PITTSBURGH -- While the Indianapolis Colts’ hopes of winning the AFC South may depend on quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s availability, avoiding careless mistakes like the team made against the Steelers in Sunday's loss are just as important.
It wasn’t just one area that the Colts had problems. It was in all areas.
Three turnovers by the offense. Seven penalties, including three unnecessary-roughness calls and a pass interference by the defense. Five sacks given up. A blocked extra point and missed potential game-winning kick by Adam Vinatieri.
The easy excuse would be that the Colts went into the game without receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf), starting cornerback Pierre Desir (hamstring) and then lost center Ryan Kelly (burner) and Brissett. The quarterback’s status for next week's game against the Miami Dolphins is uncertain after he suffered what coach Frank Reich believes is a sprained left knee.
Those are all legitimate reasons to struggle, but it doesn’t explain how undisciplined the Colts were.
“We know what the Steelers do,” Reich said after the game. “They’re good at creating turnovers and negative plays and we said if we can minimize turnovers and win that battle and minimize the negative plays, then we’d win the game. We didn’t do that.”
Colts tight end Jack Doyle added: “Everyone kind of took their turn. That stinks. We’re at the halfway point. We’re 5-3. Let’s go back to work and try to get a win next week. That wasn't us out there. That's what Frank said to us after the game, too. We have the formula. We know what works. We have to go back to work and try to play more disciplined football."
The Colts aren’t good enough to getting away with mistake after mistake and expect to win. They are the fifth team since the 1970 merger to have each of their first eight games of the season decided by seven points or fewer, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The schedule is still favorable for the Colts even if Brissett has to miss time -- Brian Hoyer will start if Brissett can't go -- because they host Miami (1-7) and Jacksonville (4-5) in the next two weeks. Of course, that’s if the Colts can clean up their messes.
The Colts have spent most of the season being a team that avoided making critical mistakes. They went into Sunday as the seventh least-penalized team and ranked fourth in fewest giveaways in the NFL.
That wasn’t the case against the Steelers.
Linebacker Darius Leonard, the team’s defensive leader, was called for unnecessary roughness with no time left on the clock at the end of the first half. The penalty gave the Steelers a free play and moved them into field-goal range. The Steelers' Chris Boswell made the kick to cut the Colts’ lead to three points. Leonard in the second half was called for another unnecessary roughness penalty, and the Steelers scored a touchdown six plays later.
“You’re talking about 10 points I was responsible for,” said Leonard, who carefully toed the line in talking about the officiating. “Two penalties on me that you can’t have.”
Reich failed when he challenged a pass-interference call on rookie cornerback Marvell Tell III in the fourth quarter. The Steelers got three points out of it to give them a total of 13 points off Colts’ defensive penalties.
“Have to move on to the next play, good or bad,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “Sometimes you’re going to get calls, sometimes you’re not. Our coaches talk about it all the time. Don’t leave the game in the hands of the officials.”
Just as uncharacteristic as the penalties were, the same could be said about the Colts’ sloppiness with the football.
The Colts, who entered Sunday with just seven turnovers, had nearly half of that against the Steelers. Hoyer threw an interception that was returned 96 yards for a touchdown. He also fumbled on a strip-sack when Reich went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Steelers' 35-yard line instead of having Vinatieri, who has been inconsistent this season, attempt a 52-yard kick. The Colts had a chance to extend their lead after a safety, but Chester Rogers fumbled the free kick, which gave the Steelers a short field.
The Steelers scored 10 points off Indianapolis’ turnovers.
The Houston Texans moved into first place in the division after the Colts’ loss, but the AFC South is far from being determined. The Colts won’t give themselves much of a chance if they continue to play the way they did against the Steelers, and it won't matter if they’re playing the Dolphins or the Jaguars.
“This is the NFL,” Walker said. “The teams that are the least penalized and more disciplined are going to win games. They’re going to execute. Find ways to get turnovers and going to win the ballgame at the end of the day. We didn’t do that. We see how good we are. We lose the turnover battle and commit so many penalties and at the end of the day we’re right there to win the game. We can’t play like that. That’s not Colts brand of football and we’ll be better.”