Eight reasons for cautious optimism about the Colts, who are not elite – not yet

Given their first four opponents, the Colts 3-1 record is what it should be – at worst.

The Jaguars, Vikings, Jets and Bears are flawed teams with glaring holes.  If the Colts are going to return to the postseason, 3-1 was needed in the first quadrant of the season, and another 3-1 should follow in the next four games.  The Browns, Bengals, and Lions are mediocre at best before – finally – the Colts play a very good team in the Ravens.

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So what can we take away from the first 25% of the season?  Here are the top eight observations:

8 – Colts offensive line delivering as expected.  The Colts did well to run the ball for 103 yards yesterday as often as the Bears loaded the box with eight defenders.  Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith are taking some shots today because of the 2.7 yards per carry average on the Colts 38 runs, but the five best offensive linemen the NFL has ever seen can’t block eight guys.  They did a solid job given the circumstance, and they will need to continue to because teams are going to continue to dare the Colts to throw.

7 – Philip Rivers is as advertised.  He is a game manager, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Rivers will not win you games by flinging it deep, but as long as he doesn’t lose any with brain farts or deflected passes, the Colts can stack wins – especially against bad to mediocre teams.  When Rivers threw two or more interceptions for the Chargers last year, they were 0-6.  When throwing two for the Colts, they lost to a Jaguars team that has not won another game.  He got lucky yesterday when Khalil Mack dropped a tipped pass that should have changed the game.

6 – Julian Blackmon is an upgrade at free safety.  When the Colts drafted Blackmon in the third round last April, people thought it was a reach because the timetable for his return from a torn ACL had him active in mid-October at the earliest.  He healed quickly, so when starter Malik Hooker tore his Achilles, Blackmon stepped into the vacuum and fans quickly stopped lamenting Hooker’s absence.  His three passes defensed and interception yesterday were huge.  Because we are empathetic human beings, we hope Hooker makes a complete recovery, but from a football perspective Blackmon suits the Colts defensive backfield just fine.

5 – Injured wide receivers hurt, but not much.  The Colts ability to spread the field had been diminished by the injuries to Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman, but Rivers’ arm is not bomb-capable anyway.  The offense was always going to be fueled by the run and quick throws, so blazing speed was never going to be a massive asset.  After four games, Mo Alie-Cox-Cox is the Colts leading receiver with an average of less than 50 yards per game.  It would take a miracle for a Colts receiver to get the 1,000 yards mark, and that likely would have been the case had Campbell and Pittman stayed healthy.

4 – DeForest Buckner perfect three technique.  For two years we have been told the three-technique makes this defense go.  Buckner’s signing and the resulting double-teams against him have certainly freed up the other linemen – like Justin Houston – to wreak havoc in the backfield.  Houston’s 3.5 sacks project to 14 for the season, and the Colts seven picks over the last three games are the result of speeding up opposing QBs’ reads.

3 – Rigoberto Sanchez has been magnificent.  Each season, Sanchez gets just a little bit better.  He is a field position machine, relentlessly pinning opponents inside their own 20.  Yesterday, he put a punt in the end zone for the first time in over a year, and that really wasn’t his fault.  Given the lack of explosiveness from the Colts offense, a weapon like Sanchez is critical in making opponents earn yards and points.

2 – Don’t book your flights to Tampa for the Super Bowl yet.  None of the four teams the Colts have played are likely to make the playoffs, and the same can be said about their next three.  If the Colts start 6-1, optimism will run crazy high.  The media is already calling the Colts defense “elite.”  It isn’t.  It’s just been better than the last three terrible offenses against whom they have competed.  Let’s wait until they look good against the Ravens, Packers, and Steelers before we crown them the second coming of the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens.

1 – The Colts are set up to be good for a long time.  Because Chris Ballard didn’t go haywire over the last three years with Jim Irsay’s money, they are currently projected to be roughly $75 million under the salary cap this offseason.  As the cap is adjusted down because of COVID-related revenue losses, the Colts will be one of the few teams in position to acquire players or extend their own without contract acrobatics.

The Colts are a good team – not a great team.  But they are in position to build toward greatness because of Ballard’s drafts and targeted spending.  What the Colts are doing isn’t easy, but this might just be the beginning of something special.


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