If you had told most Colts fans ahead of this season that the Colts would go on the road to face the Steelers without their two starting tackles, I’m not sure any of them would have picked the Colts to win. Even with the Steelers slumping, the prospect of facing their defensive line with third and fourth string tackles was not one any team should wish for.
So when the Colts jumped out to a strong lead, there was a moment of hope. Unfortunately, the Colts defense fell apart, and the offense sputtered. With a few missed opportunities, and more than a few bad calls by the officials, the Colts did what might have been expected under the circumstances. They lost.
Now before we get into who makes the winners and losers list, there is one guy I don’t have on here. Frank Reich. I’ve seen the outrage on Twitter, and I know you’re going to be talking about it in the comments.
So let me explain why I think Reich did a fine job given the situation he was in. The Colts started as well as we possibly could have expected. Better, perhaps. They went into the half looking like the far superior team, and also like they might just run the Steelers out of their own building. In the second half, things went differently.
Their first drive of the second half went to the red zone and a sack forced a field goal. The second drive started from their own 2-yard line, but never got off the ground after Taylor was stopped for a loss and Rivers overthrew Hilton deep. Beyond these drives, every other second half drive for the Colts offense featured a sack or an interception, until the final drive.
That drive actually went relatively well and featured a drop by Trey Burton and several missed opportunities to Hilton, before the final throw to Pascal that he could not quite pull in. The plays were here to win this game. The Colts players just didn’t make them. That’s not on Frank Reich. You are free to disagree with that assessment, but now you’ll know why he’s not among this list.
So with that out of the way, here are this week’s winners and losers.
You might be in the camp that thinks Frank Reich was crazy for not giving him the ball more in the second half. While I agree in part, that isn’t really the point of this particular segment. What is clear over the past few weeks, is the Jonathan Taylor has transformed as a player. The playoffs are, at this point, out of the Colts’ control. But in the month of December, Jonathan Taylor has become the player the Colts thought they were drafting. He’s been incredibly patient, carrying tacklers forward, finding holes that shouldn’t be there, and breaking tackles. He has room to grow as a pass protector, but even there, he hasn’t been poor.
Whatever happens with what’s left of this season, the Colts have got a really exciting running back in Jonathan Taylor, and he gives them a balance they haven’t had often over the past many years.
I’m not sure how many times it has happened this season, but the number of yards that have been called back on penalties in 2020 for Nyheim Hines are significant. This game saw another big and critical play wiped out for him. With just over a minute to go in the half, the Colts were driving to put points on the board. Up 21-7, Rivers hit Hines on a dump pass that he took for 68 yards, before being pushed out at the 8-yard line. Worst case scenario, this means the Colts likely extend the lead to 24-7. Best case, they go into the half up 28-7 with the ball coming back to them to start the second half. Instead, because of a very weak as well as inconsequential call of a block in the back from Mark Glowinski, the play was wiped out. It doesn’t stop the play from having happened though, and Hines was the one who made it possible. He still managed to have 64 yards from scrimmage anyway, but that play likely would have helped put the game out of reach.
One of the few defenders who truly stood out, Khari Willis recorded the Colts’ lone sack. He was solid in coverage, and good in run support. He was critical in breaking up an end zone strike to Eric Ebron, a drive that eventually ended with a turnover on downs. Could he have made a pick and given the team better starting field position? Sure. But the play was a big one, all the same. Unfortunately, Willis ended up sitting out after getting banged up on a special teams play. The very next play was Roethlisberger's 39-yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson, and it is not a stretch to think that might have been prevented by Willis’ presence on the field.
The Colts’ biggest strength across this season has been in the trenches. Never has that need been greater than in this game. With their top 3 tackles out, the Colts needed a huge performance from the defense, and specifically the defensive line. What they got instead was essentially a no-show in terms of disruption or pass rush. The Colts had 2 QB hits on the day, and one of those came on a perfectly called safety blitz from Khari Willis for a sack. With such an immobile quarterback, even a little disruption would have been significant, and would likely have caused the Steelers offense to struggle. Unfortunately, the defense was not able to provide even that. A frustrating outcome from the team’s strongest unit.
How many times have we said this in 2020: Rock Ya-Sin was okay, except for that one play. Well in this particular game, that one play was the turning point for the Steelers. Diontae Johnson blazed past him on a go route, and Ya-Sin was playing catchup just well enough to be in his zip code when he caught the diving touchdown. It’s been a season of costly plays from Ya-Sin, and this one potentially started the slide that lost not just the game, but the season.
Let me start by saying that Matt Eberflus has done some great things with this defense. I’m sure he’ll get lots of calls from teams looking for a new head coach this offseason. However, if I were interviewing him for one of those positions, he’d have one particular question to answer: Why can’t your defenses play 60 minutes?
Since week six of this season, the Colts have had more than a few games with wide variance in the quality of defense from half to half. 8 of their games since that time have seen opponents double their scoring output from one half to the other. When it was happening in the first half, at least you could say that Eberflus knows how to make adjustments.
In this game though, the defense got started hot, and simply never came back after half time. Whether it is effort, execution, or whatever, that ultimately falls on the defensive coordinator. He has to find ways to keep his team focused for whole games at a time. In the age of offense, it is always going to be tough to shut down opposing offenses completely. The Colts just need to get a more level defensive performance from their team.
This is a tough one, because Rivers wasn’t awful. However, for a seasoned veteran whose biggest strength is his ability to diagnose and recognize defenses, Rivers struggled a bit with feeling the pass rush at times. It wasn’t all his fault. He had very little time in some cases, and stood in to make great throws, including maybe his best of the season to T.Y. Hilton.
Unfortunately, he also bears some responsibility for the sack/fumble that directly resulted in a touchdown. He simply doesn’t feel how close the pressure is and convinces himself that he’s got time to get rid of the ball. The result was a T.J. Watt forced fumble. Additionally, at a point in the game where they absolutely couldn’t afford to give the ball away, he forced the ball to a well-covered Michael Pittman Jr. for an interception. This loss was hardly on Philip Rivers alone, but they needed him to play on another level to survive given the circumstances, and he simply didn’t do that.
I know I said above that Glowinski’s block in the back was a pretty pathetic call, and it was. But while the tackles were expected to struggle, the Colts needed stellar performances from their interior offensive line, and they didn’t get it from Glow. As much as people want to kill Frank Reich for his play calling down the stretch, it was Stephon Tuitt beating Glowinski to the inside that killed a very good first drive for the Colts to start the third quarter. The sack he gave up there forced a field goal, and so with two plays by Glowinski, the Colts go from potentially 35-7 by the time the Steelers first touch the ball in the second half, to 21-7. That is a tough swing, and at least part of that blame belongs on Glowinski. Most egregiously, though, is his play on the sack/fumble. Glowinski gets absolutely blown up by Stephon Tuitt, and that destroys any chance of Rivers stepping up in the pocket to avoid Watt. Tuitt manhandled Glowinski, and it was a big problem all day.