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Three Colts’ Recurring Deficiencies Rear Ugly Head in Tie to the Texans

The Colts have yet to finally resolve some lingering team problem areas for good after their underwhelming opener.

NFL: SEP 11 Colts at Texans Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite a spirited second half comeback, the Indianapolis Colts continued their winless streak of season openers to now 9 straight years by tying the Houston Texans 20-20 on Sunday afternoon to kick off the 2022 campaign.

There were some bright spots, namely Jonathan Taylor rushing for 161 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown, and Michael Pittman Jr. catching 9 receptions for 121 receiving yards and a touchdown reception. Not to mention, Kwity Paye racking up 2 clutch sacks late.

However, it feels like a few of the Achilles heels for the Colts in recent seasons once again became recurring issues in the team’s opener:

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

1. Kicking Game

There were concerns regarding the Colts kicking game entering the season. Their current starter, Rodrigo ‘Hot Rod’ Blankenship, missed the majority of last season with a hip injury—but was brought back as the heavy favorite for 2022.

However, even prior to being placed on injured reserve in 2021, ‘Hot Rod’ didn’t necessarily inspire a ton of confidence among the Colts fanbase to be safely handed the job for this year. He hasn’t shown a strong enough leg and missed some clutch field goal attempts—including a very makable field goal versus the Buffalo Bills in the 2020 AFC Wild card game.

Hot Rod’s kicking importance has now been elevated, as the Colts lost punter Rigoberto Sanchez for the season—who had handled kickoffs for Indianapolis prior to his injury.

In his absence on Sunday, Blankenship inexplicably booted two kickoffs out of bounds back-to-back in the second half, giving the Texans excellent field position to start their offensive drives—much to the frustration of the Colts fanbase.

Perhaps, Blankenship was kicking directionally to make up for a lack of kickoff hang time given his limited leg strength to better help his coverage units make tackles downfield, but either way, it didn’t work out for the Colts.

However, no critical mistake was more egregious than his 42 yard attempt that sliced way right (in a dome) in overtime with 2 minutes left that would’ve won the game for the Colts.

One of the biggest blunders of this past offseason has to be general manager Chris Ballard not bringing in an upgrade to Blankenship—or at the very least, even serious competition, to push him for the starting job.

He hadn’t shown enough to be penciled in for anything and essentially won the starting kicking job as the default choice (as only unheard of Jake Verity was brought in during training camp—who never presented a serious challenge to Hot Rod’s incumbent status).

We saw firsthand how important a strong kicker is last season when rookie Evan McPherson made 14 field goals in the playoffs (tying an NFL record) and helped propel the upstart Cincinnati Bengals on an improbable Super Bowl run.

The last time the Colts had extended kicker problems back in 2019, it was regarding the 47 year old legendary Adam Vinatieri, who is arguably the greatest player at his position of all-time. Yes, the Colts, out of loyalty to a kicker who was a team captain, future Hall of Famer, and instrumental in their franchise’s 2006 Super Bowl run, stuck with Vinatieri entirely too long during his extended (and eventual career-ending) slump. However, Vinatieri also earned the benefit of the doubt by being Vinatieri, and the Colts hoping he could regain most of his prior All-Pro form again.

I’m just not sure what Blankenship has done at the pro level to be the recipient of so many extended opportunities for Indy—when the early returns haven’t been very good. The same issues of a lack of leg strength and clutchness haven’t gone away since his rookie season in 2020.

At this point, would Blankenship’s relief from last season, Michael Badgley, who remains a free agent not be a better option? Convince me why not!

NFL: SEP 11 Colts at Texans Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2. Left Tackle

It would be disingenuous to blame the Colts offensive line’s often poor play solely up front on new starting left tackle Matt Pryor. Collectively, the whole unit struggled from Braden Smith to Ryan Kelly. However, Pryor’s play on the afternoon wasn’t exactly encouraging.

Pryor missed at least a few blocks, which is reminiscent of last year’s starter Eric Fisher, who was routinely porous in pass protection.

The Colts have struggled replacing longtime franchise bookend Anthony Castonzo since his retirement two seasons ago, and while Pryor played well in limited opportunity last season, it’ll be interesting to see whether he can hold up as the penciled in weekly starter now.

Whether it was by design or injury, at one point, rookie tackle Bernhard Raimann even subbed in for Pryor for some select snaps in Week 1.

This is a position that will have to be better for the Colts going forward, especially since the 37 year old Matt Ryan is a pocket passer with limited mobility. Too often during Sunday’s tie, Ryan had to make multiple slide steps which took his away his ability to look downfield as he avoided immediate pressure. Too many times, he was running for his life.

Shoring up the starting left tackle spot would go a long way toward solving some of the pass pressure issues that Ryan faced early and often in this one:

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

3. Colts Wide Receivers Not Named Michael Pittman Jr.

Outside of Michael Pittman Jr, who feasted, it felt like the other Colts wideouts were entirely too quiet on the afternoon:

Alec Pierce dropped a would-be touchdown to open the second quarter on 2nd and goal from the Houston 11-yard line, and the Colts ended up turning the ball over on downs (following a disastrous Nyheim Hines 4th and goal wildcat call from the 2-yard line). That was a potential touchdown catch that could’ve put all of the pressure on Houston early, as the Colts could’ve been up 10-0, and could’ve kept the throttle on—cruising to victory.

The Colts top rookie wideout then took an illegal hit to the helmet just a few plays later.

Pierce will have plenty of better days ahead, but he finished the day with 0 receptions—on what was a very forgettable (and tough) career debut.

Later on in the 4th quarter with 10:57 left and on second and goal from the Houston 4-yard line, Ashton Dulin dropped another would-be Matt Ryan touchdown in the middle of the end zone—as it was deflected out of his hands when securing the football. It’s a catch that Dulin simply has to make (by being stronger with the football)—and the Colts were held to a field goal.

No Colts wide receiver had 50 receiving yards or more than 3 receptions. Some of that is because Nyheim Hines was also heavily involved in the passing game, but it just felt like another Colts receiver besides Pittman Jr. and Hines needed to step up in the passing game, and no one ever did consistently.

The Colts haven’t had a consistently strong #2 wide receiver since veteran Reggie Wayne retired following the 2014 season. Pierce could be that in time, but he’s only a rookie, and this is a position that many felt needed more of a polished proven presence to pair with Pittman Jr. along the outside at wideout. It looks like so far, they may be right.

I’m not so sold that a 32-year old veteran like T.Y. Hilton is the sure answer many seem to think at this late stage of his playing career (and having battled through some injuries in recent seasons). It’s also a question of whether a remaining big-named free agent such as Odell Beckham Jr. would be the right culture fit (with injury concerns of his own). However, it’s fair to wonder whether enough was done this past offseason to properly address this position as it stands. It’s also fair to contemplate whether the Colts should still at least try.