A slow start to the 2022 season is not what anybody on the Colts expected or hoped.
But there isn't anybody, from coaches to players, who's daunted by the challenge ahead after Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium sunk the Colts to a 1-2-1 record in Week 4.
"We're a resilient organization," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "I hate to always reference things we've been through, but it just shows in everything that we go through. There's nothing but fight in this team. That's the character of this team, that's the character of this locker room. I know it's grim, but (shoot), it's been grim before. We just gotta keep rolling."
The Colts have indeed been through this, whether it was ripping off nine wins in 10 games to erase 2018's 1-5 start or a mid-season surge that vaulted them from a 1-4 record to playoff contention in 2021. Because of those shared experiences accelerating out of sluggish early-season slumps, this team collectively believes they can do it again.
"The culture that we have, that we built in the locker room, the type of players we have in this locker room, we got the guys to turn things around," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "Obviously it's not the start we wanted but we've shown glimpses of it. We just got to be able to start fast and put it all together so all three phases are clicking all the time."
But to erase a first quarter of the season that's seen the Colts go 0-2-1 against AFC South opponents, they know they need to start fast in the actual first quarter of their games, starting with Thursday night's quick turnaround against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field.
The Colts quickly fell behind, 14-0, to the Titans on Sunday, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill finding wide receiver Robert Woods for a touchdown and Derrick Henry rumbling 19 yards for a score on consecutive possessions. Midway through the second quarter, Tennessee's lead had ballooned to 24-3; it was the third time in four games the Colts had faced a three-score deficit this season.
A chip shot Chase McLaughlin field goal and a 14-yard touchdown reception by tight end Mo Alie-Cox brought the Colts within 14 at halftime, but the team's issues with slow starts to games continued on Sunday. Through four games, the Colts have had 22 offensive possessions in the first half, resulting in 10 punts, five turnovers, three field goals, two turnover on downs and two touchdowns.
As a result, the Colts have been out-scored by a total of 42 points in the first half of their four games.
"We can't keep doing that," running back Nyheim Hines said. "And obviously we have a great team and we keep coming back and almost coming back, but that's not a position you want to be when you're playing against other professionals who are just as good as us and can execute."
Part of what gives the Colts confidence, though – beyond the confidence that comes with doing this before – is that this team is playing well in spurts. The defense allowed zero points and just three first downs in the second half; the Colts (5.8) averaged more than a yard per play more than the Titans (4.7). Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 356 yards despite the Colts' ground game managing just 1.7 yards per carry. And the Colts were more efficient on third down (54 percent) than the Titans (42 percent).
But the Colts lost the turnover battle, 3-0, to the Titans, with Ryan losing a fumble and throwing an interception defensive tackle Teair Tart tipped to himself. Tennessee scored 14 points off those turnovers; the third turnover was was a fumble knocked out of the hands of running back Jonathan Taylor, which was lost on a third-and-short carry and ended a drive that was nearing the Titans' red zone with the Colts down seven midway through the fourth quarter.
"It's hard to win a game when you lose the turnover battle the way we did and started the way we did, put ourselves behind the hole, and just not good enough," head coach Frank Reich said. "I'm proud of how we fought back, gave ourselves a chance at the end, but at the end of the day, not good enough. We've got to put this behind us.
"Still feel all of our goals are out in front of us. I feel like we're seeing some things that we want to see. We just need to play better. We need to execute better. We need to stop turning the ball over, and we need to get more turnovers, and we need to run the football a little bit better and start faster."
The Colts won't have much time to let this loss linger – when they re-convene at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Monday, they'll have had to flush this loss and train their focus on Thursday night's game against the Denver Broncos in Colorado. And the Colts will quickly gameplan for Denver knowing and believing they can do some things well, and that they have the right mentality to improve as a team.
"I think we've got the right makeup, the right kind of guys," Ryan said. "It's a group that comes to work the right way every day. There's a level of intensity and focus, and I think the way we've kind of been in games throughout the year shows that. Certainly not in the positions we want to be in, but there's no letup, there's no lack of fight or grit. All of that stuff is there. I think if we can figure out how to clean up the things that we need to clean up, that grit and that fight is going to pay dividends for us as the year goes on."