Peyton Manning punches the ground after a play in which he was knocked down in the third quarter. (Brent Smith | Reuters)

Wow.  The San Diego Chargers absolutely dominated the Indianapolis Colts.  Home field?  Irrelevant.  Fast field?  Helped the Chargers as much as it did the Colts.  Crowd?  Had little chance to have an impact due to turnovers creating a big gap on the scoreboard.

Just about everything that could go wrong did in this game.  The Colts offensive line was battered and bullied by San Diego.  The running game was dead before the first hand-off.  The best receivers on the team right now?  Blair White and Jacob Tamme.

This Indianapolis team is not the same as it was when the year started, the injuries are hurting badly, and the offensive line is a mess.  The only unit who played a pretty good game was the defense, though a lot of people will not be able to believe that if they look at the score.

The Colts will not win a game the rest of the year when they turn the ball over five times.  No, the turnovers were not “all Peyton Manning’s fault.”  That said, he did not and has not looked like himself for the past four or five weeks.  The reasons for his drop-off are not difficult to understand, losing his primary running weapons, primary receiving weapons, and playing behind an ever-changing and evolving (or devolving) offensive line.  Still, playing in the face of pass rush pressure is something quarterbacks are expected to do in the NFL, and when pressure got to Rivers, he did better things with the ball than his competition.

The Turnovers

The first interception of the game, which resulted in a pick-six and allowed the Chargers to gain momentum, after they gave up a touchdown on a commanding first offensive possession for the Colts, was all Manning.  The television crew will tell you he was “hit” and that the pressure is what caused the turnover, but don’t listen to that garbage.  The fact is, the little hand tap on the ball did not cause Manning to throw the pass he did, and he had a chance to recollect himself before he released.  In that way, the release was “unaffected” by the pressure, and the interception is squarely on Manning.

The second interception is clearly on left tackle Charlie Johnson for failing to move his feet enough to push the pass rush away from the pocket.  The result was Manning’s throwing arm taking a blow during the passing motion and the ball fluttered into the air for an easy interception.  The turnover is on the offensive line, and namely Charlie Johnson.

The third interception is the biggest crap no-call on a defensive holding or passing interference penalty that I have seen in a very long time.  Defenders are not allowed to hook receivers who are running their routes, pulling them off of their line, using them to redirect their momentum to get position to make a play on the ball.  While the Colts certainly did not look like they were going to win this game, the no-call killed everything.  They had a chance to be in the game and stick with the Chargers until that pick-six ended it.  Like it or not, that interception is on the officials — and is shameful.

The fourth interception was a forced throw into the end-zone to an undrafted 5-foot 7-inch tall wideout playing in place of Reggie Wayne — who seemed hurt after he dropped a long beautiful pass from Manning.  This interception was nothing more than staying aggressive and trying to make something happen.  One could criticize the decision as Blair White was coming free underneath in front of the Chargers safety, but other than adding a painful pick to Peyton’s stats, it was basically meaningless and not something to get upset about.

Javarris James did fumble the football, but given how contorted his knee was underneath him, it is not entirely surprising.  Still, he should have held on to the ball and the Colts certainly did not need to lose another possession if they had any hope of late-game heroics.  The fumble here is disappointing and frustrating, but even more so is James getting injured.  Insult, meet injury.

Offensive Consistency

Coming into this game, the message was that the Colts offense needed to find its rhythm, the communication between Manning and his receivers needed to return, missing opportunities needed to stop, and the team needed to be consistent.  Despite Manning’s many positive efforts, solid passes, and opportunities he gave his receivers that could have made a big difference in the game, the miscommunications and inconsistencies continued.

In the second quarter, Blair White ran a fly route up the middle splitting the coverage.  Manning read the route very well but White did not get his head around or release through the defenders cleanly to make a play on the ball.  There was defensive contact on this route that did not help, but because White was five yards short of Manning’s pass and clearly did not see it coming, there was no call — for good reason.

Later in the second quarter, Pierre Garcon absolutely destroyed the coverage, and ran a brilliant route — at least for the first half of the play.  Manning read the breakout, released the ball to hit Garcon in stride for a touchdown (there is no doubt), but Garcon hesitated out of his break, slowed down, and by the time he realized the ball was in the air, he could not catch up with it.  That incomplete pass was as much on Garcon as it was Manning.

On another Colts possession in the second quarter, Manning hit Reggie Wayne in his hands but somehow the ball bounces off incomplete.  That drop was INEXCUSABLE for the number one receiver on the team and is the third time in four weeks a mind-boggling drop has occurred for Wayne.  If Wayne makes that catch, the offense is driving into Chargers territory with a chance to cut into the lead.  Instead, they had to kick the ball away.

On the last possession of the second quarter Manning uses Jacob Tamme and Blair White masterfully to get a touchdown and close within two before the half.  The drive, which could have been the second or third scoring drive of the quarter, was very important as it kept the game in reach.

In the first half, the Chargers scored their first 13 points off of turnovers.  The defense allowed only field goals to the high-powered Chargers offense.  They did not dominate on the field, they gave up yards against the top-ranked offense in the NFL, but they kept them from blowing the game open on the scoreboard and gave the offense plenty of opportunities to take control of the game.

To start the second half, the defense managed to hold the Chargers to another field goal.  Not unlike many games this year, the defense stiffened up significantly against the run in the second half.  This took away even more of Rivers’ options and made it that much more difficult for the San Diego offense to move down the field.  It also lengthened the second half by reducing the amount of time that ran off of the clock due to a heavy run game plan.

In the first offensive possession of the second half, Wayne dropped another pass he should have caught crossing over the middle of the field.  The ball hit him in the hands and bounced away.  It looked like he was not ready for the pass when he should have been.  A few plays later was the no-call defensive holding interception for a touchdown.

On the following possession, White dropped a pass and right guard Jeff Linkenbach got completely driven into Peyton Manning for a sack.  The defense holds the Chargers from scoring and gets the ball right back to Manning and the offense, at this point they are still only down 12 with more than a quarter to play.

Manning throws a deep pass to Reggie Wayne, very well thrown, excellent placement, and Wayne nearly makes the grab.  He doesn’t.  Why?  Because Antoine Cason again keeps Wayne from making his cut for the catch, allows himself to stay with Reggie as result, and Cason gets his hand in to break up the catch.  This is absolutely a passing interference call that goes uncalled.  The result?  Another Colts punt on an otherwise big move into Chargers territory.

Finally, in the fourth quarter the Colts defense breaks and yields the first Chargers offensive touchdown on a strong Mike Tolbert run up the middle.  This score breaks the game open, creates a three possession game, and all but ends any chance the Colts will be able to make a miraculous effort to win.  It is on this possession that James fumbles the ball back to San Diego, making the feat even more unlikely.

The much maligned and attacked defense, who at this point is very tired and has been on the field an awful lot in the face of four turnovers, holds the number one ranked offense to a field goal again.

The rest of the way, the key offensive plays that kept them from getting anything going were dropped passes by Donald Brown and another for Reggie Wayne, on a play where he not only should have made the catch but he came off of the field shaken up.  I could not help but get the sense that there was very little physically wrong with Wayne but that he was tired, frustrated, in some ways embarrassed for failing to make the play and wanted off of the field.

Blair White continued to do what he could to keep the offense alive with a great sideline leaping reception but it was all too little too late and Manning sealed it with his fourth interception.

The point of this rather long offensive breakdown is to show that, yes Peyton Manning struggled again, but he was not given a lot of help.  There were too many dropped passes.  Too many terrible no-calls by the officials.  Too many offensive line gaffs.  There was not enough firepower on the ground.

Manning did not carry the team as he is expected to, but Wayne played a disappointing game, the offensive line struggled, and too many opportunities were not taken advantage of.  The result, a low-scoring Colts effort, lots of turnovers, a lot of Chargers defensive points, and an embarrassing addition to the recent Colts-Chargers series.

Downtown Donald Brown or Fall Down Donald Brown?

There has been a lot of talk amongst Colts fans regarding Donald Brown’s development as a running back.  First, a lot of praise should be laid on Clyde Christensen, Tom Moore, and Peyton Manning’s shoulders for coming into this game with a plan to take advantage of Brown’s strengths.  Passing to him in the flat, in space, allowing him to use his speed, was absolutely brilliant preparation and was highly effective.  Brown is dangerous in those situations and the Colts should plan to use him more in that role moving forward.

Second, the reason Brown is not a good running back right now has much less to do with effort, strength, or speed.  He runs hard, he is trying to keep his legs driving when he meets defenders, and he is fast enough to cause real damage when he gets a crease.  What hurts Donald Brown is that his vision, instincts, and ability to “run where they’re not” is absolutely HORRIBLE.  Too often he will accept a hand-off, scan the field in front of him, know the play is designed to go off of right guard, and see there is absolutely nothing available in that hole.

Fair enough, tough spot.  It is at this time he has to use his eyes, his mind, his experience, and his instincts to cut the ball back, or go in a direction where he can at least buy some time and possibly find a small hole to pick up two or three yards.  He does not do this.  Instead, he runs right into the back of offensive linemen who are clearly not gaining any ground, or directly into a defender who is in the middle of huge mass of players.  Now, what sense does it make to anyone carrying a football to choose option three when there is an option to the left, where there is at most a linebacker to beat in a hole, an option to the right, which will stretch out the field and could give time for a lane to open (even a small one for a positive gain), and an option straight ahead, which is assured to yield nothing?  It doesn’t.  It just seems like “giving up”.  Almost as if Brown thinks, “Well this doesn’t look good.  I’ll just run in here, go down, and we’ll take another stab at it later.”

This kind of running attitude, vision, concentration, instincts, whatever you want to call it, is ineffective and inexcusable.  It most certainly is not the kind of intangibles that make for a productive running back in the NFL and unless that changes, Brown can have all of the potential in the world (and he does) but will not be successful.

Who is Philip Wheeler?

The one guy who really stood out on defense as having some struggles throughout the game was strong-side linebacker Philip Wheeler.  What is funny about Wheeler is that he made a nice goal line stop on Mike Tolbert in the third quarter that earned him some praise from the TV crew but he made numerous other mistakes that one would only really notice if they understand the defense and took a closer look at the tape.

In the first quarter, Wheeler over-pursues Mike Tolbert, which allowed Tolbert to get outside of the defense and pick up 10 yards, when he should have been hit by Wheeler at the line of scrimmage or tackled for a short gain.

In the second quarter, Wheeler is primarily responsible for Tolbert’s 21-yard run.  On this play, Wheeler dives into the middle of the offensive line without any reason to do so, fails to use his eyes to see that Tolbert is breaking the play outside, and leaves Antoine Bethea (who takes a terrible angle) alone to bring down Tolbert.  If Wheeler stays disciplined, stays home, and runs with Tolbert, he and Bethea have an easy stop for a short gain or a loss.  Instead, he takes himself out of the play, Bethea takes a bad angle, and Tolbert rumbles for a long gain.

Neither of the plays Wheeler allowed were game changers, in that they did not necessarily lead to San Diego scores, but they are huge mistakes that allowed the Chargers to get first downs and keep the defense on its heels.  Unforced errors, where Wheeler is out of position or fails to use his eyes, will kill a defense like paper cuts when they happen consistently.  To this point in Wheeler’s career, these kinds of “disappearing” mistakes are too common.

Kavell Conner is a Player

One thing is absolutely certain for the Colts in 2010.  Bill Polian, Chris Polian, and the Indianapolis scouting staff are having a whale of a year with the draft picks, undrafted free agents, and trade acquisitions.  The offensive line is the exception here, but Kavell Conner, Blair White, Justin Tryon, Javarris James, and Pat Angerer have all been key contributors.  Tyjuan Hagler re-joined the team and has made an impact.  Jacob Tamme has gone from special teams ace to filling in for Dallas Clark in a rather convincing manner.  Mike Hart was a sixth round draft pick and looked fantastic in his work.

The guy who is playing outstanding for a seventh round draft pick is Kavell Conner, who in many ways has been as effective as his second round counterpart, Pat Angerer.  There is no linebacker on the team, other than Gary Brackett, that is more difficult for opposing offense to run toward.  Conner consistently penetrates the line, plugs running lanes, makes solo tackles, and wreaks havoc on his side of the field.  If his play continues to develop, as it has throughout the season, he has a bright future in Indianapolis and is honestly very tough to sit even when Session returns.

It has been mentioned before, but this group of linebackers is as deep and as talented as the Colts have ever had.  Players like Conner are invaluable to making this happen and could have a real impact if the Colts can get healthy and turn things around as they make a final push for a playoff berth.

Moving Forward

In all, this was a very difficult game to watch.  Very little went right for the Colts.  The offensive players Indianapolis depends on to make things happen disappointed when opportunities presented themselves.  The offensive line is struggling as bad as it has at any point in the season, and the decision to move Jeff Linkenbach, who has looked good at tackle, to the right guard position for the first time all year is looking more ridiculous.  The special teams is non-existent and Brandon James dropped another kick.  The defense did its job as well as can be expected but without some kind of offensive consistency, the Colts will struggle to win another game this year.

It is time to get healthy and find an identity, not unlike late in the 2006 season, or this team may be on the outside looking in for the first time in a decade.