Indianapolis Colts Week 13 Stock Report
Everything is peachy in Indianapolis.
When your backup quarterback is undefeated and you're on a three-game winning streak, attitudes tend to get a little brighter.
That's the case for the Indianapolis Colts, who, despite losing their starting quarterback, best defensive lineman, best offensive lineman and starting safety, have knocked off three straight wins and have maintained their spot atop the AFC South.
Unfortunately for them, the Houston Texans have maintained the same pace with the same 6-5 record. The Colts cannot afford to ease off at all.
Sunday night, the Colts will go up against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a more difficult opponent than they ones they've faced thus far. An AFC competitor who also vying for a playoff spot, Pittsburgh has one of the league's most dynamic offenses, so long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can play.
So looking both behind and ahead, who is heading in the right direction as the Colts move into the final quarter of their season?
Stock Up: Matt Hasselbeck
Despite the media frenzy, Matt Hasselbeck has not played well every time he's been on the field this season.
While the Colts are 4-0, he played quite poorly in two of those wins, especially in the team's 24-21 win over Atlanta in Week 11. Even against Tampa Bay in Week 12, he was awful in the first half, missing open receivers and leading the offense to just six first-half points against a vulnerable Tampa Bay defense.
But after talking with T.Y. Hilton at halftime, per Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, Hasselbeck turned more of his attention to his wide receivers on the outside and also started throwing accurate passes.
It worked, as Hasselbeck threw the ball for 175 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, on 8.75 yards per attempt. It was a remarkable turnaround, combining quick, correct reads with accurate, well-placed balls for big yards, first-down conversions and touchdowns.
Now, the temptation would be to say that Hasselbeck will fall back to earth soon. After all, he's a 40-year-old quarterback who couldn't make it as a starter the last time he had a chance in Tennessee. Plus, the Tampa Bay secondary has been poor all season and represented a good matchup for Indianapolis' talented, yet young, receivers.
But the Colts play Pittsburgh Sunday night, and while the Steelers offense should be a force to be reckoned with, the defense is a different story. The Steelers defense ranks 16th in the league and is just 19th against the pass, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. On Sunday, the Steelers allowed the previously struggling Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense to throw for five touchdown passes.
Stock Down: Frank Gore
Averaging just 1.3 yards per carry will get your stock down. Averaging less than 2.5 yards per carry in two consecutive games will drag your stock down. Averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry in three consecutive games gets alarm bells ringing.
Averaging less than four yards per carry in four consecutive games and having a declining yards per attempt in five consecutive games? Well, let's just say it's not good.
The opposition once again stuffed Gore in Week 12, as he consistently found little room to run as the defense dared Matt Hasselbeck to test it down the field. Fortunately for Gore, Hasselbeck did that this week, and defenses may play Indianapolis a bit differently going forward.
While Gore doesn't look totally different as a runner than he did earlier this season, the year could be taking a toll on his body. Per Mike Wells of ESPN.com, Chuck Pagano told reporters this week that Gore was "beat to crap."
"He’s like everybody else," the coach said. "He took some shots (against the Buccaneers). But he’s a warrior. He’s a tough son of a gun and he finds a way to get himself right by Sunday and he’ll be right come Sunday night (at Pittsburgh) and we’re going to need him."
Unfortunately for Gore, it doesn't get much easier. His last three opponents (Denver, Tampa Bay, Atlanta) have all been in the top 10 in the league in yards per attempt against, and the next two (Pittsburgh and Jacksonville) are as well.
If Hasselbeck keeps playing well, Gore may start to see more room in the running game, but he'll likely need left tackle Anthony Castonzo to come back as well before he really gets going.
Stock Up: Donte Moncrief
This slide could be for either T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief, in all honesty. Both players had a much-needed big game against Tampa Bay after numerous invisible performances.
But Moncrief was in a bigger rut before this game.
Though the receiver started strong, he had topped 50 yards just once in the previous six games and had completely fallen off his ridiculous early-season scoring rate.
On Sunday, Moncrief was No. 1 receiver material, catching everything that came his way despite having several tough contested catch situations. He finished with eight catches on nine targets (his one missed target was batted at the line) for 114 yards. He was invaluable as a chain-mover, as each of his eight catches went for first downs.
While Moncrief didn't catch any touchdowns, he did much of the work that led to them, including four first downs on one touchdown drive and a 31-yard catch on the play prior to the other touchdown.
Of course, his problem has been consistency. The Colts feel like Moncrief can be a long-term starting receiver, even a potential No. 1 kind of player, but to do that he has to consistently produce. Moncrief did so against a leaky Tampa Bay secondary, but can he do so again?
The Pittsburgh secondary is another vulnerable one. Moncrief toasted the Steelers for 113 yards and a touchdown in his first 100-yard game of his career last season, and they just allowed Seattle to obliterate them, as Russell Wilson threw for five touchdown passes. If Doug Baldwin can go for 145 yards and three touchdowns, what can Moncrief do?
Stock Down: Jerrell Freeman
The inside linebackers have been a sore spot for Indianapolis over the last few years, but both Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson have played relatively well this season, certainly above expectations. This goes double for Freeman, who has been healthy this season after being hampered for most of last year.
But that health came to a halt Sunday, as Freeman left the game with a hamstring injury and was replaced by former Denver Bronco Nate Irving.
On Monday, Chuck Pagano said Freeman was diagnosed with a grade 2 hamstring injury, per Kevin Bowen of Colts.com. It seems relatively certain that Freeman won't play this week against Pittsburgh.
With Jerrell Freeman out, Nate Irving has bigger role, Pagano says. Liked his performance against Bucs. Also, Sio Moore could be up this wk— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) December 2, 2015
This is not particularly good timing for Indianapolis, who goes up against Pittsburgh. While Le'Veon Bell won't play, his replacement DeAngelo Williams has been playing well within the Steelers' dangerous offense. The Colts will need all hands on deck to stop Pittsburgh, and while Irving delivered in Freeman's stead last week, it will be difficult to replace Freeman's versatility.
Stock Up: Pass Rush
Of all the Colts' struggles this season, the most predictable yet damning one has been the pass rush.
General manager Ryan Grigson has many detractors with flawed arguments, but one valid point against him is the lack of pass rush the team has acquired over the years. The lone move to improve the pass rush this year was signing Trent Cole, which has not worked out well.
The team is 29th in adjusted sack percentage, per Football Outsiders, which hints at how poorly Indianapolis has disrupted opposing quarterbacks this year.
But after a questionable first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, an increased pass rush made Jameis Winston uncomfortable throughout the second half, and the defense pitched a second-half shutout.
Erik Walden earned two of the team's four sacks, while Cole picked up his first one of the season. Nate Irving grabbed the last one on a blitz, something the team timed well throughout the game.
Robert Mathis and Kendall Langford each contributed as well, combining for four hits and three pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
The question is: Will this continue?
The pass rush has shown up at opportune times over the last few weeks, but Ben Roethlisberger is a different animal. He can take advantage of heavy blitzing in a way Matt Ryan and Winston could not. The Colts will need to get pressure on Roethlisberger and will need to employ blitzes to do that, but they can't get predictable either.