INDIANAPOLIS – First-half deficits have been a problem for Indianapolis the last three weeks and for almost half of the first nine games.
The Colts fell behind Atlanta on Sunday at home in the first half, 21-0. It marked the third straight game the club has faced at least a 20-point deficit in the opening half, and it happened in the season opener as well.
Indianapolis was able to cut the margin to 21-7 against the Falcons with a scoring interception return by cornerback Jerraud Powers, but it could not muster any consistency afterward in falling to Atlanta.
The club suffered a fumble on the opening drive that gave the Falcons a 26-yard field. Atlanta negotiated the distance for a 7-0 lead, then intercepted quarterback Curtis Painter on the Colts' second possession. Atlanta countered with touchdowns on three of its first four possessions in posting the victory.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell knows early struggles in small areas can have a lethal effect on the scoreboard.
"Those (two early turnovers) are things you can't do against a team that certainly does have some firepower," said Caldwell. "On offense, in particular, we gave them a short field, turned the ball over twice and they got 14 points of those. You just can't do that. If you do you're going to have problems, and that's why we started so slow. We didn't get much of a jumpstart, obviously. The defense started picking up the pace a little bit. They played well. (Jerraud) Powers' play certainly gave us a lift, but we just could not tack on good play consistently from that point forward."
The Colts fell behind at Tennessee a week ago in the first half, 20-0. The prior week the team fell behind at New Orleans, 31-0, in the game's first 25 minutes. In the opener at Houston, Indianapolis surrendered 34 first-half points in falling. The team's offense in those situations could not match the opposing point totals. It is a pattern Caldwell cites that must stop.
"Any time that happens it makes it a little tough to close the gap when they do have the lead on you," said Caldwell. "To keep pace with them (Atlanta), we have to be able to answer some of their scores. That's what we did not do. It certainly makes it a little different ballgame. It's a matter of just executing. We just didn't execute very well (in) the first half. We were a little bit off, and turnovers really put us behind the eight-ball."
Indianapolis has had uphill struggles health-wise offensively all season. Quarterback Kerry Collins started the season before suffering a week three concussion that ended his season. Curtis Painter has started the rest of the way in the first extended action of his three-year career. On Sunday against Atlanta, the club started its sixth different offensive line configuration, and running back Joseph Addai missed a third game, in addition to leaving in the first quarter of a fourth contest.
Painter completed 13-of-27 passes against Atlanta for 98 yards and had the one interception. He played into the fourth quarter before Dan Orlovsky led the team's final three drives. It was the second time in three games Orlovsky has finished, but Caldwell noted it is not something that signals change.
"Things weren't going (well). At that point in time, we just made an adjustment," said Caldwell. "Curtis (Painter) still is our starting quarterback. We just wanted to change the pace a little bit. We changed a few guys, he wasn't the only one. … Some of the changes were due to the fact we were trying to get some guys out of the game."
Rookie running back Delone Carter fumbled the ball on the club's opening possession, and it gave Atlanta a chance to get an early lead. It was the second time in three games Carter has had such a miscue to led to an opposing score. Donald Brown played the bulk of the game afterward, rushing 16 times for 70 yards. Carter returned late, and Caldwell anticipates the first-year player will establish better ball security.
"It's important," said Caldwell. "You have to learn that at some point in time. I think he will. You just can't put that ball on the ground. It's very, very important. He's a young enough guy (that) he will learn his lessons."
Indianapolis was able to hold onto the ball for only 2:35 of the third quarter and ended up punting on nine straight possessions, while converting four-of-14 third-down opportunities. The stretch in the third quarter is something Caldwell identifies as something that must be corrected.
"We've had a couple like that (this season) that haven't been what we would like," said Caldwell. "Either we don't get them stopped, or we also have to convert third downs. That would extend a number of those drives. They had us in a number of three-and-outs during that segment. Obviously, that's where we need a lot of work. Third downs continue to haunt us.
The club still has seven games left to play, with a divisional tilt against Jacksonville at home next Sunday. When asked what his message to the team is, Caldwell does not question the integrity or effort of his squad. He knows better consistency is the answer.
"You can see they're going to fight you to the end," said Caldwell. "They're just going to keep playing and playing extremely hard. The thing we have to do is look at our situation and be honest with everybody, the fact there were some things we didn't do well. That's why we didn't win. Look at those situations, when we turn it over, where we aren't effective in terms of our execution. The one area I thought we did well was special teams. We covered well. We'll talk about the things we did well. We'll talk about the things we didn't do well. The fact of the matter is we can correct those problems. We still have some ballgames left. We're going to keep working at it, keep focusing, keep trying to get a little bit better week after week."