Colts suffer crushing loss to Washington in Sam Ehlinger’s debut

INDIANAPOLIS — An impressive start by quarterback Sam Ehlinger ended up going for naught.

Plagued by the same turnover issues and short-yardage problems that have hurt Indianapolis all season long, the Indianapolis Colts fell 17-16 to the Washington Commanders on a game-winning drive by Taylor Heinicke.

The Colts (3-4-1) lost more ground on a Tennessee team that beat Houston and the playoffs seems like they’re slipping away.

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1. Shifting to Sam Ehlinger opened up the offense, but old issues persist

Frank Reich’s offense dialed up a few more exotic, creative looks than it has in any other game this season.

Not all of them worked.

But there were end-arounds to Parris Campbell that went for 28 yards, a Nyheim Hines sweep on a direct snap that went for nine, a touch-pass on the goal line and a bevy of screens, some that worked and some that didn’t.

Indianapolis scored only 16 points off of all the changes, but the Colts offense looked more difficult to defend than it has all season, and Washington’s defense looked like it was on its heels. In recent weeks, the Colts had become predictable, using a short, quick passing game to minimize the line’s inability to protect, and defenses were starting to tee off on the approach.

Using Ehlinger appeared to open up the options in Reich’s playbook, and for one game at least, it worked well enough in the second half to give the Colts the lead.

Ultimately, though, the Colts were hit hard by problems that have cost them all season. Ehlinger and Jonathan Taylor both fumbled deep in Washington territory, and Taylor was stuffed on a 3rd-and-goal at the 1, ultimately leading to the loss.

2. Colts defense capitulates late

For most of the game, the Indianapolis defense was the driving force, limiting Washington’s impact and giving its new starting quarterback a chance to get his feet under him.

But Indianapolis wasn’t able to come up with the stop it needed most.

Holding a 16-10 lead after a great punt by Matt Haack pinned the Commanders at the 11-yard line with a little more than two minutes left to go in the game, quarterback Taylor Heinicke went to work, using his feet to create space for his arm.

Time and time again, Heinicke bought time with his feet, eluding Indianapolis pass rushers, and then made back-to-back strikes to beat the Colts, first a 21-yard completion over the middle to Cam Sims and then a 42-yarder to Indianapolis native Terry McLaurin over Colts star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, leading to a 1-yard sneak from Heinicke that ended up being the game-winner.

For most of this season, the Colts have put an impossible weight on the defense’s shoulders, and their backs broke under the weight in the final minutes.

3. Sam Ehlinger met the moment

For two seasons, the Colts have been raving about Ehlinger’s makeup and mentality, saying the Texas product has the “something special” that cannot be taught at the game’s most important position.

Ehlinger backed up all of that praise in the first start of his career.

A lot of 24-year-olds in Ehlinger’s situation might have gone to pieces, given the way the game started. Indianapolis went three-and-out on its first two drives, and Ehlinger nearly threw a bad interception, the ball deflecting off a Washington linebacker’s hands.

Ehlinger’s worst moment happened a little bit later. With the Colts driving and in position to score, Ehlinger waited a little too long before trying to escape the pocket, and lost the ball as he started to move, fumbling the ball away to the Commanders in the sort of turnover that has crippled the Indianapolis offense all season long. Indianapolis headed into halftime with just three points.

Ehlinger never seemed rattled, started taking shots down the field and made enough plays to put Indianapolis in position to win. The young quarterback kept completing passes, hit a deep shot to Alec Pierce for 43 yards and found Nyheim Hines on another big gain.

By the time he was finished, Ehlinger had completed 15 of 21 passes for 188 yards, picked up 15 rushing yards on six carries and largely avoided disaster, taking just one sack and getting hit four times. The Colts offense was far from dominant with Ehlinger at the helm, but he did play with poise.

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