Colts Drop The Ball In San Diego
By Corbin Smith
Philip Rivers tossed for 237 yards and Ryan Mathews led a strong rushing attack with 102 yards on the ground as the San Diego Chargers brought the Indianapolis Colts three game winning streak to a screeching halt with a 19-9 victory at Qualcomm Stadium on Monday Night Football.
What It Means: The Colts failed to build off of momentum gained during a winning streak that featured upset victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks by giving their worst performance of the season in primetime. The offense struggled from the first drive and the defense couldn't find ways to get off the field, as the Chargers held possession of the football for over 38 minutes of the contest, which prevented Andrew Luck from finding his rhythm. The rest of Indy's AFC South division rivals lost this weekend, and a win in San Diego would have increased the Colts' division lead to two games. Instead, the team failed to capitalize on the opportunity and let a winnable game slip away, keeping the Tennessee Titans within a game of first place.
Failure to Launch: Indianapolis has had major issues with starting games sluggish on offense, and Monday proved to be no different. The team's opening drive showed great promise, as Luck hit Reggie Wayne for a 35 yard completion along the right sideline on the first play from scrimmage to immediately enter Charger territory. After picking up two more first downs to move into the red zone, the drive stalled and the Colts were forced to kick a field goal. The next three drives yielded quick punts, and Pat McAfee had a rough night kicking the football, giving the Chargers ideal starting position on several drives. In previous games this season, Indianapolis found ways to jump start the offense after shaky starts, but long, physical drives by San Diego kept Luck off the field and quickly wore down the Colts on defense.
Against Seattle last week, impressive third down efficiency played a critical role in overcoming an early deficit and coming back for a monster win. Against the Chargers, Indianapolis pulled a 180 and only managed to convert on two of its 10 third down attempts. Unable to sustain drives in an effort to give the defense a chance to rest, the team simply ran out of gas late in the game.
Guns Don't Kill Drives, Dropped Passes Do: During the first four games this season, the Colts only had a few dropped passes, but those fortunes have taken a turn for the worst the past two weeks. The Chargers defense entered the game ranking 27th against the pass, and Indianapolis squandered multiple opportunities to generate big plays by simply failing to catch the football. Luck's final stats were greatly compromised by poor receiver play all evening, but two specific drops stand out as game changers.
Following a touchdown strike from Rivers to rising star Keenan Allen that gave the Chargers a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, Darrius Heyward-Bey beat San Diego's secondary deep along the right sideline, but Luck's pass bounced off of his outstretched fingertips. If completed, the play probably would have gone for a score and put the Colts back in the lead. It would have been a difficult catch, but as Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden stated on the broadcast, it was a play that had to be made at this level. Another critical drop took place on the Colts final drive in the first half, as Luck threw a perfect pass to a wide open Coby Fleener across the middle that would have put Indianapolis deep into opponent territory with plenty of time on the clock to score a touchdown. However, the ball deflected off of the front of Fleener's shoulder pads and fell harmlessly to the turf, and the drop had much to do with Indy being forced to kick another field goal.
Ground and Pound Chargers?: Entering the game, Rivers had thrown for 400-plus yards in consecutive games, but he had racked up most of that yardage because the team could not run the football. San Diego ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing yardage prior to kickoff, but they controlled the trenches from the start of the game and opened up big running lanes for Mathews and Danny Woodhead. Many speculated Mathews wouldn't play after suffering a concussion against the Oakland Raiders a week earlier, but he ended up putting together one of his finest performances as a pro. With a balanced offense, the Colts struggled to put pressure on Rivers when he dropped back to throw, and San Diego used grueling, time-consuming drives to gash Indy's defense.
Making matters worse, the Colts were forced to play without starting linebacker Jerrell Freeman for the entire second half after suffering a concussion late in the second quarter. Without the team's best run stopper available, the Chargers took advantage of a gassed defense and grinded out 147 total rushing yards for the night, well surpassing the team's season average and helping to gain an upper hand.
Welcome to the Club: Not many positive things took place for the Colts last night, but Wayne's historic night served as a bright spot on an otherwise gloomy evening for the road team. The veteran receiver entered the game needing four catches to join the exclusive 1,000 catch club, and a third quarter grab placed him in elite company. Only eight other players have accumulated that many receptions in a career, with most of them already in the Hall of Fame and the others surely to join them at some point. Wayne spent a good portion of his career in Marvin Harrison's shadow and benefited from playing in a pass-heavy offense, but he's been one of the league's most consistent players and deserves Hall of Fame consideration when he hangs up his cleats. He's quickly approaching his 35th birthday, but he's still an elite receiver and a few more highly productive seasons would make him an absolute lock to have his bust in Canton.
Moving Forward: The schedule won't get any easier for Indianapolis, as former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will return to his old stomping grounds as a member of the undefeated Denver Broncos. Denver set an NFL record for points scored in the team's first six games and shows no signs of slowing down, so the Colts will need to get the offense untracked to have any shot at handing the Broncos their first loss of the season. There will be plenty of emotion with Manning returning to town, and comments made by Jim Irsay may have added unnecessary fuel to the fire while providing added motivation for Manning and coach John Fox. This will easily be the most anticipated game of the week, and Indianapolis will hope to play much better in front of a national audience after floundering against the Chargers on Monday Night Football.