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Knee-Jerk Reactions: Colts stun Redskins on the road 21-9

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There are so many new pieces involved with the 2018 Indianapolis Colts it is really hard to get a read on the team. The group is young and bereft of “big names” at most positions. The entire coaching staff is comprised of first timers at the key positions - including head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and special teams coach. You would be entirely forgiven if, based on what you know, you entered the season expecting the Colts to struggle.

To be fair, there is still a very good chance that they will be inconsistent throughout the year. After all, young players are more prone to make mistakes that lead to game changing plays.

Based upon this fact, I believe there are two reasonable knee jerk reactions. The first, you should realize that this team is likely more talented that you thought they were. This isn’t to suggest that they’re playoff bound after two games, simply that there is a real possibility that Chris Ballard’s patience and adherence to his plan may be working out better than you feared.

Second, you shouldn’t get too high or too low with this group. When tough losses come, and they will, you should feel a least a little bit of comfort in the idea that these young players are getting a chance to learn on the field and to develop into the core group that will make up the future of this team. When sweet wins happen, and they will, you should savor the feeling and feel encouraged by progress but also realize that this group still has work to do.

Perhaps the most important development of this game was getting the monkey off of the back of the Colts second half offense. The third quarter was painful to watch. It felt like we were watching another second half collapse and that the offense would again give the game away. If that happened we would have to listen to more garbage from in-game broadcasters who clearly don’t know a thing about the Indianapolis Colts — who will continue placing the blame on the defense for not “getting a stop” or “holding the lead.”

It appeared that Frank Reich came out in the second half somewhat vanilla. It is also clear that Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky made some half time adjustments. After the third quarter came to an end, Reich and Sirianni had finally dialed up answers. The ground game started to get things going and the offense started to open back up. The goal line passing play to Hilton was a thing of beauty. While it is true the defensive secondary had an awful miscommunication on assignments, it is also quite likely that the pre-snap motion played a role in the confusion.

It would be entirely unfair to break down the knee jerk reactions to this game without giving the defense tremendous credit. If Matt Eberflus can get his defense to play with this kind of swagger every week, this unit will vastly outperform expectations. We saw the defensive line generating pressure, well-timed blitzing, and we saw some of the benefits of playing with a defensive line that comes at you in waves. Washington’s offensive line was exhausted by the end of the game and two of its best players were injured or hobbled in the buzz saw of motion created by the front seven.

The two most impactful defensive players in the first two games this season are rookie linebacker Darius Leonard and veteran “mis-cast” defensive lineman Margus Hunt.

It is really unfortunate for Hunt that rookie Kemoko Turay was flagged for being off-sides on his third sack of the season — taking it out of the books. It is also unfortunate that he got tackled from behind by Washington’s right tackle, the second right tackle in a row that he has absolutely abused. Either way, it is encouraging to see him breaking out in a big way and making me choke on crow after denouncing the release of John Simon and pegging him as the square peg at 4-3 defensive end.

As for Darius Leonard, he is about to get major national attention. He finished the game with 18 tackles, a sack, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble that broke Washington’s back. If you throw in last week’s game, his first in the NFL, he has accumulated 27 tackles, a sack, a pass defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in just two games. This is the type of production that earns you consideration as defensive rookie of the year. It has been a very long time since any non-quarterback draft pick has looked so good to start his career.

This is a good win for Frank Reich and his young Colts. This is a game the team can build from and the type of performance he can point to as his new expectation moving forward. If the defense plays with the type of speed and intensity it showed today, and if Andrew Luck can settle down and stop committing unnecessary turnovers, things could start to look good pretty quick for the Colts.

Let’s wrap up with our 5 keys to the game.

Find a Way to Limit Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson

The Colts held Washington’s dangerous backfield to 21 yards on 15 carries — that is 1.4 yards per carry. While Chris Thompson caught 13 passes for 93 yards, his 7.1 yards per reception average is pedestrian. The check-downs happened all over the place and by the end of the game it was clear that Thompson was beat up and not the same explosive player he has been throughout much of his young career.

Numerous runs by both backs were stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, there were 10 tackles for a loss in the game and only 3 sacks. Jabaal Sheard and Margus Hunt were both monsters on the edges. In what may have been my favorite first half defensive play, Kenny Moore came up on third-and-short to blow up Thompson on a stretch run to the right. Moore’s excellent open-field tackle ended the Redskins’ drive — setting the tone for what would happen the rest of the day.

Create Pressure on Alex Smith

The defensive line played like a group of piranhas for much of the game. Jabaal Sheard, Jihad Ward, and Darius Leonard all collected sacks. Margus Hunt put pressure in Alex Smith’s face regularly and had his own sack cancelled by an off-sides penalty on rookie end Kemoko Turay. Sheard and Ward added three other quarterback hits on the day.

What is potentially the most impressive aspect of the defensive line this week is how quickly the unit was getting off of the line. There were a couple of off-sides penalties to deal with but, honestly, I don’t care about them much at all. If the defensive line can consistently get the kind of penetration and burst off of the snap as they were all day against the Redskins, they are going to be a real nuisance as the season continues.

Limit Jordan Reed

After Reed was invisible for much of the first half, Jay Gruden was able to make him a part of the game in the second. Reed was put in better situations to make an impact but was held to 55 yards on 6 receptions, which is an average of 9.2 yards per catch. This is a player who makes it a habit to blow games open. Instead, he fumbled away his team’s chances to make a fourth quarter comeback.

Establish a more Consistent Running Game

The first drive of the game was exactly what the Colts offense needs to do to dictate tempo and allow Andrew Luck to do his best work. A lot of runs using different backs kept the Redskins defense off-balance. Washington was left guessing and Frank Reich drew up a fantastic opening series.

When the Redskins made some adjustments sledding became a lot tougher on the ground. It took some time to generate something in the passing game to soften things back up for the backfield. Even when it did soften up, we saw Frank Reich dial up some impressive misdirection and nifty calls that allowed the ground game pick back up and end up with Nyheim Hines’ first career rushing touchdown.

The third quarter was particularly discouraging for this aspect of the Colts offense. Marlon Mack appeared to re-injure his hamstring and Jordan Wilkins was notably absent. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that we saw the ground game pop back up. What may have been the most rewarding part of the late runs is that the offensive line did a very nice job winning against a talented defensive line to seal the game.

Make Big Offensive Plays

In what might seem like the strangest big offensive play you’ll ever have mentioned in a game, Jordan Wilkins was able to somehow escape a sure tackle in the end zone to save a safety. He may be the only back on the Colts roster who is able to survive that tackle and breath life into the coming offensive drive.

We saw another big play make a huge difference for the Colts offense. This time, T.Y. Hilton beat his man for a huge gain deep in the middle. It forced the defender to hold him and get called for pass interference. This long positive passing play, by way of penalty, softened up the defense and allowed the ground game to go back to work.

The fade route to the corner of the end zone between Luck and Ebron was a big connection. Ebron had sure-hands to make the play over the top of the defender and Luck placed the ball well. Nyheim Hines keeping his balance running in the red zone to push in his score is the type of extra effort it takes to put six points on the board in the NFL.

Frank Reich’s play-call on the goal line, utilizing a man in motion to the left and then hitting T.Y. Hilton on a drag to the right was beautiful. This is a well designed play that intends to create traffic across the field and confusion on the back end. It worked like a charm.