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COLUMN

Hard to judge Colts on opening-day escape

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

They looked strong and weak at various times

Monday, September 9, 2013 - 1:35 am

INDIANAPOLIS – One game into the Indianapolis Colts' 2013 season and I'm ready to make a definitive statement: The Colts have me confused.

Are they the offensive juggernaut of the first two and final possessions in a 21-17 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium? Or are they the porous, sack-vulnerable panicky unit of the other moments?

Is their defense full of playmakers like Greg Toler and Antoine Bethea, who started and finished the day with big interceptions in the end zone? Or was their almost complete befuddlement at the hands of Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor (112 yards rushing as various Colts demonstrated the “air tackle”) signal doom ahead at the hands and feet of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson?

Andrew Luck ran for the go-ahead touchdown late and Bethea clinched things with an interception with 25 seconds left. A 1-0 record is a 1-0 record.

But, ultimately, is this team any good or not?

I'll be honest. I can't tell yet.

“A win is a win in this league,” Colts wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “The margin is very small between teams.”

The margin was much smaller than Colts fans or Raiders fans probably expected. The Colts left the stadium with a win, the Raiders with a loss. And yet I have to believe Colts fans feel less optimistic about their team while Raiders fans feel more optimistic. Pryor, in particular, made a couple mistakes on the costly interceptions but he showed the athletic moves and chutzpah that seems to be the norm of the new wave of NFL quarterbacks.

As for the Colts offering conflicting views of who they really are, the contradictions were everywhere.

On offense, the Colts couldn't have looked sharper on their first two scores, with Luck mixing the run with the pass, hitting Reggie Wayne for a touchdown on a perfect fade route to go up 7-0. The next possession was more of the same, with running back Vick Ballard setting up play-action, and Luck hitting big tight end Dwayne Allen for the score.

The rout looked to be on. But it wouldn't last.

The next couple series were duds and the bottom hit when Luck took a sack on 4th-and-1 in his own territory. It was a mistake that led to Oakland taking a fourth-quarter lead. Luck is tremendous, but he has to throw that ball away rather than take a sack.

“They sort of sniffed the play out,” Luck said. “Obviously, not ideal but we realize it's a 60-minute ball game. A lot of things can happen. Obviously, you don't want to put your defense in a short field like that, but the defense does such a great job of responding to adversity.”

Luck had seven game-winning drives a year ago, more than any rookie in NFL history, and he pulled one more out of his pocket, driving the Colts 80 yards in 11 plays. He sprinted like the season depended on it – Who knows? Maybe it will – for a 19-yard score. That play, with the blocking parting the running lane like a green sea, showed the offensive line at its finest.

Luck finished 18-of-23 passing for 178 yards and two scores.

“You feel good about playing aggressive, doing some different things,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Nothing crazy, out of the ordinary, but you've got a guy like that, it sure makes you feel good. If there's a minute left on the clock and we need a score, there's no one I'd rather have under center than that guy.”

The flip side, of course, is the fact the Colts might not need the comeback kid if he wasn't being sacked four times and running for his life.

On the defensive side, mistakes, big plays allowed and an inability to contain Pryor were the glaring concerns.

The final Raiders drive was a perfect example of the defensive contradictions of whether this could be a strong or vulnerable unit. Somehow, the Colts allowed Raiders tight end Jeron Mastrud to run free on a 3rd-and-1 for a 41-yard gain to the Colts' 30-yard line. Later, on 4th-and-9, they allowed Pryor to hit wide receiver Denarius Moore for a first-and-goal at the 8. There was 90 seconds on the clock and a loss on the horizon.

So, of course, Robert Mathis tracks down Pryor, sacks him for a 16-yard loss and Bethea ends up picking off a final pass two plays later.

“The kid (Pryor) is phenomenal,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said. “He had us all over the field all day. He did a good job and kept us on our toes, but we ended up making more plays than they did.”

Maybe that's the only lesson to glean from the first game. The Colts made more plays than the Raiders. They won the game. They have the 1-0 record, regardless of aesthetic performance. They can move on to play the Miami Dolphins at home next week.

I'm still confused. Will the defense be able to handle the likes of Kaepernick and Wilson, not to mention Peyton Manning or Matt Schaub? If the defense can't get off the field – the Colts ran only 53 offensive plays on seven series – will the offense feel undue urgency to force things since possessions could be at a premium?

Or, perhaps, nothing much will be clear from an opening game, the first real-time tests for every player after four preseason scrimmages.

“We're 1-0, that's what we wanted to be going into Week 2,” Bethea said. “We'll make improvements and get ready for Miami. That's where we're at.”

I can't argue that 1-0 is better than the opposite. I'm going to hold off on recommending Super Bowl travel packages for now.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.