INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Matt Ryan relied on some familiar standbys to start Sunday’s game-winning drive.
He finished it with some new names: wide receiver Alec Pierce and tight end Jelani Woods.
Ryan targeted the two unheralded rookies on the final three plays of the decisive drive, hooking up with Pierce for a 14-yard completion to reach the red zone and Woods for the 12-yard TD pass that gave Indianapolis a 20-17 victory over Kansas City.
The script seemed to be a surprise to just about everyone except Ryan.
“I have a lot of belief in those guys, I really think they’re going to be good players in this league,” he said. “They’ve shown it on the practice field, maybe not seen it as much in games to start this year, but I really think there’s going to be a lot of improvement from them. And the one thing, you just don’t know until you’re in those situations is if guys have no flinch.”
They sure didn’t melt when the stakes were highest.
With Indy’s season teetering and the Colts down four against a team vying to host a fifth straight AFC title game, it was Pierce and Woods, not Michael Pittman Jr. or Jonathan Tylor, who made the plays.
Coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard expected nothing less after selecting them in last spring’s draft.
Still, through the first two games, Pierce — a second-rounder — was better known for dropping a TD pass in the Week 1 tie at Houston and sitting out Week 2 (concussion protocol). Woods, a third-round pick considered a gifted college blocker, didn’t even have a pass thrown his direction in the first two weeks.
On Sunday when Ryan needed playmakers late, the rookies delivered.
Pierce used his body control and technical skills to catch three passes for 61 yards and Woods used his 6-foot-7, 253-pound body to fend off defenders for his first two career catches — a 1-yard TD reception to give Indy (1-1-1) its first lead of the season and the 12-yarder for the Colts’ first win.
“That’s the player we expect Jelani (Woods) to be, make the big play. He’s a big man, and he’s fast,” Reich said before discussing Pierce. “The go-ball, that’s what he’s here for, and then he made the play down there on that last drive. That was a big throw and catch.”
This week, Pierce and Woods provided the jolt of energy Indy desperately needed to rebound from an embarrassing shutout in Jacksonville. But the long-term implications of their ability to make plays could open things up for Pittman and Taylor — and get the Colts’ offense on track.
Run defense. Even during the lackluster games at Houston and Jacksonville, the Colts were solid against the run. They were even better against the Chiefs, who produced 58 yards on 23 carries for an average of 2.5 yards. Through three weeks, Indy is allowing 77.0 yards rushing per game.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Offensive line. Despite giving Ryan enough time to produce his 43rd career comeback, the five-man line continues to struggle. Ryan was sacked five more times, lost two fumbles and again was under heavy duress.
Kylen Granson. Though the two rookies shined late, the second-year tight end also played well. He recovered a muffed punt at the Chiefs 4, then barely kept his balance to pin Kansas City inside the 1 on Indy’s next punt. He also had two catches and might be carving out his own niche.
WR Parris Campbell. Indy needs the former Ohio State star to become a real playmaker this season. While he has shown some glimpses, he has not yet emerged as a major part of the game plan.
Starting safety Julian Blackmon missed the second half with a sprained left ankle and it’s unclear whether he’ll play next weekend against Tennessee. … Indy also continues to await the season debut of three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard (back surgery).
7 — Yes, Ryan has been sacked 12 times and thrown four interceptions. But the most surprising stat may be his seven fumbles. With 14 games remaining, Ryan has already posted the fifth-highest single-season total in his 15-year career.
Getting a win in the home opener was essential to staying in the AFC South title hunt. Now the Colts face an old nemesis in two-time defending division champion Tennessee. The Titans also struggled the first two weeks before winning Sunday. But until Indy’s offensive line starts pass-blocking and run-blocking more consistently, the Colts will continue to struggle.