The Colts have something special in Alec Pierce, a rookie receiver, a future star, the brightest offensive spot in a dingy, touchdown-free game the Colts managed to win 12-9 in overtime Thursday night at Denver.
Pierce was so good, and this game was so bad – the Colts were so bad, even in victory – that it raises a number of questions, these being the main ones:
Which quarterback will be throwing to Pierce in the foreseeable future? Does it have to be Matt Ryan? Because he looks completely washed up.
Which coach will be calling plays for Alec Pierce down the road? Will it be Frank Reich? His team is 2-2-1, which puts the Colts in the thick of the AFC South race. It’s too soon to say Reich won’t be back next season. It’s not too soon to say Ryan won’t be back next season, though. If he’s the Colts’ quarterback in 2023, someone needs to be fired.
Speaking of that.
Which general manager will be building around Pierce? Will it be Chris Ballard? He’s the one who drafted Pierce No. 53 overall out of Cincinnati. Ballard’s also the one who signed aging cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who saved this game with an interception late in regulation, then won it in overtime by breaking up a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
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Like Reich, Ballard’s future will be determined.
But we do know a couple of things around here. We know Alec Pierce is a keeper. We know Matt Ryan is a goner. And we know the Colts, God bless ‘em, won’t go down without a fight.
Alec Pierce is Michael Pittman Jr., with speed!
We were told Alec Pierce could do only pretty things. He can run, he can jump, so that’s what we’ll see from Pierce. There’s a saying for what he was going to do for the Colts this season, one of those awful cliches football coaches like to say before nodding wisely and hitching up their shorts:
He'll take the top off the defense.
Can’t believe I wrote those words.
Can’t believe that’s all the Colts thought Pierce could do. For four games, that’s all they let him do. The plays for Pierce, you could’ve drawn them with a finger in the dirt, dragging it in a straight line. That’s your route, Alec. Fetch!
We saw so much more Thursday night in Denver. We saw Pierce making contested catches and diving catches and ball-control catches, finishing with eight catches (on nine targets) for 81 yards. We saw him looking a lot like Michael Pittman Jr., is what we saw, only with a lot more speed. Pittman is a possession receiver, a huge red-zone target, a tough guy who makes 50-50 catches and carries himself like a destroyer, hellbent on fighting any defender who even looks at him the wrong way.
But Pittman is not fast. He’s a 4.55 guy in the 40, maybe. That’s fast for you and me, but for an NFL receiver? That’s average.
Pierce is a 4.35 guy. He’s a jet, and he can jump, but by the end of this game he had become Matt Ryan’s security blanket. It was Pierce, not Pittman, Ryan was looking for in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter as the Colts were trying to force overtime.
We saw Pierce make a leaping catch against 5-11 Broncos cornerback Damarri Mathis and a sliding catch in the fourth quarter on a low pass, Pierce scooping both arms under it before it could hit the turf. The best thing we saw was Pierce turning a loss-sealing interception into an 11-yard catch that helped the Colts drive for Chase McLaughlin’s third field goal, a 31-yarder with nine seconds left in regulation. McLaughlin’s 48-yarder in overtime won it.
On the 11-yard catch, Pierce was defended again by Mathis, the poor guy, when Ryan threw a pass that Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb tipped as it left Ryan's hand. The ball fluttered toward them, and Mathis stepped in front of Pierce. There were two minutes left in the game, the Broncos led 9-6 and the Colts were out of timeouts. If Mathis intercepts it, the game’s over.
Mathis thought he intercepted it. Poor guy. He jumped and reached for the ball, landed on his feet and basically looked at his hands, wondering why they were empty. Pierce, who stands 6-3 and can jump about 40 inches into the air, had used his superior measurables to reach for the ball and grab it before it could get to Mathis. He saved the game, right there.
Ruined poor Damarri Mathis’ night, though.
Matt Ryan is bad, OL is worse. Or is it vice versa?
Star Colts running back Jonathan Taylor will return soon from what seems to be a minor ankle injury. Backup running back Nyheim Hines will return, too, though it could be a few weeks. Starting in place of Taylor, he suffered a concussion on the third play from scrimmage, taking a hit and wobbling to his feet and then lurching for eight or 10 steps. He was out on his feet, and now Hines joins Colts defenders Shaquille Leonard and Tyquan Lewis in concussion protocol.
That’s a lot of manpower the Colts were missing on Thursday night. They also lost center Ryan Kelly (hip) in the first half, leaving them to play the rest of the way with a new face at four different offensive line positions: rookie Bernhard Raimann at left tackle for Matt Pryor, Pryor at right tackle for Braden Smith, and Smith at right guard for Will Fries. The only holdovers from last week’s starting offensive line were Kelly and left guard Quenton Nelson, and then Kelly was injured.
Say this for Reich: He’s willing to make massive changes to get this thing fixed. The changes didn’t work Thursday night, in the micro-sense. Yes, the Colts won, but that was the worst offensive line performance of the season by the Colts, by a long shot. Raimann was whistled for three holding penalties and a false start in the first half, Pryor was beaten all game long, and Smith wasn’t much better. Neither was Kelly, honestly, and the only time I noticed Nelson – the All-Pro, the future Hall of Famer – is when 6-2, 236-pound Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell ran right over him to get to Ryan.
Can't recall ever seeing Quenton Nelson caught up in thispic.twitter.com/ycu3Vsikdy
— Charlie Clifford (@cliffWISH8) October 7, 2022
The offensive line was so bad, Ryan was seeing ghosts out there. He was throwing passes away, throwing them high or wide or even into the dirt, before he had to get rid of it. Anything, to avoid being hit again. He was sacked four times, hit 12 times and rushed on most occasions. But even when he was upright and safe Ryan was making some awful throws, unforced errors on two interceptions to go with two more fumbles.
In five games, Ryan has thrown seven interceptions and five touchdowns. He has fumbled 11 times, an NFL record for the first five games of a season.
Read that paragraph again.
Ryan’s done. These are not outliers or anomalies or whatever word he and Reich have been using to suggest his poor play is a fluke. At age 37 Ryan is showing us exactly who he is, just as 46-year-old Adam Vinatieri was showing us who he was in 2019, when the greatest kicker of all time disappeared. Where’d he go? Over the hill.
That’s where Ryan seems to have gone as well, but the Colts are stuck with him, unless they turn to third-stringer Sam Ehlinger. Trust me, backup Nick Foles is not the answer. Why is Foles here? Because Frank likes him. What do you want me to do, lie?
As for Ehlinger, you almost wish the Colts had lost this game to Denver, fallen to 1-3-1, moved one step closer to bailing on a season that would be a lost cause in any other division. Then we’d see Ehlinger.
But, because the AFC South is that weak – and because Indianapolis won Thursday to move its record to 2-2-1 – the Colts have no choice but to stick with Ryan, hope he has been lying to us for five games rather than telling us exactly what he has become. Taylor will return soon. Shaquille Leonard could be back soon too.
Alec Pierce is a weapon Ryan can use as well.
This is me, trying to find the bright side, trying to find the proper tone to describe a game the Colts won, in a season they seem destined to lose.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Matt Ryan needs to be gone; Colts rookie Alec Pierce looks like keeper