INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What caught our eye in the Indianapolis Colts’ 19-15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night at Heinz Field. The decision injected life into what had been a lackluster preseason and upped the Colts’ record to 1-2 heading into Thursday night’s finale against Cincinnati at Lucas Oil Stadium:
On the offensive: Now that’s what an NFL offense looks like, even with the franchise quarterback still on the mend. The Colts generated points on three of four legitimate first-half drives – we’re discounting the one-play kneel-down at the end of the second quarter – and gave optimism they might be competitive until Andrew Luck returns.
As you know, that’s in stark contrast to the first two games. The only two offensive TDs came in the final minute of the fourth quarter. Instead of hesitant and inefficient, the offense was aggressive and productive behind Scott Tolzien and Stephen Morris. Solid play by the offensive line was a major factor as Denzelle Good opened at right guard and Jeremy Vujnovich at right tackle.
Tolzien’s stat line was marred by a second-quarter interception, but he otherwise was decisive and sharp while directing one touchdown drive and another that resulted in Adam Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal. Most encouraging was effective pass protection that allowed Tolzien to push the ball down the field. His seven completions included a 55-yard catch-and-run by Donte Moncrief and 10- and 32-yard hookups with Phillip Dorsett.
Chuck Pagano indicated he wanted to see Stephen Morris in the first half, and was true to his word. Morris took over in the second quarter and led the Colts on a nine-play, 51-yard drive that led to Vinatieri’s 31-yard field goal at the end of the half.
Each QB benefitted from an effective ground game. The Colts rushed 12 times for 43 yards. While that’s hardly bullish, it included 10- and 11-yard runs by Frank Gore and a 9-yarder by Josh Ferguson. Gore capped the opening drive with a 1-yard TD.
In the first half, the Colts generated 216 yards on 27 plays. Tolzien and Morris combined to complete 10-of-15 passes for 175 yards.
“We talked about it all week, coming out here playing the first five (minutes),’’ Pagano said at the half. “We got off to a good start, forced a turnover on defense and then got some points on the board with our offense. (We) moved the ball.’’
Defensive slant: So much better. After getting shredded by Dallas last week, the defense stood its ground against a Steelers offense that saw quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and all-world wideout Antonio Brown make their preseason debuts. Pittsburgh managed 146 yards and 11 first downs in the first half, but the defense kept the Steelers out of the end zone and came up with its fourth takeaway in three games.
Free-agent linebacker John Simon ended the Steelers’ opening drive by beating tackle Alejandro Villanueva and knocking the football out of Roethlisberger’s hand. Hassan Ridgeway covered the fumble. The defense also limited the damage after Tolzien’s interception gave Pittsburgh possession at its own 32. It forced a three-and-out.
Safety Matthias Farley delivered a couple of highlight hits and backup lineman Margus Hunt continued to make the type of plays that earn a roster spot. He got to Knile Davis for a 4-yard loss in the second quarter.
The encouraging half by the defense came without three front-line players: tackle Johnathan Hankins (shoulder), safety Malik Hooker (shoulder) and cornerback Quincy Wilson (knee).
Charting the QBs: For those keeping track at home, Tolzien and Morris enjoyed effective games.
Tolzien: 7-of-10, 123 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 72.1 passer rating. His led three drives and tacked up one TD and one field goal.
Morris: 12-of-16, 143 yards, no TDs or interceptions, a 101.8 rating. Excluding the kneel-down at the end of the half, he led four drives and also tacked up one TD and one field goal.
This and that: Just when it appeared the Steelers were poised to take the lead – down 19-15 with less than 5 minutes to play but facing a first-and-goal at the 1 – Chris Milton stepped in. The Colts’ cornerback muscled in front of JuJu Smith-Schuster for an interception in the end zone.
That pushed the Colts’ preseason takeaway total to five.
The Colts finished with 326 total yards despite being limited to 69 yards on 25 rushes. The Steelers netted 342 total yards.
Medical update: Cornerback Vontae Davis left the game in the first half with a groin injury and did not return.
The extent of Davis’ injury wasn’t immediately known, but it stressed the Colts’ secondary. As mentioned earlier, Wilson, the second-round draft pick, did not play. That forced veterans Corey White and Chris Culliver to see extended playing time. Each was signed this week.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.