Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck leaves the field following an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. The Colts defeated the Bill 20-13. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Today, the Colts needed to put away a talented but inconsistent Buffalo Bills team to keep their playoff hopes alive, and to restore the confidence and winning mindset of a team full of rookies. Both the energy and urgency of the players and fans were on full display, but the Colts came out with the jitters on offense and punted after gaining just 14 yards on their first drive.
The offense would continue to sputter off and on throughout the game, scoring only one touchdown and gaining only 312 yards at 4.5 per play. So, what were the differences that allowed the Colts to gut out a victory today? A couple great special teams plays (though the special teams were shaky at times as well), and excellent third down play.
One of the key plays in the game came early, on T.Y. Hilton’s 75 yard punt return. After the Colts failed to move the ball, Buffalo’s first drive of the game ended in a punt after a sack (more on that later). Bills punter Shawn Powell boomed a 48 yarder downfield, but T. Y. Hilton, who had a very good game, despite taking a helmet to helmet hit at one point, made three different defenders miss before turning on the jets for a 75 yard touchdown return. It was the Colts’ first punt return for a touchdown in five years (T. J. Rushing against New England in 2007). 7-0, Colts. They would never trail.
As the offense continued to move in fits and starts, the defense, who struggled at times themselves, stepped up time and time again making crucial stops and coming up with their own big plays. The Bills finished the game just 4-13 on third down thanks to a few drops and some excellent third down play from the Colts.
Indianapolis’ offense came up huge on third downs themselves, going 8-16. Andrew Luck, under pressure, threw a touchdown in the back of the end zone to T. Y. Hilton, who is having a very promising rookie year. At one point, Luck also fought off Kyle Moore to escape a sack on 3rd and long, then as Buffalo’s defenders watched what they thought would be a sack, threw a 25 yard pass to a wide open Reggie Wayne. One mustn’t forget the most amazing hurry up spike by the offense to end the half with a field goal either.
However, since there will be plenty of focus on Andrew Luck’s heroics, I’m going to focus on what the defense was able to do to help the team win a game in which their offensive teammates only gained 110 second half yards. For every maddening, frustrating play the defense made, they seemed to come up with a more important play that made fans jump up off their couches and stadium seats in jubilation.
Here are a few expamples of how the struggling defense rose to the occaision today:
On the aforementioned first drive for Buffalo, a three and out, Indianapolis blitzed up the middle with former CFL linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who tossed CJ Spiller to the side like a rag doll before wrapping up Fitzgerald for a sack. It was a well-executed blitz and a clutch play by Freeman. The Colts’ 3rd down prowess would continue to throughout the game, and would be a key to what ended being a close victory.
3rd and 11 at the Colts 15: After two straight stops by Kavell Conner and Cassius Vaughn, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw short over the middle to Stevie Johnson, who tried to make a move, but was bottled up by some solid tackling from Jerry Hughes and Jerrell Freeman. Buffalo kicked a field goal after looking like a touchdown was all but a formality, 7-3, Colts
3rd and 10 at the Colts 30: After Spiller was stopped short by Moala on 1st down and for a loss by Freeman on 2nd down, the Bills, who had intercepted Luck and could’ve seized the momentum, were stopped yet again. Robert Mathis raced in for a sack to end the drive, taking Fitzpatrick down for a 4-yard loss, and keeping the Bills out of field goal range.
3rd and 10 at the Colts 17: After a 63 yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Johnson, the Bills were again poised to tie the game. However, on third down, no one was open, causing Fitzpatrick to take off and run. So many times in years past, a quarterback has burned the Indy defense for a first down in this situation. Today, however, Jerrell Freeman, who was just everywhere, contained the play, didn’t over-pursue, and forced Fitzpatrick out of bounds at the 13. The Bills had to settle for another field goal.
3rd and 5 at the Colts 48, second half: Bethea had a great open field tackle of Spiller, and Moala had pressured Fitzpatrick into an incompletion, setting up another important 3rd down. Freeney provide relentless pressure and Moise Fokou dropped an interception over the middle intended for Johnson.
3rd and 8 at the Bills 49, last chance for Buffalo: On 2nd down, Jerrell Freeman stopped a short pass to Spiller for a 4 yard loss, setting up a 3rd down and another chance to stop Buffalo from tying the game. Cassius Vaughn, who has had some rough days at the office as a starting cornerback, timed his contact nicely to up-end C. J. Spiller for an incompletion with around three and a half minutes left.
The colts rode Donald Brown, a huge 14 yard pass to Reggie Wayne, and a pass interference call to run the clock down at the end. It was the second time during the game that a defender panicked and grabbed an open Reggie Wayne. This time, it allowed the offense to get into the most beautiful formation in football: The Victory Formation.
They perhaps didn’t do it with much style, and were constantly in danger of losing their lead, but our Indianapolis Colts made the right plays at the most important times to come away victorious in front of their home crowd. Now, at 7-4, Indy needs one or two more wins to make the playoffs as a wild card team.
They may not be the most talented team in the AFC, but they have taken advantage of every matchup that favored them, and a couple here and there that didn’t. Now, the team most expected to be in the running for another number one overall pick is poised to make a run at the playoffs. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty #ChuckStrong.
Enjoy this one. The players have to move on after they watch film, but the fans get to savor it all week. So enjoy.
@MarcusDugan Love the write-up, but a small correction: TJ Rushing's punt return for a TD was @ Oakland in 2007.
I've completely given up on trying to figure this team out. Never thought the Colts could win a game against the Bills when they only scored 20 points.
Love reading an article after a huge Colts win about how the defense played extremely well. Hopefully in the next couple of years, we can have a dominant defense to go along with Luck and the offense. Great job Marcus.
@BlueMareIndy Yeah, 7-4 feels pretty good. I was glad to see them win while Luck wasn't necessarily having a great game too.
Jerell and TY get dual game ball status, imo. Both made some of the hugest plays in the game (obviously both of the TDs were TY's, and most of the 3rd down stops were Jerell's). As it was quite apparent how active TY was (and his coming back from that scary massive hit was seriously impressive), I don't think I need to talk him up. Jerell, however, was just all over the place (as stated above) in nearly all aspects of the defense. In addition to all the above plays, he made a nice open-field play on Spiller coming out of the backfield on a 3rd and long to force him out in a situation where no one else had a chance of preventing the 1st down. It wasn't an easy play given Spiller's ridiculous athleticism and while it may be overlooked, was certainly a big play in the game.
@DougEngland A defensive struggle was the last thing anyone expected. The Colts keep doing just enough to overcome their deficiencies, and it's something different ever week lately (although most of the time, it's something to do with Luck). Imagine if they can keep overachieving when they have a little more talent and experience.
@Coopman33 Thank you, same here. It could be nice having a dominant defense for a change.
@7IHd Freeman was a BEAST today. Angerer and Conner played well too, with less snaps, but Freeman was in on so many important plays.
@zgs1288 It sure is.