Where this game distinguishes itself from prior contests is that the Colts defense held strong late in the game, forcing three three-and-outs in the second half, and forced a turnover on downs when it mattered most.
The Colts typically hold the turnover advantage, but Peyton Manning's interception and Joseph Addai's uncharacteristic fumble nearly cost them the win on Sunday. The Colts have more work to do if they hope to continue their push a division title and playoff berth.
Even so, there was a lot to be happy with and a lot of individual performances that are worthy of recognition:
Who Looked Good On Offense?
Offensively, the passing game looked outstanding, even with the loss of Anthony Gonzalez to a knee injury. Manning may have more weapons in the passing game than he has had since Brandon Stokley was with the team in 2004. While the running game was not outstanding, Addai and Donald Brown look like a formidable tandem rotation that should be effective if the offensive line can provide consistent run blocking.
Reggie Wayne looks to be in mid-season form already. No matter who the Jags put on Wayne, he found ways to get open, stretch the field, and reel in the ball. Wayne finished the game with 10 receptions for 162 yards, including three receptions of 15 yards or more.
Coming into the contest, Charlie Johnson was arguably the biggest offensive question mark for the Colts. Johnson deserves a lot of credit for not allowing a sack, giving Manning plenty of time to pass the ball, and laying solid blocks in the run game. He played consistently, did not make mistakes, and has passed his first test as a starting left tackle in the NFL.
Donald Brown looked faster, stronger, and quicker to the hole than Addai (who also had a solid day). He showed the ability to block, both in the backfield and downfield for the passing game. While a three-yard average on the ground is not impressive, it is a bit misleading. Until the Colts started running a "safe" offense, Brown was carrying the ball nearly five yards a clip, and added another 16 yards receiving.
Dallas Clark laid one of the best blocks of his career, which resulted in a long touchdown reception for Wayne. He added 39 yards receiving, again proving to be one of Manning's most reliable targets downfield.
There were two glaring problems offensively. First, the offensive play-calling, particularly late in the game, made the offense look pedestrian, allowing the Jaguars offense too many opportunities to get back in the game. For much of the game, the offense was able generate yards in the air at will, punishing the Jaguars young secondary.
Instead of sticking to what was effective, the Colts went into clock-controlling offense too early, forcing outside runs and short screen passes. The new approach played right into the hands of an aggressive Jaguars defense, focused intently on attack the line of scrimmage. At that time, the Jaguars were vulnerable more than ever to an aggressive offense which refused to let up.Instead, the Colts pulled the throttle back and forced Pat McAfee and the defense to play brilliantly in order to put the game away.
Secondly, the right side of the offensive line underperformed. The team of Mike Pollak and Ryan Diem seemed inconsistent and allowed more pressure on Manning than he felt from the left side. The Colts did gain an average of seven yards on the four run plays they followed Diem, but only averaged 1.75 yards on eight plays around the right end, and couldn't covert on two runs to the right in the fourth quarter that would have salted the game away. The right side will need to improve if the Colts hope to get better running the ball in 2009.
Who Looked Good On Defense?
Defensively, there was a lot to be happy with. While the Colts allowed more than 100 yards on the ground, they held Maurice Jones-Drew under that plateau and limited the Jaguars' running attack to much lower numbers than they are capable of generating on the ground. Additionally, this defense is actually capable of getting opposing offenses off the field on third down, which allowed the Colts to win the time of possession battle.
Dwight Freeney spent much of the game terrorizing David Gerrard in the backfield, welcoming Eugene Monroe to the NFL. He finished the game with two tackles, two quarterback hurries, and a sack. Robert Mathis also pressured Gerrard, finishing the game with 3 tackles, 1 quarterback hurry, and a pass defensed. More impressive was that Mathis looked very good against the run, quickly moving down the line to stop Jaguars ball carriers for short gains.
On the interior, Antonio Johnson played well, excelling in the second half. "Mookie" displayed surprising speed on one play by tracking down the ball carrier after a five-yard run, even though the play went wide right. Johnson finished the game second on the team in tackles, with five solos and two assists.
The defensive MVP in the second half was Gary Brackett. Brackett had seven of his eight tackles, one of his two assists, and two quarterback hurries all in the second half. Any concerns that Brackett may have a hangover in production after finishing last season injured are no longer necessary.
Rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers has come out of the gate hot. The third-round selection out of Auburn was solid in coverage, defending two passes, including a near interception and a huge coverage play on veteran Torry Holt. While he missed a tackle which would have stopped Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars on a third-and-short, the rest of the game made him look like an early Rooke of the Year contender. Polian may have officially ended his third-round curse with Powers.
Both Tyjuan Hagler and Clint Session had solid individual performances. Neither were game-breakers, but neither presented a glaring liability in either aspect of the game. Kelvin Hayden and Antoine Bethea both pitched in for a solid secondary performance. Bethea displayed solid tackling and stepped up against the run, while Hayden deflected two passes and did his part to keep the Jaguars' receivers from scoring a touchdown.
Finally, Eric Foster looked strong on the inside, actively pursuing plays against the run, holding the line consistently.
The defense struggled in third-and-short situations. It seemed that the Jaguars were able to keep offensive drives going so long as they were able to get 7 or more yards on their two offensive plays. This is disappointing and hopefully the return of Ed Johnson and Bob Sanders will help the defense improve in this area.
Individually, Daniel Muir looked too one-dimensional. While he is a big body who is hard to move off the line of scrimmage, he brings little else to the defensive line. He finished the game with one solo tackle but missed a sure sack — which Freeney had practically gift-wrapped for him — and was ineffective otherwise.
When Ed Johnson returns, Muir will likely move to the bottom of the defensive tackle rotation, seeing the field only in goal-line situations.
Overall, there is a lot to be positive about as the Colts start a new season. The offense looks powerful, the defense has improved, Pat McAfee has shown that he can add to the team, and our draft class looks really strong. If the team can stay healthy, while starters Ed Johnson, Anthony Gonzalez, and Bob Sanders all make their returns, there is no reason to believe that this team cannot contend for another division championship and playoff berth in 2009.
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