1. The Colts were better in the second half, but a slow start meant their margin for error was slim.
In the first half, the Colts had the ball for just 8:02, averaged 3.2 yards per play, gained four first downs and turned the ball over once. The Steelers, meanwhile, averaged 5.3 yards per play and had 16 first downs while holding the ball for just under 22 minutes.
The result of the gap in those underlying numbers was the Colts falling behind, 16-3, after the first 30 minutes.
"Started way too slow," interim head coach Jeff Saturday said.
Things improved in the second half, with the Colts averaging 5.3 yards per play and picking up 14 first downs to the Steelers' average of 4.4 yards per play and five total first downs. But facing that 13-point deficit, the Colts didn't have much room for error.
Quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Jonathan Taylor couldn't complete a handoff at the one-yard line, which resulted in a fumble recovered by Steelers defensive lineman Chris Wormley. And the Colts' defense wasn't able to get off the field on three third downs on an 11-play, 75-yard Steelers drive that ended with the go-ahead touchdown, and an ensuing two-point conversion that put the Colts behind by seven midway through the fourth quarter.
"For us, there were plays to be made, we just didn't make them," Saturday said. "We thought we could attack them down the field. They were pressing us up pretty good early in the game, and we were trying to get some plays off and just communication wasn't great, execution wasn't great. Again, you can point fingers – it's like everybody takes a turn at different moments. Collectively we just didn't do enough, and you saw we come out in the second half and it looks like two totally different offenses – one that's in rhythm moving – no new plays.
"We talk about all the time, no new plays, no new players, it boils down to executing, and we just did a much better job in the second half than we did the first."
2. Jelani Woods went off in the second half.
Tight end Jelani Woods exploded for 98 yards on eight catches – with seven of those receptions and 89 of those yards coming in the second half. The Colts were able to make an adjustment at halftime to get Woods matched up against linebackers more frequently, and he took advantage with his size, strength, athleticism and instincts to have a remarkably productive half.
Woods became only the fifth tight end this season to have at least eight catches for 98 yards in a game, joining:
- Travis Kelce (Weeks 1, 6, 9)
- Mark Andrews (Week 2)
- T.J. Hockenson (Week 4)
- Dallas Goedert (Week 9)
That's certainly a good list to be on.
"Had a heck of a day," Saturday said. "Jelani is a massive human being, and got a great attitude, a great heart. The kid fights, and made play after play for us. Yeah, he's one of those guys, you're super excited to get him back in the lineup, made a bunch of plays for us tonight."
3. Dallis Flowers' kickoff return provided a spark.
A year ago, Flowers took two kickoff returns to the house – against Missouri Western and Fort Hays State, while playing for the Division II Pittsburg State Gorillas.
The stage on Monday night was a little bigger, to say the least, when Flowers darted 89 yards on a kick return to open the second half in front of a sold-out crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium and a national audience of millions watching on ESPN. It was a Monday night moment for Flowers, who earned a spot on the Colts' roster as an undrafted free agent with an impressive training camp earlier this year.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," Flowers, who came back to his locker to an avalanche of messages from friends and family, said.
At halftime, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone inserted Flowers as the Colts' kick returner and gave him the green light to return the opening kick as long as it was inside a certain depth inside the end zone. The kickoff went a little deeper than Flowers expected, but he was ready to return it and had a confident belief: "Damn," Flowers said, "I gotta take this out."
As Flowers hit the 10-yard line, he saw a wide gap open up thanks to a strong block to his right by linebacker E.J. Speed and a solid clear-out to his left by linebacker Grant Stuard. With cornerback Tony Brown holding his block downfield, Flowers was left one-on-one with kicker Matthew Wright in the hole, and he turned on his afterburners to sprint downfield.
Flowers nearly ran it back for a touchdown – he felt like he should've scored – but was tackled at the Steelers' 18-yard line. Running back Jonathan Taylor punched in the Colts' first touchdown of the game a few plays later.
"I just wanted to make a spark," Flowers said. "I've been doing kick return my whole life so it's pretty much second nature. Just pretty much see a crevasse, see a gap and shoot it full speed."
Flowers' return was the fourth-longest kickoff return of the 2022 season.
"(I'm) fast, athletic and I can see plays before they happen," Flowers said. "You can't be tiptoeing a kick return. You gotta shoot the gap and trust yourself. And I had great blocks as well."
4. Zaire Franklin battled through an illness to make an impact.
Franklin missed the Colts' final practice of Week 12 with an illness – which came after he missed two practices before Week 11 with an illness, too.
"It's been a crazy two weeks for me," Franklin said. "Thursday I was down like 10 pounds, got an IV. First time I ate was this morning since Thanksgiving. That was just interesting. Thankfully I was able to recover.
"Shoutout to the medical staff and equipment guys for getting me ready and the video guys for Zooming me in so I was up to date with all the calls and everything I needed to (have)."
Franklin has never missed a game in his five-year career, and he played 100 percent of the Colts' defensive snaps on Monday against the Steelers. Franklin finished the game with 11 tackles, bringing his season total to 120 – which is second in the NFL behind Seattle's Jordyn Brooks (122). Two of Franklin's tackles were for no gain, and he had a season-high five run "stops," as defined by Pro Football Focus as a loss for the offense.
The Colts take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football at Lucas Oil Stadium.
5. Yannick Ngakoue joined some elite company.
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue dropped Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett for a pair of sacks in the first half, bringing his season total to 8 1/2 sacks. With five games to go, Ngakoue has a shot at equaling or surpassing his career high of 12 sacks (set in 2017) and now has had at least eight sacks in each of his seven seasons in the NFL:
- 2016 (JAX): 8.0
- 2017 (JAX): 12.0
- 2018 (JAX): 9.5
- 2019 (JAX): 8.0)
- 2020 (MIN/BAL): 8.0
- 2021 (LV): 10.0
- 2022 (IND): 8.5
With those two sacks, Ngakoue became the seventh player in NFL history to have at least eight sacks in each of his first seven seasons, joining this eye-popping list:
- Yannick Ngakoue (2016-2022)
- Aaron Donald (2014-2020)
- DeMarcus Ware (2005-2011)
- Derrick Thomas (1989-1995)
- Reggie White (1985-1991)
- Al Baker (1977-1984)
- Cedrick Hardman (1970-1976)
Donald is a sure-first first-ballot Hall of Famer, while Ware looks likely to earn a bust in Canton alongside Thomas and White. Baker and Hardman each finished their respective careers with over 120 sacks as well.