It’s been a decade since the Indianapolis Colts have started a season with three straight losses. In 2011, Peyton Manning missed the season after having another surgery on his neck, and Curtis Painter — and others — were left to pick things up. Even with Jacoby Brissett under center in 2017, Indianapolis beat the Cleveland Browns to start the campaign 1-2.
Two home games against playoff-caliber opponents and a divisional road loss against an under-manned Tennessee Titans offense have put the Colts in a hole that will be difficult to escape.
INJURIES ARE OUT OF CONTROL
Starting quarterback Carson Wentz had surgery on his foot in training camp and was forced to miss the crucial time he needed to get on the same page with his receivers. His return from surgery was faster than anticipated, an encouraging sign, but a COVID scare cost him practice time leading up to Week 1 and a nasty ankle injury in Week 2 was all but certain to require weeks on the sideline.
To his credit, Wentz gutted it out with ankles that were clearly limited his mobility and causing him pain but that doesn’t change the fact that he is very limited until he gets fully healthy.
All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard missed the start of training camp after having a procedure on his ankle. Ankle injuries have held him out of practice and he has not looked nearly as explosive to start the season.
Indy’s most proven receiving weapon T.Y. Hilton identified a neck injury that resulted in him being placed on injured reserve. He has been unable to take a snap this season and while he is eligible to return in Week 4, nothing has indicated that is likely to happen.
Top cornerback Xavier Rhodes missed the first two games of the season with a calf injury.
Starting right tackle Braden Smith got abused in the season opener against Seattle and suffered a foot injury that has kept him out of the lineup for two straight games. He is expected to rejoin starting left tackle Eric Fisher who has made his way back onto the field quicker than most had anticipated — although Fisher missed Week 1 and his absence was felt, literally, by Wentz that Sunday afternoon.
Backups and special teamers like quarterback Sam Ehlinger, wide receiver Dezmon Patmon, and linebacker Jordan Glasgow are all also sidelined for weeks.
All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson added to his ailing foot and back issues by suffering what has been called a high ankle sprain after getting rolled up against the Titans. These injuries frequently require 4-6 weeks of recovery to get back to full strength and Nelson won’t get the chance to “tough it out” in the trenches like Wentz was able to at quarterback.
Rookie defensive end Kwity Paye was supposed to be a key part of helping the defensive line create consistent pass rush pressure. As expected, he has been working to figure out a pretty steep NFL talent learning curve. He left today’s game early with a hamstring issue and never returned.
Starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin suffered an ankle injury and left the contest early. Khari Willis left early after suffering from cramps.
Suffice to say, the Colts desperately need to get healthy and they don’t have a Bye until Week 14.
OFFENSE IS LOST
There are a variety of built-in excuses, many mentioned above, but the Colts’ offense has been unable to establish an identity earn find a rhythm. The best players on the offensive side of the ball, at least with the current situation at quarterback, are Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines.
Taylor was an absolute beast down the stretch in his rookie season and continues to be the most explosive ball carrier in Indianapolis. He has surprised critics by also being efficient as a pass-catcher, and can be the same kind of threat in space with the ball in his hands. Before Taylor, the only running back in recent Colts franchise history who could unquestionably be labeled a bell-cow back was Edgerrin James.
Today, Taylor rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries. 32 of those yards came on two of those carries, for 23 yards in the first quarter and the other for nine yards in the third quarter. This means he was still averaging four yards per carry on the rest of his attempts. How can a player as dynamic and clearly powerful as Taylor get only 10 carries and three total targets in the passing game?
With a depleted receiver corps, it seems obvious to just about anyone that Nyheim Hines needs to play a more prominent role. He has been utilized heavily during two-minute drives and as a third-down back but is too frequently only on the field when Taylor is not. Getting Hines in space with the ball will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. How can you possibly account for Taylor and also keep Hines in check?
Instead, Frank Reich has too often asked his clearly depleted receiving room to create separation on routes that are taking too long to develop. His offensive line is likewise injured and allowing more pressure on Carson Wentz than he had ever anticipated and Wentz hasn’t exactly earned a reputation as a player who gets the ball out quickly under ideal circumstances.
What gives? Why not do something to adjust to the personnel? At what level of football isn’t it completely obvious that you have to have your best players and/or athletes on the field as often as possible if you intend to win games? You must mask the limitations each of your players has by being creative and making adjustments. It appears that it has been a real struggle for the coaching staff to figure it out to this point.
DEFENSE ISN’T MUCH BETTER
Gone are veteran stalwarts Justin Houston and Denico Autry at defensive end. In are young players who will need to develop for the defensive line to settle in — they’ve not quite gotten there yet.
With Leonard at less than full strength, the second level is weak. Julian Blackmon made 11 tackles today. He and Kenny Moore are the smallest guys on the field. This won’t last long. Blackmon will also miss time if he has to carry such a heavy load and make up for a weakened linebacker room.
The secondary has been a mess. Rhodes has missed time. Carrie hasn’t looked nearly as strong as he did last season. Ya-Sin has held his own and shown some signs of real improvement but left today’s game injured. Safety Khari Willis has been a leader on this defense but got abused in coverage against Seattle.
There are some really serious issues that will need to be discussed if things don’t start turning around soon. Indianapolis cannot afford to lose to Miami on the road. The next seven weeks are all winnable games. It’s probably unrealistic to expect this team, in its current state, to put together a streak that long but the Colts must find a way to reach Week 11 at 5-5.
Going to Buffalo and winning or beating the Bucs at home seem comically unlikely at this point. This would put the Colts at 5-7 and at best 6-7 heading into the Week 14 Bye. It’s hard to see a version of this season where the Colts win more than 10 games — and that’s if they can salvage things over the next seven weeks.
The hole is starting to get really dark.