A lengthy NFL season inevitably exposes weaknesses in every team, but the Indianapolis Colts have been able to adjust fairly well when issues have become a concern.
Some would say that’s resiliency. Others might site character and leadership, which starts with the steady hand of second-year head coach Frank Reich. But an even stronger argument could be made that general manager Chris Ballard has built a solid team after inheriting a mess just 33 months ago.
A 30-23 win Sunday over the Houston Texans was yet another example of what the Colts have shown in rising to 4-2 and first place in the AFC South Division.
The defending division champion Texans were determined to take away the run and make Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett beat them. The Colts entered No. 4 in rushing, so the plan to make them one-dimensional and not able to rely on their strength made a lot of sense.
But Reich anticipated this and didn’t hesitate to have Brissett coming out throwing. In a precursor for what would become a career game, the Colts quarterback threw on nine of 12 plays in an impressive 94-yard drive to take an early 7-0 lead.
On the Colts’ four touchdown drives, Brissett completed 21 of 28 passes for 292 yards and four scores for a 147.3 rating. By game’s end, he had completed 26 of 39 passes for 326 yards, four TDs and a 126.7 passer rating. The yardage, touchdowns and passer rating are career highs.
That sums up what we’ve seen so far from the Colts. When doubt exists, they respond.
With all due respect to Brissett, who Ballard acquired from New England in a 2017 trade for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, the quarterback position was thought to be a concern when franchise cornerstone Andrew Luck retired. But that hasn’t been the case.
And against the Texans, the Colts proved they don’t have to count on the run to win. That’s still a strength, despite falling to 10th in rush offense, so don’t be too surprised if the ground gains are more plentiful when the Denver Broncos (2-5) and their 16th-ranked run defense visit Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.
Looking further at the season trend, remember how a much-maligned Colts defense was going to get embarrassed at Kansas City by NFL MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes? The Colts were 10.5-point underdogs at Arrowhead Stadium, had not sacked a quarterback in two games and were without defensive leader Darius Leonard, who was missing his third consecutive game in concussion protocol.
But Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus knew what his unit needed to do to give his team a chance. That started with playing more man-to-man defense, although injuries had subtracted from the secondary, in addition to getting after Mahomes. The Colts pulled off a 19-13 upset road win, one of the most unexpected victories in recent years.
Think back to how this season started, when the Colts should have won the road opener against the Los Angeles Chargers. Kicker Adam Vinatieri missed two field goals and an extra point. That just never happens. Tight end Eric Ebron couldn’t hold onto a perfectly thrown Brissett pass for a touchdown. The Colts defense couldn’t stop the run and wilted in a 30-24 overtime loss.
Fans couldn’t be faulted for fearing the worst, but the Colts bounced back with a strong defensive effort to win 19-17 at Tennessee. They got after quarterback Marcus Mariota for four sacks and finished this off with a final stop. Vinatieri was still missing kicks, but Brissett was clutch when he needed to be, throwing a game-winning TD pass to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.
While defensive issues returned with Leonard gone, the Colts managed to fend off Atlanta 27-24 at home before losing another game they should have won, 31-24 to Oakland at home.
Heads were shaking once again. But then came the efforts against Kansas City and Houston. You know the rest. How quickly perceptions can change.
Vinatieri, by the way, has righted himself since that awful start. He’s made seven of eight field goals, the lone miss just barely wide left from 57 yards out, as well as all 11 extra points in the last four games.
The Colts’ win over the Texans started what should be an encouraging stretch of four out of five games at home. After the Broncos, the Colts are at Pittsburgh (2-4) then return home to host Miami (0-6) and Jacksonville (3-4).
Reich gushed about Brissett on a Monday conference call, “The first thing you have to be is fearless and Jacoby is that.”
Reich didn’t realize until watching the film how much pressure Texans All-Pro pass rusher J.J. Watt applied on the pocket. Watt had six hits, but no sacks.
“I knew it was some, but it was quite a bit and Jacoby did a good job of handling that,” the coach said. “That’s being fearless but also knowing where everybody is supposed to be, where your outlets are and what to do when you get pressure in your face.”
Although wide receiver Devin Funchess was lost late in the opener to a broken collarbone and rookie Parris Campbell has been sidelined the past month, former undrafted wide receiver Zach Pascal has come up huge, including six catches for 106 yards and two TDs on Sunday, all career bests.
And the Ebron who earned his first Pro Bowl honor last year showed up on Sunday, too. His one-handed TD grab of a Brissett pass in the third quarter was one of the best catches anyone will make this season. The tight end also hopped over a defender after another reception. He had a season-best four catches for 70 yards and the score.
Another player who has stepped up recently is defensive end Justin Houston, who has had three of his four sacks in the past two games to lead a pass rush that snapped out of its two-game funk. He also pressured Deshaun Watson on the game’s final pass that Leonard intercepted off a tip.
“I mean I don’t ever bet against this group,” Reich said of the defense. “They are just continuing to get better. They are very resilient. It’s a very resilient group.”
That sums up these Colts so far this season.