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Amid Frustrating Loss To Commanders, Why Colts' Offense Saw Signs Of Progress With Sam Ehlinger At Quarterback

The Colts fell, 17-16, to the Washington Commanders in Sam Ehlinger's first career start on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

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The Colts had six drives scythe inside the Washington Commanders' 30-yard line on Sunday. Two drives ended with lost fumbles, three ended with field goals, and one ended with a touchdown.

"We needed literally one more touchdown," running back Nyheim Hines said. "One of those drives, we have to find a way to score a touchdown and we're not having this conversation."

This conversation was one that's become too familiar to the Colts in 2022, who fell to 3-4-1 with a 17-16 Week 8 loss to the Washington Commanders on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts' offense felt like it played well at times, and was as explosive as its been all season – encouraging for a team quarterbacked by first-time starter Sam Ehlinger.

But the mistakes, be it turnovers or negative plays in critical situations, were too much to overcome.

"I thought as an offense we had a lot of opportunities," Ehlinger said. "We just shot ourselves in the foot. We got down on the other side of the 50 multiple times and didn't come away with points — two turnovers. We came down to the inch-yard line and came away with three points. That's not good enough in this league."

In the first half, an 11-play, 64-yard drive stalled after Commanders defensive tackle came unblocked through the A-gap to sack Ehlinger for a loss of six at the 24-yard line, leading to a Chase McLaughlin field goal. On the Colts' next possession, Ehlinger drew a facemask penalty to move the Colts to the Washington 13-yard line; a Deon Jackson run lost four yards and Ehlinger lost a fumble on the next two plays.

In the third quarter, the Colts took over possession at midfield after E.J. Speed stuffed running back Brian Robinson for a loss on fourth and one, but Jonathan Taylor was stopped for no gain on a third and three at the Commanders' 21-yard line. McLaughlin then connected on his second field goal of the game.

And later in the third quarter, a 47-yard Ehlinger shot to Alec Pierce was squandered when Taylor lost a fumble just inside the Commanders' red zone.

The Colts did get in the end zone in the fourth quarter when Hines turned a Shaquille Leonard interception into a touchdown on a six-yard run. But on the possession before that, the Colts got down to the Commanders' one-yard line on third down only to see Taylor get smothered for a loss of one, leading to a 20-yard McLaughlin field goal.

"We're coming away too many times with nothing or three points," Reich said. "So we have to find a way to get that corrected."

That five possessions inside the Washington 30-yard line – including one made it within inches of the goal line – resulted in nine points didn't sit well with the Colts in the aftermath of their loss.

"I thought we played a pretty good game today, we just made stupid mistakes," center Ryan Kelly said. "That stings even worse."

"It's execution," Hines said. "We can't keep beating ourselves. Those guys get paid too but offensively, we got to execute." 

But amid those self-inflicted wounds were things the Colts believe they can build on with Ehlinger as their quarterback going forward. The Colts had seven plays of 15 or more yards, including gains of 47 (to Piece), 38 (on a screen to Parris Campbell), 28 (on a jet sweep by Campbell), 27 (on a run by Taylor) and 22 (on a pass to Hines). Those five plays of 20 or more yards were the second-most the Colts have had in a game this season.

"I felt today we could find a rhythm with what we have out there," Reich said. "I felt today that we can put something together and continue to get better."

Reich and Colts players praised Ehlinger's poise and decision-making in his first NFL start, in which the moment hardly looked too big for the 2021 sixth-round pick. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and, operationally, handled getting the Colts in and out of the right plays and protections well, Kelly said.

"I thought that to be out there, it's a good defense and they brought a lot of different stuff, they threw some mixed coverages in there, so to be able to get in and first regular season experience," Ehlinger said, cutting himself off in a way.

Because ultimately, for all the positives the Colts felt like they saw out of their quarterback and offense on Sunday, the team scored 16 points and made too many self-inflicted mistakes to win.

So Ehlinger continued: "Obviously hate the outcome," he said, "and need to grow."

The Colts take on the Washington Commanders at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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