But, they have some real flaws, on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the group of targets available for Andrew Luck is inexperienced and lacks top-end talent. Their inability to get separation made the first half of the Texans game extremely difficult. The offense also lacks a true No. 1 running back right now. Trent Richardson was picked third overall last season but hasn't looked like a long-term answer.
Defensively, the team is inconsistent and can be very undisciplined on the defensive line, leading to big gains in the run game and breakdowns in pass defense. Again, we saw all of these things happen during the Colts' win over Houston.
But the biggest detraction from what could be a Super Bowl contender is the offensive line, specifically the interior offensive line, currently consisting of LG Hugh Thornton, C Samson Satele and RG Mike McGlynn.
Whether it's run blocking or pass protection, the Terrible Trio has been a burr in the Colts' side all season and continued to be so in the team's win over the Texans.
These OL grades by PFF last night pretty much tell the story of the 2013 Colts offensive line. pic.twitter.com/7Kclrg6ukh— Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) November 4, 2013
Run Blocking, or the Lack Thereof
The Colts want to be a power-run team. In order to do that, you have to be able to run up the middle, getting a push from your offensive line.
Let's get to the point: The Colts can't do that.
While they will occasionally get a push, the Colts simply don't have the bodies in the middle of the line to overpower a defensive line.
For example, look at this first running play for the Colts on Sunday:
You can see Thornton (green) has pulled and is behind the line of scrimmage. He's holding his block, but he's not helping move the defensive line backwards. Satele (blue) has his man somewhat controlled but hasn't moved him backward at all. They're still right on the line of scrimmage. McGlynn (yellow) is on the ground and hasn't touched anybody yet (and really doesn't for the whole play).
Later in the game, when the Colts were trying to run the ball to burn clock and end the game, this is what Trent Richardson got. J.J. Watt completely blows by Thornton on the play, and the rest of the line is a complete mess.
None of the Colts interior linemen have the strength, size or technique to be bulldozers in run blocking, so the Colts have taken to "smart" blocking to mask their deficiencies. This includes using a lot of stunts, pulls and disguises. It also involves a decent amount of draws and delays.
Unfortunately, the Colts still aren't getting as much as they could be out of these plays because of the linemen.
In this play, for example, Donald Brown gets a draw, sees a wide-open cutback hole and starts to cut. If Thornton can just hold his block for a few seconds, Brown can be through the hole and into the second level, where there is little impeding him.
But when we look a few frames later, it's disappointing to see that Thornton didn't hold his block, and now what could have been a very big play has become a five-yard gain. Not that there's anything wrong with a five-yard gain, but there was potential for more there.
McGlynn and Thornton both have struggled in pull blocks, oftentimes getting too far inside the defender and allowing them to slide by with little resistance.
The Colts want to be able to pound it up the middle, control the clock, be balanced, etc., but they will continue to have a difficult time with this offensive line. They can help themselves by running out of passing formations to spread the defense out and using delay and draw concepts, but that's not the type of team that the Colts' coaches want to be. Unfortunately, if they don't adapt, Trent Richardson is going to continue to be averaging less than three yards per carry.
Andrew Luck Is Still Getting Hit. And Sacked. And Pressured. A Lot.
While the trio hasn't been consistent in run blocking, they have been in pass protection: consistently bad.
The three combined for 12 allowed pressures on Sunday, including two sacks and seven hits.
Overall, the three have all been individually horrid in Pro Football Focus' Pass Blocking Efficiency metric (measures pressures allowed per snap in pass protection). Thornton and McGlynn are 51st and 55th out of 57 qualifying guards. Satele is 23rd out of 31 qualifying centers (subscription required).
Plays like this are what kills Indianapolis.
When just one lineman gets into the backfield, Andrew Luck can oftentimes avoid him and get a pass off (although it still is not a desirable outcome, a clean pocket is preferable). But here, Gosder Cherilus and McGlynn miscommunicate, and Watt gets a free run at Luck. Thornton and Satele are getting beat by Antonio Smith, who gets the sack on the play. McGlynn, meanwhile has two defenders in front of him, and Joe Mays (53) gets into the pocket and hits Luck on the play.
Now, Luck's pocket presence is outstanding, and he does a very good job of avoiding pressure in the pocket. But he's being pressured even more this year than he was last year. Last season, Luck was pressured on 38.1 percent of his dropbacks. This season, he's been pressured on 40.8 percent, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
When Luck is pressured so much, it takes a toll on the passing offense. Luck can make up for a lot of deficiencies, but it will be more and more difficult for him to do so with Reggie Wayne out. When he had success in the Houston game, it was because he had time in the pocket, mostly in the second half.
This was achieved, most of the time, by the Colts using max-protect packages, holding back a running back or two, or even an extra lineman (Jeff Linkenbach had eight snaps in pass protection as an extra lineman). This may be a strategy the Colts continue to use. Wayne was the Colts' best receiver at getting open quickly, and their current group will need more time to get separation.
If more blockers are necessary, then that's what the Colts likely will do.
Now, we wait and see.
As discussed above, there are some things that can be fixed from a coaching standpoint to offset some of this lack of talent.
But going forward, the interior line has to be revamped. The Colts will get a big boost when LG Donald Thomas comes back from injury next season, but center and right guard are still a major problem.
Is Thornton a potential answer at right guard? That's still up for consideration. He's been a major liability in pass protection as a rookie, although his run blocking has flashed potential. But, he is still a rookie, and offensive lineman is one position that can have a very steep learning curve.
Center, however, definitely needs some new blood. Satele was signed to be the Colts' center of the future in 2012 and has been dismal. 2013 fourth-round pick Khaled Holmes may have some potential, but the fact that he hasn't been used in a game yet is a tad concerning.
The Colts will have to add some potential to the group in the offseason, even if it's just more depth. Players like McGlynn and Satele can't continue to be the Colts' best options.