Indianapolis Colts: Why Did the Colts' Season End on Sunday?
The Indianapolis Colts’ surprising 2012 NFL season ended with a 24-9 loss on Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens and their fans were celebrating the career of their iconic linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced last week that this is his final season in the NFL.
The visitors were game, but in the end the young Colts simply could not take advantage of the Ravens’ mistakes as they did to their regular season opponents.
Make no mistake: the Colts have a bright future, and Colts’ fans are no doubt already amped up for the 2013 season.
Some of the Colts' mistakes were predictable from similar blemishes in the regular season, while others were simply the result of a young team playing a long NFL season.
Living on the Edge
As I predicted, the Colts’ habit of falling behind and salvaging victory from their opponents’ unforced errors was not sustainable. Many teams get one or two such victories in a season; the Colts did it seven times. The law of averages finally caught up to them.
One of the Colts’ biggest advantages this season was their opponents’ penalties, particularly the ones that happened at key points in the game.
The Ravens did their level best to oblige the Colts with nine penalties for 70 yards, including two dimwitted 15-yarders to sustain a late drive that would have given Andrew Luck a chance to nail his eighth game-winning touchdown drive of the season.
For good measure, the normally sure-handed Ravens running back Ray Rice fumbled twice as much as he had all season.
The first miscue occurred with the Ravens in the red zone at the Colts’ 11-yard line. Rice’s second fumble opened the fourth quarter following a 16-yard run to the Colts' 29.
If ever there were a set of blunders begging for the Colts to capitalize on, this was it. But this time the Colts could not take advantage of their opponents’ gifts.
After the Colts clinched a playoff birth with one regular season game to go, there was a lot of speculation that the Colts might rest some of their players for at least part of the season finale against the Texans (who, by the way, won their playoff game).
The confident Colts coaches and their players shrugged off the suggestion and instead went for the kill against their division rivals. The Colts defeated the Texans, but one has to wonder if that victory came at a cost. Against the Ravens, the Colts simply could not muster the level of energy needed to take advantage of the Ravens’ gaffes.
I made an earlier suggestion that the Colts’ coaches made an error by not resting some of their players in the second half of the Texans game.
The Colts' rookie class saw some significant playing time this season and again on Sunday against the Ravens. NFL rookies often hit a wall after the 12th game of the season because they have never played more than 12 games in any football season.
Against the Ravens, five of the seven players who caught passes from Andrew Luck were fellow rookies who were also playing in their 17th game of the season.
Several plays in the Colts’ fourth-quarter attempted comeback illustrate the effects of the long NFL season.
With 6:34 left in the game, Luck scrambled for 18 yards and a first down at the Ravens’ 27. On the next play, he had Reggie Wayne open on the post route for a touchdown but under-threw the ball by a good five yards.
Three plays later, the Ravens ran a zone blitz, and Luck turned away from the dropping Ravens defenseman and tried to hit Wayne on the opposite sideline. Luck simply reacted and failed to check the coverage on the side of the field opposite the zoned blitz. Ravens cornerback Corey Graham jumped Wayne’s out route. He tipped the ball at the Ravens' 15-yard line to his wingman cornerback Cary Williams, who returned the interception to the Colts’ 44.
Luck attempted 54 passes, was sacked three times and avoided sacks four times by scrambling for 38 yards. He faced a buffet of Ravens’ blitz packages, especially in obvious passing downs. As a result of the pressure, Luck was picking himself up off the turf all day.
It is reasonable to speculate that the game took its toll on Luck, and he ran out of gas—physically and mentally—at the point of the game that he had owned all season. Even commentator Phil Simms suggested that Luck, despite his remarkable athletic gifts, should be exhausted by his first full NFL campaign.
Just before Luck’s interception, he had rookie tight end Dwayne Allen open for a first down, but Allen couldn’t keep his feet on a simple turn-out route, and the pass sailed incomplete. In the previous fourth quarter series, rookie T.Y. Hilton also slipped and missed a sure completion.
The Colts' last desperate drive ended at the Ravens’ 38-yard line when rookie running back Vick Ballard dropped a potential first down catch on fourth down. The Colts’ rookie pass-catchers dropped at least eight of Luck’s 54 passes.
The O-line was banged up and lost two linemen before the fourth quarter, while the defense, which gave up ten plays of 18 yards or more, suffered several players who lost some plays due to injuries.
No one will ever know if some rest in the last week of the season would have helped the rookies and walking wounded, but we do know that even fine-tuned human bodies need recovery in order to perform at peak efficiency.
In the fourth quarter of their final game, the Colts simply could not muster the performance level necessary to pull off yet another come-from-behind win.
The Ravens' Big Day
It would not be fair to give all of the credit for the Ravens’ wild-card win to the Colts' inability to stage yet another dramatic ending.
The Ravens said before the game that they would throw the kitchen sink—and the disposal—at Andrew Luck, and they did. The Ravens blitzed on nearly every one of the Colts’ second- and third-down pass plays and ended the Colts’ first four drives with blitzes, including forcing Luck to fumble on the second drive.
Luck finally converted a third down on the Colts’ fifth possession, but a Ravens' blitz forced him to illegally ground a pass on the sixth and final possession of the first half.
These were not your basic backyard blitz packages. The Ravens often lined up with three down linemen and two outside linebackers bookending the line of scrimmage, shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage to disguise their intent.
In replays you can see Ray Lewis calling the blitz pattern just before the snap. The Ravens sent five- and six-man blitzes at Luck, sacked him once with a corner blitz, and ran even more zone blitzes where one of the outside linebackers dropped into coverage while the other rushed.
The blitzes took their toll on Luck, wearing him down, and late in the game yet another zone blitz forced an interception from the exhausted QB.
The Ravens offense also got into the act with seven plays of 20-plus yards, including three for 40-plus yards.
The Colts defense did a decent job on most plays from scrimmage, holding the Ravens to 50 offensive plays for the game—the Colts ran 87—ten of which netted fewer than three yards and eleven incomplete passes. The Ravens' longest drive was just nine plays.
Unfortunately for the Colts, the Ravens averaged 7.8 yards per play—to the Colts 4.8—and really didn’t need to mount any sustained drives.
Did I mention that the Ravens rested six starters in the final week of the season?
The Ravens played big in Lewis’ final home game, a fitting tribute to the future Hall of Famer’s career.
While Lewis' career is ending, Luck's is just beginning, and the future is sparkling in Indianapolis.