Big Blue Breakdown: The Crippled Offense, Hidden Wideout Edition

Last Sunday, the Colts' offense was about as ugly as ugly gets, save a guest appearance by Amy Winehouse.  The offense looked to run a handful of varieties of about four or five plays.  The playbook was obviously pared down.  The run game was clunky, impeded by yet another new-look offensive line that still had the same turnstile tendencies at tackle.  When there were plays to be made, receivers didn't catch the ball, blockers didn't get their hands on defenders and even Peyton Manning -- mortal sin as I'm aware it may be to criticize the man -- misfired on some passes.

The questions immediately surfaced following the game: what happened to the offense?  Where's the deep passing game?  Where is Reggie Wayne?  Pierre Garcon?  Why did they run so many WR screens?  How could a Peyton Manning-led offense look so terrible?

And at the end of the day, largely thanks to the defense, the scoreboard still read 23-17 Colts.  Yeah, we're kinda spoiled sometimes.  But that fact doesn't discredit the criticisms.  Rather, it affords everyone an opportunity to look at what went wrong with the luxury of still claiming a 'W.'  Sitting atop the AFC South doesn't hurt, either.

So let's take a look at what went wrong on Sunday, specifically in terms of Wayne, Garcon and the passing game.

We have to preface any analysis this week by acknowledging that Colts were handcuffed.  In all my years as a Colts fan (okay, I'm 22 and I've only watched football with more than a passing interest since junior high...that only registers just shy of a decade, sue me) I've never seen this team so unbelievably crippled by injuries.  And not just players who were deemed inactive for the game, players who were dressed as well.  

Case in point, Javarris James' touchdown, the offense's lone touchdown of the game.  It's a 2nd-and-goal from the Bengals' 3-yard line with 14:34 remaining in the second quarter.  The Colts line up with Jacob Tamme flexed into the slot, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon at wideouts and...Gijon Robinson as the blocking TE, nestled in next to Ryan Diem at RT.  This role would normally go to Brody Eldridge, who was dressed but was obviously hampered by a rib injury that severely limited his playing time.

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Though the Colts score on this play, a simple inside handoff to James, Robinson almost blows the whole thing up by absolutely failing to sustain any kind of a block on Robert Geathers, who gets a clean hit on James at the 2-yard line.  

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Thankfully James is able to continue driving his legs and powers it into paydirt with a second effort, but really Robinson's whiffed block (gee, where have we seen that before?) should have resulted in a no-gainer.  And Robinson, of course, was only playing because Eldridge was hurting.

Injuries obviously affected the communication process too.  We'll look at Robinson again because the play is convenient for me to pull up, but I saw this with Brandon James several times as well.  A 2nd-and-8 from the Colts' 48-yard line with 7:24 remaining in the second quarter.  Colts line up with Wayne and Garcon at wideouts, Robinson in the slot and Eldridge finally in at H-B.  The Colts initially show a run look but Manning audibles into shotgun, directing traffic as he so masterfully does.  He makes it a point to communicate a signal to Robinson, walking over toward him and directing him both verbally and with hand signals.  Now, I don't want to read too much into this, but after Manning finishes directing Robinson, Robinson seems to give one of those WTF gestures (shoulder shrug, arms spread wide like what the hell are you talking about, dude?) that would indicate confusion.  Like I said, maybe I shouldn't read too much into that.  Maybe that is a signal.  I don't know.  

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But I do know the result of the play: Manning wants to go to Robinson in the slot as his hot read when pressure is applied, but Robinson runs 10 yards upfield and begins blocking a linebacker.  

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Yes, Robinson thought it was a run play.  Manning scrambles up in the pocket and thinks about running for all of .3 seconds before he realizes that he does not have admission to the Michael Vick Experience, and wisely just falls to the ground and takes the sack instead.  Because Robinson thought it was a run play.  Because Robinson was forced into playing slot receiver on a down where Tamme or Austin Collie or Blair White surely would have been better options had they not been hurting or unavailable.

Peyton Manning is not pleased.

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I don't mean to pick on Robinson too much, though I still believe that throwing to Robinson is like throwing to a stop sign, and for a TE who can't catch he sure as hell can't block either.  Fact is, Robinson didn't even make this team for a reason, and the Colts were forced to go back to him once Dallas Clark bit the dust for the year.  Even then, the Colts couldn't have figured they would ever need to rely on him.  And yet there he was Sunday, flexed into the slot.  Because of injuries.  And when Robinson is playing slot receiver, there's really only so much you can do on offense.

(Also as I said, B. James was in this position numerous times as well, in terms of being singled out and guided by Manning and still coming up with the wrong route combinations.  I could have used him as an example as well.)

I think the bigger question we all want to know, though, is how and why Wayne and Garcon have essentially disappeared the past two weeks.  Surely, with all the injuries, Manning would have to look their way, right?  They would have to have huge games, at least one of them.  Yet that hasn't happened.  So what are defenses doing to take them away?

The first thing I see when looking at this game is that the Bengals aren't at all bothered by the Colts' running game.  There is rarely a safety on screen, meaning they are typically playing more than 15 yards off the line-of-scrimmage.  If teams aren't bringing safeties down in the box, that means they're largely showing zone coverage looks, taking away anything deep.  On Wayne's side in particular, you will rarely see a safety in the picture.  Wayne is almost always doubled.  The cornerback tends to play about six or seven yards off to take away the intermediate routes and the safety covers anything in the event Wayne gets by that corner.  You've seen this look before; the Colts play soft zone coverage all too often for my liking.  

The difference is, though, that the opposition's offensive line often gives that QB enough time to sit in the pocket and let routes develop downfield, especially when they go max protect against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the Bengals did on Sunday.  Manning just doesn't have that kind of time to let routes develop.  So whereas eventually Chad Ochocinco can find a hole in the zone or break loose downfield, Wayne and Garcon tend to be best-served running slants and quick screens when the offensive line is as porous as it has been the last few weeks in terms of pass-blocking.  Let's face it: Wayne is the Colts' best receiver, and he's not a burner.  He's a precise route-runner who beats you by mastering the skill of his craft, by keeping that defensive back guessing.  When he doesn't have time to create those routes because Manning is forced to get the ball out of his hands too quickly, his talents are effectively wasted.  

Watching the Colts the past few years has really made me yearn for the offensive lines between 2003-2006, which at the time I completely took for granted.  I just always assumed that Tarik Glenn would be protecting Manning's blindside and everyone would play at an elite level, the parts interchangeable.  I always assumed there would be a Tupe Peko or Makoa Freitas to step in and help out if needed.  Now, the only thing keeping most folks from calling this unit one of the league's worst is Manning's incredibly quick release.  When Manning doesn't have time to throw and receivers don't have time to let their routes develop, the deep passing game is going to be handicapped at best.  Dead at worst.

I think the Colts realize these limitations, though, and at least tried to mix things up to keep the defense honest.  I'm looking at a 3rd-and-8 from the Colts' 11.5-yard line with 10:36 remaining in the third quarter.  

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Instead of the predictable alignment with Wayne and Garcon spread out wide, Garcon and B. James are the wideouts with Wayne in the slot.  This gives Wayne a matchup with a linebacker, a matchup I'd say he should win nine times out of 10, but really it should be 10 times out of 10.  Especially when that linebacker blitzes in turn.  But the play ends up being a quick screen to B. James, and you can't help but feel the Colts have gone to the well one too many times on these.

I understand why they call them so much: they're easy for new players (like B. James) to learn and the Colts aren't short on good blocking receivers.  But the playcalling is getting a bit stale in that department, and I think recently the playcalling on offense has been just as much to blame as the lackluster offensive line play.  If you draw up anything with Wayne in the seam here, he's matched up one-on-one with a safety and the Colts already have Tamme and Donald Brown bookending Manning in shotgun, prepared to block.  I get that a quick screen is a blitz-beater and I get that the Colts like it as their default blitz-beater, but it shouldn't be their only blitz-beater.  It's about as overused as that useless jumbo package which features Eric Foster as a FB and rarely nets positive yardage, and twice as predictable.  Again, I understand that a guy like B. James, called up from the practice squad, is going to struggle with hot routes and blitz reads, but if the Colts really went into that game with only one blitz-beater, you have to find some fault in their preparation, whether that includes players, coaches or both.

So now that we've determined that line play and playcalling had an adverse affect on the offense, let's take a look at a play where a receiver actually is afforded an opportunity to run a route and get his hands on a ball.  We'll look at a 1st-and-10 from the Colts' 10-yard line with 2:35 remaining in the third quarter.  Colts line up with Wayne and Garcon out wide, Tamme in the slot and Brown in the backfield next to Manning in shotgun.  The Bengals defend this look in a manner that I feel typifies the way most defenses have played Wayne and Garcon.  

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Wayne is being pressed by a corner and has a safety sitting about 15 yards on top of him, the idea being to disrupt the exactness of Wayne/Manning's timing routes and prevent Wayne from getting a clean release off the line.  The safety is there to clean up in case Wayne muscles through that jam, though there is always the possibility that he can sit in the space between the corner and safety if he does.  His comeback route is notorious for taking advantage of this kind of defensive look.

Garcon is shown less respect in terms of pressing at the line, with his corner about eight yards off and the corresponding safety a few yards shallower than Wayne's safety.  This, to me, signifies that the Bengals are not as afraid of a Garcon/Manning timing route as they are a Wayne/Manning timing route.  They'll give Garcon that release because they believe his only threat is to beat them downfield, and they're not going to let that happen playing so far off.  This is a big reason why you see Garcon grab so many slants and screens; defenses simply are not afraid of him doing anything underneath.  They're much more focused on his abilities to stretch the field and get over top, and they're going to take that away - something accomplished much easier, of course, when they do not have to commit a safety down in the box.

Manning of course sees how far the defensive back is playing off Garcon and is going there from the get-go, offering Garcon a hand signal to direct him into a slant.  Tamme is going to occupy the safety briefly from his slot receiver position by running up the seam and stalling him, preventing that safety from crashing down and meeting Garcon at the point of reception.  It's a great play design, actually, because if Garcon catches the ball, Tamme has the opportunity to then block that safety and Garcon just has to beat his cornerback and avoid any upfield flow by the linebackers.  

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If Garcon catches the ball.  If.  But he doesn't.  And while the ball was thrown a little too low for anyone's liking -- again, Manning isn't beyond blame, he has made some poor throws these past few weeks -- Garcon really should be able to dig in and catch that.  He doesn't.  Manning's good read and a generally nice play design for for naught because Manning makes a bad throw and Garcon can't come up with the catch.

You can see, from what I've looked at, that there is no simple answer as to why the passing game has looked so ugly.  It's a combination of things, most fueled by injury.  The offensive line doesn't afford the time for routes to develop.  The lack of running game allows safeties to remain over top and take away deep routes.  Playcalls are oversimplified because the Colts run a system so precise and delicate that it takes years to ever truly find a comfort zone as a receiver.  The Colts are forced into playing sub-par players in featured roles.  Manning isn't making great throws.  Receivers aren't coming up with catches they really should.  

And in the end, it all adds up to one ugly performance.

Want more Colts news and analysis, or perhaps just slightly-inebriated observations from floor seats at Conseco Fieldhouse?  Follow me on Twitter.

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