What a breath of fresh air.
After two weeks of hand-wringing, Indianapolis Colts fans can bask in the glow of a sweet, unexpected victory over the San Francisco 49ers this week. The Colts were, deservedly, huge underdogs against the defending NFC champs, but left the Bay Area with a 27-7 win and a share of the AFC South lead.
Things looked bleak a week ago, but after responding with a signature win, the Colts' fortunes have significantly improved, especially with a hapless Jacksonville team waiting in Week 4.
The Colts showed a toughness and tenacity on defense that has been missing in Indianapolis since the '90s, as well as an ability to close the game on the ground with refreshing success from Ahmad Bradshaw and an impressive game from rookie Hugh Thornton. Throw in the Colts' offensive tackles playing well for the second straight week and there is plenty to be optimistic about in Naptown.
So, after three weeks, where do the Colts really sit? A close loss to the now 3-0 Dolphins doesn't look quite so bad after Miami beat a visiting Atlanta team. Of course, the 49ers don't seem quite as good as they once did either. What can we expect going forward from the Colts? Are they a legitimate contender for the AFC South, or will Houston continue their recent run of success?
The AFC South was full of surprises this week, and the Colts' win led the way.
But the Houston Texans' 30-9 loss to what seemed to be a frail Baltimore team was just as stunning. The Texans hadn't looked great in either of their two wins, but completely failed to show up in Baltimore on Sunday. Matt Schaub was bad, and an injury to Andre Johnson killed the Houston offense.
Houston hasn't looked like a sure thing to win the division all offseason, and their early-season play hasn't inspired any confidence at all.
Meanwhile, the Titans continue their run of surprisingly positive play, as Jake Locker threw a game-winning touchdown with just 15 seconds left against the San Diego Chargers. With the 20-17 win the Titans pull to 2-1 and continue to hold onto a share of the division lead.
The only new injury from Sunday's game was Ricky Jean-Francois, who is day-to-day after hurting his groin in the Colts' win. The big, lingering injuries as the week goes on? T.Y. Hilton and Pat Angerer are the most critical. Hilton may have struggled with his groin injury against the 49ers, and if the Colts never have to use Kelvin Sheppard in the starting lineup again, I will be none too happy.
Unfortunately, the Colts' confirmation of Dwayne Allen's season-ending injury last week put a damper on things. Allen was one of the Colts' brightest spots and was on track to becoming one of the NFL's best all-around tight ends.
Indianapolis has enough season-ending injuries this season, so finishing Sunday's game with just one injury was a big plus.
Things that need to improve
It's easy to praise the Colts after this week, especially on their ability to both run the ball and defensively dominate Colin Kaepernick.
But even a team that played as well as Indianapolis did has areas to complain about, whether or not they want to admit it.
First, the Colts simply have to be be better at lining up in power formations and overpowering the opposing teams in short yardage. The Colts officially converted three of their six short-yard attempts, which matches their season-long averages.
As well as the team's blocked for running plays, the one area that they've struggled in is the most important one.
If the Colts can consistently succeed on 3rd-and-short, a huge hole in their offense will be fixed.
If they can't improve, then the team's improvements in the running game will be all for naught.
This is where Trent Richardson, ideally, should make his mark. Richardson is strong, powerful back, and Cleveland was slightly above average in 3rd-and-short situations last season, converting 56.4 percent of their attempts. If Richardson can have a similar effect on the Colts' short-yardage success, he'll be more than welcome to stay in Indianapolis.
A second area that the Colts can improve upon in Week 4 is their deep passing. So far this season, the Colts have completed a pass more than 20 yards down the field just three times. Luck is currently 3-of-11 for 89 yards and an interception in that range.
While the team may not need big plays to be able to beat the hapless Jaguars, it does present an opportunity to get the Colts' deep passing game back on track. Seattle QB Russell Wilson was able to go 3-of-4 for 73 yards when throwing 20-plus yards downfield in last week's drubbing, and Luck may be able to find WR T.Y. Hilton deep on multiple occasions if he is healthy.
In addition, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Coby Fleener could be benefactors of Luck's downfield tries. Heyward-Bey started the Colts' win over San Francisco well, but has yet to be involved in the deep passing game. Fleener has shown flashes over each of the last three games, but the Luck-Fleener connection that was so potent in college hasn't had the same legs in the NFL. If there was any week for those to flourish, it is when Jacksonville is on the schedule.
Finally, the Colts must improve their results when they use play action.
So far this season, Andrew Luck has used play action passes over 25 percent of the time, sixth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Unfortunately, his statistics all decrease in such situations. Luck's completion percentage (which decreases by 12.1 percent), yards per attempts (1.1) and passer rating (3.9) are all worse in play-action settings than in all other passes.
For a quarterback who was so good in play action a year ago (saw huge increases across the board), it's odd that it's been ineffective so far in 2013.
One reason the Colts haven't seen big dividends this year is the lack of respect given to the running game. The 49ers didn't deem it necessary to put a safety in the box on many plays, trusting their stellar linebacking corps to take care of any runs. With Dwayne Allen out, the Colts need guys like Dominique Jones to step up and take advantage of the linebackers freezing due to a play fake, but Jones simply isn't a threat in the passing game.
With the Colts' dominating performance on the ground on Sunday, however, teams may be forced to bring a safety into the box more often, which should open play action up even more. Of course, that means the team must continue to block like they did against San Francisco, which seems like a tall order.
Of course, prior to Week 3, a performance like that seemed impossible.
Defensively, there is little to complain about after throttling San Francisco. There are certainly still questions about stopping the run, but Jacksonville is a cakewalk compared to the 49ers. I've been pessimistic about this defense, but I'd be surprised if the Colts allowed more than 14 points in this one.
Jacksonville is historically bad, and they won't allow the Colts to get in their way of a No. 1 overall pick.