While the Indianapolis Colts defense turned in yet another strong performance during the team's Thanksgiving night contest in Atlanta, it was the Colts' passing attack that was most noteworthy, as it appeared to awaken from a midseason hibernation at the expense of the Falcons' secondary.
Despite a slow start that put them into a 10-0 hole early, the Colts rallied and dominated the rest of the way, rolling to a 31-13 victory in Atlanta
The Colts' passing attack got back on track in Week 12 once offensive line coach Howard Mudd got his offensive line adjusted to give Peyton Manning a bit more time and confidence in the pocket. Although wide receiver Marvin Harrison missed his sixth game of the season, the Colts got a much-needed lift with the return of top draft pick Anthony Gonzalez out of Ohio State.
Gonzalez was the player of the game, the man who had the biggest impact on the contest when you look at what he accomplished and what his presence on the field did for Indianapolis. He provided Peyton Manning with a more viable option at wide receiver in Harrison's spot than Aaron Moorehead did over the past few games. With Gonzalez, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark running routes, Manning was clearly back on the same page with his receivers. Gone were the misfires where Manning would throw the ball to a spot while his receiver was breaking the route in another direction.
Also huge for the Colts was the fact that the Falcons learned quickly that Gonzalez was a threat to have a big game, so they couldn't double-up consistently on Wayne to minimize his impact. Gonzalez finished the night with six catches for a career-high 105 yards, pulling in all but one pass targeted in his direction, including a pair of passes for 25-plus yards.
The former Ohio State receiver's results were even more impressive when you consider that he wasn't the top-targeted receiver on the night, and that he was able to catch all but one pass thrown in his direction. Meanwhile, Reggie Wayne was able to pull in less than half of the passes Manning threw to his area, but it's worth noting that all five of his catches moved the chains for the Colts. Manning's distribution of passes during the game looked like this:
Wayne: 12 targets, 5 catches, 66 yards, 1 TD
Gonzalez: 7 targets, 6 catches, 105 yards
Clark: 6 targets, 5 catches, 49 yards, 1 TD
Utecht: 4 targets, 4 catches, 38 yards, 1 TD
Addai: 2 targets, 2 catches, 14 yards
Fletcher: 1 target, 0 catches
How about tight end Ben Utecht's performance Thursday night? He not only got a first-down for Indy on three of his catches, he also made a terrific catch for a touchdown, stretching out and making a pure hands catch, holding onto it despite a rough landing. While Utecht took some jabs earlier this year for fumbling twice this season, it's worth noting that he's only fumbled three times during his career. And he's one of the Colts' most sure-handed receivers when Manning throws the ball his way this year. So far in 2007, he's caught 21 of 24 balls thrown to him — 87.5 percent — versus a career average of 68.5 percent. Add in what he brings to the run-blocking game and you've got to believe the Colts are going to have a tough decision to make when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this year.
Peyton Manning in the pocket Thursday night
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Peyton Manning's 68.8 percent completion rate (22 out of 32) was his top performance in that category since the Tampa Bay game when he completed a season-high 78.4 percent of his passes. His three touchdown passes pushed his total to 19 on the season and matched his season-high that he also accomplished against the Saints in the opener and against the Broncos in Week 4. And his 113.0 quarterback rating was his third-best of the season and was more than double his ratings in the past two games against the Chiefs and the Chargers.
But there were some downsides to what was otherwise a very strong performance for the Colts quarterback. His offensive line allowed him to be sacked four times on the night, topping the season-high three sacks they had given up a few weeks ago to the Patriots. That puts his sacked total at 16 after nine games, putting him on pace for the most times sacked since the 2002 season. But he's been working behind an offensive line that has been shuffled constantly throughout the season due to injuries primarily at the tackle positions.
Mannings's one interception on the night extends his string of games with an interception to four, including at least one interception in six of his last seven games. By contrast, Manning threw just one interception in his first four games. Not surprisingly, the last time he had a four-game interception streak was last season when the Colts started a 1-3 slump with a loss in Dallas that ran through a December loss to the Jaguars. His longest consecutive-game streak during his career is six games, which he's done three times — twice during his rookie year in 1998 and once in 2001.
The Colts finished the night with a fairly average 247 net passing yards. But they made those yards count by making 18 of their 26 first downs on pass plays and by scoring three of their four touchdowns through the air.
The 9-2 Colts host the Jaguars on December 2, while the 3-8 Falcons head to St. Louis to play the Rams.
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