Entering the game, the Colts knew that winning in Buffalo would require their best effort in all three phases. There were too many key moments in this one where the Colts failed to execute or capitalize and against a team as good as the Bills on the road, it’s not surprising to see this result.
UNFORCED ERRORS ON OFFENSE
We’ll start with Philip Rivers and simply point out that today he wasn’t good enough when was needed most. Too many throws were behind receivers or at their feet, overthrown or sailed on him. Michael Pittman Jr. was wide open for a fade in the end zone but the pass was overthrown. T.Y. Hilton had his defenders beat but had to slow up and slide to the ground to attempt a catch on a ball that was underthrown. Jonathan Taylor dropped some passes that he absolutely should have caught, but at least one was thrown behind him, as opposed to hitting him in stride. Other receivers including Jack Doyle and Michael Pittman Jr. had balls thrown at their feet.
With that said, Taylor was given the keys to the backfield early in this game and his drops are partially responsible for the outcome. Indianapolis had a nice drive going and Rivers made an excellent read of the Buffalo defense to change the play at the line of scrimmage. The result was a wide-open Taylor in the middle of the field with a chance to not just get the first down but get some yards after the catch. Instead, he drops the pass, and the drive stalls.
SHORTCOMINGS BY THE COACHING STAFF
The issue with Frank Reich this year is that his decisions bear considerable responsibility for some of his team’s issues but it’s almost never for the same reason. For instance, fans shouldn’t have an issue going for the touchdown with the ball one-year from the goal line late in the first half. The issue is that Frank’s play-call is patently wrong.
I don’t care what his playsheet says or what the analytics tell him, it’s daft to call a pitch to Jonathan Taylor, getting him the ball moving laterally and yards behind the sticks, with this offensive line. Indianapolis has two All-Pro interior linemen and one of the hottest running backs in the league behind them who has been featured seven times as one of the hardest runners in the NFL throughout the season.
He could have tried two runs up the gut or brought in Jacoby Brissett to force the issue at the goal line. No, none of that. Instead, stupid play-call on the first attempt and a failed call on the second when, arguably, after losing yards he should have taken the field goal (which would have resulted in a tie game at the end of regulation as it turns out). When you make a mistake, you do your best to minimize the impact. Instead, too often, the mistakes are compounded. Bad play call. Loss of three yards. Kick the field goal. Nope, fail to score. Great.
Reich also wasted a timeout after the Colts already gave one away in the second half when he challenged the ruling on the field that Zack Moss was down by contact. It was clear to everyone watching the game that his knee was down before the ball came out. The injury gave Frank plenty of time to review the replays and to call that challenge is, we’ll say ill-advised.
FAILURES TO EXECUTE ON OFFENSE AND DEFENSE
Outside of mistakes and a failure to make plays in big moments, Indianapolis was unable to execute for far too much of the game. The defense held one of the hottest offenses in the league to under 30 points but never had the big turnover they needed to impact the game. The closest they got to that play was late in the fourth quarter when Denico Autry stip-sacked Josh Allen deep in the backfield and Indianapolis could have recovered the ball. It didn’t bounce their way and they had to settle for getting the ball deep in their own territory.
The offense was incredibly stringy with the ball, particularly in the first half but 19 minutes and 41 seconds resulted in only 10 first-half points. One of the keys to the game coming in was being efficient on offense and not leaving points on the board. Rodrigo Blankenship missed a field goal try that would have tied it, the Colts failed to convert a nice drive into points resulting in a turnover on downs deep in Bills’ territory, Taylor’s drop ended a drive that would have otherwise likely resulted in more points for Indianapolis, the ball sailed on Michael Pittman Jr. in the end zone.
All of these are examples of points that were left on the field. Get only a couple of those to go your way and the Colts are moving forward.
The hardest part about watching this Colts team come up short in Buffalo is that it will quickly create a lot of question-marks about the future. This team is very close to being an AFC favorite but has a ton of pending free agents that will require attention.
OFFENSIVE PENDING FREE AGENTS
The only quarterback currently under contract for 2021 is rookie Jacob Eason.
T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack are set to be unrestricted free agents and they present the kind of dilemma that general managers have nightmares about. The shrewd armchair GM in me says that it’s time to let Hilton go. Parris Campbell presents a very similar weapon to Hilton and if he can stay healthy would likely deserve a lot of reps. Hilton’s best days could very well be behind him and it’s a struggle to pay him legitimate money in free agency when there are other positions requiring attention. Similarly, the emergence of Jonathan Taylor and the value of Nyheim Hines in a change-of-pace and third-down role seem to make Marlon Mack expendable, particularly with Jordan Wilkins still on the roster.
DEFENSIVE PENDING FREE AGENTS
Justin Houston, Denico Autry, and Al-Quadin Muhammad, the three defensive ends who were most productive and who represent the lion’s share of defensive snaps this season are set to be unrestricted free agents.
Xavier Rhodes had an incredible bounce-back year in the secondary and certainly seems like a primary target to retain but his bargain bin deal from this year likely won’t cut it. T.J. Carrie served as the team’s number two cornerback for much of the season with Rock Ya-Sin continues to show some struggles. He will also be a free agent at the start of the new league year.
Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. is a free agent and has been highly productive in Indianapolis. He has been pushed into a reserve role, however, and it’s hard to determine whether the salary cap should be used elsewhere. For the foreseeable future, it appears that Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke will be the starters in the base defense and Walker is good enough to start somewhere.
Both Malik Hooker and Tavon Wilson are set to become unrestricted free agents. This would leave the Colts with the group of Willis, Blackmon, and Odum. This is a good core group at the position but depth will have to be addressed somehow.
For those keeping track, the list of pending free agents on defense includes at least five existing starts or those who have played considerable reps this season including all of the team’s primary defensive ends.
BREAK IN CONTINUITY?
The other question-marks entering the off-season regard continuity that extends beyond free agency. Will left tackle Anthony Castonzo retire? Will defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus be offered and accept a head coaching position? Will assistant general manager Ed Dodds receive and accept an offer for his shot at a General Manager role, robbing Ballard of one of his biggest front office assets? Will Morocco Brown, Ballard’s director of college scouting, also receive and accept an offer to get his shot as an NFL general manager?
Any or all of these changes could reset some of the chemistry that has formed at West 56th Street.
Of course, not all is bad for Colts fans. This team has made strides in a positive direction and overcome incredible adversity after Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement just weeks before the 2019 season. The defense has looked strong with the addition of DeForest Buckner. The offense still is still one of the best in the league. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor looks dominant and rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr. had a big game in the playoffs.
To this point, Chris Ballard has done an incredible job playing a tough hand and there’s reason to feel confident he’ll continue to do so. The Colts have a lot of players and possible change coming this season but they have a healthy budget sheet and there’s no doubt that Ballard’s binder has a plan for what comes next.