The Colts lost a close one at home to the Houston Texans yesterday and yet again, the offense was to blame. While the defense certainly can’t be let off the hook for allowing so many points on the board for the Texans, they were often facing adverse circumstances, and the Texans were the recipients of good field position for much of the game. However, it was ultimately the offense which doomed this game.
As many will point out, rightly, you don’t win or lose a game on one play, or usually even a series. But there are certainly impactful series late in games that can steal a win for the team, even if you didn’t play like you deserved one earlier in the game.
This was just such a game. The Colts looked abysmal on offense early in this game, giving up a touchdown due to a botched snap, letting the Texans defense dominate the line of scrimmage and get a lot of hits on Andrew Luck. The receivers were inconsistent, not getting separation, and dropping passes when they did. And penalties. 10 of them for 85-yards by game-end.
Still, with all that bad, the Colts found themselves in overtime, driving with a chance to win the football game. So let’s take a look at that drive and what caused it to fail.
The drive started on a positive note, with a pass to Ryan Grant for a quick first down.
Getting that first down right out of the gate is big, because this offensive thrives on a rhythm and flow and when you are keeping the defense in first downs, it forces them to face a lot more possibilities as far as what kind of plays you can call. Hindsight is 20/20, but if Grant spins outside after his catch instead of inside, he has a chance to break a big gain here. Otherwise, hard to be mad about a 12-yard gain to start your drive.
The next play is another good one, with Luck hitting Eric Ebron on the left sideline for a 9-yard gain.
Despite the quick strike bringing up 2nd and short, it also saw Ebron leave the game hurt. That would prove significant in the very next play. Foresight not factored in, the Colts had gotten another very good gain and had time to spare.
Here is where we see the drive begin to fall apart. Injuries had already taken their toll, with T.Y. Hilton missing with hamstring and chest injuries. Now the loss of Eric Ebron chipped away yet another offensive weapon. Reich dialed up a run for rookie Nyheim Hines, who was having a solid game receiving, though he had not been very effective running the ball.
Hines easily gets the first down, but Mo-Alie Cox is flagged for holding. This one was not a good look. It is tough to blame Cox on this play, as he gets matched up with Jadeveon Clowney one-on-one. There probably isn’t a tight end in the NFL who is winning that matchup, but the Colts put their recently-brought-up-from-the-practice-squad tight end up against him.
If Eric Ebron is in the game, maybe this doesn’t happen. I’m not saying that he blocks Clowney any better, but his presence in the game demands some respect for him, and he opens up plays that might have caused the Colts to run a different look. Hard to know, but just another way injuries are taking their toll on this team.
Regardless, just like that the Colts see their momentum stall. 2nd and short was suddenly 2nd and 11, without any real weapons to go to.
It was at this point that Quenton Nelson decided it was time to have his worst play in a Colts uniform. This is hyperbole on my part, because I haven’t watched every snap of Nelson’s in depth, but based on Brett Mock’s great breakdowns, I feel pretty confident it is at least in the top 2.
The Texans use Clowney’s insane athleticism to stunt inside and although Nelson passes off his man effectively, he is in no way prepared for Clowney. His feet look like they’re in concrete blocks and he cannot get them under him as Clowney seems to pretty effortlessly shove him aside and run free to Luck for a huge sack.
This is a killer. On a drive where the Colts absolutely have to have points to get a win, two consecutive plays have them moving the wrong direction. There are no plays designed to work well on 3rd and 21, so at this point the Colts are in a tough spot. Most teams would go to their playmaker on the field and try to get them free in space to hopefully pick up the yards. With T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, and Marlon Mack all hurt either before the game or during the course of it, the list of “playmakers” was pretty woefully thin.
The play they dialed up got the ball to Mo-Alie Cox on a short pass, and he was somehow able to make a man miss and take it for 17 yards, getting the Colts in a 4th and 4 at their own 43-yard line. If he hadn’t held and started this offensive slide in the first place, Cox nearly redeemed himself (Again, not all on him, Clowney is a beast).
That brings us to the team’s most controversial set of downs. The Colts head to the line in a clear attempt to draw the Texans offsides. It wasn’t inherently a bad call, because they had bitten on Luck’s hard count several times earlier in the game. However, it was a pretty obvious ruse, and one that didn’t pay off. The Texans didn’t bite, and the Colts burned a timeout.
The problem here is that the Colts planned to go for it. Punting the ball here was settling for a tie or a loss. There was almost no chance of getting a win once they kicked the ball away, especially given the time remaining. They were planning to go for it no matter what.
However, by calling a timeout instead of coming to the line to run a play, they wasted the element of surprise. The Texans were clearly not going to jump offsides. That meant that the Colts were not likely to get immediate penetration into the backfield because the defensive line were going to play tentatively at least until the ball was snapped. Fear of jumping offsides was working in their favor.
Once they called the timeout and then came back to the line with their offensive personnel, there was no question that they would be going for it. This was a major mistake on the part of Frank Reich. It is easy to forget at times, that he is still a rookie head coach. This is the second instance in two weeks where that has shown up in his game management. Last week it was a missed challenge, this week in his timeout call. Let me be clear on my own opinion, I loved that the Colts went for it. But the timeout was a big mistake.
So with the game on the line, the Colts drew up a short pass to Chester Rogers. He runs a short comeback and finds himself beyond the line to gain, but an incredible play by J.J. Watt gets a hand on the pass.
It is almost imperceptible unless watching the play in slow motion (which I did several times). The ball is clearly touched and changes its trajectory, falling short of Rogers and ending the Colts’ hopes for a win.
As I said before, I liked this call. The Colts didn’t want a tie. They aren’t a contender this season. They don’t have enough offensive weapons, and they have too much youth and inexperience at every level, including coaching, to expect to compete for a championship. Even if they make the playoffs this season, they aren’t likely to go far.
However, they have a very young roster that is being developed into the core of what this Colts team will be going forward. We have suffered since 2012 under the direction of a coach who was the master of the participation trophy. Frank Reich and Chris Ballard have come here to build a team for whom winning is the only acceptable outcome, where there are no lollipops and Capri Suns given out “just for playing.” They aren’t interested in playing for a tie. Teams that build a culture that accepts ties might win a lot of games, but they don’t win many rings.
I understand that a tie in the division matches up better than a loss. However, there are some times where the long term effect on a team’s toughness and mentality is more important than the strategy inside the season. In my opinion, this was one of those times. Unfortunately for the Colts, they came up short.