The 2017 NFL season has been a huge disappointment for Indianapolis Colts fans. Their team’s franchise quarterback was unable to recover from off-season shoulder surgery. Their team entered the season without top cornerback Vontae Davis and 2015 first round center Ryan Kelly on the field. Scott Tolzien literally threw away any chance Indianapolis had in their season opener in Los Angeles. Oh yeah, and their team has blown first half leads in four games — and have been outscored in the fourth quarter 99 to 28 through 9 weeks in the season.
For years, the Colts have been a team that has come out to slow starts under head coach Chuck Pagano. It’s an odd feeling to watch Indianapolis come out of the gates early in most games and put their opponents back on their heals. Something happens at half time, though, that nullifies all of their hard work.
Take the Texans game as a prime example. In the first half, the Colts played press man and bump-n-run coverage against DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. This threw off their timing and forced Tom Savage to hold onto the ball longer for his receivers to get open. As a result, the Colts were able to generate more pressure on the quarterback and forced errant throws and bad decisions that nearly led to three Colts interceptions.
In the second half, the Colts played off-man coverage. Once again, the unit — especially late — abandoned the version of stifling defense that had Hopkins frustrated and completely shut down anything the Texans were trying to do. The inside linebackers started dropping into short zones, the defensive line was asked to try to “generate the pass rush” on their own instead of maintaining lane control. In short, it all fell apart.
It wasn’t until these second half adjustments were made that Houston was able to get anything going. Don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said for burning up as much clock as you can to take away an opponent’s chance to mount a comeback. However, you can’t start doing it in the third quarter with a relatively modest lead. If you’re up three or four scores? Maybe. Up less than two touchdowns? Absolutely not.
Don’t bail out the offense either. Sure, Brissett connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass with T.Y. Hilton that made the difference in the game. He even put together enough of a drive in the fourth quarter to get Vinatieri in range to knock home a field goal. But, something was different.
In the first half the Colts offense stayed balanced. The offense wasn’t hugely effective necessarily, but Marlon Mack and Frank Gore took turns in the backfield and presented the Texans with different looks. In the first half there were 18 passes thrown to 7 different receivers.
In the second half? Marlon Mack ran the ball once for 3 yards. He was not targeted with a pass at any point in the game. Four receivers were targeted in the second half on 12 passes. Frank Gore carried the ball 10 times and caught two passes out of the backfield. There were 24 second half offensive plays total. This means that Gore was utilized on half of the second half plays.
To say that the Colts offense played a simplified version of itself in the second half would be an understatement. They presented the Texans with few different looks. They ran the ball a lot, and not terribly efficiently, with the mind to running clock and “hopefully” getting a first down. They got a big play from T.Y. Hilton and relied on Jack Doyle to make 5 catches on his 6 second half targets. That’s right, Doyle and Gore were responsible for 75 percent of the Colts offensive targets in the second half.
The point of this is to show that this coaching staff goes way too conservative, way too soon. It has cost the team games against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, the Tennessee Titans in Week 6, and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8. It nearly cost the team another divisional game on the road against the Texans.
When the Indianapolis Colts’ players are utilized correctly, this team is better than their record indicates. Even without Andrew Luck and with a slew of other injuries that have devastated the roster, this team should be 6-3. It’s not because they’re a really good team. It’s partially because they have the easiest schedule in the NFL and because every team they’ve faced has either been without one of their best players or playing with broken versions of their best players.
Still, there is reason to feel confidence about the team’s future. The roster isn’t nearly as bad as it seems. This coaching staff either needs to figure it out, which is not likely, or Ballard needs to bring in a group in 2018 to right these wrongs. If he does, and if he has another off-season like he put together over this summer, Indianapolis will be a competitive group next season.