The Indianapolis Colts imposed their will a week ago for a big win in Buffalo. They did so primarily by riding the talent of Jonathan Taylor, who inserted himself into the MVP conversation.
Coming into this one, there was no doubt that the Colts and Bucs would be pitting strength versus strength in this area of the game. Indianapolis has established itself as one of the most dominant running teams in the league and Tampa Bay has a defense best suited to shutting down opponents on the ground. Which team would manage to win this battle?
In my view, this was the key to the game. Or at least should have been. Either the Colts found a way to keep the running game and Jonathan Taylor involved on offense or they would lose the game.
This was both right and wrong.
It was right because the Colts failed to establish their running game until well into the fourth quarter. This left the offense to rely on a passing game that has been inconsistent and allowed the Bucs’ defense to pin their ears back and play to stop the pass. The results were... foreseeable.
It was wrong because when the Colts did choose to run the football, they were dominant after the first couple of drives of the game. The stout Bucs front wore down as the game went on and the offensive line ran the ball down Tampa Bay’s throats with the game still in doubt.
As has often been the case, it has been play-calling and a failure to maintain balance, particularly whenever Reich and Wentz appear to be content passing the football, that led to opportunities and turnovers — and ultimately to the Bucs getting back into the game.
FRANK JEKYLL AND FRANK HYDE
Jonathan Taylor is the Colts’ biggest offensive weapon. The Bucs have a formidable rush defense but there is little denying that the key to Indianapolis winning football games will be getting production from Taylor. Once Taylor is involved, everything else in the offense opens up.
Does that mean that Reich should have continued to run Taylor into a brick wall early in the game? No. It just means that once the offense started clicking and the Colts established a lead, the balance had to be re-established. Taylor must always be reinserted into the offensive game plan.
With a 10-point lead and the ball to start the second half, Reich and Wentz came out throwing the football — and it was working. Jack Doyle had a big role in the passing game and kept the Bucs off-balance. Interestingly, the Bucs played the Colts offense as the Colts defense plays its opponents. Tight ends are allowed to be productive and the short passing game is given room to work.
The trouble is, once well into Tampa Bay territory, there was every obvious reason to get Taylor involved. The drive was established. The ball was moving. The Bucs were on their heels and they were intent on doing two things — getting pressure on Wentz and refusing to allow plays over the top.
Two offensive turnovers came during this pass-only period of the game. One was a strip-sack when the Bucs were finally able to get to Wentz. The second was a deep interception on a target to Michael Pittman Jr.
Throw in a muffed punt by Nyheim Hines in the second half and it’s incredible that the Colts were in the position to force overtime at all.
As just mentioned, Nyheim Hines muffed a punt deep in Colts territory and set up an easy Tampa Bay score. In the first half, with the offense struggling to get anything going, Zach Pascal fumbled the ball just as the offense started to get something going. Frank Reich’s play-calling bears considerable responsibility in both passing turnovers, the strip-sack, and the deep interception to Pittman.
The icing on the cake was that Indianapolis’ defense let the Bucs off of the hook on Tampa Bay’s final fourth-quarter drive. Is it likely Ryan Succop would have hit the field goal to win the game? Yes. Is it more likely the Colts could have forced overtime if he was forced to hit a game-winning kick than if the Bucs got an easy touchdown? Yes.
OFFICIATING GOT PRETTY ONE-SIDED
It’s not a good feeling to bring up officiating in a game like this one. The Colts were not “supposed to win” and that’s what happened. Any Bucs fan not willing to admit that some key calls went their way that helped lead to the outcome is not being honest with themselves.
One was a pass interference on Rock Ya-Sin in coverage of Scott Miller. Miller was running a deep route down the right sideline. As the ball was thrown Miller extended his right arm to create separation on Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin responded by grabbing Miller’s jersey and continued hand-fighting as the ball approached Miller. When the flag was thrown, the ol’ “anytime you grab jersey it’s an easy call” routine played out.
The trouble with modern NFL officiating is that there is too much deference given to the offensive player. An unrelated NFL rule is that penalties offset one another. In this case, pushing off to create separation on offense is a penalty, and grabbing of the jersey is certainly a holding or interference penalty. In my view, when both parties are guilty, they need to let the play die.
They won’t though. Offense is exciting. Offense leads to scoring. People like touchdowns. So here we are.
Another difficult penalty, though likely not one that would have changed the outcome of the game, was a personal foul on Andrew Sendejo on the goal line when Tom Brady attempted to run the ball in for a touchdown. He dove forward and Sendejo had a split-second decision to make. He could assume that Brady was down by contact and not attempt to make a play on the ball or he could try to keep Brady from extending for the goal line.
He chose to make sure Brady didn’t extend the ball over the goal line and was called for a penalty.
Interestingly, later in the game, Carson Wentz ran the ball after feeling pressure in the pocket. As he dove forward with the ball a Bucs defender attempted to punch the ball out and create a fumble. He missed, and instead punched Wentz in the face as he was going to the ground. No call there. Instead, the Colts were called for holding and lost 10 yards.
Does anyone want to place bets on whether the outcome would have been different if Brady was carrying the ball in the same situation?
When Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted Carson Wentz’s long pass to Michael Pittman Jr., he did so in large part because he made a ton of contact on Pittman while the ball was in the air. Contact itself isn’t enough to create a penalty but when he grabbed the outside of Pittman’s shoulders it allowed him to get into position and ensured that Pittman wouldn’t be able to turn to make a play on the ball.
Was it clearly pass interference? No. But it was definitely borderline and it wouldn’t be surprising if that call had gone differently if Winfield didn’t intercept the football.
The most egregious officiating error had a clear impact on the outcome of the game. Late in the third quarter, after the Winfield interception, the Colts defense forced a third-and-eight in the Redzone. Brady threw a pass to Cameron Brate in the end zone that fell incomplete.
If that was the result, the Bucs would have certainly kicked a field goal, leading to a tie score heading into the fourth quarter, as opposed to a four-point lead.
T.J. Carrie was called for pass interference on the play, which gave the Bucs a first and goal on the one — which led to the touchdown and four-point lead. It changed the entire game script in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs would have taken a three-point lead on a Ryan Succop field goal in the fourth and that would have led to a Colts four-point lead after their touchdown on the drive that followed. It would have altered Indy’s defensive approach at the end of the game and forced Tom Brady to get a touchdown to win at the end of regulation — increasing the likelihood for an opportunistic Colts defense to force a turnover.
Sad that this had to play into the outcome of an otherwise exciting game but there’s no question that it did.