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Colts snap counts vs. Steelers: Week 16

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this game, the Colts knew they were going to be short-handed at key positions. None of those positions was more obvious than both tackle spots on the offensive line. To say that losing Castonzo and Smith in the same week couldn’t have come at a worse time would be an understatement.

If there is any saving grace as a Colts fan it is that I didn’t really give the team much of a chance coming into it. Castonzo and Smith are both excellent run blockers and pass defenders. Smith has shut down dominant pass rushers all season and given Philip Rivers clean pockets to work. I assumed the Colts had little choice but to move Quenton Nelson to left tackle or leave the offense vulnerable on the edges. Of course, that would leave the interior vulnerable to Cameron Heyward.

The decision was lose-lose and as a result, I thought the outcome of the game was decidedly leaning toward the Steelers.

When Indy came out and dominated on both sides of the ball, I was pleasantly surprised. I was blown away by how bad the Steelers looked and how dominant the Colts looked in all phases. I was convinced by half time, this team was imposing its will and putting a final stamp on its identity. It was playing its way into the playoffs in convincing fashion.

It felt good to be a Colts fan.

When the second half just sort of... happened... those feelings were replaced by helplessness.

The defense couldn’t stop Pittsburgh’s passing game — an excruciating reality when there is basically no threat of the Steelers running the ball and a 17-point deficit guaranteed that the only thing the Colts really had to worry about was giving up big plays.

Boy, did they give up big plays?

Three straight Steelers scoring drives erased the Colts’ lead and left them scrambling to catch up. Philip Rivers and Frank Reich would have to find a way to put a scoring drive together and bail the team out after a second-half disaster.

No dice.

The offense was inept. Horrifying. No passing game efficiency. No run game at all in the second half. It was as though the first drive of the third quarter happened — a drive yielding three points by way of a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal — and everything changed.

Frank Reich will tell you that the Steelers were selling out to stop the run and so they had to adjust plays at the line. He’ll tell you that when those things happen they choose to audible or adjust and win by throwing the ball.

Don’t buy it.

It may well be what they were thinking but it’s time to wake up. Winning football teams don’t have to be “unpredictable” to win. Peyton Manning and Tom Moore had the most predictable offense in the NFL but they did what they did better than anyone and certainly better than what the defense could do to defend it. If you have a well-coached football team, fundamentally sound players, and know what you’re doing better than your opponent, you will win football games.

It’s no secret in sports and it doesn’t take decades as a player or coach to know that the best course of action is to find what works and keep doing what works until the opponent does something to stop it. It’s no secret that the Colts were able to win in the trenches on the ground in the first half and punch the Steelers in the mouth over and over again.

Apparently, after Jonathan Taylor was stuffed on a run, Reich has concluded the running game was over. Not that Indianapolis failed to execute. Not that they would need to approach the ground game differently.

No. He concluded that the Steelers were stacking the box and therefore the new “advantage” for the Colts was through the air.

So if we’re keeping track - bad and poorly coached offense that failed to do anything after the first drive of the second half, joined with a bad and poorly coached defense that couldn’t stop an opponent from using its only clear option to mount a comeback.

One of the best defenses in the NFL? Not yesterday.

Sprinkle in an abject failure by the officiating crew that was inconsistent, failed to call obvious penalties that would have benefited the Colts in the second half but bent over backward to get the Steelers back into it, and generally embarrassed itself and the rest of the profession in a huge game on national television, and the outcome isn’t as surprising as it might have felt on Sunday afternoon.


OFFENSE

Philips Rivers had a bad game. He threw for 270 yards but he couldn’t buy a first down when Indianapolis needed it most. Some of his passes were short of his intended receivers, leading to drops. Some of his passes were off-target in general. When he doesn’t have strong protection around him, he gets happy feet and looks panicked. Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks are supposed to shine when they face adversity and Rivers fizzled.

P Rivers QB 69 100%
J Brissett QB 1 1%

Jonathan Taylor had another efficient and effective game out of the backfield. At this point, the mantra is growing strong that he should be even more involved in the offensive game plan. Taylor has the strength and power to drive through tackles and gain extra yards after contact. He has the speed to break big plays and score long touchdowns. He has proven himself as a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

There is no doubt that Nyheim Hines also has a great role to play in a change-of-pace capacity but Taylor needs to be utilized more as a safety valve for Rivers, especially in situations like the Colts were facing in the second half yesterday.

J Taylor RB 40 58%
N Hines RB 29 42% 6 21%

The Colts tight end position is dynamic but unspectacular. Jack Doyle is still a blue-collar worker who is a reliable target when the Colts need a play or to keep drives going. Trey Burton has athleticism but hasn’t been able to regularly capitalize on his limited opportunities. Mo Alie-Cox is a freak of nature at the position but isn’t heavily involved in the offensive game plan, despite the fact that he is a mismatch issue against every opponent in the league.

Unless the offensive game planning changes or the Colts bring in someone else, this group is likely “what you see is what you get.”

J Doyle TE 38 55% 1 3%
T Burton TE 34 49% 5 17%
M Alie-Cox TE 23 33% 4 14%

Remember those nice crossing patterns in the first half, Michael Pittman Jr. catching the ball in space and getting a chance to turn up the field for extra yards? T.Y. Hilton on mesh and come back routes beating his defender? For some reason, these things go away in games. Routes appear to change, the Rivers starts to hold onto the ball more and look for deeper, longer-developing routes, and this is when he takes sacks.

The Colts’ offense isn’t a juggernaut at this stage, we can all be sure of that, but at some point, it needs to identify what it does well and stick with it. If the short passing game, crossers, confusion in the middle of the field, and running the ball is how this offense gains yards and scores points, so be it. At least this will keep the receivers in the game and will continue to set up strikes downfield as the defense gets tired.

Z Pascal WR 61 88% 2 7%
M Pittman WR 50 72% 5 17%
T Hilton WR 47 68%
D Harris WR 14 20% 5 17%
A Dulin WR 8 12% 19 66%

What a mess. Will Holden deserves a nod for doing a nice job early in the game under really demanding circumstances. His injury set him back and led to J’Marcus Webb taking over, which was a drop-off on the field. It’s really tough to expect a lot from this group with two of the best players out of the game.

Q Nelson G 69 100% 4 14%
C Green T 69 100% 4 14%
M Glowinski G 69 100% 4 14%
R Kelly C 69 100%
W Holden T 52 75%
J Webb T 17 25%


DEFENSE

Not good enough. This defensive line was simply unable to impose its will even though it had a lead to defend and a chance to pin back its ears. In the biggest game and biggest moment of the season, DeForest Buckner had two tackles and one pass deflected at the line of scrimmage. Denico Autry led the defensive line with three total tackles and Grover Stewart of all players was the only defensive lineman to register a quarterback hit.

Dreadful.

D Buckner DT 58 85% 4 14%
D Autry DE 48 71% 4 14%
J Houston DE 43 63%
G Stewart NT 36 53% 10 34%
A Muhammad DE 31 46% 2 7%
T Lewis DE 26 38% 2 7%
T Stallworth DT 17 25% 7 24%
K Turay DE 8 12% 5 17%
B Banogu DE 4 6%

A quiet game for the most part from the linebackers. Bobby Okereke and Anthony Walker Jr. each had three total tackles. Darius Leonard led the way with 10 total tackles, including one for a loss. Part of the reason this unit wasn’t heavily involved is that the Steelers spent the second half picking apart the Colts’ secondary and racking up explosive downfield plays.

D Leonard LB 68 100% 4 14%
B Okereke LB 36 53% 5 17%
A Walker LB 35 51% 11 38%

The writing is on the wall when it comes to the Colts’ cornerback room. Rock Ya-Sin is a liability far too often. He gets penalized at the wrong times and those penalties have had a huge role to play in the outcome of games. He has been picked on regularly with deep passing plays down the sideline where he is unable to defend without grabbing. The league is on notice, he should be on notice, and it’s time to put up or shut up.

Kenny Moore, Xavier Rhodes, and T.J. Carrie have been mostly strong all season. This is the group the Colts should stick with next week and if they make the playoffs.

K Moore CB 68 100%
X Rhodes CB 68 100%
R Ya-Sin CB 39 57% 11 38%
T Carrie CB 27 40% 16 55%

Khari Willis has been playing incredible football over the last few weeks. He had five tackles, the team’s lone sack, and a pass defense in 39 defensive snaps. When he left, things went downhill for an already struggling secondary.

Julian Blackmon — are you still there? Two tackles. Nothing else.

J Blackmon FS 68 100%
K Willis SS 39 57% 4 14%
T Wilson SS 29 43% 17 59%


SPECIAL TEAMS

Perhaps the most exciting special teams note from the game is that Nyheim Hines looked dangerous on his punt return opportunities. One of them may have gone for a touchdown if not for Kemoko Turay running directly into Hines as he was advancing down the field. That play is a microcosm of the Colts’ performance in the second half.

M Adams LB 25 86%
Z Franklin LB 25 86%
G Odum FS 25 86%
T Smith CB 20 69%
J Wilkins RB 14 48%
E Speed LB 14 48%
R Sanchez P 14 48%
L Rhodes LS 9 31%
R Blankenship K 4 14%
D Pinter G 4 14%
J Eldrenkamp G 4 14%