INDIANAPOLIS – Even after notching their first win of the season on Sunday, no one in the Indianapolis Colts’ locker room would dare say they’ve resolved their litany of issues. Veterans like quarterback Matt Ryan know better.
That can be a difficult balance to strike, but as the Colts continue to collect themselves after a messy start to the season, they believe it’s possible to stay afloat while simultaneously figuring things out.
“We still have a lot of improving to do,” Ryan said. “And what I've found throughout my career is you usually continue to get better as the year goes on, and you clean things up. But you've got to find ways to win along the way as you're improving. That's what I'm proud of today.”
That’s the challenge for the Colts.
Can they, for instance, navigate their deepening offensive-line issues enough to give Ryan more opportunities like the one he seized Sunday, engineering a 16-play, 76-yard game-winning drive -- the 43rd such drive of his 15-year career? Can their exceptionally young passing targets continue to produce while also learning on the fly, the way rookie tight end Jelani Woods did with his improbable pair of touchdown catches against Kansas City? And can the Colts’ defense keep holding on until the unit’s leader, linebacker Shaquille Leonard, returns from back surgery?
The Colts used this elusive formula on Sunday, taking advantage of the Chiefs’ many mistakes en route to a much-needed win that flipped the narrative around a team whose fans were growing anxious.
The win provided a reminder that the preseason prognostications that pointed to the Colts as a team to watch in the AFC were indeed based on something tangible. Ryan, while alternatively struggling with protecting the ball and from his lack of elusiveness, earned the nickname “Matty Ice” for a reason. Coach Frank Reich on Sunday called him “unflappable.” Also, the excitement generated by additions like defenders Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue might have been warranted after all.
To be sure, there is legitimate talent on this team. What remains lacking, however, is synergy. The offensive line, according to center Ryan Kelly, is still adjusting to its two new starters. That, he said, is the reason behind the parade of unblocked blitzers who were teeing off on Ryan on Sunday. The Chiefs registered 10 quarterback hits, one week after the Jaguars recorded 11 in a win over the Colts.
The offense as a whole generated 3.8 yards per play against Kansas City. That probably isn’t sustainable if the Colts want to be a viable team. But, on the other hand, the confidence that will come from the contributions of players like Woods and fellow rookie Alec Pierce (three catches, 61 yards) can help jumpstart what has been a stagnant offense. That’s how a team manages to win while experiencing growing pains.
“That’s one of the biggest adjustments in this league,” said Pierce, a second-round pick from the University of Cincinnati. “You come from kind of being the man and knowing you’re going to get the ball and knowing the quarterback, if all things are equal, is going to be looking your way, to now, you have to come in and prove yourself to the quarterback and to the offense and to the coaches.”
That, again, speaks to the growing pains that probably should have been expected from this team and are now becoming more evident.
Those growing pains extend to the defense, too. The Colts, who are in their first season under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, had been allowing quarterbacks to throw with concerning accuracy through two weeks. But Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ tendency to extend plays coupled with a more aggressive defensive coverage plan allowed the Colts to reverse that trend.
“I think we had a good game plan,” Gilmore said. “We were playing tighter coverage, and I think our rush did a great job of stopping the run. We played as a team, the way we should have played to beat this team.”
Sunday was the best example of team defense the Colts have displayed so far this season, and it stymied the Chiefs at times. The improved play in the secondary was combined with production up front. Ngakoue showed his value with a sack and two quarterback hits while defensive tackle DeForest Buckner had his best performance.
Mahomes was pressured on 38% of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, versus just 21% through the Chiefs’ first two games.
“I felt like there was constant pressure throughout the day when he held the ball,” Buckner said.
The Colts even seem to have stabilized their kicking game, an area that was in disarray in recent weeks. Punter Matt Haack has filled in beautifully for injured Rigoberto Sanchez (torn Achilles in right leg). And kicker Chase McLaughlin, who was brought in as an emergency replacement after Rodrigo Blankenship missed a game-winning field goal in Week 1, converted field goals from 43 and 51 yards.
Can the Colts figure out the rest of it? Time will tell. In the meantime, they demonstrated that they can, perhaps, find ways to win while they find their way.
“This showed us we can be the team that we want to be,” Reich said. “We can be the team that we think coming into this season we were going to be. We can be that team. But we've got to work to get better.”