INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts found yet another way to lose in the city of Pittsburgh.
And, considering what was at stake, this might be the most crushing of all those losses.
What was learned from the Colts (10-5) folding down the stretch and losing 28-24 to the Steelers (12-3)?
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. Costly Collapse: Leading by three scores as the third quarter clock reached past the mid-way point, this game looked all but over. Pittsburgh, which hadn’t scored 20 points for an entire game in over a month, had showed zero signs of producing three scoring drives. Let alone putting up that number in 20 minutes of football. Well, they did and that came after the Colts produced one of the most dominant halves you’ll ever see. Philip Rivers said after the Colts blew their 24-7 lead on Sunday that they lost their ‘feel of attacking’ and instead just played with the ‘feel of hanging on.’ In this league, that’ll get you beat, and the Colts found that out with a potential playoff berth on the line. Offensively and defensively, the Colts couldn’t find the winning play to put the Steelers away. The offense got away from the run game and a seriously banged up offensive line started to wilt. The defense let the Steelers find a needed passing rhythm. Yes, there were some questionable calls against the Colts on Sunday. But the Colts fell apart just fine enough without help from the officiating crew. With so much on the line in Week 16, a collapse like this is embarrassing on many fronts. And it now leaves the Colts needing help in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, in a year in which nearly half the conference makes the postseason.
2. Defense Falls Apart: Like we mentioned above, the Colts defense was stifling in the first half. They completely eliminated the Steelers run game (7 carries for 4 yards), with Big Ben completing just 55 percent of his passes. But the second half effort, against an anemic offense, was putrid. Big Ben went 23-of-29 (79 percent) in the second half for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns. That’s an inexcusable performance in one half of football. Similar to what the Colts did in their loss to the Ravens last month, they let the opposing offense too easily find success in a quick rhythm passing game. The Steelers hit on big plays, too, and the Colts never found that game-changing turnover. We made the note all week long that this defense was starting to bend as of late, well that dam broke in the second half with yards turning into points.
3. Going Away From Jonathan Taylor: With the Colts leading by three scores, Jonathan Taylor had carried the ball 16 times for 74 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and was again looking like the explosive/make you miss runner we’ve seen more of here lately. However, the Colts abandoned the run game the rest of the way. After taking a 24-7 lead with 9:14 to go in the third quarter, the Colts ran it 3 times the remainder of the game, with Taylor having 2 of those carries. Frank Reich said afterwards that his own play-calling ‘wasn’t good’ and also noted that the Colts had several run calls turn into pass plays, based off the personnel look that the Steelers played (base defense vs. the Colts 3-wideout set). While some of that is obviously true, you still needed to feature Taylor more, and more importantly, alleviate some stress of playing with backup, backup tackles (see more below). With that lead and cushion, and how the game was unfolding, it was inexcusable for arguably your best skill player right now (Taylor) to have just 2 carries in the final 25 minutes of such an important game.
4. Chris Ballard’s Biggest 2020 Failure: There’s so many things to like about the roster construction of Chris Ballard. But his biggest mistake this offseason, which we’ve stated since March, cost the Colts dearly on Sunday. With Braden Smith on the COVID-19 list and Anthony Castonzo injuring his ankle at Thursday’s practice, the Colts were in scramble mode to fill those starting tackle spots. Guys named Will Holden and Chaz Green started, and then J’Marcus Webb was needed to fill-in when Holden got hurt. While Green was the most susceptible at right tackle, having to downgrade so much at tackle led to breakdowns all afternoon in Rivers getting sacked a season-high 5 times, and T.J. Watt’s first-half strip sack being the only reason why this game wasn’t over at intermission. What the lack of attention Ballard gave the offensive tackle position this offseason does in games like this is it stresses your entire offense—whether it’s in straight up protecting the quarterback or the amount of skill guys you can deploy on a route tree. This was such a big mistake by the Colts GM and surprising given his core beliefs. It cost the Colts against the Browns in October and did again on Sunday.
5. Week 17 Picture: First, win. Second, get help. The Colts no longer can just say ‘if we win, we will get in.’ For the Colts to make the playoffs in 2020, they need to beat the 1-win Jaguars at home in the season final. And they will need one of the following teams to lose: Browns (at Steelers), Dolphins (at Bills), Ravens (at Bengals) or Titans (at Texans). What has particularly put the Colts in this position of needing help comes from all 5 of their losses being in the AFC and then 2 in the division. That has the Colts in hardly any favorable tiebreaker situations. Normally, a double-digit win season with 7 playoff spots available would be enough to get into the postseason. It’s not in 2020, with how top-heavy this conference is this season. Entering Sunday, December had been great to the Colts this season (3-0 record). But this second-half collapse has them outside of the playoff picture heading into Week 17.
-Injury Report: The Colts had the following players inactive on Sunday: LT-Anthony Castonzo (knee/ankle), WR-Marcus Johnson (quad), CB-Isaiah Rodgers, QB-Jacob Eason, WR-Dezmon Patmon. Safety Khari Willis got a concussion in the 3rd quarter and did not return. Left tackle Will Holden (ankle) got hurt in the 4th quarter and did not return. Wide receiver Michael Pittman left the game in the 4th quarter (concussion protocol) and did not return.
–Key Stat: Sunday’s 17-point second-half comeback by the Steelers was the largest in the Mike Tomlin era.
–What’s Next: The Colts (10-5) will have their season finale next Sunday at 4:25 PM against the Jaguars (1-14).