Peyton Manning's timing is off with his receivers, which has led to struggles in the passing game throughout the first half of the season.
Manning, averaging 6.8 yards per attempt with an 83.3 passer rating, is currently well off his career numbers of 7.7 and 94.4. If he finishes the season at this level, it would represent his worst since his rookie year.
Peyton Manning hasn't always been on the same page with his receivers this season
However, he has faced the top three defenses in the NFL in terms of passer rating and four of the top ten. He faces only two teams in the top ten the second half — the Steelers this week and the Titans in Week 17, when they will probably have their playoff seeding locked up and will be resting their starters.
Timing and strength of schedule can only take so much of the blame, though. Receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison have been uncharacteristically inconsistent on the outside, being well-outperformed in terms of efficiency by Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark.
Harrison has been targeted 57 times and has only 27 receptions (a 47 percent success rate) and Wayne has been targeted 71 times with 43 catches (61 percent). Harrison's numbers are obviously well below his standards and Wayne's seem impressive by comparison, until compared to the success rates for Clark (31 of 44, 70 percent) and Gonzalez (34 of 47, 72 percent).
The answer, of course, is not to take Harrison and Wayne out of the game plan, but for them to work harder on refining their game and regaining their time with Manning, focus more on Gonzalez and Clark on the inside, and isolate Wayne and Harrison so that they have more favorable matchups, since the days when they are able to line up against anyone and beat them straight out seem to be gone.
Indianapolis has also faced four of the top 10 run defenses in the NFL thus far this season, including the top two, with two more remaining on the schedule in Pittsburgh and Tennessee (once again in Week 17).
The Colts' running game has nowhere to go but up
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The Colts have also had to deal with the ineffectiveness of the passing game — which allowed defenses to focus on the run — injuries along the offensive line and at running back, and the fact that they have not been operating with a lead for most of the season, which is bringing their number of rushing attempts per game way down.
However, injuries, an off-tempo passing game, and game situations become hollow excuses to a point when trying to explain away just how dreadful the Colts have been on the ground this season, as they currently rank last in the NFL.
Joseph Addai has struggled when he's been available and Dominic Rhodes has not fared much better. The schedule gets easier from here, both for the passing game and, by proxy, the running game, but the Indianapolis offensive line simply needs to try harder, finish blocks better, and get off the ball faster.
Until that happens, favorable scheduling and players returning from injury will only help this unit to be less dreadful.
The pass defense has been the brightest spot for the Colts so far this season and Indianapolis is currently 3rd in the league in yards per game allowed and 10th in passer rating allowed.
They were also successful in shutting down the New England Patriots — with or without Tom Brady, they still have Randy Moss and Wes Welker — in Week 9, with only three cornerbacks on the roster. Tony Dungy and Bill Polian have obviously worked well together to find the best fits for the Dungy/Meeks system and their diligence has paid off.
Looking ahead, the Colts face only two top ten pass offenses — Houston and San Diego — in the second half of the season after facing two in the first half in Houston and Green Bay.
After an incredibly rocky start, the run defense seems to have leveled off, even though they still rank 25th overall.
The opening trifecta of of Chicago, Minnesota, and Jacksonville, coupled with the retirement of Quinn Pitcock, the release of Ed Johnson, and an injury to Sanders, put the Colts run defense on track to become one of the worst of all time.
With Sanders back in the lineup, adjustments made by the coaching staff, and a lighter load after those first three games, Indianapolis is slowly bringing the rushing totals down to a more acceptable level. However, in order to bring it back to respectability, the Colts need to find a suitable replacement for Johnson. This is an ongoing issue that they continue to address.
Without T.J. Rushing and with the Justin Forsett experiment officially a failure, Pierre Garcon at least provides consistency and safety in the return game.
Garcon doesn't muff the ball, doesn't fumble, and doesn't call for a fair catch inside the ten. He also isn't a threat to break a long return or run a kick back for a touchdown. But, given what is available and given the other options on the roster, Garcon is the best the Colts can hope for.
Adam Vinatieri still has the leg, but his accuracy has been spotty
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Their coverage units have improved considerably over last season, if for no other reason than the fact that they haven't allowed a touchdown return yet. Indianapolis is giving up a paltry average of 9.0 yards per punt return and 23.0 yards per kickoff return, as opposed to 13.9 and 25.0 in 2007.
And, let us not forget that the Colts surrendered four return touchdowns in the kicking game last season, so 2008 has seen substantial improvements in coverage.
Hunter Smith is on pace to punt ten more times this season than last, but is also averaging four more yards per punt and his current average of 45.2 per punt is very impressive. Although Adam Vinatieri was the clutch-kicking hero in Week 9 against the Patriots, he has converted only six of nine opportunities thus far and is two of four in the 40-49 yard range.
His leg has not run its course yet, as the New England game showed, but the Colts may not want to lean on him too heavily as the season wears on.
Tony Dungy and his staff have done a tremendous job of working with the talent available, teaching those players where to go and how to operate in the system, and maximizing their effectiveness on game day.
Ron Meeks in particular has done more with less than any other coach on the team and was very proactive in his attempts to fix a broken run defense and get the unit back on stable ground.
Linebackers coach Mike Murphy and defensive backs coach Alan Williams have had to work with several moving parts at their positions and have done well to seamlessly transition the defense from week to week and play to play.
John Teerlinck, though, deserves as much blame for the lackluster performance of the defensive line as he received credit for their successes in the past. Dating back to the beginning of 2007, the line has been unable to generate consistent pressure and sack totals have been spiraling downward over the last 25 games (including last season's Divisional playoff loss).
Teerlink received credit for teaching Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Raheem Brock how to diversify their pass rush repertoire and to hold up better against the run, so he deserves his share of the blame for not being able to train numerous possible replacements to fill Ed Johnson's old spot at nose tackle and not being able to teach Freeney, Brock, and Mathis had to make the most out of what they have to work with, as opposed to when he previously helped them get more out of what they already had.
Tom Moore's offense hasn't been its usual efficient self this season
Howard Mudd is doing an admirable job with the players he's had to work and, hopefully, his job gets easier as everyone on the offensive line returns to full health. Tom Moore deserves some criticism for sticking with the same offense and play calls, even though the personnel are clearly not up to their previous standards.
Every skill position player on offense has experienced their share of issues this season, but Moore and his staff failed to make adjustments, in-game, between games, or even during the bye week. Manning is not the same player that he has been historically, but the inability of Moore to adjust the game plan and Manning's role in it, as well as Jim Caldwell's inability to become a calming influence for Manning during a tumultuous time for him are the two biggest coaching mistakes made by the Colts this season; and they have been repeated for the past few weeks.
The biggest shortfall for this coaching staff at the midway point, though, has been its overall failure to adjust to changes in the skill level of players, injuries, and dropoffs in effectiveness.
In previous seasons, the coaches stuck with the scheme and system, stayed the course, and benefited when the starters returned to the lineup or returned to form.
The major difference between 2008 and Colts history dating back to 2002 is that there were too many radical shifts in talent and personnel and staying the course resulted in too many losses, whereas in previous seasons with less turmoil, Indianapolis was still able to pull out victories.
Luck and determination have brought the Colts to 4-4. They are not going to go on a run and make the playoffs with just luck and determination.
Only through innovation, adjustments, and by working outside of the established paradigms will they have a successful second half of the season and live to play on into January.