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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Broncos

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts lost to the Denver Broncos 34-20 on Sunday to fall to 0-2 on the season. It wasn’t the best performance against the defending Super Bowl champions, but at the same time the Colts still were in a position to win the game on the road with under two minutes remaining. They didn’t pull it out, but it wasn’t all bad.

But what in particular stood out about the game? That’s what we’ll try to identify in this article each week after looking at the tape, hoping to catch some things that we might have missed initially or that are worth discussing more. So here are my thoughts after re-watching the game:

  • Von Miller is really good. Normally this article is about the Colts and what they did, but when watching the game it’s hard to ignore this aspect of it: the Colts were going against one of the very best and most disruptive defensive players in the entire NFL in Von Miller. He was the hero of the playoffs last year and the Super Bowl MVP, and on Sunday he was at his disruptive best. He recorded three sacks, three quarterback hits, and a forced fumble to go along with seven tackles and a pass defensed. His strip-sack of Andrew Luck with under two minutes remaining virtually ended the Colts’ hopes of winning, as he just blew right by Joe Reitz. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the Colts not helping Reitz more against Miller, and to some degree that’s fair - but the bigger point is simply that Miller is an elite, blue chip pass rusher and is going to make plays. Now, that strip-sack I was referring to could have (maybe) been avoided by giving Reitz more help, and especially once DeMarcus Ware went out I thought the Colts should have given more attention to stopping Miller, but the bottom line is that he’s a special player.
  • Zach Kerr really impressed. As for the Colts’ defense, there wasn’t any player that stood out to the degree that Miller did for Denver, but defensive lineman Zach Kerr was the biggest standout on that side of the ball for Indianapolis. He recorded five tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss on the day, proving to be a difference-maker up front. After he was particularly ineffective in week one, this was a very much-needed and welcome performance by Kerr. He should be a good rotation piece for the Colts this season along the defensive line, and with Henry Anderson out on Sunday once again he had a bigger role. He certainly took advantage of it.
  • Colts doing what they can to try to manufacture pass rush... but it’s not working. The Colts don’t have the talent at pass rusher they need. That much is obvious to most people watching the game, especially a game like Sunday when it’s contrasted with Denver’s pass rushers. Robert Mathis can still have some productive rushes, but so far this year he’s recorded just one quarterback hit and no sacks. He’s been close on a couple potential strip sacks and has gotten some other pressures, but close won’t cut it - if you criticized Trent Cole for only being close last year, you can’t now turn around and defend Mathis for the same thing this year. And the Colts realize as well that they don’t have great pass rushers, and they have tried to compensate that (for years now) by sending blitzes - for example, they sent safety Mike Adams on a couple of blitzes on Sunday and he registered two quarterback hits. But the Colts still struggle to get to the quarterback regardless, which leaves less people in coverage which can lead to some bigger plays through the air. According to Pro Football Focus, Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian had a 104.9 passer rating when blitzed Sunday. Trevor Siemian! The pass rush is an area of great concern because it’s not like they’re missing key guys due to injury (unless you count Trent Cole, but even he was active in week one). Maybe they’ll get some help when the starting cornerbacks return, but right now the Colts just aren’t getting home on their pass rush. They recorded four hits and a sack on Sunday, and even though they came close on some others and did generate some other pressure, it’s still a concern. The Colts are trying to mask that by blitzing, but that’s not really working too much either.
  • Andrew Luck’s legs a key weapon. We know that Andrew Luck didn’t have his best day on Sunday and that he missed a lot of throws, and we’ve talked about that plenty - and also mentioned how it’s not rare to see that from a quarterback going against this Broncos defense. But here’s a positive part of Luck’s game that deserves to be mentioned: his legs are a real weapon for Indianapolis. He added a huge 21-yard rush to convert on 3rd and 20, but he also moved around in the pocket and bought extra time. His receivers struggled to get open at times (more on that in a second), but Luck’s ability to extend plays in the pocket and move around was a key in even getting the offense to function as well as it did (and it still wasn’t great).
  • Offensive line somewhere in the middle of perception. After week one, the perception on the Colts’ offensive line was that it was very improved and a good unit. After week two, the perception on the Colts’ offensive line was that it struggled and still couldn’t help protect Andrew Luck. As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There were players who really stood out in a positive way on Sunday like rookie center Ryan Kelly (who really looks like the real deal), and there were others who had their struggles like right tackle Joe Reitz (though, again, he was going against Von Miller). The offensive line really wasn’t terrible on Sunday, especially when considering the opponent’s front seven. I think what we know of the offensive line so far is this: they are certainly improved and an average to above average unit. Some struggles against a strong Broncos defensive front doesn’t change that.
  • Wide receivers didn’t help Luck at all. While not trying to give Luck or the offensive line a pass, I do think it should be noted that some of the blame lies on the wide receivers. They were blanketed by a good Broncos secondary and struggled to get open, leaving Andrew Luck to move around and buy time in the pocket more and leaving the offensive line to protect longer. I really think many of the complaints about Rob Chudzinski’s playcalling not helping Andrew Luck get the ball out quicker on Sunday were actually complaints about the receivers’ struggles to get open. The receivers (T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Phillip Dorsett, and Quan Bray) combined to catches just seven passes for 87 yards on Sunday. Not all of that was their fault (as Luck did miss some throws), but the wideouts as a whole didn’t help their quarterback out much.
  • Last week a “hero,” this week a “goat.” Last week, we were praising inside linebacker Sio Moore for being the lone bright spot on a bad defense. This week, he was as bad as anyone. He ended up with five tackles but was in a position to make many more yet couldn’t bring the ballcarrier down. He missed a number of tackles on the day as he contributed to the defensive woes in a big way this week.
  • Jack Doyle stepping up. One of the more pleasant surprises for the Colts this year so far has been, in my opinion, the play of Jack Doyle. Doyle has been a very reliable number three tight end for the Colts in recent years, but I thought the team might struggle to replace Coby Fleener this year because of Fleener’s skillset as a receiver. Through two games, it seems those concerns were unwarranted. Doyle has stepped up admirably in the receiving game, and while he’s not the physical threat or have the playmaker potential that Coby Fleener had, Doyle has still been productive. He’s caught seven passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns (on nine targets) through two games, and Dwayne Allen has also produced, catching six passes for 78 yards and a touchdown (on ten targets). For comparison’s sake, Coby Fleener has caught just three passes for 35 yards on 12 targets with the Saints so far this year. I don’t bring up Fleener to re-ignite the debate about how terrible he is and I do think he’ll be better than he’s shown so far in New Orleans, but here’s my point: if Jack Doyle can continue doing what he’s been doing as the team’s number two tight end, the Colts won’t miss Fleener whatsoever - and we’ll honestly and reasonably be able to say that Doyle is actually a better tight end. There’s a lot of football left this year, but so far Doyle has impressed.
  • Frank Gore displayed great effort. We should also give running back Frank Gore some credit for his effort on Sunday. His numbers weren’t great - 13 carries for 44 yards (3.4 average), three catches for 19 yards and a touchdown - but he did have a couple of nice runs and a tremendous play in which he caught a pass and somehow wound up keeping his feet in bounds and making a leap for the end zone for a touchdown. It was as good of an effort play as you’ll see, and Gore deserves credit for that. He may not be the most productive back anymore, but that play on Sunday showed that it’s certainly not for a lack of effort and showed that he still can be a playmaker when given the chance.
  • Another running back note. One other thing to note about the running back position, as I pointed out yesterday, is that Josh Ferguson got a lot more playing time this week and actually led the team with five receptions (for 29 yards). And it makes sense, when you think about it: Ferguson is the team’s change-of-pace back and with the receivers struggling to get open on Sunday, it makes sense that Luck would look to Ferguson (and others) out of the backfield (running backs caught eight passes on Sunday for the Colts while wide receivers caught just seven). We’ll see how the trend continues to develop as the season goes on, but it’s clear right now that Ferguson has a role in the offense as a receiving back.
  • Special teams duo again produces. If there’s one thing we can count on every single week from the Colts, it’s that their special teams duo of Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee will produce. So even though it’s no surprise anymore, they still deserve credit. Vinatieri hit both of his field goal tries, from 48 and 52 yards out, to improve to 4-for-4 this season and extend his consecutive makes streak to 29 in a row (third-longest in Colts franchise history). Furthermore, Vinatieri is not only one of 12 kickers still perfect in the NFL, but he’s also one of only three kickers to have made two field goals of 50+ yards through the first two weeks of the season. As for Pat McAfee, he punted four times and averaged 56.5 yards per punt on Sunday, and a couple of his punts he got off while just barely avoiding a block. His longest punt traveled 72 yards (and was one on which he just barely avoided having it blocked) and he had a punt pinned inside the 20 in addition to another punt that went for a touchback. Both Vinatieri and McAfee are still kicking at a very high level.