Colts Take Care of Business, Dismantle Jaguars
The Indianapolis Colts avoided a major letdown and easily handled the winless Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field with a 37-3 blowout victory. The win pushed the Colts record to 3-1 on the season and kept the team tied with the surprising Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South heading into next weekend's clash with the undefeated Seattle Seahawks. Indianapolis didn't start well in Jacksonville, but talent eventually won over and the Colts were able to grab momentum as they prepare for arguably the team's toughest stretch of games on the entire schedule this season. With Sunday being the final tuneup before battling several playoff contenders in consecutive weeks, here are some of the observations that stood out from this past weekend.
1. Indianapolis happy to have a Butler in the secondary.
The Colts secondary has improved leaps and bounds since the beginning of last season, and while talented players like Vontae Davis receive most of the headlines, unsung heroes like cornerback Darius Butler have been pleasant surprises during the Chuck Pagano era. Butler, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, seems to love playing against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, and why not? Jacksonville entered the game winless and had only scored eight points in the first half for all three previous games combined. The Colts defense took advantage of playing against the league's worst offensive team. In last year's contest at EverBank Field, Butler snagged two interceptions and recovered a fumble in a convincing victory over the Jaguars, and he added to his outstanding history at the venue when he intercepted a telegraphed pass by Blaine Gabbert and returned it to the house for a 41 yard touchdown during the early stages of the 2nd quarter. Butler also led the team with six tackles on the day, showing he has value both as a coverage corner and as a steady tackler. The play gave Indianapolis a 10-3 lead after a tough opening quarter, and the team never looked back on its way to a commanding 34 point win.
2. What can Brown do for you?...
Apparently, more than most expected. Trent Richardson received a greatly increased workload this week with Ahmad Bradshaw sidelined thanks to a neck injury, but he only had minimal impact in the Colts offensive success. Instead, former first rounder Donald Brown came in and gave Indianapolis a major boost. Brown has only seen limited action during the first few games with Bradshaw and Richardson in front of him on the depth chart, but he could be in line for more carries in the near future as a change of pace back. He's averaging over nine yards per carry on the year, and while the sample size remains small, he possesses better speed than the other two primary running backs on the roster and has shown his ability to break loose for big plays the past two games. He broke a 50 yard scamper up the middle on his way to racking up 65 yards on just three carries. Richardson, on the other hand, struggled to find much running room despite carrying the football 20 times against the Jaguars and only managed to rush for 60 yards on the day. Pagano will have a tough decision to make splitting up carries for his backs this weekend, especially if Bradshaw returns to action.
3. Luck again played steady, but not exceptional.
For the second straight week, quarterback Andrew Luck did a good job managing the game for the Colts. Luck has been phenomenal since being selected with the first overall pick last year, and he's the biggest reason why Indianapolis has gone from being one of the AFC's worst teams to a Super Bowl sleeper. He's doing a much better job this year of taking care of the football, as he's taking less chances in tight coverage in Pep Hamilton's offense than he would have playing under Bruce Arians a year ago. With that said, his accuracy hasn't been quite as good as usual the past few games. Indianapolis actually trailed at the end of the first quarter this past weekend, and Luck's communication problems with his receivers stood out. On a number of different occasions, Luck misfired and the intended receiver ran a different route than expected. The most notable came on the Colts second drive of the game, as T.Y. Hilton stopped on a short curl route and Luck threw the ball as if he expected him to continue going downfield. Veteran corner Will Blackmon ended up making an easy interception and the Jaguars ended up with a field goal to take an early lead. If not for an offsides penalty against Jason Babin on the opening drive, Luck easily could've thrown two interceptions in the first quarter.
In the end, Luck completed 22 of 36 passes for 260 yards and a couple of touchdown tosses, a solid but not great performance considering his talents. After a slow start, he game ended up getting away from Jacksonville and the Colts took control, but these type of mistakes cannot happen against Super Bowl contenders like Seattle and Denver, who both will come to Lucas Oil Stadium in the coming weeks. Being a game manager isn't a bad thing and Luck has continued to play at a high level, but Indianapolis will probably need bigger performances from him to take down the Seahawks and/or Broncos.
4. Fleener heeds the call and rises to the occasion.
Indianapolis received big contributions from several receivers on Sunday, including a five catch, 100 yard day for superstar Reggie Wayne and steady contributions from Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. The biggest performance, however, may have came from 2nd year tight end Coby Fleener, who will play a much more significant role in the offense with Dwayne Allen out for the season. He dealt with a rough rookie season last year, but he's appeared to turn the corner in his second season in Indianapolis. According to Pagano, Fleener has been asked to "do more heavy lifting" in Allen's absence, and he met those expectations against Jacksonville. He hauled in five catches for 77 yards, including a 31 yard touchdown grab on the team's opening drive of the second half. As Luck's confidence in his former college teammate continues to grow, the Colts offense will became more and more lethal. Opponents won't be able to get away with leaving Fleener lightly covered, which will create more opportunities for the receivers on the outside to make plays.
5. The Colts continue to dominate in September.
Pagano's crew might not be happy to see the calendar turn to October, as the Colts have the best record in the NFL during the month of September over the past decade. Indianapolis has went 26-10 in September dating back to 2003, with Seattle and New England both winning 25 games a piece during that span. Early success doesn't necessarily indicate playoff success down the road, but getting off to a fast start has Indianapolis thinking about a division title in 2013. October will be a tougher month, as the Colts upcoming four opponents have a combined 14-2 record this season. We'll have a better idea where this team stands based on how well the Colts perform during a brutal stretch of games heading toward the midway point of the year.