The Indianapolis Colts visited the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday and left with their third loss in the last five weeks. Falling behind 14-0 at halftime after a head-scratching call by referee Jeff Triplette, the Colts started to come back in the second half behind touchdown passes to wide receivers Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill, but were never able to pull even.
Indianapolis' defense was horrific again, allowing 42 points on the day, including 28 second-half points. The Colts were able to put a few offensive series together in the second half thanks to improved pass protection and a breakout game from undrafted receiver Da'Rick Rogers, but it wasn't enough to catch up to an explosive Bengals offense.
With the win, the Bengals likely secure the third seed, unless the New England Patriots lose sometime in the next three weeks.
Prior to the game, the Colts inserted offensive lineman Joe Reitz into the starting lineup at left guard, replacing rookie guard Hugh Thornton. Thornton has been one of the league's worst pass-protecting guards this season, and the Colts desperately needed improvement.
Reitz was the starter at left guard in 2011 and showed good chemistry with left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The two played fairly well during an otherwise depressing season. Unfortunately, Reitz was injured for part of 2012, and when he returned, he didn't play nearly as well as he did in 2011. It seems like he lost his chance and was used as a depth tackle for most of the offseason.
But he played well against the Bengals on Sunday, and Luck had more time than he's had for most of the last six weeks as a result. With the improved protection, Luck was actually able to set his feet and throw downfield, and he looked much more comfortable. Luck finished with 326 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. His 113.1 passer rating was the best of his career.
Despite his gaudy stats, Luck still showed flaws that kept the Colts from excelling on offense, namely in the mental aspects of the game. Luck's decision-making, accuracy and pre-snap reads were subpar and need to improve.
The best way to show Luck's decision-making flaws in this one is the third-down performance from Indianapolis. The Colts were 2-10 on the day, and Luck went for big throws down the field on numerous occasions when he could have run or looked for an easier throw. He also had another near interception as he tried to get rid of the ball while being hit, something that's been too common during the last few weeks.
In the first half, when the Colts got down by two scores, Luck was just 10-of-20 for 96 yards, and he missed a few open throws late in the game as well.
The pre-snap reads are a bit concerning as well. Luck missed a couple blitz identifications, as he did last week. Those will improve with experience, but the Colts need a bit more from him now if they're to make a playoff run.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has been terrible all season, and the Colts desperately needed somebody to step up in his place and produce opposite T.Y. Hilton.
It seems Da'Rick Rogers may be that player.
While some fans have been clamoring for him for weeks, the Colts finally began using him regularly against the Bengals, and it paid off. Rogers finished the game with six catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns, and showed explosiveness that has been missing from the team this year.
Rogers broke tackles and outraced defenders on the way to a 69-yard touchdown in the third quarter and made physical catches in traffic throughout the day. On Sunday, Rogers was everything Darrius Heyward-Bey was supposed to be.
He has some mental and technique issues to work on, but Rogers has physical talents that no other receiver on the Colts roster does.
With all the positive offensive developments, the big question is how much of it is improvement and how much is stat-padding?
With the Colts being down by two scores for most of the second half, the Bengals played a prevent defense for large parts of the fourth quarter. Plays like running back passes look good on the stat sheet but didn't help the Colts' comeback.
Trent Richardson and Donald Brown finished with nine catches for 86 yards, but it was largely due to that garbage time. The Colts offense doesn't get either of the running backs into space well enough against base defenses for it to continue, so one shouldn't expect it to be a staple going forward.
Similarly, Brazill and Rogers won't score two touchdowns every game, but they did show improvement that was good to see.
Robert Mathis has been the Colts pass rush all season.
On Sunday, he was shut down by left tackle Anthony Collins.
As a result, the Colts couldn't touch Andy Dalton. Dalton was never sacked and only got hit once (by Cory Redding). With no pressure to speak of, Dalton passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, and the Bengals looked unstoppable through the air.
The Colts secondary is struggling, but anybody would with that lack of pressure on the quarterback. If the Colts want to get their first playoff win in four years, they'll need some kind of pass rush.
The Colts have had issues with small, shifty backs this season. The San Diego Chargers' Danny Woodhead gained 83 total yards on 14 touches against the Colts, while the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Ellington gained 71 yards on 12 touches.
Giovani Bernard outdid them both, however, combining for 148 rushing/receiving yards on 16 touches Sunday. The Colts missed numerous tackles throughout the day, which was a problem, but the bigger issue for the Colts is a lack of speed at the linebacker position, which allows quick running backs to bounce runs outside and gain big yards, as well as producing in the passing game.
Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer both have a tendency of getting caught behind the line and not flowing to the back quickly enough, and it certainly showed on Sunday. The Colts have holes throughout the roster, but inside linebacker is one that often gets overlooked.
The Colts defense doesn't have an excuse for playing this poorly. While the offense has had to deal with numerous key injuries all year, the defense has been largely free from big injuries. In general, the Colts have the people they want to run the scheme they want.
There is no excuse for letting up 30 points per game.
However, the loss of Greg Toler has affected the secondary much more than is being let on. Although Toler isn't a great corner, he plays best in the press-man scheme that the Colts wish to run. With Toler hurt, Cassius Vaughn has been forced onto the field more, while Darius Butler has had to play outside more, which isn't his skill set.
Vaughn struggles in press, and it's had a domino effect throughout the secondary.
Again, it isn't an excuse, but the Colts went from allowing just over 16 points per game with Toler to over 31 points per game without him. That's not just a coincidence.
The Colts were likely going to lose this game no matter what happened with just over a minute left in the second quarter. The defense wasn't stopping Cincinnati at all in the second half.
However, what Jeff Triplette did was absolutely inexcusable.
On 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Bengals ran the ball. Colts nose tackle Josh Chapman got penetration and grabbed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis by the foot. Green-Ellis tripped and fell forward, and the ball was just short of the goal line. On the field, it was correctly called short and Indianapolis' ball.
Then Triplette went under the hood.
Five minutes later, it was declared a touchdown, as Triplette said that Green-Ellis was not touched. After the game, it came out that Triplette didn't even look to see if Chapman had touched him, but just looked for contact on the goal line, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com.