Big Blue Breakdown: How To Kill An Offense In Four Plays

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 28: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to throw a pass while pursued by Kevin Burnett #99 of the San Diego Chargers during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 28 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. The Chargers won 36-14. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I have the stomach flu.  Really bad.  I've had it for a week.  Don't cry for me, Foxborough.  It just explains why my B^3 is a bit late and my participation has been a bit muted this week.  I'm also going to go ahead and blame this flu for any grammar or spelling errors that may or may not litter this breakdown like hypodermic needles on a Jersey beach.  Hey look, a Jersey joke!

One of the worst things about a blowout loss, for me, is that I have no idea what to write about.  Do I write about Peyton Manning's interceptions?  Or maybe San Diego's sacks?  The Colts' poor offensive line play?  Reggie Wayne's drops, perhaps?  Or maybe the ever-disgusting special teams play?  There are just too many things to choose from, none of which presents a particularly welcome challenge.  I'm a fan.  I don't want to have to go frame-by-frame through ugly losses.  I already experienced this loss, live, once.  How do you think I got the flu?  Well it wasn't from Manning; I know that much.  He couldn't have passed anything to me last Sunday without being intercepted or sacked first.  ZING!  I think that sound means that I have to go revoke my fan card now.

But I was given little choice this week.  So instead of singling out any one thing, because I believe it's difficult to assign blame to any one thing for this loss, I looked at four plays I believe were representative of the offense's struggles.  Three of these plays resulted in interceptions.  One resulted in a stuffed run.

So, yeah, I basically looked at Manning's interceptions.  But I think these four plays tell the story of the game, so their inclusion was coincidental.  After the jump, we look at a multitude of ugly sights, including a bad pass, a poor run, some terrible blocks and a questionable decision.

1.  3rd-and-5 from IND 25 with 2:11 remaining in Q1

AKA the first Manning interception, pick-six.  The primary culprits on this play are Manning and Jeff Linkenbach.  Let's run through the play:

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Colts go shotgun here.  Chargers are going to show a blitz look but end up dropping their linebackers off and just rushing with four, with the LDT and LDE stunting in addition to this.  Manning believes the Chargers are coming with more defenders than they really are because...well, quite honestly, he's seeing ghosts lately, especially given his lack of protection.

Here's what Manning sees, and NBC's remarkably phallic illustration of what will actually transpire:

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(Seriously, NBC?  Seriously, with that illustration?)

Chargers ILB Kevin Burnett is going to show blitz here but actually drop off into coverage.  Manning never sees this.  Never even considers this.  And this mistake will prove to be fatal as the play develops.

Now we'll look at the snap of the ball, and the route options/calls the receivers have:

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Jacob Tamme is also running a route and Donald Brown will clear out once he sees there are only four rushers, but I want to primarily consider the routes of the three wide receivers on this play. 

Blair White (bottom of screen, yellow route) is going to be Manning's best option...and Manning never looks that way.  He's going to end up running an out at the first-down line, though I'm guessing he has the option of cutting that off into a dig route depending on how the defensive back plays him.  Regardless, you can see the DB giving White tons of space to run, and the linebacker closest to White is going to shadow Wayne because of course Wayne is the scarier receiver of the two.  Point being here: White is the most open receiver and was probably the best option, but Manning never seemed to consider going his way.

Next we'll look at Pierre Garcon (top of screen, green route.)  This is a typical Garcon route: a clearout go.  He's just going to take the safety and whatever other defensive back may follow out of screen.  The idea is to move the defense out of the way for Wayne's route to develop and eventually free up Wayne with space for a first down.

Now, as for Wayne's route (orange, middle of screen), it's going to be a drag route across the defense.  It never ends up being as deep as I illustrated, but I'd have to imagine that was how it was drawn up (and not drawn up to be short of the marker, as he was when the interception was made.)  The play design, again, is for Garcon to draw away enough defense so that when Wayne approaches the right hash, Manning can place the ball outside and Wayne can scoot upfield and hopefully get enough for a first down.

A couple problems develop, though:

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First, as has already been noted, Manning never sees Burnett (red) dropping off.  He's entirely locked in to Wayne (white) from this point forward.  Burnett just makes a simple zone drop and hopes Manning is foolish enough to throw his way, with a defender trailing, over top and in front of Wayne essentially.

We also see Linkenbach (yellow) struggling to pick up pressure from a stunt.  Which is funny, because this is the exact reason Mike Pollak was benched.  The team claimed that Pollak wasn't quick enough, athletic enough or long enough to consistently handle pressure on stunts.  They decided that Linkenbach was the alternative.  I'm telling you now, this is not a good alternative:

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Linkenbach (yellow) allows his man to get completely around him, which is going to force Manning to step up in the pocket and hurry his throw.  The rest of the pass-blocking is completely adequate.  Charlie Johnson's man is also rushing hard off the edge but I don't see much wrong with Johnson's blocking on this play.  Manning would have had to step up regardless, but Linkenbach's poor blocking forces the issue much sooner and closer than anticipated.

So Manning steps up in the pocket:

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Manning (white) is completely locked into Wayne by now, which isn't to say that he wasn't experiencing tunnel vision before, but rather that Linkenbach has accelerated the throw and consequentially amplified Manning's narrow focus.  As you can see, Wayne isn't even close to open.  He's bracketed.  Burnett (red) is licking his chops at the prospect of Manning floating one his direction. 

Surely he wouldn't make such an ill-advised throw, right?

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Not only does Manning makes the throw, but he floats it too.  Look where Burnett (red) is when he comes down with the pick vs where Wayne (yellow) is coming back to attempt to break up the pass.  This is about as poor a throw and decision as you'll see Manning make.  Of course, if he'd had time, he would have seen Donald Brown clearing out across the middle or Jacob Tamme at least beginning to get open downfield.  But Linkenbach's terrible blocking accelerates that little clock inside Manning's head and lends to this interception.

Goats here: Manning and Linkenbach, and oh yes, the coaches know it as well:

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2.  1st-and-10 from the IND 25 with 1:54 remaining in Q1.

Now let's look at what I see as the encapsulation of everything wrong with the run game, or at least the run game minus Joseph Addai and Mike Hart.  Maybe it's not fair to consider this play representative, but I think you'll find this sight all-too-horrifyingly-familiar.

First, a look at the lineup:

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The Colts line up about as run-heavy as they can here.  "TEs" Jacques McClendon and Gijon Robinson bookend the line, with Brown in the backfield and Wayne and Garcon up top.

The play is going to be designed to open a hole between RT (Ryan Diem) and RG (Linkenbach) off RT (Ryan Diem) with the TE (Robinson) clearing out the rest of the space and the line slanting right in the process:

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And really, I think that hole is there.  You can see it (green) and my convenient red arrow where Brown should/is supposed to run.  But Brown hesitates, as you can tell by his posture:


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[EDIT:] Let's look at this a little closer, more of a frame-by-frame approach to his run instead of jumping frames as much as I did.

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Here is the point-of-handoff.  Brown has an adequate running lane and a hole opening between Diem and Robinson, the latter of whom does a surprisingly good job blocking on this play.  It's not All-World blocking, again, but it's there.

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Here, Brown is still running toward the hole, which still exists between Diem and Robinson.  It's at this point where Brown needs to commit to this hole and press the proverbial 'turbo' button.  He needs to accelerate after he has secured the handoff and burst through the hole, as Addai and Hart would.  That's what a decisive runningback does.

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This is the last frame where Brown looks committed to this hole by any stretch of the imagination, although he's beginning his hesitation here.  Just beginning it.  Diem is starting to lose leverage on his block, and even if Brown bursts through, he's probably going to have to break an arm tackle.  But he has to do that on occasion.  The other backs do.

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At this point, Brown has completely stopped running.  He leans back, stomps his feet and attempts to cut back into the teeth of the defense, where there is no hole available.  The red arrow indicates the path he has ceased running into the available (green) hole.  The green arrow indicates the path he is now running, into the unavailable (red) hole.  Basically, he sees two blockers in Diem and Linkenbach and wagers that he should run in their direction instead of taking the chance of encountering an arm tackle in the available hole as Diem struggles with his block.

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Here, Brown is completely committed to green and has given up on red.  His new path brings him into the backsides of Diem and Linkenbach and cuts back into the teeth of the defense.  Again, I'm not arguing that blocking was great any which way here.  Even if he goes through the correct hole, it's messy.  But he stops, loses all momentum, and cuts back into the strength of the defense, and that's just not going to work.  He has to explode through the designated hole and chance an encounter with a defender.  Worst case: he gets stuffed for no-gain either way.  Best case if he continues with the original running lane: he breaks an arm tackle as the defender is still battling half a block by Diem and gets to the second level, where you never know what may happen.  Best case in the new running lane: he is swallowed by the defense at the line-of-scrimmage and has nowhere to go.

You have to understand, as an Indy RB, that you're not going to get great blocking and have to create for yourself at times.  You have to drive your legs, break tackles, keep moving forward.  You can't stop behind the line-of-scrimmage (unless there's a defender in the backfield, which happens too much as well) and you can't cut back into the heart of the defense.  Nothing good can come of that.

[BACK TO ORIGINAL POST:] As I said, Brown hesitates.  I'm not sure why; there's a decent hole available.  Definitely not great.  A back like Addai maybe turns this into a two or three-yard gain, but still a gain.  And he definitely does not do what Brown does here, which is cut back into the flow of the defense.

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Brown seems to have a propensity for running into the backs of his own blockers.  That's what happens here.  Again, we've seen this all too often this season.  And while I'm not in any hurry to write Brown off yet, I couldn't argue that he's shown me much this season either.  I know that Bill Polian claims Brown was a bad matchup against the Chargers, as he's more of a "speed" back, but plays like these make me wonder whether Brown was indeed a bad matchup or actually just makes poor decisions.  And again, it's not like he's getting All-Pro blocking here.  It's adequate but hardly impressive.  I just think that this play goes for positive yards with Addai or Hart, and Brown is too hesitant of a back to figure out how to get going forward here.

As I tweeted live at Lucas Oil last Sunday night:

Starting offense introduced. Donald Brown hesitates running out of tunnel.

And I wasn't joking either.

Here's the continuation of Brown's assault on the offensive line's collective backside:

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Which always leads to this:

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Goat here: Brown.  The blocking doesn't dazzle, but it's there, at least if he explodes through the hole.  But Brown hesitates and has shown reservations about accelerating this season.  Then he cuts back into the teeth of the defense, runs into his own linemen and gets swarmed.  Not to beat a dead horse, but Addai or Hart turn this into a positive run.

3.  3rd-and-4 from the 50-yard line with 15:00 remaining in Q2.

Manning's second pick.  Here's the look:

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Manning is actually going to start out with a nice pocket...for the first second or so of the play, anyway.  But then all hell breaks loose, and before we get into that, I'll just point out a trend I'm seeing on some of these plays: one guy screwing up.  Now, losses are a team effort.  Multiple players contribute to a loss.  Most of the time, multiple players contribute to a bad play (like Manning and Linkenbach in Manning's first pick of the night.)  But on a lot of these offensive line breakdowns, it really is just an issue of one guy screwing up

So why do we think the whole line is terrible?  Well, probably because every player on that line seems to have has "moment."  It was Linkenbach earlier.  It's going to be C. Johnson here.  And don't think Diem, Jeff Saturday, Kyle DeVan or Mike Pollak are immune from criticism, because they have their forgettable moments as well. 

But my point is: watch this pocket.  If C. Johnson does his job, it's immaculate.  Perfect blocking.  Manning has all day to throw.  But that's not what happens.  Instead, one guy, C. Johnson, gets destroyed on a speed rip-and-rush by Antwan Barnes.

We'll look at the pocket and the progression of C. Johnson's related breakdown first:

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Here's where Barnes is going to rip loose of C. Johnson and continue his rush.  But if one guy does his job here, look at the protection.  It's perfect.  Probably about as well as the interior line blocked all night.

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But C. Johnson turns Barnes loose and all of that goes for naught.  Which is unfortunate, because Manning theoretically should have some room to work with here, some space to go through his reads and make a safe, drive-extending decision.

Instead:

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Manning gets hit as he throws.  Ball floats.  Interception.  And dare I suggest that's a shoulder wrap/sleeve on his left shoulder, not even one play into the second quarter?

Anyway, you see here how one man's poor play can ruin the otherwise brilliant efforts of his teammates.  Now, let's take a look at how C. Johnson came to be so badly abused on the play:

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Here's a look at Barnes lining up on C. Johnson and Tamme.  As Tamme releases into a pattern, Barnes becomes C. Johnson's sole concern.

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C. Johnson appears to mirror Barnes well enough off the snap.

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But here's where everything begins to fall apart.  C. Johnson engages Barnes here with his feet set and body at a 90 degree angle to the passer.  Basically, C. Johnson anchors here.  Whatever he's going to do, he has to do strong and effective because he's lost his maneuverability and any continuation or extension of a speed rush is going to allow his man (Barnes) to breeze right by him.

Which, after a quick rip move, is exactly what happens:

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C. Johnson doesn't have a chance at this point, and Barnes has a clear path to Manning.

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C. Johnson gives one last lunge, but it's futile at this point.  Barnes is coming from Manning's blindside and Manning never sees him.

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So, again, one guy's mistakes allow for a crucial turnover here.  I'm not trying to roast C. Johnson too much.  He's clearly playing hurt.  He's been playing hurt all season.  And the fact that an injured RT is the best starting LT this team has is more an indictment of Polian's poor roster offensive line roster management than C. Johnson's individual play, if you ask me.

Still, he's an NFL tackle.  He can't set and anchor where he does.  He can't let a rusher rip him.  And he can't be grabbing air as the rusher sinks his teeth into Manning and forces a turnover.  That's just not an acceptable individual play, and I'm sure C. Johnson would be the first to tell you that.

4.  3rd-and-9 from IND 28 with 8:33 remaining in Q3.

Manning's third interception, AKA the Chargers' second pick-six and the play that should have never counted.

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Colts line up in a shotgun look and the Chargers are coming hard.  There are going to be quite a few elements at play here, most of which I did not see upon first look live at Lucas Oil.  It's always harder to see these things at the game, without the benefit of replay or DVR. 

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My first thought is that I'm shocked Manning doesn't go to Wayne (yellow) on the hot read.  Maybe he was still checking Garcon deep or Tamme in the slot, reading the defense, or maybe he wasn't sure that a quick pass across the middle to Wayne would go for first-down yardage.  I don't know.  I'm just surprised, especially as this play develops, that Manning didn't go to Wayne sooner. 

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Again, look at all the space Wayne has.  Manning even seems to be looking his direction.  Of course, by this point Wayne is no longer looking for the quick release and has turned upfield to complete his assigned route. 

The real problems begin on the interior left side of the line, which we'll be able to illustrate well in the next few screencaps:

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On the interior left, blocking from his shotgun left back formation, Brown (red) fails to sustain any kind of block, allowing Barnes (green) to run right past him after delivering an extremely weak attempt at stonewalling the rusher.  Barnes then has a clean path toward Manning.  On the other side of the time, Diem (pink) struggles with an edge rush much like C. Johnson did on the previous interception.

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Somehow, though, Manning is able to avoid Barnes and create space for the throw.  This is obviously one of the more underrated aspects of Manning's game.  He's no Michael Vick (pit bulls everywhere thank him for that), but he has a sixth sense back in the pocket.  He feels pressure.  He avoids it.  He buys time and creates space.  This is masterful work back in the pocket by Manning.

Look at the space he has created in spite of his blocking:

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Unfortunately, we know the result of this play is a pick generated by a no-call from Eric Weddle bowling over Wayne on his route. 

We'll take another look at the play to see, beyond the initial question of the hot read, whether the throw was advised in the first place.


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Here, we can see Wayne (yellow) looking back for the quick release after he and Manning read blitz.  We can also see Brown (red) squaring up for his attempted block on Barnes, and Diem (pink) getting ready to anchor down on the offensive right.

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And here is where the blocking begins to break down.  Brown (red) aims for the chest of Barnes and does more damage to himself in the process.  Diem (pink) lets his man get too far away from him and is reduced to swinging out a lone arm in an attempt to slow him.  Neither is a welcome sight for Manning. 

Wayne continues his route across the middle, which certainly looks to be open for business.

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By this point, Barnes is completely free and coming straight for Manning.  Brown (red) is grabbing air, having done little more than breathe on Barnes.  Diem (pink) has completely lost his leverage and is allowing the outside rusher to completely come around the edge.  With most "immobile" QBs, this is a case where the rushers have a meeting at the quarterback.

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Except Manning masterfully avoids the rush, steps up into open space and prepares to fire one away toward Wayne (yellow), who is dragging across the middle at this point.

Before we get to the question of whether or not this is a good read at this point, I do have to point out that C. Johnson is doing an excellent job on the outside here.  Great initial movement, great agility, great punch in this last frame.  He has his man frozen, glued.  This is the same C. Johnson that was directly responsible for the second interception.  So, you see, it's often unfair to label any of these guys "horrible" because of one play.  If we only looked at that second interception, we would think that C. Johnson is a UFL lineman at best.  But while one man's gaffe can be costly, it's not always representative of his overall game.

Now, when those mistakes continue to happen, when you see the same player making the same errors, that's when you can begin to assess play.  Brown, for example, is a horrid pass-blocker.  Absolutely horrid.  That's not based on this one play, where he failed (in every sense of the word) to stonewall Barnes.  That's based on a history of terrible pass protection.  It's why he doesn't see the field much if Addai and Hart are both healthy.  He's a liability in that department.  And, to me, that's a huge concern going forward.  You'd think if anyone can drill it into him, it's running backs coach Gene Huey, but Brown has yet to learn the value of blocking, and as such I expect his snaps to diminish close to zero when/if Addai and Hart are ever healthy.  Polian can call him a speed or specialty back all he wants, but there is no reason that the smaller Hart should be a better blocker.  And he is.  By far.

Back to Wayne, though, I'm genuinely interested in what you all think from already having seen this play (either live or in your nightmares, or both.)  Was it a well-advised throw in the first play?  Do you think he is open?  It's a tough call, in my view.  It has to be a pinpoint pass, and of course Manning has the space, time and ability to deliver the ball.  But it really has to be a pinpoint pass, because Weddle is right on Wayne's heels (and in his hip pocket) and Garcon's corner is still at about the same depth as the route, meaning the pass has to be quick, precise and in front of Wayne lest Weddle jump it or make a play on the ball, or Garcon's defensive back have a chance to make the read and step in front from the other direction.

I would argue, on this play, that the smarter, safer and in retrospect better decision would have been to unload it to Wayne right away.  Would it have gone for a first down?  Again, tough call.  Wayne certainly looked to have the space and the defense was still caught in a backpedal there, but it would have been really close given that Wayne isn't exactly a burner these days.  Still, I have to think he was open immediately with green space in front of him, and against the blitz...that's why you draw up those hot routes.  That's why the read is there, why Wayne turns back briefly to look for the ball.  Given the preceding context of Manning's protecton, I would say this should have been a quick slant to Wayne over the middle and a hold-your-breath affair for the first down.

But hindsight is easy, of course.  If I could make these kinds of calls in-game, I'd have Jim Caldwell's job.

Well, maybe I should have Jim Caldwell's job anyway, but that's beside the point.  Goats here, I would say, are the officials first and foremost (this play should have never counted.)  But then obviously Brown and Diem, and arguably Manning as well.

We can see, though, that these four plays were representative of a number of errors by a number of players.  Most dealt with poor pass protection, but there were also poor throws and runs mixed in.  Bottom line?  The offense just wasn't very good at Sunday, and that's putting it nicely.  These four plays represent everything that went wrong with the offense: the line isn't blocking well enough, even if it's just one guy, the backs aren't running well enough and the QB -- controversial as I'm aware it is to say -- is not passing well enough.  The only players that seemed to come ready to play on offense Sunday were Garcon and Tamme, and they can't run a whole play by and through themselves. 

It's difficult to put the blame on any one player.  Manning's bad read hurt the Colts as much as C. Johnson's bad block or Brown's bad run or Wayne's drop(s) or any other number of things that will have guys shaking their heads in the film room at 56th Street.  Everyone seemed to have their moments, most of them bad, and this offense is just woefully out of sync right now.

Maybe getting guys like Addai, Hart, Austin Collie and Brody Eldridge back makes a difference.  I don't know.  I can't say for sure.  I certainly hope so.  Addai and Hart pick up yards that Brown can't and at least protect Manning much better, Collie syncs up with Manning in a way that White can't, Eldridge provides the kind of blocking off the edge that McClendon and Robinson can't.  So, yes, theoretically they should improve and I would certainly hope this offense can more or less patch itself back together.

But in order to do so, guys are going to have to step up and make those blocks and runs and throws and catches.  I know I'm stating the obvious, but the mistakes are so widespread, they're difficult to pinpoint.  It's an offense-wide problem right now and we're living with the sad results.  Certainly the Patriots game gave us some glimmers of hope that this offense could still put together vintage Colt drives, but I haven't really seen the consistency over recent weeks, especially on the road.

And that has to change, unless the Colts plan to spend January and February watching football from their sofas.

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