Different AFC South opponent; same, disappointing result. What did we learn from the Colts’ Week Four home loss to Tennessee?
The Titans came into Lucas Oil Stadium apparently understanding the significance of the inter-divisional match-up. The Colts, fresh off their upset victory over the Chiefs, showed up once again lifeless, listless, and unprepared. The result? A 24 – 17 Colts home loss to Tennessee. What can we take away from Week Four?
One: The AFC South Title Is (Likely) Out Of Reach For The Colts
As Indy Intercept reported previously, winning the AFC South has historically required dominating the inter-divisional match-ups. In 19 of the 20 seasons the AFC South has existed, the division winner has won four or more games in the division. The Colts now sit at 0-2-1 and in third place after completing the first half of divisional play.
While overall, the Colts are only a half-game out of first place in the division, they have already lost any real hope of owning inter-divisional tie-breakers. No other team in the AFC South (yet) has a divisional loss. Unless the 2022 Colts go on a run that approximates the Super Bowl-winning 2006 team, the division is effectively out of reach.
AFC South is going to keep everyone relevant. But. Colts 0-2-1 in division. Have never reached playoffs with losing division record. Once at 3-3 (2006) pic.twitter.com/YxuKxTi36C — Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) October 3, 2022
Two: The Colts’ Offensive Line is A Liability
Despite Week Three post-game comments to the contrary, the Colts made a change to the starting offensive line, moving Will Fries to starting right guard and moving Danny Pinter back to his natural position of center, backing up starter Ryan Kelly. The change may have been nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Despite facing a depleted Titans defensive line and a Titans run defense ranked 32nd in the league entering Week Four, the Colts offensive line was utterly incapable of opening running lanes. Running back Jonathan Taylor carried the ball 20 times for 42 yards, averaging an anemic 2.1 yards per carry. Needing a critical conversion on third and two late in the game, the offensive line not only couldn’t generate a running lane for Taylor, they let him get swarmed at the line of scrimmage, allowing Titans linebacker Joe Schobert to force a back-breaking fumble. Taylor also injured his ankle on the play, putting his status in jeopardy for the Week Five Thursday night game in Denver.
While the pass protection appeared to be improved over prior weeks, the line still let far too much pressure get to quarterback Matt Ryan, leading to a freak-play tipped-pass interception by a defensive lineman, and a strip-sack fumble when pass rusher Denico Autry got a hand on Ryan’s arm during the forward pass attempt. Another near-fumble occurred on a bad snap from shotgun that was recovered by Colts left tackle Matt Pryor.
Matt Ryan’s 10th fumble in four games this season. 🎥 @NFLscheme pic.twitter.com/HRaaHaSNWR — Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) October 2, 2022
The Colts have the highest-paid offensive line in the league, and yet the offensive linemen are consistently getting beaten in the trenches: beaten one-on-one, beaten against stunts, beaten against blitzes, beaten off-tackle, beaten by outside speed rushers. The Colts offense is built around a ground game with star running back Taylor and speed back Nyheim Hines – and the line cannot generate that ground game. The Colts brought in a veteran pocket-passing quarterback in Matt Ryan, and cannot protect him. Until the offensive line issues are fixed, the Colts offense will continue to take two steps back for every one step forward.
Three: The Colts’ Front Office Regime’s Days Are Numbered
Not since Ron Meyer’s 0-5 start in 1991 has Colts owner Jim Irsay fired a coach mid-season.
Rick Venturi served out the remainder of the 1991 season as interim head coach before being replaced in the offseason by Ted Marchibroda. Lindy Infante was fired at the end of the 1997 season that resulted in a 3-13 record. Jim Mora, of “Playoffs?!?” tirade fame in 2001, was fired at the conclusion of that imfamous season. Jim Caldwell was fired at the end of the 2-14 2011 season, the first in the post-Manning era. Frank Reich’s predecessor, Chuck Pagano, was fired at the conclusion of the 2017 season.
Given the disastrous finish in 2021, Irsay’s impassioned airport-ramp speech following the embarassing Week Seventeen loss at Jacksonville, and the Colts’ listless start in 2022, the writing is on the wall for head coach Frank Reich – if not for the entire front office.
🏈💪🏈 pic.twitter.com/43C0Z4zdVb — Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) January 14, 2022
While Reich has a well-deserved reputation for playcalling and for quarterback development as a coordinator, as a head coach, he has demonstrated a pattern of teams appearing to be unprepared for their opponent and coming out of the gate lifeless, week after week. Post-game press conferences in which Reich explains, ad nauseum, that the team was out-played, out-executed, out-game-planned, and out-coached ring as hollow as the most Pagano-esque platitudes.
Ballard has proven to be wily and productive in the draft, but his decisions in free agency have been a mixed bag. For example, letting offensive linemen Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed leave in free agency after the 2021 season, leaving Matt Pryor and Danny Pinter as starters in 2022, has been disastrous in hindsight. Similarly, Colts fans collectively cringed in painful irony, watching former Colts defensive lineman Denico Autry, who was signed by Tennessee in the offseason, strip-sack Matt Ryan in Week Four.
Irsay’s patience with the Reich-Ballard regime must be wearing thin. While history seems to indicate that a change likely won’t happen until the season is over, it wouldn’t be the first time that Irsay has fired a coach mid-season. If the Colts leave Denver with a loss Thursday night, don’t be surprised if Irsay pulls the trigger for the first time in over 30 years.
Four: Leonard’s Return to Colts Lineup Is Short-Lived
The much-anticipated return of Colts all-pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard didn’t last the first half of the game. Leonard and linebacker Zaire Franklin collided at the goal line in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Chigoziem Okonkwo from scoring a touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Leonard took a head shot from Franklin and did not return to the game, after the Colts announced that Leonard had entered the concussion protocol.
Given the short week, the Colts have already announced that they will be without Leonard Thursday night in Denver.
No Shaquille Leonard (concussion) for the #Colts on Thursday night and possibly no Jonathan Taylor, whose X-rays and MRI were clean, but is now dealing with an ankle sprain in addition to mild turf toe. Meanwhile, #Falcons RB Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) lands on IR. @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/2G3ToMXcFi — Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) October 3, 2022
Five: The Colts’ Tight Ends Will Lead Them
As Indy Intercept previously reported, the Colts’ tight ends can be the key to the team’s offensive production. The tight ends collectively had their best game of the season during Week Four and demonstrated what a potent threat – and reliable target for quarterback Matt Ryan – they can be.
Mo Alie-Cox caught both of Ryan’s two touchdown passes. Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson, and Jelani Woods combined for 11 catches and 180 yards on 11 targets. The reliability of the tight ends in the receiving game also seemingly bouyed the wide receivers corps, creating opportunities for Ryan to find Alec Pierce, Parris Campbell, and Ashton Dulin, and making the Titans pay for focusing on Michael Pittman, Jr.
The wide-spread passing production may be the lone bright spot from Week Four, and could develop into a potent threat, provided that quarterback Matt Ryan can be protected long enough to find his targets.
✌️ TDs on the day for Mo Alie-Cox and the #Colts make it a one score game! (🎥: @Colts) | #ForTheShoe pic.twitter.com/fqafNNNm7L — The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) October 2, 2022
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