhaps the most impressive of all, catching four passes for a team-leading 94 yards, including the two longest plays from scrimmage for the Colts on Sunday with receptions of 51 and 33 yards. Dorsett showed off his speed, but I was even more impressed by the plays he made on the ball and his ability to go make the catch. I though the wideouts did a very good job for the Colts on Sunday.
  • Tight ends step up. The tight ends also stepped up in a big way. Dwayne Allen caught four passes for 53 yards and a touchdown, equalling his touchdown total from last year and accounting for nearly half of his receiving yardage total from a year ago. Allen did a nice job, but he was actually overshadowed by the surprise emergence of Jack Doyle. Doyle, who had caught just three touchdown passes in 47 career games prior to Sunday, caught two scores - including the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute left. On the day, he caught three passes for 35 yards and two touchdowns. Here’s why Doyle’s game was so big: after Allen, the Colts are very thin at tight end, so to see someone step up and prove capable was a very welcome sign. Chud certainly knows how to use tight ends, and we’re seeing that pay off in Indy already.
  • Change-of-pace back? It was interesting to see Josh Ferguson get as many snaps as Robert Turbin on Sunday (12), and he seems to be their change-of-pace back. He entered the game for the two-minute situation in the first half, and his role became clear during the game as he caught two passes for 26 yards: he’s a receiving back. That’s been his strength all along, and we’re beginning to see that it’s the reason why the Colts kept him on the 53-man roster despite a lackluster preseason. They did give him a carry (in my opinion it was just to keep the defense honest), but he’s a guy who might see a few snaps a game and play that receiving, change-of-pace type role. We’ll have to see what they do with him moving forward.
  • Most concerning part of the defense? We now shift gears, as so far this article has been pretty positive - which it should be when talking about the offense. But now that we’re going to talk about the defense, there’s a lot of negatives. And I want to first off say what I thought was the most concerning part of the defense on Sunday, and it wasn’t the tackling (though that was bad). It was, instead, the healthy starters not doing much, the guys that the team was counting on to step up. I actually thought that Antonio Cromartie did a good job in coverage, and even the guys signed this past week - Darryl Morris and Rashaan Melvin - did ok. But while the defense is beat up, the guys that are “normal” starters didn’t step up. That’s a guy like Robert Mathis, who was invisible for most of the game. That’s a guy like D’Qwell Jackson, who recorded just two tackles - both of them assists. That’s a guy like David Parry, not really doing much at nose tackle. Those are guys that the Colts will be counting on this year regardless of the injury status, and they need them to step up in an even bigger way with injured guys out. But on Sunday, some of the guys the Colts signed within the past few weeks actually had better games than some of the guys the Colts will be counting on all year. It was just one game, but that was, to me, the most concerning part of the defense on Sunday.
  • Sio Moore the lone bright spot at linebacker. If there was one part of the defense in particular that was bad on Sunday, however, it was the linebackers. The Lions utilized a very (very) short passing game, yet they gained a ton of yards after the catch. Everyone deserves some blame for that, but the linebackers in particular are normally the ones supposed to be making plays against the run and in short passing game - and they failed. The lone bright spot was Sio Moore, and it was because of his athleticism. Jim Irsay shared last week that defensive coordinator Ted Monachino says that Moore is the most athletic linebacker he’s been around, and on Sunday Moore used that athleticism to make plays all over the field, finishing with a team-high 13 tackles. Moore was definitely a bright spot, but the linebackers overall disappointed.
  • Defensive line disappoints. I won’t spend as much time here because this position was hampered by injuries, but the defensive line also disappointed after a lot of hype this offseason. They got pushed around way too much up front and really didn’t make many great plays (aside for the Hassan Ridgeway stop in the backfield). I won’t make too big of a deal out of this because Kendall Langford was playing at less than 100% and Henry Anderson wasn’t back, so there’s plenty of reason to think the group will get significantly better (unlike the linebackers), but Sunday wasn’t a good showing.
  • Last drive was the worst drive. The worst moment of the day for the defense was the final drive. We can argue about whether Chuck Pagano should have let more time run off the clock or whether the Colts should have kicked it shorter on the kickoff, but the fact of the matter is that the defense simply has to step up. They allowed the Lions to get into field goal range in just a half of a minute, and they did so by allowing shorter passes, not finishing tackles, and things like that. Put in a big situation, the defense couldn’t step up.
  • Adam Vinatieri is still automatic. Lest we forget about the specialists, it’s important to note that Adam Vinatieri is still good. He hit field goals from 50 and 40 yards out, extending his streak of consecutive makes to 27.
  • Not the best game for Chuck Pagano. Sunday’s performance isn’t one that will go on Chuck Pagano’s resume, that’s for sure. His defense gave up 39 points and 448 yards while not playing very fundamentally sound (see all the missed tackles). He had a strange challenge in the first half that he lost, as he was challenging whether the Lions receiver had possession of the ball on the catch. His team started slow, like has become a trend for the Colts under Pagano. He decided to kick the ball deep on the final kickoff rather than have Pat McAfee pooch it short to run some clock. And he took a timeout that has been heavily discussed in the past 36 hours, too. Pagano wasn’t the reason the Colts lost this game (that blame goes to the defense), but he certainly didn’t help things.
  • And about that timeout... I really don’t think the timeout that Chuck Pagano took late in the game to stop the clock with 1:15 left is what cost the Colts the game. Their inability to stop anyone on defense was what did that; but at the same time, I don’t get the timeout. I totally understand it from the standpoint of wanting to get the right play, and I wholeheartedly agree with Pagano (and general manager Ryan Grigson) saying that it was more important to get the score in that situation. I agree, but at the same time there’s a part of it that’s strange to me. First of all, the Colts let only four seconds tick off the clock from the time where the officials blew the previous play dead until the Colts took the timeout. To me, that sounds a lot like the Colts trying to stop the clock instead of them trying to get in the right play. That belief is furthered by this interesting note: Chuck Pagano said that the timeout was about getting the right personnel in the game, but the team used the exact same personnel and the exact same formation on the play after the timeout as they did the play before it. Again, I don’t really think the timeout is that big of an issue, but I don’t buy Pagano’s reasoning of why he took it - other than that getting the score at that point was more important than anything else.
  • Game went as expected. Ultimately, there wasn’t much surprising about this game. We expected a high-scoring shootout between the two offenses, and we expected the Colts defense to be bad. Maybe they were a little worse than expected, but then again the offense for the last two and a half quarters was probably a little better than expected. So overall, this game went exactly how many thought it would (except for maybe the slow start and comeback, though both were still predictable). Unfortunately for the Colts, they just didn’t have the ball last in the shootout.