HOUSTON –- During the third quarter of Sunday’s Indianapolis Colts season opener, quarterback Matt Ryan was pacing the sideline, urgently grabbing the attention of his teammates to reinforce the critical nature of their situation.
He believed they could overcome the daunting 17-point deficit they faced with just more than a quarter left against the Houston Texans. But Ryan needed to be sure his teammates felt similarly.
“The most impressive thing was on the sideline, his presence,” All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson said. “He never lost hope. Down 20-3, he just kept going back and forth bringing guys up and saying, ‘Let’s go. We still have a chance. We just need a first down.’ That’s a guy you want as a quarterback.”
But therein lies the problem: Ryan did his part on and off the field in Sunday’s 20-20 tie. But his teammates could stand to do a little more if the Super Bowl-minded Colts want to avoid this season veering toward disappointment.
Ryan completed 32 of 50 passes for 352 yards, fearlessly stood in the teeth of an intense Texans pass rush and kept his team composed in his Colts debut. But too many members of his supporting cast didn’t also rise to the occasion. For quite a few of them, their day was marked by dropped passes, whiffed blocks, untimely penalties and – worst of all -- a very wide-right field goal attempt that would have won the game.
“That’s a guy I’ll go to war with any day,” tight end Mo Alie-Cox said of Ryan. “Did you see the way he put his body on the line a couple times? When we needed him to come up big, he made the throws he needed to make and led us down the field.”
Ryan might very well be an upgrade for the Colts at their most important position. But this cannot be a solo effort.
Jonathan Taylor picked up where he left off last season, when he led the league in rushing. Taylor had 161 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.
There’s little Ryan can do about the many missed opportunities by others. Among the most egregious on Sunday was a pair of dropped passes in the end zone by second-round pick Alec Pierce and Ashton Dulin. The performance of the receivers calls into question the team’s entire approach to the position, the Colts opting for an inexperienced group with upside rather than one with proven options.
No. 1 receiver Michael Pittman was brilliant, catching 9 passes on 13 targets for 121 yards and a touchdown. Ryan had a 124.2 rating when targeting Pittman. But when throwing to the remaining receivers and tight ends, Ryan completed just 13 of 23 attempts for 167 yards and a 79.4 rating.
Are the Colts’ young wideouts up to the task?
“As receivers, we definitely have to help him out and finish some of those plays,” Alie-Cox said.
Said Ryan: “If we’re going to have the kind of team we want to be, we need them to grow. And I think they will.”
The problems extended to the offensive line as well, where the Colts also have questions. The Colts used a rotation at left tackle, using both Matt Pryor and rookie Bernhard Raimann. It suggests neither is seen as an ideal situation, continuing questions about the position that have lingered since the offseason. Right tackle wasn’t much better early, with the usually-stout Braden Smith performing shaky before steadying himself later on.
Ryan absorbed seven quarterback hits, perhaps making him wonder whether he was back in Atlanta. The Falcons, Ryan’s former team, were 26th in pass block win rate last season.
Meanwhile, the kicking situation continues to devolve and demands a reevaluation. Rodrigo Blankenship, who was a healthy scratch multiple times last season after returning from a hip injury, missed a potential game-winning field goal from 42 yards and sent two kickoffs out of bounds, moving the ball to the Texans’ 40-yard line each time.
The Colts had questions about Blankenship, prompting them to sign kicker Jake Verity during the offseason. Blankenship won the ensuing position battle, but his standing with the team right now seems as shaky as it’s ever been.
Asking Ryan to overcome it all doesn’t seem fair.
What’s worse: So much of this was predictable. The youthful pass-catchers, the left tackle situation and the kicker were among the most frequent offseason critiques of the Colts. General manager Chris Ballard elected to proceed with the team as is. Now the question needs to be asked: Did he depend too heavily on Ryan to spur the team’s needed improvement?
We will get more clarity beginning Sunday in Jacksonville, when the Colts take on the Jaguars in a venue where they haven’t won since 2014. The schedule doesn’t get easier from there, with games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos in Weeks 3, 4 and 5.
“If we can clean things up, tighten things up a little bit, we’re going to be just fine,” Ryan said. “But we need to tighten them up. There has to be a sense of urgency.
“We’ve got to be sharp from the start.”