INDIANAPOLIS — Burn the tape. Ah, maybe that’s a tad dramatic. There are probably a few tidbits the Indianapolis Colts can glean from a rewatch of their humbling 45-26 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
But the biggest lessons to be learned from a live viewing of Sunday’s massacre at Lucas Oil Stadium: None. Nothing. There are no true conclusions you can draw, because that wasn’t a fair fight. The Colts simply didn’t have the horses to run with the Titans.
To be clear, they do have the horses. A fully healthy Colts team manhandled the Titans a couple weeks ago in Nashville. But this wasn’t a fully healthy Colts team. Not even close. Their thoroughbreds either weren’t in the stable Sunday or were playing with some severe limps.
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How many of the Colts’ top 5 players were missing?
Look at it this way: If you were to compose a list of the five most important Colts, DeForest Buckner, Anthony Castonzo, Philip Rivers and Quenton Nelson are all locks to be on it, right? Ryan Kelly and Darius Leonard would probably fight for the final spot on the list. Fair?
Right, well the Colts didn’t have Buckner (Reserve/COVID-19 list), didn’t have Kelly (neck) and lost Castonzo (MCL injury, per an IndyStar source) after a little more than a quarter. Rivers was playing with a sore big toe and Nelson (back/ankle) entered the day questionable and was clearly dealing with some pain, because he took a beating on a few plays (more on that later).
So that’s five of their most valuable assets either unavailable or playing through injury. What’s the game plan to coach around that? If there is one, it should be immediately inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For the record, Frank Reich and company also didn’t have Denico Autry (Reserve/COVID-19 list), not only the guy who leads the team in sacks by a wide margin (6.5) but one of the most important defensive linemen on the team behind Buckner. They didn’t have Bobby Okereke, their fourth-leading tackler and an excellent coverage linebacker. They didn’t have rookie running back Jonathan Taylor (Reserve/COVID-19) who enjoyed a breakout game of sorts last week against Green Bay. And they didn’t have a potential Pro Bowl kick returner in rookie Isaiah Rodgers (knee).
Sure, the Titans were banged up, too. They didn’t have their top two left tackles, star defensive lineman Jadeveon Cloweny, linebacker Jayon Brown or cornerback Adoree Jackson.
And as the Colts repeated ad nauseam throughout their postgame press conferences: This is the NFL. Twelve weeks into the season, everyone is dealing with injuries. And in 2020 everyone is dealing with COVID. But due to a strange confluence of events, the Colts seemed to be hit hardest with both injuries and COVID simultaneously.
The Colts tried to find motivation around the usual rallying cries: Next man up. Injuries aren’t an excuse, etc. And credit to them for saying all the right things, and for probably believing them, too.
But let’s get serious for a second: There was no way for Reich or defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to cover up all the gaping holes.
Let’s start with Buckner, because the defense getting mauled by Derrick Henry (27 carries, 178 yards, three touchdowns) was the story of the game. Buckner has played some excellent football this season, but there was no single game that exemplified his importance more than Sunday’s thumping by the Titans. Without Buckner (and Autry), the Titans gashed the Colts for 229 yards on the ground. Leonard, fellow linebacker Anthony Walker (also playing hurt) and the newly minted $30-million man Grover Stewart were powerless to stop it.
Offensively, the Colts frankly deserve credit for putting up 26 points with all they had to deal with. It’s fair to expect Reich to be able to concoct a game plan to cover up for missing Kelly — whom he only knew for sure was out on Saturday. But it’s a humongous loss. With a mind like Rivers at the helm, you can forget how important Kelly — the highest paid center in the league — is to blitz identification and pick-up. He’s the other field general out there. Except he wasn’t actually out there. In his stead was a fifth-round rookie named Danny Pinter, who never played center in college and had 27 NFL snaps on his resume, most of which have come as an extra offensive lineman in the Colts jumbo sets.
Pinter didn’t embarrass himself Sunday. He played fine. He had too many low snaps that Rivers was forced to scoop off the ground and he got blown up on a two-point conversion, but he wasn’t awful.
Where the Colts big problems came was having to make sure to protect Pinter while also having to help Le’Raven Clark at left tackle once Castonzo left the game.
That was the death blow. The Colts scored two touchdowns on their first two possessions with Castonzo in the game. Once he left, the offense pretty much ground to a halt. With having to use running backs to chip and tight ends to help Clark on the left side, the Colts offense was playing with one hand tied behind its back. Rivers started feeling a lot more pressure after Castonzo left, and with this year’s running game still unreliable, that was pretty much that.
What’s wrong with Quenton Nelson?
The Colts also had to play around having half of Quenton Nelson. He hasn’t looked like his All-Pro self in a few weeks at least. Maybe his struggles Sunday were because he was playing between Pinter and Clark and that’s just too much to ask one man to do. But the better guess is that he’s playing hurt. Nelson didn’t talk postgame, but he did enter the day questionable with back and ankle issues. And truthfully, he’s looked like a guy playing with back and ankle injuries.
He picked up a career-high three holding penalties last week and credit to him for fighting through pain, if that’s what’s happening, but there were times Sunday where he was being manhandled by a good-not-great Titans defensive line. Jeffrey Simmons beating up on Nelson is somewhat understandable but undrafted free agent rookie Teair Tart?
Tart gave Nelson trouble a couple of weeks ago and did so again Sunday. That’s not happening when Nelson is at his best. It’s just not.
And the Colts aren’t losing by 19 points at home if they’re at their best, either. So with that, I say burn the tape. Or at least pay Sunday’s game little mind, Colts fans. There’s better football on the horizon. Healthier football. And at 7-4, the Colts are still in the thick of the playoff hunt. They’re no longer in control of their own destiny, but with five games to go, there’s still time for them to climb back into the race.
There are, of course, still plenty of lingering questions about the injuries to all of the players mentioned in this story, but take solace in figuring that the odds they are missing so many critical components in one game again this season have to be pretty low.
Or you at least have to hope that’s the case, because if they have to play the tough backstretch of the season without the likes of Buckner, Castonzo, Kelly, Nelson, Autry, Taylor, Okereke, well, you don’t want to think about that.
Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter: @jimayello.