What We Learned: Colts at Chargers

Greg Talmage shares what we learned while watching the Colts fall short in their comeback bid during a clumsy 23-21 loss in front of a national audience on Sunday night in San Diego.

1. The Colts need to get healthy
Would whoever is holding the voodoo dolls of various Colt players please drop the needles?  It's not funny anymore and never was.

I apologize for them embarrassing the Saints on national TV in Week 1. But come on, now. No more New Orleans' black magic.

The Colts went into this game with four offensive starters -- Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Tony Ugoh, Anthony Gonzalez -- and three defensive starters -- Freddy Keiaho, Tyjuan Hagler, Raheem Brock -- inactive due to injuries. During the game, both starting offensive tackles -- Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem -- were knocked out of the game . Defensive end Dwight Freeney and defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson -- in his first NFL start, subbing for Raheem Brock -- left the field during the second half and headed to the locker room with injuries.

That's a serious bite of the injury bug. It was so bad that if another offensive lineman would have went down in the second half, the Colts wouldn't have had anyone to replace him and would have been forced to do something crazy like play a defensive lineman on the offensive line.

Who seems to be affected the most by the injuries? Well, it's definitely not the defense, or at least it wasn't Sunday night. Backup linebacker Clint Session made two interceptions and the unit as a whole basically held the Chargers' top skill players -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Chris Chambers and Antonio Gates -- in check.

But quarterback Peyton Manning was definitely missing wide receiver Marvin Harrison and tight end Dallas Clark. He seemed to be forcing some throws and wasn't on the same page as backups Aaron Moorehead, Bryan Fletcher, and Craphonso Thorpe at times.

The injuries to the offensive line are the most worrisome, though. The Colts cannot afford for the top three offensive tackles to be out for an extended period of time. While Toudouze filled in admirably and Jake Scott held his own moving from right guard to right tackle, those two will become the focus of defensive schemes and blitz packages as opponents start to look for potential matchups to exploit.

Seeing Dwight Freeney heading to the locker room on a cart was another very worrisome sight. Like Harrison, Freeney's presence on the field does so much for his teammates. The speedy defensive end requires constant double-teams, which opens up one-on-one blocking situations for other linemen to exploit, just like the double-teams and bracket coverage on Harrison opens opportunities for other receivers.

2. The Colts coverage units are a huge detriment and weakness
Last week, when informed that the Colts punt coverage unit ranked dead last in the NFL, cornerback Tim Jennings responded by saying, "It's shocking that we're 32nd in the league. I didn't think we were that awful. I knew last game was bad, but .... we've got to get better and not let that stuff happen."

The unit has not played much better at any point this season and compared to the rest of the league the unit definitely qualifies in the "awful" realm. Sunday evening Chargers return-man Darren Sproles became the first player since Dante Hall in 2001 to return both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown. Sproles took the opening kickoff and ran 89 yards for a touchdown -- the Chargers first since 2001 -- and returned a punt 45 yards for a touchdown later in the first quarter.

Not good.

The coverage units seemed to be out of position and players are constantly over-pursuing the ball. Sound discipline is definitely missing. So are the Colts going to have to use drastic measures like playing starters such as Bob Sanders, Marlin Jackson, Antoine Bethea and Gary Brackett on coverage units?

That would definitely be drastic. But sometimes drastic situations call for such moves.

Based on postgame comments, you can tell that head coach Tony Dungy and club president Bill Polian are extremely unhappy -- and rightfully so -- about the play of the Colts special teams.

We'll have to wait to see what they have in store for improving the units.

Antonio Cromartie makes one of his three interceptions on the night at the expense of Peyton Manning.
AP Photo/Chris Park

3. Something is wrong with Adam Vinatieri
Mr. Money Clutch has become Mr. Lame Shank. I really have no explanation for what we witnessed last night, especially missing that 29-yard kick at the end of the game.  Through nine games, Vinatieri has only been asked to attempt field goals longer than 40 yards twice -- last week against New England and on Sunday night against the Chargers -- and he missed both of them.

Although he's still made 80 percent of his field goals this season, my guess is that Adam is in the midst of a little slump that has now gotten into his head a bit. I know that's crazy to say considering this is a guy who's made several kicks to win Super Bowls, playoff games in blizzards and at hostile road venues.

Like a good hitter in baseball will hit himself out of a slump, the same is true for a good kicker in football.

4. The Colts, for the first time in the Dungy era, have a defense good enough to keep them in games even if the offense struggles
Prior to the desperation throw at the end of the game that resulted in his career-worst sixth interception of the night, Peyton Manning handed the ball over to the San Diego defense five times, abruptly forcing his defensive teammates back onto the field. Even without the punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns, this should have resulted in a lopsided San Diego win.

The defense contained arguably the league's best running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, shut out the San Diego offense in the second half to give the offense a chance to climb back into the game, and even contributed a touchdown on a fumble recovery that put the Colts within two points of a tie.

While the defense looked strong during the team's playoff run through the Super Bowl last year, this is the first time in the Dungy era that they've consistently stepped up their play during the regular season. And it's especially impressive when you consider the fact that both defensive tackle Anthony McFarland was lost for the season due to an injury during training camp, strongside starting linebacker Rob Morris was lost earlier this season due to an injury, Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June departed through free agency, and the team has had intermittent injury problems at both the strongside and weakside linebacker spots to deal with since Week 2 of the season.

5. Third- and fourth-string fill-ins like Clint Session, Craphonso Thorpe and Michael Toudouze can play
If before the game I had said to you that a fourth-string left tackle would be matched up against Chargers outside linebacker Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman, I'm thinking many of you wouldn't have liked the Colts chances.

Michael Toudouze has had an interesting season. After initially making the final cuts for the team's active roster, the Colts released him on September 27. He landed on the practice squad two days later. But with injuries to starter Tony Ugoh and third-string left tackle Dan Federkeil, the Colts needed depth at the position and re-signed Toudouze to the active roster on November 10.

An injury to backup Charlie Johnson in the second quarter forced a guy who was technically the fourth-string left tackle into action. After a shaky first couple of snaps, Toudouze settled in very nicely. He did a very nice job, getting excellent hand placement on Merriman, engulfing and lifting the quick outside linebacker, thereby negating Merriman's speed and ability to drive his legs in the bull-rush.

So hats off to Howard Mudd, the best offensive line coach in the NFL for once again having all his linemen prepared.

Coming out of college, the word was that Clint Session was undersized, but excelled in coverage. That also seems to be true in the NFL. He had two interceptions in his first official professional start at weakside linebacker, both of which were very athletic and alert plays. Session was the primary weakside linebacker last week against the Patriots, but the Colts opened the game in a nickel defense, so he didn't officially get credit for a start. The kid seems to have a knack for making plays and a nose for the ball. That's something that will endear you to Coach Dungy. On Sunday night, Session was not really tested much against the run. If he can show that he can hold his own in that department, the future looks very bright for this rookie out of Pittsburgh.

Craphonso Thorpe has been cut by three NFL teams since being drafted in the fourth round in 2005 by the Chiefs. Thorpe had some decent returns and actually looked fairly comfortable on the outside as a receiver, catching five out of nine balls thrown to his area for 41 yards.

With that said, he did make a few mistakes. He let a punt go that rolled to the 1-yard line after waving for a fair catch and showed a tendency to do more East-West running than North-South. With the release of T.J. Rushing late last week, the return game is apparently now Craphonso's show. If he can prove himself, he's got a chance to be an important factor on one of the league's elite teams.

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