Indianapolis Colts quarterback Scott Tolzien is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers' Sean Davis during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Welcome, America, to Andrew Luck’s life.
The population of Central Indiana knows it all too well, but now America knows, and Lord knows, now Scott Tolzien knows: Andrew Luck is surrounded by, um, what’s a nice word for it?
Let’s go with this, just to be delicate: Nothing.
On a night when the Colts were overwhelmed by the Pittsburgh Steelers – again – 28-7, America saw why the Colts are currently a monument to mediocrity. America saw why the only chances the Colts have to reach the playoffs are A) a Texans’ implosion and B) Andrew Luck.
When Luck isn’t behind center, eluding pass rushers and running for his life and making big throws downfield, the Colts are a rancid excuse for a team with post-season aspirations. Put it this way: If Tolzien had any help whatsoever -- if his team could run the ball, if his team could catch the ball, if his team could protect the passer, if his team could slow down Antonio Brown – he might have had his Clint Longley Thanksgiving moment Sunday night.
Give the Colts’ backup all kinds of credit: He stayed in there against a fearsome pass rush, made throws while under duress and twice got the Colts to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. He was not the reason, not at all, why the Colts got rolled Sunday night. He was good enough; more than good enough, hanging tough despite three sacks and 11 quarterback hits.
There was a lot to like, too, about the offensive game plan: Take shots downfield against a Steelers’ pass defense that was ranked 26th in the league. And the plays were there, but time after time after time, the Colts’ receivers dropped passes. It was T.Y. Hilton on a deep ball that might have gone for a touchdown. There was a pass to Donte Moncrief that would have given Indy the ball at the 2-yard line. There was a TD pass to Phillip Dorsett, a tough catch but the kind a first-round pick should made, that he saw drop to the ground.
“I thought Scott (Tolzien) gave us a chance,’’ Pagano said. “I thought he played his ass off. He is one tough son of a gun. He hung in there and hung in there and made some really tough throws and took some shots along the way. I’m very proud of that kid.’’ He gave the Colts a chance Sunday night, and then the Colts dropped that chance. Over and over again.
“We (the receivers) take pride in not dropping the ball,’’ said T.Y. Hilton, who hammered himself for his own drop on a pass that might have led to a touchdown. “Those are plays we make 11 out of 10 times.’’
Eleven out of 10?
OK, you know what he means.
Except he’s wrong. The Colts now lead the NFL in dropped passes. Number one. With a bullet.
“It just crushes you,’’ Pagano said of the drops plague.
Look, this was going to be a steep hill to climb even before the night began. The Colts survived without Luck last season, but this team is extraordinarily reliant on its quarterback. Indy was also missing safety Clayton Geathers, another guy with a concussion. Then the game-day injuries started: Center Ryan Kelly went out with a shoulder injury. Denzelle Good, the right guard, was out and then in and then back out again with an injury. Vontae Davis injured his groin, and his ego, after getting burned deep a second time by Colts-killer Antonio Brown. Hilton hurt his lower back after a monstrous hit by Pittsburgh’s Mike Mitchell. And then, just to make the ignominy complete, Robert Mathis went out with an injury.
It was especially galling to watch Brown make plays all over the field, inspiring the question, “Why won’t the Colts provide the cornerback any help while covering the best wide receiver in the league?’’ Time after time, a gimpy Davis was left alone on an island with Brown. Then it was Rashaan Melvin. And the results were not pretty, Brown scoring three long touchdowns.
I asked Melvin whether there was supposed to be some help for the beleaguered corners. “Yes, sir,’’ he said. “We were supposed to help, but we didn’t execute.’’
On a night when the Colts needed to be perfect, they were monumentally imperfect, darned close to awful. They left at least 14 points on the field, and possibly 17 if you count Adam Vinatieri’s miss from 52 yards (and we’re not going to trash Vinatieri for missing from 52, especially when the Colts foolishly went for the deep ball on third and one and ended up watching Tolzien get sacked).
Luck’s absence had nothing to do with the defense, which got ripped off the top for 21 points on just 21 Steelers’ plays. Indy came into this game with the stated goal of slowing down Brown, keeping Le’Veon Bell in check and getting off the field on third downs.
Grades? F, F, and F.
Brown had five catches on six targets, 91 yards and three touchdowns.
Bell ran 23 times for 120 yards, a 5.2 yard-per-carry average, and scored a touchdown.
And the Steelers were a gaudy 7-of-11 on third-down conversions.
Get this: The Colts did not sack Ben Roethlisberger once and managed just one quarterback hit the entire game -- which, for whatever it’s worth, is an improvement on their last meeting when the Colts put up a giant donut in those categories.
Good coaches, good defensive teams, make opposing teams play left-handed, force the offense to beat them with their second- and third-best players. It’s what the Patriots have done since time immemorial, taking away the offense’s most dangerous weapon and saying, “Fine, if you can beat us with your lesser lights, we’ll live with it.’’ Somebody tell me, when’s the last time the Colts took away an offense’s best player?
“I don’t know what the Colts are doing (defensively),’’ TV analyst Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast.
Not sure the Colts knew, either.
Once again, this team revealed itself as a soft outfit, consistently getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage. When things got tough, the Colts cowered in a corner.
Trailing 21-7 late in the second quarter, the Colts had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Frank Gore got stuffed out of the Wildcat. Gore gained a half yard on second down. Third down, Tolzien appeared to have a chance to score on a designed run, but the tripped on the turf and was tackled at the ½ yard line. And on fourth down, the Colts ONCE AGAIN went to an empty backfield and Tolzien threw incomplete.
Fast forward to late in the third quarter, and it happened again. First and goal at the 6-yard line. Robert Turbin, short gain. Gore, short gain. A QB draw, short gain. Fourth and goal at the 1, incomplete.
Hilton said it better than I ever will.
“If you can’t make one yard, you don’t belong in the NFL,’’ he said.
A few minutes earlier, Hilton was sitting at his locker, painfully and painstakingly putting on his turquoise sneakers. He bent over at the waist to put on his right shoe.
“Uggggh,’’ he said.
He bent over at the waist to put on his left shoe.
“Uggggh,’’ he said. “(Bleep).’’
Painful night. Painful result.
This wasn’t a season-killer, not just yet, but the margin for error is next to nothing. The Colts must go 4-1 or 5-0 down the stretch to have a shot at the AFC South, and they’re going to need some help from the less-than-inspiring Houston Texans. Now they must get Luck back and hope he’s got a trick up his sleeve because without him, they are a dreadful football team.