5 biggest takeaways from the Colts’ 2023 season

The 2023 season for the Indianapolis Colts might not have ended how they would have liked but with the perspective of how this team was viewed prior to the season opener, this year should be viewed as a success for the franchise.

It was just back in August that the front office was in a testy contract negotiation with Jonathan Taylor. There were question marks around how the offense would look with Anthony Richardson and how the first-year quarterback would perform.

Then there was the worry about how the defense would look with a young secondary. A concern that did pop up as an issue throughout the season. Fast forward to the end of the year, Shane Steichen had his team on the cusp of a playoff berth despite missing Richardson for most of the year, JT being in and out of the lineup because of contract talks and a thumb injury, and a defense that got exploited at times because of the youth and injuries to the cornerback position.

The future is bright in Indianapolis with Steichen leading the way but before we turn the page, let’s take a look at the five biggest takeaways from the 2023 season:

Shane Steichen is the real deal

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

As I alluded to above, the Colts had low expectations in the first year under Steichen. This wasn’t because there were any concerns about his ability to handle the role, but because he was commanding a team led by a rookie quarterback who entered the league with little college experience. Plus he was dealing with the Jonathan Taylor drama while establishing his culture in the organization.

The first sign of Steichen’s coaching brilliance came in the Week 2 win over the Houston Texans. When Anthony Richardson exited the game with a concussion, he shifted his play calling to suit Gardner Minshew’s skillset.

His offense would score touchdowns on back-to-back drives when Minshew entered the game to give his team enough cushion to prevent a Houston comeback attempt.

Steichen continued to impress the next week when Indianapolis went on the road to beat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime with Minshew as the starter. A team that ended up with the best record in the NFL.

A couple of weeks later, Steichen again showed how he could adjust his offense to the quarterback when AR suffered his season-ending shoulder injury in the first matchup against the Tennesee Titans. The Colts won that contest, beating the Titans for the first time since 2020 and they would end up sweeping Tennessee for the first time since 2018.

Despite going on a three-game losing streak to fall to a 3-5 record, Steichen kept his team even-keeled and went on a four-game winning streak to get back in the playoff race instead of sputtering to end the season.

The Colts finished 6-3 in their final nine games of the year and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time since 2008. His offense averaged 23.3 PPG, which was tied for the 10th-most in the league. It was just last year they averaged they were tied for the second-lowest PPG (17.0) and were able to improve with AR and JT not on the field throughout the year.

This was the step in the right direction in Steichen’s first season and there is a level of excitement for the first time for the franchise since the end of the 2018 season.

Bright future with Anthony Richardson and Jonathan Taylor

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Unfortunately for the Colts, it will be another offseason spent wondering what this offense will look like with Anthony Richardson and Jonathan Taylor in the backfield together. Because of JT missing the first four games of the season, the pair only played one game together and Taylor got one carry with AR on the field because it was the Titans matchup when he suffered his season-ending shoulder injury.

Even though we didn’t get to see these two blossom into something special, I am still leaving this season excited about what the Indy offense will look like in 2024.

We got a great glimpse of what the rushing attack will look like with Richardson in the first matchup against the Texans when he ran in two touchdowns in the first quarter.

Steichen will have more creative plays like this on his second touchdown.

Continuing with his running ability. This play is an example of what will make defenses hard to defend next where when they are forced to pick between AR and JT.

Everyone knew what he brought to the Colts as a runner, but what was the impressive part of AR’s brief Year 1 stint was his flashes as a passer. It was in the Week 4 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams that he showed off what he can do with his arm.

The first throw came on a second-and-19 when he delivered a dart to Josh Downs.

He had some heat on a throw after getting stepped on for his first touchdown.

This was his most spectacular pass of the season. Richardson delivered it in the perfect spot despite Aaron Donald being all over him.

Then it was in crunch time when the franchise quarterback led a game-tying drive with his arm to send the game to overtime.

In 173 snaps in his rookie season, AR finished with 577 passing yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. While adding 136 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

It was after that Rams contest when everyone was excited to see Richardson paired with Taylor but questions remained about how long they would play together. Then surprisingly JT got his contract extension which jolted the excitement of the tandem’s future.

As I mentioned, unfortunately, that week AR’s season came to an end. For JT, he slowly got worked in because of the success that Zack Moss was having then once he started to get things going he needed thumb surgery that put him out for three weeks.

He did end the season on a high note, running for 188 yards, which was the second-most in his career.

With how JT was playing, you can’t help but wonder how the outcome would have been if Richardson was on the field. Especially what the play call would have been on that fourth-and-one. The easy guess is the tush push.

With how Shane Steichen’s offense looked with AR and how well it did with Gardner Minshew, this season left me with that takeaway of how it can evolve into one of the best units in the league with Richardson and Taylor in the backfield.

Defense led by the front four

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

The Indy defense was led by the front four in 2023. That part of Gus Bradley’s was a big factor in the team’s four-game winning streak and accounted for 46 of the defense’s 51 sacks. That was the fifth-most in the NFL.

Six players across the defensive line set career highs this season. DeForest Buckner did DeForest Bucker things. He had a career-high in tackles (81) and pass defenses (seven) while of course getting after the quarterback.

Even though Grover Stewart missed six games because of his suspension, he set a career-high with eight QB hits. The defense also showed major improvement in run defense when he returned to the lineup.

New addition Samson Ebukam made a huge impact and proved to be a hit free agent signing by Chris Ballard. He had a career-high tackles (57), TFLs (10), QB hits (17), sacks (nine-and-a-half), and forced fumbles (three).

On the opposite side, Kwity Paye had a career-high tackles (52), sacks (eight-and-a-half), and forced fumbles (two).

Fellow 2021 draft pick Dayo Odeyingbo had a very impressive Year 3. In a rotational role, he had a career-high tackles (38), TFLs (nine), sacks (eight), QB hits (17), pass defenses (two), forced fumbles (two), and fumbles recoveries (two).

To finish it off, veteran Tyquan Lewis had the best season of his pro career. What makes it awesome to see, this is coming off back-to-back seasons that ended because of patellar injuries. He had a career-high in tackles (25), TFLs (nine), QB hits (13), and pass defenses (three).

If Bradley can fix the backend of his defense then I like the potential of what the defense can be if this part of the unit can improve on what they built in 2023.

Tony Sparano Jr.’s magic touch

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

While the offense dealt with quarterback changes and inconsistencies in the passing attack, it was the offensive line that was steady-eddy for the Colts. The impressive part was that the unit performed well despite the starting five hardly being on the field for most of the season.

There is one guy who kept them intact despite injuries to the group. Tony Sparano Jr. was responsible for bringing the Indy offensive line back to what it was a few years ago.

A player in competition as the most improved is second-year left tackle Bernhard Raimann. His development has shown he has a long-term future at that spot.

Sparano Jr. got Quenton Nelson playing at the level that we are used to.

Not only did Nelson bounce back, but so did Ryan Kelly.

Raimann’s competition for the most improved is Will Fries. Myself included with others, had major concerns that a veteran wasn’t brought in to compete for the right guard spot. His development was key to the revitalization of this unit.

For the right tackle spot, it was a mixed bag for Indianapolis. When Braden Smith was on the field, he did great, but the problem was that he appeared in a career-low 10 games this season.

Because of Smith missing time, that led to the 2023 fourth-round pick Blake Freeland being forced to play more than expected. He didn’t play just at right tackle but also filled in at left tackle when Raimann was out with a concussion.

He had his struggles as a rookie but the important thing was that he got the experience and with an offseason under Sparano Jr., I like the chances of seeing some development. Especially after seeing what he did with Raimann and Fries.

As a group, PFF ranked them as the third-best in the NFL and they gave up the third-fewest sacks in 2023.

If this unit can stay healthy in 2024 then it will lead to a big season for the entire offense.

Secondary needs some work

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts missed the playoffs so it can’t be all rainbows and butterflies from the 2023 season. The most glaring area of the roster that needs to be fixed is the secondary. The two most consistent players from that unit were Kenny Moore II and Julian Blackmon.

It was a rebound season for Moore II, who had a career-high TFLs (eight) and had two pick-sixes in the win over the Carolina Panthers.

Blackmon had the best season of his pro career. He had career-high tackles (88), TFLs (five), pass defenses (eight), interceptions (four), and fumble recoveries (two).

Both will be free agents and if they aren’t re-signed then Gus Bradley will be left with players that haven’t played three seasons in the league. The positive with that group of players, they had their flashes this season.

2023 second-round pick JuJu Brents had some moments but his biggest thing right now is that he has to show he can be healthy to be counted on. He appeared in nine games and did leave the season finale with a hamstring injury.

His coverage against Davante Adams left me believing he has the skillset to develop into a starting corner.

He wasn’t the only 2023 draft pick to show some good things. Seventh-round pick Jaylon Jones ended up starting 10 games. He has areas of improvement but he wasn’t a detriment to the defense.

The reason why Jones got into the lineup was because of Dallis Flowers suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. This was disappointing because the second-year corner had some nice moments before his season ended.

The Indy cornerback group has some potential but Chris Ballard can’t bet on that as he has with different units in the past. An impact player has to be considered for it in free agency to help stabilize this part of the defense.

The biggest disappointing part of the secondary was Rodney Thomas II. The second-year safety took a step back after having success as a seventh-round pick in his rookie season. He ended up getting benched late in the season for Nick Cross and when Blackmon went on IR, it was Ronnie Harrison Jr. who was starting alongside Cross.

That was a bit of a surprise considering Harrison Jr. was playing in a money-backer role. The positive for the safety group was that Cross earned his way onto the field.

The second-year safety finally emerged after his rookie preseason hype and flashed his ability to end the season. Cross got his first career interception against the Steelers.

The experience that Cross had to end the year will prove vital in setting up a big Year 3 for the 2022 third-round pick. It will be interesting to see what Ballard does with this group. I’d like to see Blackmon back and see what he and Cross can do but there should be a veteran added for depth purposes.

The secondary could make or break the 2024 season but re-signing Moore II and Blackmon with a couple of key additions plus growth from the young players can lead to major improvement for Bradley’s unit.

Story originally appeared on Colts Wire