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Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Indianapolis Colts

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INDIANAPOLIS – Entering December, the Colts (6-5) are above .500 and have the final playoff spot in the AFC.

Imagine saying that at the start of the season. Well, that’s the case after Sunday’s 27-20 victory over the Bucs (4-7)

What did we learn from the Colts stretching their win streak to 3 games?

FIVE THINGS LEARNED

1. Closer Samson Ebukam:

Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts Source:Getty

Closer Samson Ebukam: Far too often in this recent stretch of 1 home win in their last 10 games at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts have missed chances to close out games. Specifically, the Colts defense hasn’t been able to slam the door shut when opportunities have been there with leads (last year: Eagles, Commanders, Texans; this year: Browns). Well, another opportunity was sitting there on Sunday. And leave it to newcomer DE-Samson Ebukam for slamming the door empathically. On a 3rd-and-4 just past the two-minute warning, with the Buccaneers down 7, Ebukam whipped Tampa All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs, and stripped Baker Mayfield. Dayo Odeyingbo then pounced on the loose ball. This exact play is what the Colts have been unable to muster in finishing off home victories over the last year. So often, it’s your defensive line which carries the major responsibility in trying to ice such a game. On a day in which the Colts defense had some leaks, particularly against the worst rushing offense in the NFL (Grover Stewart’s absence is for one more week), the unit dialed up a Mariano Rivera-type close in front of their home fans.

2. 4th-And-1 Magic

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4th-And-1 Magic: Shane Steichen is aggressive. And he’s also creative. We saw both of those on display in Sunday’s 4th quarter. As the Colts started to leak some oil, leading 20-17, they faced a 4th-and-inches the Tampa Bay 49-yard line. Earlier in the week new tight ends coach Tom Manning approached Steichen with a new play call for short yardage. Steichen liked what Manning was drawing up, with some internal debate on who should be the fullback for the play. Once Zaire Franklin was decided upon to line up as the fullback, the Colts had something ready for game day. And on Sunday it worked beautifully, with the Bucs selling out all 11 defenders on the run, leaving Mo Alie-Cox wide open for his biggest play of the season. Getting the lead back to two scores in capping that drive helped the Colts ice this one away. I did think a nice wrinkle from the Colts offense on Sunday was going back to using tempo, which is something they’ve had success with this season. It was needed in doing something to counter trying to line straight up against the Bucs and beat them that way. Gardner Minshew (24-of-51 for 251 yards and 1 interception) still had plenty of shaky moments on Sunday, and the Colts are having to overcome his lackluster play. Again, if a couple of plays go differently for Tampa, this Colts offense would be scrutinized more and more. It’s playing with fire right now, with virtually no passing game down the field. But thanks to the magic of this 4th-and-1 play call, the Colts are now in the AFC’s final playoff spot entering December.

3. Best Jonathan Taylor In 2023?

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Best Jonathan Taylor In 2023? The Jonathan Taylor stat line won’t do his day complete justice. Sunday was Taylor looking like a Pro Bowl runner, even if 15 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns won’t fall into the ‘games to remember’ category when it’s all said and done for Taylor. The 4th year running back had some darn impressive runs, creating extra yards after contact. Also, Zack Moss (8 carries for 55 yards) looked spry in getting back to a complementary role after having just 1 carry in the Colts last game. Right now, things are stacked against these running backs and the Colts run game. The Colts passing offense isn’t potent enough to force the opposing defense to think twice about loading the box. So yardage in the run game is going to have to often come on special playmaking from Taylor first. And No. 28 showed that on Sunday, even if the box score doesn’t jump off the page with that, and his first half-usage was a bit spotty.

4. Shaquille Leonard Sees Replacement Make Interception

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Shaquille Leonard Sees Replacement Make Interception: Sunday brought something I’ve never seen in any NFL stadium. You had the Colts put up a tribute video for the recently cut Shaquille Leonard, with the former Indy linebacker in the stadium to witness the video/crowd reaction. Some 5 days after being cut by the Colts, there was Leonard pumping up the crowd on the jumbotron after the video played. What at first felt a little odd, turned into quite the feel-good moment for Leonard and the Colts crowd. And then, fittingly, on the very drive after showing Leonard, the man who took his spot on the Colts 53-man roster made a vintage No. 53 play. It was Ronnie Harrison Jr., a converted safety playing linebacker, who was called up from the practice squad after Leonard being cut, and played that 3rd linebacker role, alongside Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed on Sunday. Harrison is a former 3rd round pick, who has exclusively played safety in his NFL career. But the Colts explored with some things when they brought Harrison Jr. back to their practice squad after cutting him in the preseason. Today’s NFL is trending more and more pass-happy, so seeing a safety-body type at linebacker isn’t the craziest idea in the world. And Harrison Jr.’s ball skills were on display Sunday in making a really nice snag for the second-quarter INT of Baker Mayfield ,which the Colts turned into 7 points. The play was so eerily similar to something Leonard did quite often from 2018-21, and you had plenty of nostalgia around that on Sunday afternoon.

5. Another Step Forward

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Another Step Forward: Imagine saying at the start of the season, the Indianapolis Colts will enter the month of December with a record above .500. Put all the schedule/quality of play talk to the side, a 6-5 mark entering December is something no one saw coming (even me when I predicted 7 wins at the start of the season). In making it 3 straight victories, the Colts continue to be in prime lurking position of the AFC Wild Card (currently in 7th place, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans). Stringing something together like this current win streak was a must to try and generate more and more playoff noise. The Colts now have their longest win streak since December 2021, and are in a position for more playoff pushing with 6 weeks to go. Credit to Shane Steichen for bringing in a totally different energy in his first year with the Colts. It’s clearly resonated with this 2023 Colts team. And in seeing Baker Mayfield come and go, they will not play another quarterback even at Mayfield’s (mediocre?) level until the season finale with Houston and rookie C.J. Stroud.

6. QUICK HITTERS

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QUICK HITTERS

-Injury Report: The following Colts were inactive on Sunday: C-Ryan Kelly (concussion), TE-Drew Ogletree (foot) CB-JuJu Brents (quad), OL-Arlington Hambright, LB-Cameron McGrone, WR-Juwann Winfree. The following players got injured and did not return: 

-Key Stat: The Colts defense had 6 sacks on Sunday.

-What’s Next: The Colts (6-5) will now hit the road for consecutive games, taking on the Titans (4-6) next Sunday afternoon, and then the Bengals (5-6) in Cincinnati the following week.

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