1. Gardner Minshew kept things on track and made plays – again.
The Colts were averaging 7.6 yards per play when Anthony Richardson exited Sunday's game with a shoulder injury (Richardson is being evaluated for an AC joint injury and will miss "some time," head coach Shane Steichen said Monday). Gardner Minshew tagged in and the offense didn't see a significant dropoff, averaging 6.9 yards per play the rest of the game.
For reference, the Colts' highest yards per play average in Weeks 1-4 was 6.3. It came in Week 2 which, of course, is the other game in which Minshew tagged in for an injured Richardson after a scorching start by the Colts' offense.
Minshew completed 11 of 14 passes for 155 yards and didn't turn the ball over while posting a passer rating of 112.8 against the Titans. The Colts are now 3-0 when Minshew has played significant snaps this season; he's 57/83 (69 percent) for 553 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 95.1 so far in 2023.
And when head coach Shane Steichen was asked after the game if he thought Minshew was the best backup quarterback in the NFL, he responded: "Yeah, to me he is."
"He's an elite processor of the game, and when you've got a guy that can process the game quickly and make quick decisions," Steichen said. "He's really good, he's accurate, he knows where to go with the football at the right time and the right place, and he's been awesome for us."
Minshew's accuracy and knowledge of where to go with the ball at the right place and at the right time shined on the Colts' lengthy fourth quarter drive Sunday.
Facing a third-and-six at the Titans' 45-yard line with about three minutes left, the Titans sent a seven-man pressure with both linebackers and cornerback Elijah Molden blitzing; the Colts had a six-man protection set, meaning Minshew would have to throw hot against a free rusher.
Minshew stood in the pocket and quickly got the ball out on time to wide receiver Alec Pierce, who snagged the pass for a 10-yard gain. He got rid of the ball in two seconds, per Pro Football Focus; a tenth of a second later, Titans defensive lineman Denico Autry thumped Minshew to the ground.
The conversion earned the Colts a fresh set of downs and kept the clock moving, forcing Titans head coach Mike Vrabel to start burning timeouts. So consider the stakes here: If that pass goes incomplete, or Minshew is sacked, the Colts give the ball back to the Titans holding a four-point lead – but Tennessee has about 2:45 and all three of their timeouts plus the two-minute warning to generate a go-ahead touchdown.
Instead, the completion kept the Colts' drive going, and when Matt Gay connected on a 28-yard field goal, the Titans were out of timeouts and had just over a minute to score only a game-tying touchdown.
"Just to see the leverage of the defense and the blitz they were being there – seeing it and getting back to Alec on that, and Alec making a huge play, just seeing the leverage of the corner knowing that he could get that ball out quick to him and get that completion, it was huge," Steichen said. "Tremendous, tremendous play in the game."
Critical plays like that third-and-6 one, where he's is able to diagnose a defense and know where to throw the ball despite not taking first-team practice reps during the week, tell you all you need to know about why the Colts value Minshew so highly.
"From the day he got here, he prepared like a professional in every sense of the word," center Ryan Kelly said. "When his number is called, he is ready to go, and that says a lot about him."
2. The Colts won the line of scrimmage in the run game on both sides of the ball.
Titans running back Derrick Henry managed just 43 yards on 13 carries (3.3 yards/attempt), his lowest output against the Colts since his rookie season; Colts running back Zack Moss ripped off a career high 165 yards on 23 carries (7.2 yards/attempt). In total, the Colts gained 193 yards on the ground, the most given up by the Titans since Week 1 of the 2022 season.
The Titans, by the way, entered Week 5 allowing 2.9 yards per rush – the lowest average in the NFL.
Sunday's game was defined by the Colts winning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with no play more defining than DeForest Buckner and Zaire Franklin's stop of Henry on a fourth quarter fourth-and-one on the Colts' five-yard line.
"Just a great play knowing they wanted to go to 22 in short situations," linebacker EJ Speed said. "That's their best player over there against one of our best guys over here, and we came out on top."
The Colts are proving to be one of the league's toughest teams, with that all beginning up front on the offensive and defensive lines. Entering Week 6, the Colts have the NFL's fifth-highest Pro Football Focus run blocking grade, which has helped lead to:
- 656 rushing yards (7th)
- 17 runs of 10+ yards runs (9th)
- 282 rushing yards before contact (4th)
- 4.4 yards per attempt (11th)
- 7 rushing touchdowns (5th)
And in Week 5, the Colts' defensive plan was to shut down Henry and force Tennessee to fight left-handed, so to speak. While wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins had eight catches for 140 yards, the Colts were more concerned with making sure the engine of the Titans' offense – Henry – didn't shift the outcome of Sunday's game.
"They're playing together as one, that whole group," Steichen said. "Obviously, the defensive line, the linebackers and the DBs are all playing together, but it just keeps showing up. To hold a guy like Henry to what they did was huge. He is a big man. When you see him up close in person, he's the real deal. But credit to our defense, credit to our defensive coaches for getting it done."
3. Zaire Franklin continued his strong start to the season.
Franklin totaled 12 tackles, with his final one that fourth down stop on Henry. The Colts' linebacker has now recorded double-digit tackles in all five games to begin the 2023 season and has 69 tackles so far, easily the most in the NFL.
Some context on those two numbers:
Looking at what a player is on pace for early in the season is sometimes a little misleading, but at this point, it's worth noting Franklin – who's averaging just under 14 tackles per game – is on pace for well over 200 tackles this season. The NFL has only seen three 200-plus tackle seasons: Jessie Tuggle in 1990 and 1991, and Hardy Nickerson in 1993 – with Nickerson's 214 tackles an NFL record.
"Zaire – he's a baller, but he gets better every week," defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo said. "He plays with that chip on his shoulder and he truly believes he's the best in the league, and he plays like it."
4. Josh Downs had a career day.
Back in training camp, wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne highlighted rookie wide receiver Josh Downs' readiness to play and natural feel for football.
"He's a coach's son, so he understands some things differently," Wayne said. "... All those little things that people don't understand, he's one of those guys that instead of telling him three times, you have to tell him twice."
Downs' father, Gary, played in the NFL for seven seasons and has coached at the Division I level in college. His uncle, Dre Bly, was a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback and spent a decade in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions.
So when Steichen was discussing Downs' career high 97 receiving yards on Sunday after the Colts' win over the Titans, what Wayne said over the summer was relevant to note.
"I think with any rookie that has success early, I think part of it is they have a natural feel on how to play the game," Steichen said. "A lot of those guys that you see make big plays, they made them in college and then it translates sometimes to the NFL quickly, but again, I've said this before about him. He's got a natural feel playing that position, catches everything, runs good routes. He's explosive, and then obviously the quarterbacks, both Anthony and Gardner, got a good feel for the way he runs his routes and just find completions going to him."
Through his first five games in the NFL, Downs has 23 receptions on 33 targets for 255 yards; 11 of his receptions have generated a first down.
5. Sunday was another key win as Steichen establishes a culture in Year 1.
The Colts left the field at Lucas Oil Stadium feeling not just like they were the more physical team on Sunday, but also as Speed said, "I feel like we're the most physical team in the league."
Two of the Colts' three wins have been defined by relentless physicality and top-level complementary football. Against the Ravens, the Colts' defense hung in long enough for the offense to make a handful of plays to set up Matt Gay's historic showing; against the Titans, Franklin and Buckner's stop of Henry was followed by a 14-play clock-chewing drive that ended with a Gay field goal.
"I think it builds character of your football team," Steichen said. "You find out who you are, the resiliency. We talked about that in Baltimore. Even last week against the Rams being down 23, coming back, then finding a way to finish these games, which was huge. Again, I go back to somebody has got to make a play, and we get that fourth down stop, we go on a 15-play drive to bleed all that clock out and leave them, whatever, a minute left with no timeouts, it says a lot about this football team."
The first quarter of a season is usually where teams begin to establish an identity; the 2023 Colts are establishing themselves as a resilient, tough, relentless team. And that burgeoning identity comes straight from the culture Steichen is working to instill in his team.
"Shane does a really good job of empowering guys, giving them the motivation to go out there and trust themselves, trust their ability," Kelly said. "I think you saw it across the board, everybody played great."
Going back to February, when the Colts introduced Steichen as head coach, general manager Chris Ballard said he wasn't just hired because of his offensive acumen. He was hired, Ballard said, because he was the right fit for the team as a whole.
Fast-forward to October, and you'll hear plenty of comments like this in the Colts' locker room:
"I think coach Shane is doing a hell of a job with every dynamic of the team – special teams, offense, defense," cornerback Kenny Moore II said. "For us to go out there and play clean, smart situational football and us to go out there and be on the attack – I like the way coach Shane is going about leading this team."
Go inside the locker room to celebrate with the Colts following their win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 5.