ReFo: Colts @ Jaguars, Week 10
The second in a string of six straight divisional games on NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football showpiece delivered us the Primetime debut of one Andrew Luck. Up against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that is sliding towards another Top 10 pick, Luck led his Colts to an improbable fourth straight victory heading into his first matchup against the New England Patriots next Sunday. Few had the Colts pegged to be a team in playoff contention heading down the stretch, but this win sits them at 6-3 and in the muddle that is the AFC in 2012, firmly in the hunt for a wildcard.
Meanwhile the Jaguars collected their sixth straight defeat and with their offense looking toothless as was the case in 2011. Progress shown by first round picks under pressure is not dragging the team forward and when you see a team’s top pick pass protecting as a wide receiver you start to wonder about the organization of the offense and how that is helping the underperforming talent on it.
Thursday Night Football has often become the forgotten match of the NFL weekend this season, but there were still some interesting performances to take note of before you turn your attention to the Sunday slate.
Indianapolis – Three Performances of Note
Taking Matters Into His Own Hands
Largely speaking this was as consummate a performance as a nationally televised debut goes for Andrew Luck. He was efficient moving the ball down the field — even with four dropped passes from his receivers — and when he got to the redzone he took matters into his own hands and punched the ball into the end zone on the ground.
The Colts’ short passing didn’t provide a grade deal of help to him, yielding only 5.8 yards per completion on passes aimed 9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or shorter, but Luck got plenty from the intermediate and deep passing game. 169 of his 227 passing yards came on passes aimed 10 or more yards down field and it would have been more but for a drop by Donnie Avery when he had done the hard work in terms of reaching Luck’s pass and getting position on the defender.
The pair of interceptions were a blot on Luck’s copybook and he was fortunate that his first was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty. Had Terrance Knighton held up on that hit or gone lower with it that play could easily have transformed the game. As it was, Luck and the Colts shook off the error and rolled downfield for a 10-0 lead from which they did not look back.
Butler Serves Up a Score
Having now bounced out of the Carolina and New England defensive backfields, it would be easy to think that Darius Butler is on close to his last chance in the NFL and he is trying to make the most of his opportunity with the Colts in the last two weeks. Earning his first start at left corner since Week 4 last season, Butler was solid in coverage capping off his performance with one fortuitous interception and one that showed a ball-hawking ability to capitalize on a dreadful throw from Blaine Gabbert.
From early on it was obvious that the Jaguars were principally targeting short routes and, consequently, the Colts just started to sit off of and jump them. That tactic caught them out when Cassius Vaughn was beaten on a hitch-and-go by Cecil Shorts, but that wasn’t until Butler had made the decisive play of the game by pouncing on an out route to pick-off a pass left infield by Gabbert; the cardinal sin on such throws. At the moment this is just an isolated performance from Butler, but what a play like this can often do is buy you some time in the lineup to prove yourself; the onus will be on him now to capitalize on that and keep his spot.
This time last year there were many theorizing that Reggie Wayne was a spent force in Indianapolis and not the same without Peyton Manning under center for the Colts. Well, halfway through the 2012 season those theories have been firmly put to bed and once again Wayne was front and center as Andrew Luck’s go-to guy and crucial in terms of getting the offense started.
Wayne was the targeted receiver on Luck’s first five passes and though Wayne dropped two of them (one was off of a tip by Tyson Alualu) it was no secret who the Colts were feeding the ball to in order to build momentum. For the sixth time in nine games Wayne saw double digit targets and six of his eight catches resulted in first downs for the Indianapolis offense. Count in Wayne’s solid contributions as a blocker on the edge and you start to build a picture of the man most important to the success of the Colts’ offense. Can any team take Wayne away from Luck? And, if they do, can Luck get the offense moving without leaning on Wayne? Surely Bill Belichick will cook up a scheme next week that forces Luck to look away from Wayne early and often.
Jacksonville – Three Performances of Note
Alualu Makes an Early Impact
From early in last night’s game Alualu made his presence known as he has done rarely before in his NFL career. Within the first 7:30 of the game Alualu had recorded a hurry, tipped a pass that was dropped for a third-down stop, recorded a defensive stop in the run game, and taken Luck down for a sack. That is as much or more production than Alualu often offers over 60 minutes on most Sundays. He would follow that up with a further hit on Luck and two more stops in run defense and, in the second half, it was noticeable that Alualu was far more of a focus for the Colts’ offensive linemen to limit his impact.
One game cannot counteract a disappointing first two seasons of his career, but he will need to build upon this performance through the second half of the season if he is not to find his job under threat in the upcoming offseason.
Erratic, Inaccurate, Gabbert
It was obvious in this game that the Jaguars wanted to give Blaine Gabbert throws that were easy to complete, to keep the yardage ticking over and keep the Jaguars in manageable down-and-distance situations. If that was the plan it didn’t work terribly well as Gabbert’s issues with inaccuracy and the Colts quickly clueing in halted any chances for an efficient night from Gabbert.
The Jaguars’ biggest gain through the air came when they finally worked a double move off of a short route to get a receiver open behind the Colts. The fact that one play accounted for a quarter of Gabbert’s passing yards only serves to highlight the shortcomings for the rest of the game. His accuracy issues were evident from the first play when he missed Justin Blackmon open on an out route past the markers and he capped it off with a simply terrible throw for the pick-six by Darius Butler. When the passing game is so predicated around short passing you simply must have a higher completion percentage than 63.6 on passes targeted within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage. Gabbert will get the rest of the season — benching him serves no purpose to the Jaguars — but if he does not show further signs of improvement, that patience may not last through the offseason.
Invisible ground game
When you have a quarterback struggling as Gabbert is you need some sort of running game to take the heat off of him. Both in terms of commitment and production the Jaguars had neither yesterday with Gabbert himself contributing more than a quarter of the Jaguars’ rushing yards on one scramble. Teams with better quarterbacks and passing games than the Jaguars realize that even if it isn’t efficient you need to sprinkle plenty of running into the offense to keep the opposing defense honest. That the Jaguars didn’t do this against an Indianapolis defense that is far from stout against the run is astonishing; that they couldn’t create any running room at all can only be described as disappointing. Clearly they are without a quality back with Maurice Jones-Drew missing through injury, but that they could get nothing more than a handful of 4-yard runs from Rashad Jennings and never gave the ball to Montell Owens or Jalen Parmele to even see what they could do against the Colts’ run defense is baffling.
– Rookie tackle Bradley Sowell played 16 snaps as an extra lineman; the Colts ran on 14 of those 16 snaps.
– For the second straight week Zach Potter was in the Jaguars’ starting lineup, but across those two home games he has only played 10 snaps, matching his single-game low of the season.
– The 18 snaps recorded by Antonio Johnson last night were a season low both in terms of the raw number and the percent of defensive plays (25%) that he was in for.
PFF Game Ball
His quarterback will earn plenty of game balls through his career, so credit in this game goes to Darius Butler whose pick-six early in the third quarter essentially put the game beyond doubt for the Colts.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben