The Colts traveled to Pittsburgh Sunday night to take on the Steelers in the second preseason game of the year. Before we dissect the performance of Andrew Luck or discuss which players stood out, we need to start with a much more somber topic.
Austin Collie left the game in the first quarter due to concussion like symptoms. The head injury came on a hit that should never have happened: he was either either already down or very close to being down when Steelers LB Larry Foote drilled him in the head with his forearm. It was a pointless, gutless hit from a member of a team that has been fined and admonished for unsafe hits countless times. The fact that the Steelers have yet to understand the point is rather disturbing.
Beyond the hit itself, our thoughts and prayers are with Collie. Tonight's injury will be his 4th concussion since 2010. Unlike broken bones, pulled muscles, or sprained ligaments, there is no cure for brain injuries. There is no timetable on how they'll heal. In fact, there is little concrete fact and understanding when it comes to brain injuries. While many will write about the impact Collie's injury will have on the Colts offense, I'll just say this: my concern for Collie is not whether or not he plays in the NFL again, only that he can live a happy, healthy life, for many years to come. We often lose sight of the fact that NFL players are humans, too, and regardless of money or fame, no one deserves to suffer through the pains of concussions.
As for the rest of the Colts, the first half of tonight's game, and the first quarter in particular, will serve as a nice wake up call following their near-perfect opener against the Rams last week. The Colts quickly fell behind by 14 points after two bad plays - one play by the defense, which saw PIT WR Antonio Brown take a short pass and turn it into a 53-yard touchdown, juking approximlately 42 Colts players in the process.
The Colts other bad play was authored by none other than Andrew Luck himself. This play saw Luck, who was coming off of an eye-popping performance against the Rams, stare down his receiver for the entire route and compounded the mistake by failing to put enough heat on the pass. The play resulted in a pick-6.
Down by two scores, the Colts showed their fans that they have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the teams' future. As they came back onto the field following the pick-6, the Colts could have panicked. They could have tried to atone for their errors in one play. A penalty or two may have been expected. Instead, the Colts offense went on a 10-play, 80-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard Donald Brown run. It was a methodical drive, which displayed the calmness, poise, and precision Colts fans can come to expect from Luck.
After the defense continued to hold up their end of the bargain, forcing the Steelers to punt on consecutive drives - we'll only make a cursory mention of TY Hiltons horrendous Misty May-Treanor impersonation which lead to a scoring-drive-killing interception - the offense went back to work, executing another 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
That drive featured everything Colts fans can expect to see this season: Andrew Luck finding Reggie Wayne, some nice play from the running backs, some inconsistent play from the offensive line, and some horrendous, mind-numbing officiating. I would attempt to describe the final 3 "scoring plays" which finally resulted in the Colts pulling even, but "Replacement Ref" is a dead language, and so it is impossible for me to translate it for you.
The Colts starters would exit the game with a 3-point lead (17-14) after finishing off one more scoring drive, which ended in a 53-yard Adam Vinatieri FG as time expired in the first half. While tonight's performance wasn't as effortless or dominating as last week's, it should be viewed as success. The Colts were on the road against a tough team, and, despite two bad plays from their starters, put together very solid performances.
Quick Thoughts, the Good:
- Andrew Luck started off slow, threw a bad pick, and looked like a rookie for most of the first quarter. But Luck is a quick study, and finished the night 16/25 for 175 yards. The box score will also read "2 interceptions", but to count the TY Hilton pizza-making demonstration against Luck would be an assault on common sense. Look past the stats, and you'll see that post-pick-6 Luck was stellar.
- Donald Brown continues to impress. Yes, it's true, he had quite a few runs that went nowhere, but - and I don't mean to sound like a broken record here - his offensive line isn't all that good. When Brown does get time and space, the result is a big play. If Brown can stay healthy this year, he's going to prove a lot of people wrong.
- Vick Ballard is quickly winning the #2 RB spot on the team. He has speed, he has moves, he has power. If he can continue to develop the skills he's shown off in the preseason, there's no reason to believe he cannot transition into the starting role if/when the Colts move on from Donald Brown.
- Jerry Hughes continues to make plays. He once again put pressure on the quarterback, notching his third sack of the season, and even helped out against the run at times. Like Brown, if Hughes can stay on the field (and get opportunities behind Freeney and Mathis) he could make some people eat a lot of crow.
- Reggie Wayne showed up in a big way tonight, hauling in 6 catches for 74 yards. Luck targetted Wayne 9 times in the first half and you can see the pair developing nice chemistry already. While it's clear Wayne has lost a step, he is still going to be a very productive receiver this year.
- Antoine Bethea and Jerraud Powers both played well in pass defense tonight. They'll have to be at the top of their game all year if the Colts defense is going to have a chance of stopping opposing offenses, as the rest of the secondary looks shaky, at best.
- The Colts young receiving targets (Allen, Fleener, and Brazill) all looked good tonight. All three ran good routes and found open holes in the coverage. Regarding Fleener and Allen specifically: both show good intelligence and game sense by being ready as the hot receiver when Luck found himself under pressure from the Steelers blitzes. One definitely gets the sense that, as these young players continue to grow together, the Colts offense could become quite the dangerous group.
- Griff Whalen, who is fighting for a roster spot, made a strong case tonight, catching 4 of his 5 targets for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Quick Thoughts, the Bad:
- Injuries! We've discussed Collie, we can also add LB Robert Mathis (shoulder) and DE Cory Redding (knee) to the list. Three key players at three key positions. When you're as young and as thin (depth wise) as the Colts, your success will come down to maximizing the output of your best players, and if those three players miss any significant time, it's going to be that much harder for the Colts to have success.
- Cris Collinsworth. Seriously, dude, I get that it's preseason, but a little "try hard" never hurt anyone. Admittedly, Collinsworth has never been my cup-o-tea, but he was in rare form tonight.
- The offensive line. They looked better at times, and Andrew Luck wasn't running for his life nearly as much as he was last week, but the line is still very inconsistent, and is still the unit that will hold the offense back. The right side of the line, in particular, was gloriously cringe-worthy. One has to wonder: what blocks better, Winston Justice, or a 6th-round pick. I'm not referring to an OL drafted in the 6th round, but the actual note card you write that 6th-round pick's name on.
- TY Hilton. I've alluded to it a few times, but his botching of a perfect Andrew Luck pass which lead to an interception is just not the kind of play you can make in the NFL. It's even worse coming from a guy who is trying to win a starting job. Hilton finished with 2 catches (on 6 targets) for 37 yards. He's shown flashes, but he's going to have to grow up quick if he hopes to be starting week 1.
- Chuck Pagano did his best Jim Caldwell impression, punting from the Steelers' 37-yard line. The McAfee punt obviously landed in the end zone, which resulted in a net gain of 17-yards. Even the US Government noted that this probably isn't the most efficient outcome.
Quick Thoughts, the Ugly:
- The replacement refs are horrible. I had been defending them for weeks, reasoning that, if Walt Coleman and Ron Winters can be regular refs, so can these guys. I was wrong. Forgive me, please. We had a touchdown called back because the refs blew the play dead for 12-men on defense (not a play-killing penalty). We had so many horrendous pass interference non-calls that it caused multiple people on twitter to wonder if we were watching the 2003 AFCCG. The worst part of these refs? They're almost making me miss Ron Winters and Walt Coleman. Almost.
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