The Colts traveled to Cleveland Sunday and went to battle with a very talented Browns team. The result was not what they hoped, despite good performances by the defense and special teams overall.
The offense continued to struggle, and with Anthony Castonzo out, Philip Rivers had his worst game as a Colt. He made a handful of truly mind boggling plays under duress, and the line could not figure out how to deal with Myles Garrett. Here are the winners and losers from week 5.
If you didn’t already know how well Bobby Okereke had been playing this season, you should now. With the absence of Darius Leonard from the linebacker corps today, Okereke absolutely shone for the defense. He led the team in tackles with 10, and had a pick as well. He was tight in coverage all game, and quick to his run fits, which is exactly what they needed against a very good running team. Oh, and he did all that with a cast on to protect his busted thumb.
The rookie looked good again today, netting 4 tackles and making a great play in the open field to force a 4th down when Baker Mayfield was scrambling. He also showed his closing speed on a trick play where Odell Beckham threw the ball to tight end Austin Hooper and the rest of the defense was fooled. The Colts have clearly hit on exactly the kind of guy they had hoped that Malik Hooker could be in Blackmon, and if this is his level of play as a rookie, the back end of the Colts defense could be a thing of beauty for years to come.
Houston continues to be a great component of the Colts defense, and this game was no exception. Late in the game he really got going, getting more pressure on Mayfield and laying a big hit on him. He had a couple really smart, heads up plays as well that helped minimize the impact of Kareem Hunt on the game. He’s having an all-around solid year, though he did not record a sack in this one.
Offensively there wasn’t much to get excited about, but T.Y. Hilton looking like himself for another week was one thing worth noting. Hilton had 6 catches on 10 targets for 69 yards, and looked like he was in a better rhythm with Rivers than he has all season. They still have some timing to work out, because they can’t seem to get the deep ball figured out, and Rivers missed Hilton on what could have been a touchdown pass that simply wasn’t where it needed to be. He wasn’t transformative, but Hilton was inarguably the top offensive weapon on the field in a group the was in need of a playmaker to step up.
If you’ve been watching him at all, you could see this coming. Rodgers has such great patience and vision on his kick returns that you can just see him scanning for a crease. He got one Sunday, and took a kick 101 yards for a score that followed a devastating pick six and kept the Colts solidly in the game. You may or may not buy into the idea of “momentum,” but there is little doubt that the Colts got a confidence boost after seeing their special teams put points on the board for them. Special teams has been a legitimate strength for the Colts this season, and this rookie got his chance to shine today.
There are several things to learn about Philip Rivers as a result of this game. The first of those things is that he is so slow that he really struggles to move in the pocket when he’s getting consistent pressure. That was a big problem with the Browns. With Le’Raven Clark in for an injured Anthony Castonzo, the Colts offensive line really struggled to keep Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon out of the backfield and in Rivers’ face. The problem for Rivers was compounded by his total inability to move and the ensuing bad decisions that caused. He threw 2 picks, but had several others dropped or simply missed. While there were good throws to be had, they were overshadowed by bad decisions.
The icing on the cake was when he made a terrible throw away under pressure in his own end zone, resulting in a safety. That decision making is the second real issue for Rivers, and it has reared its head several times this season. You just can’t have those kinds of errors on a team that is so talented on defense and special teams. The Colts aren’t likely to face that kind of pass rush again, and hopefully won’t do so without Castonzo.
It is certainly fair to point out how much of Rivers’ supporting cast has been hurt and lost over the early weeks, but ultimately he was paid to be better, and the Colts need him to make better decisions. If he’s protected well, I think he can. If not? Well… it might be a long season.
I know that part of how the Colts special teams plays is that they are happy to field punts at the 8-10 yard line. Hines frequently fair catches it just inside the 10, and it is usually okay. In a game where the offensive line has been under constant duress and Rivers has played poorly, it is absolutely a killer to fair catch a punt on the 4-yard-line. I don’t know if Hines just lost track of where he was, but putting them in such bad field position was entirely avoidable, and there is no reason he should have fielded that punt. It directly resulted in the safety that followed.
It sucks to be the guy who has to come in for a rookie standout and immediately get burned, but that was Tavon Wilson in this game. When Julian Blackmon briefly went out with a groin injury, Wilson came in, and promptly gave up a touchdown. That said, it is tough to put too much blame on him, the guy is the 3rd string free safety for a reason.
The only guy on the field who looks as slow as Rivers, Doyle has taken a clear step back in terms of his movement on the field. He has never been a guy who could do much after the catch, but he was a virtual non-factor as a receiver, and has started seeing a big uptick in penalties this season. One of those penalties understandably came today when matched up against Myles Garrett one-on-one, but it has been clear this season that Mo Alie-Cox is a better start both as a blocker and certainly as a passing threat than Doyle has been. In a game where the Colts needed the tight ends to be a threat, they simply weren’t.
Colts Offensive Line
The Browns have a really solid pass rush, that much was very clear. Regardless, this Colts offensive line is supposed to be one of the best in the league, and they have consistently not played that way. Yes, they were up against great competition, and yes they were missing Anthony Castonzo. Those aren’t small factors. But Ryan Kelly has been just okay, and the right side of the line has been unremarkable. Even the vaunted Quenton Nelson has been relegated to “normal” guard status in terms of the kinds of play we expect from him and the pop he is getting. For this team to be competitive with the limitations they have, the Colts have to have top performance from their offensive line. They need to figure out how to get out of whatever funk they’ve been in, and they need Castonzo to get back and healthy soon.