INDIANAPOLIS - Ten thoughts on the Colts' 24-17 loss to the Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium to drop to 1-2-1:
The Colts started another game as slow as humanly possible, falling down 24-3 at home to a Titans team that hasn't been very good, and it was just too much work to climb out of it yet again. They created more self-inflicted wounds with fumbles and couldn't get the big play on defense, leaving that unit with two takeaways in four games. Something is just off with this team, and it wasn't fixed by the energetic return of Shaquille Leonard, who unfortunately left with a concussion once the score got to 24-3. The Colts deserve credit for upsetting the Chiefs last week, but in hindsight, it looks more like a game Kansas City lost with the Chris Jones penalty and a meltdown from the kicker. The Colts are 1-2-1 now. It's early, but it also isn't early when you've already played three divisional games. Expect a testy team owner Jim Irsay after yet another loss to the Titans, who are very much alive again in a very underwhelming AFC South.
Colts bench right guard Danny Pinter
2. The Colts decided to finally make a change on the offensive line, starting Will Fries in place of Danny Pinter at right guard. The move came after weeks of Pinter struggling with power in 1-on-1 situations, allowing interior pressure in Matt Ryan's face that has distorted his vision and comfort. With Fries in, the Colts' pass protection was significantly improved on the whole, with a lot of clean and stable pockets for Matt Ryan. Part of that was the lack of an edge threat with Harold Landry out for the season and Bud DuPree exiting early with an injury, but it's still progress.
3. Of course, the one big miss they did have, when Quenton Nelson whiffed on Denico Autry, resulted in a strip-sack of Ryan that set up a short field for the Titans' first touchdown. Ryan has now fumbled nine times in four games, putting him on pace for 38 this season, which would be the most in NFL history. He said last week that this has been an outlier, but it's showing up every week. The Colts have to get out of their own way before they can even dream of having a high-powered offense.
Colts tight ends star vs. Titans
4. Another Sunday, another two-touchdown game from a tight end. Last week, it was Jelani Woods' coming out party. This week, Mo Alie-Cox led the Colts back. Credit Frank Reich and Marcus Brady for some great play designs to get these guys comfortable and in space in the red zone. They used a back-side "leak" call with Alie-Cox to isolate him for a short pass, banking on the defense not being able to react quickly or to tackle a 6-foot-5 player. The red-zone concepts have been there all season long, just with spotty results between Ryan and his wide receivers.
5. The tight ends had a great game, building on the progress Woods started last week. Alie-Cox scored two touchdowns and caught all six targets for 85 yards. Woods had a gorgeous catch-and-run for 33 yards that nearly broke for a score. Kylen Granson caught four of four targets for 62 yards, including a clutch third-down conversion in the red zone and an acrobatic catch along the sideline. Ryan has always thrived with tight ends, and this season it's felt like a miscalculation by the front office to not add a veteran at the position after Jack Doyle retired, but we're seeing why they believed in these players. This is a big game for building confidence at a position that can sink or swim with young players.
Why doesn't Nyheim Hines get more touches?
6. Nyheim Hines was hard to spot today. He seemed to be on the field plenty, in two-running back sets with Taylor, but he was more of a decoy as the Colts worked through every target except him. He finished with just two targets and two receptions for 3 yards. Hines' usage has been puzzling this season, as he's one of the few established options in an offense that doesn't have enough working. But defenses also know that, and the Titans were using defensive backs on him and doubling him in certain moments. That opened up opportunities for secondary players and they delivered today.
7. It's jarring to watch Jonathan Taylor struggle. It's the first time I've seen it since I came on this beat at midseason last year, back when he was running like a mad man over the Bills, Patriots and others. Taylor had 20 carries for 42 yards in this one. He fumbled on a crucial drive in the fourth quarter when the Colts were heading in to tie the score. And he ran on so many carries with hesitation, not seeing creases to the outside. He did sit out a practice this week with a hurt toe, so it's possible that hampered him. But since Week 1, when he ran for 161 yards against the Texans, he's run like a man who just doesn't trust the blocking around him. Part of that has been earned by the offensive line and tight ends, but the result is he looks rusty and uncertain even when the blocking is pretty good, like it was at times.
8. The same effect is getting to Ryan. With Fries in for Pinter, the pockets were much cleaner on the whole, with the exception of the block Nelson missed. But Ryan came out so rushed on his drop-backs, to the point where he was killing a couple plays with throws at the feet when pressure was not around him. He's had few moments this season where he's had time to get to the second read without getting hit, and the ball security issues seem to be in his head now, where he just wants to live to fight another down. But he and the receivers aren't good enough to operate this way. He has to start trusting this pass protection, which obviously has to hold up its end of the bargain. Sunday was a step in the right direction, and it likely means a starting spot going forward for Fries.
9. It was interesting to see Reich opt to punt from the Titans 39-yard line instead of trying a 56-yard field goal with Chase McLaughlin, who hit kicks of this length last year with the Browns and has a good track record indoors. He did go to McLaughlin for a 51-yarder just a couple drives later, and he missed it left. On the decision to punt, Matt Haack shanked the ball out of bounds for 19 yards. He'd made great strides with pinning opponents this season compared to past years of his career, but that was a tough mistake at a critical moment.
Colts rookie Alec Pierce looks good vs. Titans
10. Alec Pierce looks like a real force on contested catches along the sideline. That was his profile coming out of Cincinnati, but it has shown up in huge ways in back-to-back weeks now, with Sunday presenting two huge moments and culminating in four catches for 80 yards. Given that he had such a tough debut with zero catches and suffering a brain injury, and then missed the next game, this is excellent progress. You could just hear Pierce's confidence picking up in interviews this week, and plays like this will only help. I think his route tree is limited to plays outside the numbers, but if he can provide a bail-out catch or two a game, he'll be just fine for a rookie.
Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts vs Titans: 10 thoughts from Nate Atkins on 24-17 loss