INDIANAPOLIS —The first mention of safety Clayton Geathers' name within an official National Football League stat sheet in more than a calendar year is basically a microcosm of the Indianapolis Colts' 2017 season to this point.
Making his season debut in Sunday's Week 12 matchup against the Tennessee Titans after undergoing offseason neck surgery, Geathers was placed on a restrictive "pitch count" to ease him back into the physical rigors of an NFL game, and would end up playing just 10 total snaps on the afternoon — only four of which were on defense.
But on his very first snap of the season we saw both Geathers' potential impact for the defense as well a prime example of the problems that have plagued the team all season.
On their first drive of the game, the Titans faced a 3rd and 11 from the Indianapolis 44-yard line. Here's how Geathers described the play:
"(I was) just coming off the edge and I saw an opportunity, and I said, 'Ah, please don't throw it, please don't throw it. The back end was covering nice, so I got there in time."
But here's how the sequence ended up looking in the play-by-play section of the stat sheet:
(Shotgun) M. Mariota sacked at TEN 48 for -8 yards (C. Geathers)
PENALTY on IND-R.Melvin, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at IND 44–No Play
In other words, referee Craig Wrolstad discussed the play with his officiating crew, turned on his mic and announced to the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd there was a defensive holding call that would nullify Geathers' sack. Instead of punting on 4th and 19 from their own 48, the Titans were given an automatic first down at the Indy 39-yard line.
Tennessee would go on to take advantage of the penalty, as Ryan Succop would eventually nail a 29-yard field goal to give the Titans an early 3-0 lead.
A frustrating sequence for all involved for sure, but after all the hard work that went into Geathers' return from a serious bulging disk injury — the rest, recovery, months of rehab, weight lifting, studying, meetings and then working his way into practice and game shape — the third-year safety said he felt like he was able to take a positive step forward in his goal of checking off all the boxes to make a full return.
"On the final box, to be out there and actually be in a game, get live reps, that was huge," Geathers said. "The more I got reps the more I started trusting it. It was good, even though we didn't finish how we wanted to."
Sunday's game also saw the return of outside linebacker John Simon, who had missed the previous three games after suffering a stinger in his neck Week 7 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Simon, who had one tackle in his return, would help lead a Colts' defensive charge that allowed a total of just three rushing yards through three quarters of Sunday's game. At that point, Indianapolis led Tennessee, 16-13.
But the Titans would get things going in the fourth quarter, when they ran wild with 89 rushing yards, including an eventual game-winning, one-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray, and Tennessee escaped with a 20-16 victory for their first-ever win at Lucas Oil Stadium, and first sweep of the Colts since 2002.
It was also the fifth time this season that the Colts (3-8) have blown a fourth-quarter lead and lost the ballgame.
"Well, it's just been the story of the year," Simon said. "We've got to limit the big plays and the fourth quarter comebacks."
Geathers, the Colts' Ed Block Courage Award recipient for the 2017 season, agrees with Simon, and both have now felt the frustration from the sidelines and on the field.
"We've just got to finish and that's something we've just got to continue to work on," Gathers said. "The feeling for me was the same while I was hurt."