INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts on Sunday fell to the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-23, in their 2018 regular season opener at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What's top of mind for the Colts as they move to 0-1 on the season?
This one stings.
In Frank Reich's debut as the Colts' head coach, the team certainly showed plenty of promise in all three phases of the ball — moving the ball down the field on offense, creating havoc on defense and capitalizing on opportunities on special teams.
But when it really mattered on Sunday, particularly in the second half, Indianapolis couldn't find the consistency needed in any area to earn a season-opening victory.
The Colts were staring right at a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes, and while many will focus on the fumble by Jack Doyle that was returned for a touchdown by the Bengals' Clayton Fejedelem with 40 seconds remaining — Indy was trailing by four, 27-23, at the time — there were several other plays down the stretch that, collectively, led to this loss.
Reich's rallying cry since he was hired was that he wants a team that has an obsession to finish. After leading by 13 points midway through the third quarter, and then seeing the Bengals finish the game on a 24-0 run, that goal was not accomplished by the Colts on Sunday.
The Colts hope for better results next Sunday, as the team travels to the nation's capital to take on the Washington Redskins at FedExField.
The odds weren't looking good for the Colts, down four, 27-23, with just 40 seconds left in the game and facing a 3rd and 15 from the Cincinnati 30-yard line.
Somehow, however, Andrew Luck was able to find a hole in the coverage, connecting with tight end Jack Doyle, who caught the ball just short of the 15-yard line, before briefly breaking free and, it appeared, earning the improbable first down to get the Colts that much closer to a game-winning touchdown.
Then the ball popped out.
And then Clayton Fejedelem picked it up and started sprinting the other way.
Eighty-three yards later, the Bengals safety reached the end zone, and the visitors had officially stomped on the Colts' throats to emphatically head back east on Interstate 74 as winners.
It was an extremely uncharacteristic mistake for the usually sure-handed Doyle, who is coming off his first-career Pro Bowl selection and a career year for the Colts.
But, again, that one play that officially ended Sunday's game, while devastating, wasn't the only reason the Colts fall to 0-1 on the year. Luck said as much himself after the game.
"Jack cares about this game as much as anybody I've been around," Luck said. "He's going to be fine. He's been such an incredible presence for many, many years."
PLAY OF THE GAME
Six hundred and sixteen days.
That's how long it had been since Andrew Luck last took the field for a regular season NFL game — that was, until Sunday.
Luck, who received a raucous welcome back from the home fans during the team's new and improved team introductions, didn't get off to the best of starts in his first game since Jan. 1, 2017, throwing an interception on the Colts' first drive inside the Cincinnati 5-yard line. But he really turned things around from there, finding success by spreading the ball around and, for the most part, staying out of trouble.
And Luck's first touchdown pass of the season was a thing of beauty.
On 2nd and 4 from the Bengals' 26-yard line, Ebron was easily able to beat linebacker Jordan Evans in coverage over the top down the right sideline, and Luck knew just where to find him, delivering a crisp pass over the shoulder for the 26-yard touchdown play to put the Colts up 10-3 with 12:09 left in the second quarter.
That's exactly the kind of play head coach Frank Reich envisioned when he heavily pursued Ebron in free agency. Ebron has the speed to blow by linebackers and safeties, and he has the size to outmuscle cornerbacks.
And if there was any doubt about Luck's ability to throw the long ball coming into Sunday's season opener, I think he was able to put those to bed — and then some — with his performance against the Bengals.
We had heard about Darius Leonard's range at linebacker coming out of South Carolina State this spring, and we had even seen it on display a little bit during training camp and the preseason.
But, man, was Leonard a joy to watch throughout Sunday's season opener against the Bengals.
Earning the start at WILL linebacker in his NFL debut, Leonard logged a team-best nine tackles on the day. He also scooped up his first fumble.
After Adam Vinatieri nailed a 21-yard field goal to tie the game at 3 late in the first quarter, the Bengals had quickly gotten to their own 42-yard line with two chunk plays of eight and nine yards, respectively.
Quarterback Andy Dalton, lined up in the shotgun, found his favorite target, A.J. Green on a short pass to the left, and he sped ahead for another 13-yard gain to the Indianapolis 45 — but that's where Matthias Farley and Leonard made their presence known.
Farley came in and punched the ball out of Green's hands, and Leonard was right there to scoop it up at the Indy 42-yard line.
Seven plays later, the Colts' offense took advantage of the takeaway, as Luck found Ebron for that aforementioned touchdown pass to put Indy up, 10-3, with 12:09 left in the second quarter.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
• The Colts were nearly unstoppable at times on third downs in Sunday's game. In all, they converted 11-of-17 of their third-down opportunities, a 65-percent success rate. Obviously it's just one game, but if the Colts can keep that going throughout the season, they'll without a doubt be among the top teams on third down in the NFL, a year after ranking 27th in the league with a 25-percent success rate.
• Nine different players caught a pass for the Colts' offense on Sunday: Ryan Grant, Jack Doyle, Nyheim Hines, T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron, Jordan Wilkins, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal and Erik Swoope. Seven of them — Grant (8), Doyle (7), Hines (7), Hilton (5), Ebron (4), Wilkins (3) and Rogers (3) — had at least three receptions on the day. That's called spreading it out.
• Margus Hunt was a man possessed at times against his former team on Sunday. The veteran defensive end, who had a strong camp and preseason, earned the start opposite Jabaal Sheard and logged three tackles — all for a loss — with two sacks (for a combined loss of 14 yards). Hunt has been known more for his special teams contributions and his play against the run in years past — he was, after all, a second-round pick by the Bengals back in 2013 — but his work as a pass rusher is clearly evident.
WHAT WENT WRONG
• The Colts struggled mightily in the second half of of games last season, and it was a big reason why the team finished with a 4-12 overall record. That trend reared its ugly head once again on Sunday in their season opener, as the Colts would be outscored 24-0 over the last quarter and a half after leading by double-digits, 23-10, with 8:13 left in the third quarter. Indianapolis has to be able to put the clamps down on defense, and has to put more points on the board, when it matters most.
• Andrew Luck has taken a lot of hits throughout his career, and that was certainly a theme that carried into Sunday. In all, Luck was hit nine times, and officially sacked twice for a combined loss of 14 yards. Not all of that is on the offensive line, obviously, but the unit was missing its starting left tackle, Anthony Castonzo, who was not able to be cleared from a hamstring injury before Sunday's game. Look for a much better performance next Sunday if Castonzo is able to get back — although the Redskins are certainly no slouches up front, either.
• The Colts were just 1-for-3 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday. The first one probably stung the most, however. On the Bengals' second play from scrimmage — and their first pass attempt — Andy Dalton was quickly harassed up the gut by defensive tackle Al Woods, and was forced into an ill-advised pass attempt. The ball eventually landed in the hands of second-year Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II, who earned his second-career interception. Moore II was unable to get by Dalton and was taken down at the Cincinnati 7-yard line, but three plays later, Luck — this time the one being harassed and throwing an ill-advised pass attempt — was picked off inside the Cincy 5-yard line. The Bengals would turn it into their first score of the day, a 42-yard Randy Bullock field goal to go up, 3-0, with 8:25 left in the first quarter.
• The only reported injury for the Colts on the day was a concussion to cornerback Chris Milton, who was injured covering a punt and did not return. Milton enters the league's concussion protocol; stay tuned for updates on his status.
The Colts now set their sights on their Week 2 matchup on the road against the Washington Redskins. The Redskins open their season today against the Arizona Cardinals in the desert, and finished last season with a 7-9 record. But with Alex Smith now manning the offense, and with an active defense — particularly up front — Washington is hoping to turn things around quickly this year.
The Colts opened the season up at home against the Cincinnati Bengals