By Bob Kravitz
The Indianapolis Star
September 26, 2011
Robert Mathis(notes) #98 of the Indianapolis Colts causes a fumble by Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of their game at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
They were inspired. They were passionate. They were prideful. They played brilliant defense and even got a heart-stopping, game-tying touchdown drive out of -- yes -- Curtis Painter.
And the Indianapolis Colts still lost.
They ran the football. They stopped the Pittsburgh running game, absolutely stuffed it. They swarmed and harassed Ben Roethlisberger, forced three turnovers and -- did I mention it? -- got a score-tying touchdown drive led by Painter.
And they still lost.
Pittsburgh 23, Colts 20.
The Indianapolis Colts have been to the playoffs nine straight seasons, and any talk of a moral victory might draw a Dwight Freeney head slap, but at least they were competitive.
"We're still measured by wins around here," coach Jim Caldwell said.
They did almost everything they had to do to win this game, and still, it wasn't enough. Not with Roethlisberger behind center, two minutes remaining and the game on the line.
The Colts showed a national TV audience and themselves they're not really as bad as they looked those first two weeks.
But it wasn't good enough.
The defense deserved a better fate than this. They stopped the run. They swarmed Roethlisberger. They got turnovers to set up the first 13 points. They did to the Steelers what the Steelers usually do to opponents: Beat them up on the line of scrimmage, taking advantage of Pittsburgh's decimated offensive line.
If Indy is to have any chance of winning games, it will have to play this kind of manic defense. Without efforts like this one, the Colts have no chance. None.
Early in the second quarter, the Steelers led 10-0 and appeared to be heading toward another crushing score. Indy was stopping the run; that wasn't the problem. But the third-and-longs were a defensive problem once again. Then there was the bomb to Mike Wallace, who somehow left linebacker Pat Angerer in his vapor trail.
Then came Robert Mathis.
And Dwight Freeney.
In a career filled with dominant games, the bookends were more dominant than they've ever been. Freeney did things to Pittsburgh left tackle Jonathan Scott that are illegal in most states. Freeney and Mathis got sacks, fumbles, pressures and hurries.
The Colts aren't the Colts without Peyton Manning, but Mathis and Freeney are still Pro Bowlers, and probably earned themselves another trip to Hawaii with their Sunday night work.
This franchise made its name on offense, on Manning and Reggie Wayne and the rest, but on this night, the defense rose up and stopped the madness. The linebackers, operating without Gary Brackett, flew to the ball. The defensive tackles won the ugly battles. The secondary, except for a couple of blips in the first half, held tough even without Melvin Bullitt.
"Extraordinary effort," Caldwell said of the defense. "Absolutely unbelievable effort."
But you can't win if you can't score (think Abe Gibron once said that). The Colts scored just one offensive touchdown all night. They got their other off a Jamaal Anderson fumble recovery. They were limited to field goals after two more turnovers set them up in good field position.
Your final Colts QB numbers: 18-for-40 for 153 yards. And that's in a league when everybody is throwing for 300-plus.
Kerry Collins is Kerry Collins, although after Sunday's concussion, he's not quite sure who he is. He's gotten better at mastering the offense operationally but still has no timing with his receivers, still makes head-shaking decisions with the ball.
And Painter, well, is Painter. He led the Colts to seven points but left seven on the field with the Pierre Garcon overthrow, then held onto the ball too long before getting hammered on the blind side by James Harrison.
Give Painter a little bit of credit. He's been our punching bag for a couple of years -- and, honestly, for a pretty good reason. A 9.8 quarterback rating in limited regular-season work doesn't lie, nor does a 28.6 completion percentage. And those first two Painter-led series were somewhere south of atrocious, moving NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth to say, "Now you now why they gave Kerry Collins $4 million."
On the first drive, Painter overthrew Garcon, who was wide open for a walk-in touchdown after putting a double-move on Pittsburgh defensive back Ike Taylor.
On the second drive, he held onto the ball too long, got blind-sided by Harrison and fumbled. The ball bounced nicely to Troy Polamalu, who ran in for the then- go-ahead touchdown.
Then, trailing 20-13, Painter began to look a little bit like an NFL quarterback, showing why Wayne has been such a fervent supporter. He led an 80-yard, game-tying touchdown drive, throwing two sweet passes downfield to Garcon. It was something.
But this is a quarterback league. And the Colts quarterback is up in the coaches' box these days, calling plays he can't execute.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bob on Twitter at @bkravitz.