The Colts were able to overcome a handful of key injuries and some inconsistent play to defeat the Cleveland Browns 17-13 and move their record to 3-3. The game was a tale of two halves, and it played out in an odd, somewhat surprising manner.
The first half went somewhat to script, with both offenses dominating their defensive counterparts. At the time the Colts took a 14-6 lead in the second quarter, neither team had failed to convert on a 3rd-down attempt, and you got the sense that this game would be won by whichever team had the ball last.
Something funny happened on the way out of halftime, however, and the second half saw the game turn into a "defensive struggle." We use quotes because, to most people who watched the game, it felt more like poor execution by the offenses than some amazing halftime adjustments by the defenses. Still, the Colts were able to make enough plays on both sides of the ball to secure a victory, and really, that's all that matters.
After the jump we'll look at three of the key factors that helped bring the Colts back to five-hundred.
We were pretty hard on the Colts coaching staff last week - specifically interim head coach Bruce Arians - and with good reason: many of the decisions he made in the Colts loss to the Jets just didn't make sense. And while he certainly had some questionable decisions in yesterday's win against the Browns - I'm still trying to understand his last second time out at the end of the half, and I felt like his 2nd-half play calling was a little too conservative - it would be wrong of us to not point out that Arians did some good yesterday.
The Colts were 2-for-2 on 4th-down conversions yesterday (the Box Score will only say 1-for-1, but the Box Score is WRONG! WRONG! I tell you), including a brilliant bit of out-coaching in the 2nd quarter. On 4th-and-1 from their own 23-yard line, Arians had Luck and the offense stay on the field. The Colts lined up in a run formation with their heavy package, and Andrew Luck used his amazing hard count to draw the Browns defensive line offside.
It's unlikely that the Colts would have actually run a play there, if the Browns hadn't jumped they would have called a timeout and punted, but Arians gave Luck a chance to "make a play" with his voice, and Luck delivered. Not only that, but NFL games aren't played in a vacuum: all of the Colts future opponents will watch this play on film, they will know what happened, and perhaps the Colts try this again, only the next time their opponent stays super still as to not get drawn offside... and Satele snaps the ball and Luck and the offense pick up the first against an unsuspecting opponent. Whatever the case, Arians trusted his offense to get it done, and they delivered.
They also delivered late in the 3rd quarter when Arians told the offense to stay on the field, this time on 4th-and-1 on Cleveland's 24-yard line (well within field goal range). The Colts once again picked up the first down, this time on a Delone Carter run (not crazy about the play call, but baby steps here, folks).
The first series ended in a punt after the drive fizzled out at midfield. The second drive also fizzled out, thanks to a sack and a false start penalty, which forced the Colts to settle for a field goal. But as we talked about last week, we should be judging decisions, not results, and in both cases Bruce Arians made smart, aggressive decisions, and his team delivered. Hopefully Arians and the Colts will build on Sunday and find a way to be even more aggressive in the future.
There have been some questions raised the past two weeks regarding the Colts rookie quarterback. Some have questioned his accuracy - Luck has a 53.6% completion percentage on the season. Some have questioned his ability to hit the deep ball - he's struggled to connect with the deep receiver even when they are open. And some, including myself, wondered why Luck stopped scrambling against the Jets.
Before we tackle any of those questions, let's cover the most important point first: the Colts are 3-3 after 6 games, they've already surpassed their 2011 win total, and you could make a case that the overall roster is worse this year than last. The entire difference between 0-6 after 6 games and 3-3 after 6 games is Andrew Luck. Has he been uneven and inconsistent? Yes. Have other rookie quarterbacks had better starts to their pro careers? Undoubtedly. But Andrew Luck has been amazing for the Colts, and his struggles only appear to be struggles because we've seen just how good he can be.
As for some of the questions surrounding Luck, let's start with the accuracy issues. Some of this is on Luck, as we saw a few passes against the Browns that weren't in the same area code as the intended receiver. This isn't a mechanical thing, but more of a timing and rhythm issue that Luck will work on and correct as he continues to adjust to the pro game. Outside of those few rare, bad throws, a majority of the accuracy issues aren't Luck's fault at all.
The two major, "external" factors contributing to his poor accuracy are his wide receivers and his offensive line. First, outside of WR Reggie Wayne, Luck isn't blessed with a group of receivers who are gifted at getting open. Because they are having trouble getting separation from the defenders, Luck is being forced to throw into tight coverages. To compensate, Luck is attempting to put the ball in a perfect spot where only his receiver can get to it. This is leading to some off-target passes.
Second, the offensive line has been an issue all year. Yes, they've had periods of average pass blocking (and they were good enough run blocking yesterday to help the Colts pick up 148 yards on 37 carries), but, by-and-large, they've allowed the pass rush to reach Luck far too quickly. This disrupts the rhythm of the entire passing game by forcing Luck to throw the ball before he or his receivers are ready. This only exacerbates the "unable to create separation" issue, as Luck is forced to throw the ball before the WR can execute a double move or find a hole in the zone to sit in.
As far as Luck's scrambling is concerned, we'll likely never know if it was a coach's decision to have him scramble less against the Jets or if it was just a case of Luck trying to do too much in the passing game. But as we saw against the Browns, Luck's scrambling is an important part of the offense. The Colts don't need him to win games with his legs, but they do need him to turn the occasional negative play into a positive by either running away from pressure and completing a pass, or by scrambling for a few yards and turning a 2nd-and-10 into a more-manageable 2nd-and-5.
Luck has been good, and he will only get better as the year progresses. We always hear about adjustment periods, how the NFL is much faster than college, and how it takes some time before the game "slows down" for younger players. For Luck, this adjustment period is two-fold: not only must he adjust to the speed of the NFL, but must also adjust to the speed of his own team. He is no longer surrounded by an offensive line with OT Jonathan Martin or OG David DeCastro, his offensive weapons, outside of Wayne, aren't anything to write home about, and his defense has managed to produce 3 turnovers for the ENTIRE season.
Andrew Luck has been good through 6 games of the season, and if the flashes of brilliance have been any indication, he'll only get better with time. On the list of things Colts fans should be concerned about this season, Andrew Luck's play should be near the bottom.
Tom "Angles" Zbikowski
We'll keep this short and sweet: S Tom Zbikowski, brought in by HC Chuck Pagano for his physical play and knowledge of the defense, had been ineffective against the run and invisible against the pass through the Colts first 5 games. So it was nice to see him string together a handful of nice plays and help his Colts defense get off the field in the 3rd and 4th quarters. "Zibby" was only credited with 2 tackles (far too low for a safety) and 2 passes defensed, but all 4 were key plays that helped stop Cleveland drives at a time when the Colts offense was struggling to score points.
The Colts can't expect Zbikowski to be a game changer at safety - that's just not the kind of player he is - but they are going to need the kind of timely plays they got out of him on Sunday if they hope to secure a wild card spot at the end of the season.
I have seen WR's getting open, T.Y. got open multiple times, some passes on target some, over thrown, but he has to catch the ones that are there.
Avery got tons of separation in the first game as well, have not really noticed much from him in other games.
I do think we need to run some screens I have not seen many that have happened so far this season.
I don't see any improvement. The Special teams are in the bottom quarter of the league. Which is better than last year. It's good to see Luck under 30 throws in a game. Does Freeney actually play for the Colts? The Browns Dline is horrible.
Things I'm worried about: The coaching still scares me. At best, the Colts have been inconsistent with regards to aggressive play-calling. They can't just shut the offense down with a four point lead against most NFL teams and expect to win. Tommy Z made some good plays this game and the Colts needed them. I remain skeptical. This was a game against the Browns. No sacks. The Colts seemed to be getting pressure from around the edges but very little up the middle. Weeden could still step into his throws right as Hughes and Freeney got there. Powers is beginning to look very mediocre.
Things I'm not worried about: Luck's accuracy will come. Timing, the receivers, the offensive line, I think, will all improve with time. His scrambling has been a lifesaver. Very Aaron Rodgers-like. Special teams? They seem to be better than last year. We have seen some big plays from Lefeged, Hughes, Brazill and McAfee. A big return would be nice but at least the coverage units have been better. Every decent return by Cribbs was called back for a penalty.
Oh, and we're 3-3! Update the record on sidebar! We need to enjoy this as long as possible.
It was almost if Coach Arians read your blog. Seriously, the two 4th down "calls" were both such a blatant change from how he coached the Jets games, it was like it was not even the same guy. (Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks?)
Good thoughts on Luck. Totally agree with your accessment.
Any way that you spin it, Luck has been better than anyone except Peyton that they could have put under center this year. And, as you say, he is only going to get better. The difference between 0-6 and 3-3? Absolutely! But I, too, am concerned with the accuracy as Wayne, Avery and Fleener have turned badly thrown balls into receptions several times. The first couple of games, he looked fairly poised in the pocket but since the bye, he has been much more skittish back there. Maybe he's thinking too much? Anyways, it's still a blast to watch him play!
@gaiter27 Accuracy will come with time. The receivers will get better and the chemistry will improve. I actually believe that Avery, Fleener, and Hilton have dropped more good passes than caught bad passes. Reggie certainly has had some spectacular catches this season. I also think he looks fine in the pocket, especially behind this line and with the poor blitz pick ups of the backs. I agree that he has been a lot of fun to watch. I'm having as hard of a time as anyone with patience but we need to allow for rookie mistakes.
@gaiter27 I noticed how Manning has had trouble with receivers (who are better than ours) holding onto thrown balls. So perhaps even if you do throw it well, it sometimes doesn't really matter much. I thought Avery was very good against the Packers. Haven't watched this game yet but I'm thinking he wasn't as good?
Am I crazy, or did Link actually look like a credible LG yesterday. Is that an indication of how bad Cleveland's DTs are, or is link getting better?
@Music Man Ah, this is an interesting topic! I want to write more about this, but I REALLY need to sit down with the All-22 before I make too many declarative statements, but let me say what I THINK (I could be wrong):
Colts used a lot of #78 LT Hills, as an eligible TE yesterday. When he was on the field, he would play on Castonzo's side and block the DE, while Castonzo would block down on the guard. What they effectively did was hide the interior of the line by allowing Castonzo to help.
Now, they didn't do this on every play, but they used it smartly and effectively and it was a real sign of "coaching" through a problem.
Unless I'm wrong, then I'm sorry. :)
@Music Man I actually thought the same thing. I think the Cleveland D-Line must be really terrible because the O-Line was opening up holes.