One down, three to go: The Colts dug themselves a hole by losing their first two division games, so last night was an important win for a number reasons. They are now finally in the driver's seat in the AFC South, having claimed first place. They need to keep it up, though, as it looks like this will be a tough, competitive division for the balance of the season.
Two of the remaining three division games are at home, which obviously favors Indianapolis. They play better at home, where the crowd noise works for them on offense and against their opponent on defense. Winning more games and winning the division also opens up the possibility of a home playoff game, which would be key.
The Colts would ideally finish 4-2 in the division — not impossible if they can manage to win at Tennessee, where they've had success in the past — and limit any additional losses to teams outside the conference. It's a long season, so let's not get ahead of ourselves, but last night was an important first step.
Speaking of crowd noise... the idea behind playing at home is that it works to your advantage. The fix for the snap count issues that have plagued the Indianapolis line all season appears to be more pre-snap penalties. The announcing team went on and on about how Peyton Manning drew two encroachment penalties from the defense, but there was no mention of the three false start penalties — two by Ryan Diem — which had to have come as a direct result of the offensive line knowing less about Manning's cadence than the Texans defensive line.
While it can be argued that Manning kept the Houston defenders off balance by varying the snap count and slowed down the pass rush as a result, there is also evidence that he confused his own linemen and may have offset any benefit. The games are only going to get tighter from here on out, so the snap count issues need to be addressed and fixed. Losing a net of five yards on pre-snap penalties in a home game is unacceptable.
Hopefully, the injury to Mike Hart is not serious: Not only did Hart look determined and decisive running with the ball, gaining tons of yards after contact, he also looked smooth in the passing game and very capable in pass protection. Donald Brown looked sluggish and, at times, confused. He either was not full strength and had trouble adjusting to the speed of the game, or he's not the player the Colts thought he was when they drafted him in the first round.
The biggest boost to this offense will be getting Joseph Addai healthy, as he's far better than any other back on the roster in the passing game and as a blocker, but keeping Hart off the injury report and in the line-up is a close second. Thinking of a week with Javarris James and Brown splitting the carries and no Brody Eldridge to block for them is a sobering thought.
Jacob Tamme was the Last Man Standing, so he became the Next Man Up: Eldridge has a great deal to offer the offense as a blocker, so Indianapolis will miss him regardless. But, when he went down, Tamme had no choice but to step up or be cast aside. He still leaves a lot to be desired as a blocker, but you could tell that he really put in the hours in practice this week by watching him run routes. As stated previously, there is no replacement for what Dallas Clark brings to the offense. The good news is that it appears as though Tamme is at least sufficient, with the potential to be good.
The secondary did an outstanding job: Down to only Kelvin Hayden and Antoine Bethea from their regular lineup, Alan Williams pulled another rabbit out of his hat, with an assist from Larry Coyer. Coyer put the pressure on Matt Schaub early, unleashing a few rare but well-timed blitzes.
The hits that the front seven — led by Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Clint Session — put on Schaub early wore down his confidence and his timing by the fourth quarter. In the last two drives, the Colts were in a deep Cover 2, so Schaub had limited options down the field, but his line of vision seemed to prefer checking down and avoiding a hit. He could have kept his eyes downfield, waited for one of his talented receivers to clear, then made the throw and taken the hit. But, he didn't want to take the hit.
Indianapolis took away the deep ball with a classic Cover 2 in the first half — with some blitzes mixed in — and the linebackers punished receivers in the short area. It was a well-designed, well-executed game plan from start to finish. It's a shared victory between the defensive line and the defensive backs, as well as Williams and Coyer, but Williams and his squad deserve a couple more pats on the back considering that they were so short-handed.
With the Colts giving up an inordinate number of deep passes this season, it begs the question: Wouldn't they do better with better players in the same scheme? With a skeleton crew, Indianapolis held Schaub to five completions on 15 attempts in the first half. What could they have accomplished in this scheme, with this level of execution, if they had their best players on the field? Freelancing has its place and it's important to mix things up, but you can't argue with the results of consistency and execution.
Are Pierre Garcon's arms shrinking? With a renewed emphasis from the league on protecting defenseless players and an initiative that is aimed at cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits, you would think that receivers would be empowered to run across the middle and go after balls with impunity.
Garcon appeared to shy away from contact with safeties bearing down on him and he short-armed two passes — by my count — in the second half. With dropped passes already a problem, short arms could push him out of the lineup when, or if, everyone at the receiver position is healthy. It could be a one game anomaly, but it is worth watching for the balance of the season.
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