Analysis: Comeback can't mask Colts issues

Offensive line is still struggling, defense gives up yards in chunks and the quarterback is still turning the ball over with risky throws.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not to be a killjoy but ...

Out of respect for Indianapolis Colts fans who, like the team, reserve a 24-hour rule to savor victories, I'll preface this final offering from Nissan Stadium with the admission there's absolutely no way to be overly positive without coming off as naive.

After 18 years of covering the Colts, it's more important to be brutally honest than just write what fans want to hear. And I suspect most fans who watched the Colts somehow rally to a 35-33 victory over the Tennessee Titans Sunday don't need to be told the obvious.

But here goes.

The Colts were fortunate to win this one. Really fortunate. They were able to come back from a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter against a Titans team that won just two games last year and is rebuilding. That's the quick summation on how the two-time AFC South Division champs jumped off life support and took down a rival wannabe in their own building.

The same mistakes from Weeks 1 and 2 were repeated in Week 3. The offensive line was shuffled -- no guard Lance Louis (shoulder) nor guard Todd Herremans (benched) -- in favor of moving right tackle Jack Mewhort back to left guard while inserting Hugh Thornton at right guard and Joe Reitz at right tackle. While the Colts endured, Andrew Luck still got sacked three times. Regardless of who is up front, they will tell you that's unacceptable.

Perhaps if the Colts stick with this O-line group, which is a big if considering Thornton seemed to be getting a penalty flag thrown at him non-stop, it will eventually come together. Perhaps Luck will settle down and truly trust these guys and stop making the risky throws that have largely contributed to his eight turnovers, seven of those interceptions.

Until Luck starts playing like the three-time Pro Bowl passer we've come to expect, and the O-line is a key factor in this, it's going to be a struggle. Even against the Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. That the Colts have a 14-game division winning streak is perhaps the only reason for any optimism that this team will still make the playoffs. We knew coming in the Colts have owned this division, and this win just continues that reality.

But the defense was outplayed at several junctures, too, be it allowing wide receiver Kendall Wright to catch seven passes for 95 yards, or not stopping two touchdown runs. The Titans outgained the Colts 433-378.

And there were still too many penalties, the Colts being flagged 11 times for 71 yards. Outside linebacker Erik Walden was assessed his second personal foul of the young NFL season for roughing the passer. Thornton was hit with three holding calls and a false start. Two of his teammates were also flagged for holding as well as two more false starts.

That's not to say there weren't positives. Safety Dwight Lowery had two interceptions, returning the first 69 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 in the second quarter. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman and rookie nose tackle David Parry had sacks, the latter his first in the NFL.

When the Titans scored in the final minute and had to go for two points to tie the game and force overtime, a Jalil Brown pass-interference penalty in the end zone moved the ball to the 1. So the Titans tried to play smashmouth and pound it in with fullback Jalston Fowler, but the Colts held their ground in the middle, forcing the runner outside where safety Mike Adams made the game-clinching tackle.

There was also the Colts' goal-line stand in the third quarter to force the Titans to settle for a field goal. That was huge, too.

Much like an offense that came to life, the defense did the same when it mattered most. That is something.

Running back Frank Gore ran like the proven veteran we have expected with two touchdowns and 86 yards on 14 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. He had a long rush of 25 yards. The Colts need to keep feeding him.

Second-year wide receiver Donte Moncrief caught a go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. He's had a score in each of the Colts' three games. The former third-round pick is proving to be invaluable, especially on a day when wide receiver Andre Johnson was targeted only once and didn't have a catch. After three games, Johnson has yet to fit into this offense while Moncrief is flourishing.

The Colts likely come home and take care of the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium before heading to the Lone Star State for what should be a struggle against the Texans. Perhaps they extend their AFC South winning streak beyond 14 games. Perhaps not.

But ask yourself the real question that should be rolling around in your head as you watch the Colts play in September: What chance do they have against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots down the road?

Yeah, we know the answer to that one. And that's why, as much as it might pain some to hear it, getting overly excited about a comeback that showed resiliency is tempered a great deal by the big picture.

The Colts' issues didn't go away Sunday. They're still very much evident. Somehow, they still won against a team they were favored to beat.

Take whatever satisfaction you can out of that because the road ahead looks ominous, to say the least.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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