What a difference a week makes in the NFL. As you can tell by my article, I was not feeling good about the Colt’s season after their loss to Tennessee. If anything, things looked even bleaker for the team midweek when their injury report was released, a report so long it resembled a Russian novel.
Missing Nelson and Smith wasn’t ideal, especially given how their offensive line had failed to protect Carson Wentz during the first three weeks of the season. Other important players like Kwity Paye were also missing, while the likes of Taylor and Wentz himself were questionable at various points in the week.
The Dolphins may have had their own injury issues with Tua Tagovailoa out for a few weeks, and they’d had a disappointing start to their own season. But this was still a team that won ten games last year and had one of the best secondaries in the league.
We always need to be careful about overreacting to one result, whether that’s a win or a loss. But the way the Colts addressed so many of the issues that dogged them in their first three games was very encouraging. At the same time, the Titan’s own shock loss to the Jets leaves the Colts only one game behind the Titans in the race to win the AFC South.
Despite being without Nelson and Smith, the Colt’s offensive line was much stronger against the Dolphins and appeared to get stronger throughout the game. Chris Reed, in particular, filled in admirably for Nelson, while Pryor seemed to be a better option at right tackle than Davenport. There were also signs that Kelly and Fisher are getting closer to full fitness.
As I’ve mentioned in many previous articles, the Colts offensive line is pivotal to the team’s success. Sunday’s performance was still a long way from their best, but it does give us hope that the team can once again have one of the best offensive lines in the league when (if?) the team can get Nelson and Smith back and play its full strength offensive line.
One of the benefits of the line’s improved performance is that none of them got injured, even if it initially appeared that Kelly was hurt. They were also able to stop Wentz from exacerbating his injury and should have helped him continue his recovery.
The offensive line’s performance also allowed the Colts to lean on another of their traditional strengths, the running game. Jonathan Taylor scored his first touchdown and had his first 100-yard game of the season (a week after I masterfully traded for him in a non-Blue Stable fantasy league) as he consistently found holes in Miami’s defense. We know that the Dolphins have one of the worst run defenses in the league, but it was still encouraging to see the Colts running game get going even behind a makeshift offensive line. The team will play better-run defenses this season, but they’ll hopefully do it with Nelson and Smith blocking.
A great offensive line and a strong running game have become the Colts offensive identity in recent years, and both are important to get the best out of Carson Wentz. Wentz himself looked healthier, better, and more mobile. We’re still a long way from seeing the best and fully fit Carson Wentz, but he’s managed to cut out the turnovers that plagued his game last year even while playing under challenging circumstances. Hopefully, more time to learn the offense and more time to build connections with healthier colleagues will allow Wentz to reach the giddy heights eventually he achieved for the Eagles in 2017. At the very least, playing as part of a full-strength Colts team should allow Ballard and Reich to evaluate Wentz properly.
The Colt’s defense also underperformed in their first three games, although it should be noted that they conceded 25-28 points in each of those three losses. It’s been clear that Darius Leonard has been far from full fitness and far from his best so far this year. While I wouldn’t be confident enough to be certain he’s fully recovered from his injury, he did look more mobile and like his usual self against Miami.
One of the biggest disappointments for the team’s defense this season has been their lack of pass rush. We knew the unit could struggle without Houston and Autry, but for the first time, this season the likes of Turay and Lewis were able to give Bucker some help and consistently get to the quarterback. Once again, there will be tougher tests for this unit moving forward, but even without Kwity Paye, there were tentative signs that the team’s young edge rushers might be starting to find their groove.
The Colt’s secondary still had some issues with busted coverage, but it was better than the first three weeks, even with Andrew Sendejo filling it at strong safety. The secondary ensured that many of the Dolphin’s 17 points were only scored after they were realistically out of the game. The Colt’s defense has so far been good at turnovers but bad at stopping the big plays. There were some signs this weekend that they could continue to do the former while cutting down on the latter.
It should not be forgotten that the Colts have faced an incredibly tough first few games of the season. That’s set to continue this week against Baltimore. But the Ravens certainly aren’t unbeatable, having only narrowly beaten Detroit this year. Leonard and Okereke at their best would be one of the better-placed units in the league to stop Lamar Jackson, while the Ravens have faced their own issues at tackle this year. A win against Baltimore would be no easy feat, but it’s undoubtedly possible, especially if Indianapolis can welcome a few more players off their injury report.
After Baltimore comes on paper, one of the easiest matchups in the league against Houston. Followed by a 49ers team that is yet to hit their stride and a crucial home game against Tennessee.
The Colts must win those two AFC South matchups to give themselves a real chance of winning the division. If they can win one of those other two games and make it to 4-5, they’ll be in a surprisingly strong position. The rest of the season holds easy wins against Jacksonville twice, Houston again, and the Jets. Alongside two very challenging games against the Bills and Buccaneers and some in-between plays against the Cardinals, Raiders, and Patriots.
The Titan’s overtime loss against the Jets exposed their own vulnerabilities in defense and their offensive line. A line that allowed seven sacks by the Jets after allowing six sacks in week one against Arizona. We knew that the Titans had some real firepower in Henry, Brown, Jones, and Tannehill. In their defense, they were missing both Brown and Jones against the Jets, but the loss nevertheless exposed their weaknesses.
Given Tennessee’s own struggles this year and Houston and Jacksonville’s far greater struggles, Indianapolis may not need to win that many games to win the AFC South. They’ll have to play more like they did last weekend than they did in their first three games. They’ll also have to enjoy much better injury luck than they’ve enjoyed so far this year.
Jim Irsay shouldn’t yet be dusting the Colt’s trophy cabinet, but the team does now have some hope it can reach the lofty heights it set itself at the start of the season. They’ve certainly given fans more hope this week than we’ve had over the first three weeks of the season. Long may that hope continue.