INDIANAPOLIS – Leave it to the Indy native who used to go to games with his dad in section 540 at Lucas Oil Stadium and dress up as Marvin Harrison for Halloween to spoil Sam Ehlinger’s debut.
Terry McLaurin’s final-minute heroics helped the Commanders erase a two-score 4th-quarter deficit as the Colts suffered their most excruciating loss of the season on Sunday evening.
Here is what was learned from the Colts (3-4-1) losing 17-16 to the Commanders in Week Eight:
FIVE THINGS LEARNED
1. Sam Ehlinger With A Pretty Solid Debut: Just take out that fumble…Outside of Sam Ehlinger coughing up the ball on a first-half fumble, it was a really nice starting debut for the second-year quarterback. Ehlinger went 17-of-23 for 201 yards on Sunday. His ability to make some plays with his legs was on display, and it keyed the few Indy scoring drives. More so though, Ehlinger made some impressive throws down the field on more than one occasion. He showed a willingness to take chances vertically, giving his pass catchers opportunities to make plays, which is an element this offense hasn’t had enough of in 2022, and it was a major question mark for Ehlinger at the NFL level. And Ehlinger bounced back really nicely from such a careless turnover. What Ehlinger brings the Colts is a needed threat with his legs, because the Colts just can’t create consistent offensive production without some off-script playmaking. Sunday was a reminder of no matter if the Colts think Ehlinger should be the future or not at QB (we are nowhere close to that answer yet), having a QB who can make plays with his legs is a non-negotiable in today’s NFL. Of course, Ehlinger will now have NFL film on him, and he heads to the road next week to face a Bill Belichick game plan, another step in a dream job interview for the former 6th round pick. As we said all week long, the Colts have been a boring football team for much of 2022. But Ehlinger brought a spark, a different playing style and should be commended for how he performed in his first NFL start.
2. Too Costly: Along with the Sam Ehlinger fumble in Washington territory, Jonathan Taylor had another second-half fumble with the Colts in scoring position (like he did against the Titans) and Michael Pittman dropped a potential game-changing ball on the final drive of the game. The turnovers have told so much of the story for the Colts this season. They are back-breaking. And on a day when the scoring opportunities were so precious, even a couple of Chase McLaughlin field goals would have been the difference on the drives Ehlinger and Taylor coughed it up. As Frank Reich said afterwards, you can’t have ‘critical mistakes’ and that’s especially true when you are a football team lacking in creating a plethora of scoring chances. The Colts have now fumbled 21 times this season, an absurd number. While fumble luck (recovering fumbles) has often been on the Colts side this season, it wasn’t on Sunday. Maybe with all the Colts greats in the building for Tarik Glenn’s Ring of Honor ceremony, it stings even more, but it’s amazing the Colts have now gone 10 straight games without a halftime lead. What does that say about Frank Reich and his football team in the scripted portions of games + coming out of the locker room with early urgency? Playing from behind, at that frequency, while committing these turnovers, is no recipe for success.
3. Short-Yardage, Offensive Line, Disappointment: Sure, we live in our Indy bubble. But I’d argue the Colts offensive line has disappointed more than position group in the NFL this year. The reason for mentioning that is on Sunday you saw the Colts once again unable to make key short-yardage plays. You had a peculiar 3rd-and-3 run call in the third quarter with Jonathan Taylor getting stuffed, and the Colts having to settle for a field goal. On a 3rd-and-1 late in the game, Frank Reich elected to have Sam Ehlinger in the shotgun (you can’t tell me a player with Ehlinger’s athleticism/natural instincts can’t execute a QB sneak). Quenton Nelson whiffed on his block attempt, and the Colts were stopped again, with a field goal the result. And then with a chance to potentially ice the game on a 3rd-and-inches late, Reich pondered going for it, before electing to punt it away. Reich had some nice moments in getting speedsters Nyheim Hines and Parris Campbell in space on Sunday, but the short-yardage questions are squarely on him and the poor offensive line. The highest paid offensive line in the NFL has failed the Colts far too often this season, and it has an aggressively minded head coach lacking confidence in a moment the Colts needed just inches for a possible game-clinching first down. These are situations and moments the Colts have built their roster to be automatics, with a richly invested offensive line supposed to be the maulers in re-setting the line of scrimmage. Instead, the group is a liability, and has been way, way too much this season.
4. Shaquille Leonard Makes Second Season Debut: What this Colts defense has been missing in 2022 found something, thanks to the guy who has hardly been on the field. It was Shaquille Leonard coming down with a 4th quarter interception that allowed the Colts to take their first lead of the afternoon and stretch it two scores with 11 minutes to play. On a limited pitch count heading into Sunday (Leonard said it was at 20 plays), Leonard played just 1 series in the first half, before seeing much more action in the 2nd half, including playing three straight series at one point. Leonard was not on the field for the final drive of the game, with Frank Reich citing the planned pitch count for that reason. To be honest, Leonard had a really poor first drive on Sunday. His full day on Sunday was a little bit like what you expect from him. Some struggles in run coverage, but you live with it if he’s going to make those turnovers. Leonard did have a couple of poor plays reading angles in space, too, which is probably to be expected after he’s barely played since last January. For Leonard’s first full game of 2022, you got a little bit of everything. On the defensive front, Grover Stewart, DeForest Buckner and Zaire Franklin continue their really strong seasons. And a 4th-quarter knee injury to Tyquan Lewis was hard to watch, and way too reminiscent of what happened in the Halloween home game last year. This unit had an opportunity to finish the game though, defending 89 yards, with a 6-point lead. But a quiet pass rush allowed for the elusive Taylor Heinicke to convert multiple 4th downs, and keep things alive far too long on the 9-play, 89-yard game-winning drive.
5. Be Open To Selling: Tuesday is the NFL trade deadline and it would be a massive mistake by the Colts if they did not try to sell a piece or two. What the Colts need to ask themselves is: Are they a legit January contender this season, and weigh that knowing the future questions awaiting this coming offseason? What’s the need for both Nick Foles and Matt Ryan to be on the roster, making that money as QB2 and QB3? What about some veterans in contract years—Yannick Ngakoue comes to mind—that don’t fit future plans? Is it time to try and move Ryan Kelly and give Danny Pinter a shot at center? The Colts must, must be open to the idea of trying to find some 2023 draft capital in the next 48 hours, knowing the massive importance of next year’s draft. Again, this is not saying the Colts should ‘blow it up.’ No. But they need to have an open mind in trying to find a desperate team to give them something of future substance. This is a Colts team 10th place in the AFC, heading into consecutive road games before the undefeated Eagles come to Lucas Oil Stadium. They are two games back in the loss column of the Titans, with Tennessee also having the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Colts are a longshot to make the playoffs, and that’s putting it nicely. Awaiting them before Tuesday’s trade deadline is an opportunity to look to the future, which is something the franchise has decided not to do at the most important position in sports too often in the Chris Ballard era. It is time to take a small step in addressing that, and the help around that position.
-Injury Report: The following Colts were INACTIVE on Sunday: QB-Matt Ryan (right shoulder), DE-Kwity Paye (ankle), LB-Grant Stuard (pec), C-Wesley French, DT-Eric Johnson. These Colts got hurt on Sunday and did not return: CB-Tony Brown (hamstring), DL-Tyquan Lewis (knee).
–Key Stat: How about Matt Haack bouncing back with 4 punts for 227 yards, and a net average of 51.0, with 3 of those going inside the 20-yard line?
–What’s Next: The Colts (3-4-1) will now hit the road for two straight games, beginning with a trip to take on the Patriots (3-4) next Sunday at 1:00 PM.