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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Chargers

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NFL: San Diego Chargers at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts improved to 1-2 on the year by defeating the San Diego Chargers 26-22 on Sunday, doing so in dramatic fashion: Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 63-yard score with 1:17 left to win it.

It was a huge victory to get the Colts on the winning track for the first time this year, and there are several things to note from the game upon further review of the tape:

  • Andrew Luck played very well. Though the Colts’ quarterback may have been overshadowed by T.Y. Hilton, don’t mistake that for Luck playing bad. He was very good once again on Sunday and continued his strong start to the 2016 season. He completed 24 of 37 passes (64.9%) for 331 yards (9 yards per attempt) with a touchdown and a pick, and if that’s a bad day for him, then it should be further proof to haters that he’s actually quite good. The two plays that went wrong, however (and there weren’t really many others besides those two) were his interception and his fumble. On the pick, there’s really no excuse: it was just a bad decision and throw. But he’s thrown just two picks on 124 throws this year, placing his interception percentage at 1.6% - so don’t start with the stupid “turnover prone” narrative. He made a mistake. It happens. As for the fumble, there were a number of errors: the offensive line needs to protect better than that; the referee probably should have blown the play dead; and Luck needs to hang on to the football no matter what. But outside of those two plays, Luck had a very sharp performance. In fact, following the interception in the second quarter, Luck completed his next 13 pass attempts. He finished the game completing 19 of his final 25 passes following the pick (76%) for 254 yards (10.2 yards per attempt) and the game-winning touchdown. Again, if that’s a ho-hum day for the Colts’ quarterback, he’s better than we thought.
  • T.Y. Hilton had his way with a good cornerback. The Chargers have a pretty good secondary, and Jason Verrett is certainly one of the NFL’s top corners - and he had a ton of trouble trying to cover T.Y. Hilton. Hilton put on a clinic, getting open and creating separation while also making some really nice catches (like his beautiful sideline play). In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, when Hilton was covered by Verrett he caught five of six targets for 135 yards and a touchdown. He was, in a word, uncoverable.
  • Drops show up for Indy on Sunday. The Colts had some drops through the first two games too, but they had plenty on Sunday against the Chargers. There was Frank Gore, dropping a pass in the flat with plenty of room to run in front of him. There was Dwayne Allen, dropping a would-be touchdown. There was Josh Ferguson, dropping a third down pass in a crucial late-game situation. One drop by itself normally isn’t that big of a deal, but the Colts had several of them on Sunday.
  • Tight ends once again impress. With Donte Moncrief out, it was T.Y. Hilton and the tight ends stepping up in the passing game for Indianapolis. Jack Doyle caught six passes (on six targets) for 65 yards to finish as the team’s second-leading pass-catcher, while Dwayne Allen caught three passes (on five targets) for 35 yards to finish third on the team. The Colts utilized two tight end formations to compensate for the loss of Moncrief, and it worked well.
  • Erik Walden as disruptive as he’s ever been. Whether or not you agree that Sunday was Walden’s best game since joining the Colts, you have to acknowledge that it was the most disruptive he’s been. He recorded three tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, a quarterback hit, and a tackle for loss. His sacks both came at crucial times, as both were on third down in the Colts’ red zone. One was a strip-sack that ended the Chargers drive, while the other forced a field goal. So Walden’s play had a huge impact on the outcome of this game, for sure. And for the season? He has three sacks, which is two more than the rest of the Colts players combined.
  • Clayton Geathers steps up. In a bit of irony, Sunday’s game against the Chargers (who signed Dwight Lowery this offseason) showed why the Colts let Lowery walk in free agency: Clayton Geathers. We saw exactly what made Geathers intriguing to Indianapolis and what made them confident in him as their starter, as he recorded six tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble (which essentially clinched the game). We did see the Colts use all three safeties at the same time on occasion, but Clayton Geathers clearly stole the show when it came to the safety position (though Mike Adams once again continued to quietly play well).
  • Defensive line starting to live up to expectations. The Colts’ defensive line brought plenty of high expectations entering the 2016 season, but they got off to a slow start to the season due to injuries. On Sunday, however, the unit continued to show improvement and looked good. David Parry had a really nice game as the nose tackle, Kendall Langford continued to look better as he gets further removed from his knee injury, and Henry Anderson impressed in limited work in his debut - not to mention Zach Kerr continuing to have solid play as a depth guy. With Anderson still not yet 100%, there’s plenty of reason to think the unit will just continue to get better, which is good news.
  • Linebackers in coverage. We talked a lot about the Colts’ loss of Jerrell Freeman this past week, but perhaps the biggest area where the Colts notice his absence (and there are several) is in coverage. We saw Antonio Morrison struggle in that area on Sunday, and while it’s unfair to expect an inside linebacker to be able to perfectly stick with a tight end, the Colts still need someone to be able to limit the effectiveness of those matchups for opponents. Right now, I don’t really think any inside linebacker on the roster can really hold their own in coverage against tight ends.
  • Cornerback duo looks good. I was impressed with Vontae Davis’s season debut and how he seemed to get back to his usual self, and it led to a much improved performance by the secondary. I actually like the cornerback duo of Vontae Davis and Antonio Cromartie and I think that the Colts would be wise to use them as their two outside corners moving forward. Cromartie isn’t great but he can more than hold his own in man coverage still, and Patrick Robinson’s strength is in the slot. So if the Colts could use Davis and Cromartie on the outside and Robinson in the slot, I think we could see their secondary maximize talent and be a very formidable unit.
  • Run game shows signs of life. The first half of Sunday’s game was about as well as Frank Gore has run since he’s been in Indianapolis. He rushed for 70 yards on his first eleven carries (6.4 yards per rush) and added a touchdown. In the first half, he rushed for 73 yards - which is more than he’s had in 13 of his 19 games with the Colts period. Unfortunately for Gore, his day didn’t end with his first 100-yard performance in blue and white, as he rushed for just nine yards in the second half (on eight carries) to finish with 82 on the day. What changed from the first to the second half? There were a combination of things: first, the Chargers just played better run defense (though they got beat through the air instead); second, Joe Reitz left the game and the team moved Joe Haeg from right guard to right tackle, inserting Jonotthan Harrison in at guard; and third, the Colts didn’t commit to running the ball quite as much as they did before (they gave Gore 13 carries in the first half and eight in the second half). Overall, though, it was a really good performance by Gore and his first half was as good as we’ve seen him during his time with the Colts.
  • Thoughts on Chuck Pagano. There were two areas of discussion regarding Chuck Pagano’s coaching on Sunday, though neither were big issues. First of all, he challenged a terrible spot by officials and won it, moving the Chargers back a yard and forcing a second down. I still don’t love the challenge for this reason: challenging a second down spot where you win it by a yard isn’t the best use of the challenge normally, though it also wasn’t a bad challenge because it was one he knew he’d win (the spot was that bad). It worked out brilliantly, however, as the Colts managed to hold the Chargers on second and third down to force a field goal, so Pagano’s challenge likely helped save the Colts four points. So he deserves some credit there for it working out. Secondly, there were plenty of people upset with him for running out the clock at the end of the first half. There was plenty of time for the Colts to get into scoring position, and so it was a bit of a disappointment to see them not even try. I will say this, though: the Colts had fumbled on their last two plays, so I don’t blame Pagano for wanting to go into the half and regroup in that scenario whatsoever - the issue is that it’s a theme from Pagano’s teams of not being aggressive in those scenarios on a regular basis that led to the criticism on Sunday. If we’re being honest, though, Chuck Pagano and his coaching staff did a very good job on Sunday. They seemed prepared and had a solid plan on both sides of the football and they executed it pretty well, for the most part. So while we criticize them plenty (and often for good reason), let’s also note that on Sunday the offensive and defensive gameplans seemed to be pretty good.
  • Adam Vinatieri is still awesome. He made two more field goals on Sunday (from 38 and 33 yards out) and he also drilled a 55-yarder that was taken off the board because of a Chargers penalty that gave the Colts a first down. Clearly, though, Vinatieri’s still got it. He’s one of seven kickers in the NFL to have not missed a single kick yet this year (field goal or extra point), and his streak of consecutive makes is now at 31 - just four more makes away from tying himself for the second-longest streak in franchise history. Even more impressive, of his last 70 field goal attempts (dating back to the 2013 season), he has made 67 of them (95.7%)! He truly is better than ever right now.