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Five Things Learned

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5 Colts Things Learned, Week 17: Michael Pittman Jr.'s return makes major impact, inside Alec Pierce's 58-yard touchdown, Gus Bradley pieces together depleted secondary in win over Raiders

The Colts beat the Las Vegas Raiders, 23-20, on New Year's Eve to improve to 9-7 and earn a win-and-in game against the Houston Texans in Week 18. Here are five big things we learned as the Colts earned an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot next weekend:

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1. Michael Pittman Jr.'s physical presence made a difference, whether he got the ball or didn't.

The first of Michael Pittman Jr.'s receptions on Sunday made him only the fourth player in Colts history with a 100+ reception, 1,000+ yard season. But Pittman made his greatest impact on plays on which he didn't record a reception.

Specifically, these three plays in the final 19 minutes of Sunday's game:

  • Pittman recovered a Jonathan Taylor fumble inside the Raiders' red zone, allowing Matt Gay to connect on a field goal that put the Colts up by seven late in the third quarter.
  • With just under 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Colts called a toss to running back Trey Sermon. Pittman cleared out linebacker Divine Deablo, allowing Sermon to break free for a 27-yard run.
  • Facing a third and eight while leading by seven late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Gardner Minshew II threw deep to Pittman, who drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty. Instead of punting the ball back to Las Vegas, the Colts ultimately wound up kicking a field goal to go up by 10 with 3:15 left.

"It's inspiring seeing how he blocks out there and the little things that might not be getting — people probably don't talk about as much," wide receiver Alec Pierce said. "You turn on the tape, he gives it his all every single play."

Pittman has only missed two games over the last three seasons, but the Colts lost those games (Week 2 of 2022 at Jacksonville, Week 16 of 2023 at Atlanta) by a combined 43 points. It's not just the playmaking Pittman brings as a wide receiver – it's the attitude he brings to the entire Colts team when he's on the field.

"I tell Pitt all the time — you're a tone-setter," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "It's not easy. It's a burden, but somebody's gotta take it. And that's the type of player Pittman is, not only making one-on-one plays on the outside, scoring touchdowns, but setting the tone out there for the offense.

"Being an enforcer out there — there's nobody else in the league that's doing both."

The block Pittman had on Deablo – a linebacker with 93 tackles entering Week 17 – was an embodiment of not only the mentality Pittman brings, but also the trust the Colts have in him. Pittman said his job on the play was to pin Deablo in so Sermon could slip outside, but Deablo played the run to the outside, so Pittman had to use the linebacker's momentum against him to keep him away from the Colts' running back.

"He played outside, so I strained to make sure he didn't make the tackle," Pittman said. "I was just pushing him the way he was wanting to go and kept pushing, pushing, pushing."

And that kind of effort – especially when it comes from a 100/1,000 receiver – is inspirational to the Colts.

"You see his physicality and you're like, okay, if a receiver can be out there blocking like that, why can't I run a little harder? And I just feel like that rubs off on everybody," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "It may rub off on a tight end or the O-line. You need guys like that because there's gonna come a point in time where you need everyone, all 11 guys on that field, playing with an edge."

2. Inside how a well-timed and well-executed playcall led to Alec Pierce's 58-yard touchdown.

Minshew went to Pierce on Saturday evening with a directive: "Visualize it, because it's coming to you on this look."

The look was: If the Colts got a third-and-short at some point on Sunday, they knew the Raiders would sell out to stop the run, either with a cover-zero blitz (with no safety over the top) or a cover-one blitz (with a deep safety covering the post). 

The Colts got that look on a third-and-one at their own 42-yard line with four minutes left in the first half. Guard Josh Sills reported as eligible as a sixth offensive linemen, and the Colts put two other tight ends – Mo Alie-Cox and Kylen Granson – on the field to further sell a run play. Raiders safety Marcus Epps and cornerback Jack Jones dropped into what wound up a nine-man box, with safety Tre'von Moehrig and cornerback Amik Robertson manning up Pierce and tight end Kylen Granson to the field. 

That was the look the Colts hoped to get. If a safety – in this case, Epps – dropped deep, Pierce's responsibility was to run a post route to clear him out, opening up an opportunity for Granson. But if Epps crept up in run support, coaches told Pierce he'd have acres of green turf to run to. 

"(Coaches) did a great job this week scouting in all our walkthroughs and stuff like that, showing us the different looks," Pierce said.

Minshew faked a handoff to Sermon, which froze linebacker Robert Spillane for a beat, and the Colts blocked everyone else up with an eight-man protection. Once Spillane realized it was a pass, he dashed toward Minshew, but Pierce already flashed open and the Colts' quarterback threw an on-target strike to him. Pierce caught the pass and sprinted 26 yards into the end zone for a touchdown. 

"They were in a zero look, no deep safeties and something we saw on tape," head coach Shane Steichen said. "If it was zero like that, we got a chance to throw one over the top, we got to max it up and got the look. Shoot, Gardner made a heck of a play stepping into that throw leading Alec across the field. No one was over there and catching it in stride to go score was huge."

The Raiders had only given up two passing touchdowns of 55 or more yards this season prior to Pierce's score. 

"They were probably thinking all-out on the run there, so it was just a good, executed play and good play calling," Pierce said. "It was awesome to get."

3. Braden Smith's return made a difference.

Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby – who entered Week 17 with 13.5 sacks – had a mostly quiet day thanks in part to the play of right tackle Braden Smith, who started for the first time since sustaining a knee injury in Week 13. Crosby didn't record a sack and outside of one play where he ran a game, looping around from right to left to rush up the middle and lead to a sack by defensive tackle Adam Butler, he didn't have a game-wrecking impact. 

Only one of Crosby's four pressures came when he lined up over Smith, and that happened in the fourth quarter when Minshew scrambled from the pocket to his right. Earlier in the game, Smith routed Crosby deep upfield, allowing Minshew to step up to his right and rip a pass that resulted in a 50-yard gain to wide receiver Josh Downs. 

"It's huge – to get a player back like that with his presence out there and his physicality is big," Steichen said. "Got to look at the tape but I thought he did a good job today."

This isn't an ironclad correlation, but the Colts are averaging 4.4 yards per rush when Smith plays the majority of their snaps and 4.0 yards per rush when he doesn't play or leaves a game early due to injury. The Colts averaged 4.6 yards per rush on Sunday against the Raiders. 

Smith missed the Colts' last three games with a knee injury sustained early in Week 13. 

"I know he's been fighting — I talked to him after the game and told him I appreciate him," Taylor said. "He's been fighting like crazy to get back. I knew he missed it and so we appreciate not only his toughness, but we appreciate what he brings to the table every single time he's on that field."

4. The Colts' secondary held up despite two big losses.

The Colts placed safety Julian Blackmon on injured reserve last Tuesday, and cornerback Kenny Moore II was ruled out Sunday morning due to a back injury. That meant the Colts' primary five defensive backs on Sunday were:

  • CB JuJu Brents (7 career starts)
  • CB Jaylon Jones (10 career starts)
  • Slot CB Chris Lammons (first career start)
  • Free safety Nick Cross (3rd career start)
  • Strong safety Ronnie Harrison (47th career start, but moved to linebacker after joining Colts in 2023)

To say the least, this group hadn't played much together before Sunday. Moore was listed as a full participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday before he didn't practice due to a back injury Friday. All five players were not Week 1 starters; Lammons and Harrison were practice squad players before joining the 53-man roster at various points this season. And Harrison, prior to Sunday, was converted to linebacker before moving back to his natural position of safety for Week 17. 

"Man, I am proud of them boys," Franklin said. "I love the way that Jaylon plays. I love the way that JuJu Brents competes. I love the way Nick Cross comes in and runs the show. We have some talented, talented young dudes who are hungry, ready to prove themselves, ready to play and they play together. Them boys made plays today when we needed it."

Brents had a key pass break-up on a pass to wide receiver Davante Adams in the second half. And while Adams got his – 13 catches on 21 targets for 126 yards and two touchdowns – that the Colts were able to win a game with such a depleted secondary is a credit to defensive coordinator Gus Bradley; the Raiders only completed two passes of 20 or more yards on 50 Aidan O'Connell dropbacks. 

"Jones and JuJu on the corners – I love those guys," Steichen said. "I think they are going to have a hell of a future in this league. They play physical, they play hard, it means something to them. Obviously, Nick Cross back there is doing a heck of a job. It was a good, all around victory, obviously, for everybody."

5. What a difference a year – or two – makes.

Two years ago, the Colts lost in Week 17 to the Raiders and then fell flat against the Jacksonville Jaguars to miss the playoffs. A year ago, the Colts were blown out by the New York Giants in Week 17 and lost to the Houston Texans in Week 18 to finish with a 4-12-1 record. 

We'll see what Week 18 has in store, but that the Colts are 9-7 with a chance to make the playoffs after back-to-back disappointing – in their own way – seasons is a testament to a few things. 

One, it's a testament to general manager Chris Ballard's belief in the roster he already had in place, and the scouting and decision-making that led the team to add key players through free agency (like defensive end Samson Ebukam) and the NFL Draft (like wide receiver Josh Downs) this offseason. 

"We've got to get better. I've got to do a better job. I've got to get more talent on this football team," Ballard said last January. "I've got to improve it. Our best players have to play to their capability and the young players have to play to their capability that we thought. I don't think the cupboard is dry. I do think we have some good young players and I think we have some players in their prime that can play better."

The second part is the Colts finding the right head coach for the team they had in place in Steichen. 

Six of the Colts' seven team captains in 2023 were returning players not only from 2022, but 2021 and 2020 (quarterback Anthony Richardson was the only exception; linebacker Shaquille Leonard was waived in November). They all were veterans of a successful playoff push (2020) and a failed one (2021) who also bore the scars of a dozen losses in 2022. 

Steichen, starting with those five captains still on the team – Franklin, Moore, DeForest Buckner, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson – and down throughout the roster, has got the most out of the 2023 Colts. And that's no matter who's been on the field. 

And whatever next week and potentially the playoffs holds for the Colts, the figure looks searingly bright in Indianapolis. 

"Shane's done such a good job of making sure the integrity of the entire team stays together," Kelly said. "The belief we can go out there and play well — he believes in his players. I think that's what it comes down to, why guys, even if things aren't going great go out here and continue to make plays when they need to. It's because there's a coach that believes in them."

Interested in playoff tickets? Visit the Colts Playoff Central for the most up-to-date information.

Go inside the locker room to celebrate with the Colts following their win over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 17.

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