The Indianapolis Colts’ season is finished after a 27-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills in a Saturday AFC Wild Card Playoff heartbreaker.
The Colts had their chances in posting a season-high 472 yards of offense and possessing the ball for nearly nine minutes longer than Buffalo. They also held the Bills to 22% on third down.
But there were just too many mistakes.
“We talked coming into the game about the importance of red zone and we didn’t get it done on offense in the red zone, two-of-five is not good enough,” said Colts third-year head coach Frank Reich. “So a few too many self-inflicted wounds here and there, but you’re going up against a good football team, so hats off to them.”
The loss was a reflection upon the season — the Colts put themselves in position to win, but untimely penalties, a missed field goal, and some critical incompletions and drops would be their downfall.
“It’s frustrating,” Reich said. “I thought we played well on defense. I thought we played really well on offense as well. We moved the ball, I didn’t feel like they could stop us. We just need to be better in the red zone. We need to coach better and play better in the red zone and have a chance to put that game away.”
This game was a microcosm of what the offseason focus ought to be.
For starters, by no means was quarterback Philip Rivers the issue in this matchup. The Colts likely wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him, and they probably wouldn’t have been as productive on Saturday without him.
Rather, this is about the quarterback the Colts played against, and what they could do for their own roster.
Rivers is 39 and not under contract for 2021. The Colts need to find their long-term replacement, and a quarterback like the Bills’ Josh Allen looks like he’s going to be a difference-maker for years to come. The MVP candidate in his third season was dynamite against the Colts, completing 74% of his passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns while also picking up 54 yards and another score on the ground.
The Colts need a difference-maker like that. Not just a smart, efficient player who will take what the defense gives, but someone who will pick up the whole team and will them to victory.
A player of that ilk fits the Colts much more appropriately than someone who lacks pizzazz in their game (Rivers) or aggression (Jacoby Brissett).
We know some of the bold decisions the Colts made against Buffalo weren’t outliers, and that they are going to roll the dice and do things like go for it on fourth down when in field-goal range, or go for two points occasionally rather than an extra point. There’s no changing that. But they can make themselves better equipped for success in those scenarios by finding a young quarterback who is more of a talented playmaker.
There’s a lot the Colts could do about the quarterback position this offseason. They drafted Jacob Eason in the fourth round last year. They could re-sign Rivers and see if Eason’s got what it takes to succeed him. They could sign or trade for a veteran, or they could use another draft pick on the position.
There is expected to be a bevy of options in free agency, the trade market, and early in the draft.
Whatever they do, they need to have a solid plan.
Cornerstone Left Tackle
Like quarterback, left tackle was not the problem against the Bills, but it’s a position that needs to be addressed.
The Colts were without 10th-year franchise left tackle Anthony Castonzo for a second straight week after an ankle injury ended his season. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer was signed off the street, and he filled in admirably at one of the most important positions in football.
The issue is that Veldheer is 33 and has been back and forth between retirement and playing. Likewise, Castonzo is 32 and contemplating his future after each season, although he’s signed for one more year.
There the Colts were against Buffalo, trotting out a seventh different player to see snaps at left tackle in 2020, while their two best players at the position on the wrong side of 30.
Simply put, you can’t lack a plan at left tackle. It’s the quarterback’s blindside protector and a cog in pass protection and run blocking.
This draft class is expected to possess plenty of talent at left tackle.
Outside Pass Rush
Aside from stopping the run, arguably the most critical part of defense is putting pressure on the quarterback.
The Colts improved that when they acquired defensive tackle DeForest Buckner last March, but you can never have too much of a pass rush.
They barely put any pressure on Allen for much of the game. Facing a player as talented as Allen, you’re not going to win many games without pressure.
It wasn’t until 5:30 remained when the Colts got their first sack as defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry converged on Allen. Houston and Autry are 31 and 30, respectively, and will be free agents.
The Colts don’t have any sure bets to provide an outside pass rush in 2021 and beyond. They can re-sign Houston and/or Autry to get them by for now, but they need some young blood as well.
Kemoko Turay returned from a devastating ankle injury suffered in 2019, but he’s never given more than flashes and is a situational pass rusher. Ben Banogu spent the majority of the season as a healthy scratch.
Pass rushers are hard to come by. They’re incredibly expensive in free agency, and the really good ones are often gone early in the draft.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has said before that the best way to get pass rushers is to draft and develop them.