I'm trying to figure out, at the moment, which is/was worse: having to re-live this game to write this article or having to actually be at the game surrounded by Cowboys fans. As painful as it is to watch the offense, defense and special teams all botch chances to claim victory, I'm going to lean toward the latter and I'm going to begin this breakdown by criticizing Colts fans.
So here's the summary of my message to those in (or more appropriately, not in) Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday: what the hell?
Where to begin? The fact that the stadium seemed to be 60 percent Cowboys fans? The painfully obvious reality that season ticket-holders are putting their seats on firesale right now because the Colts are not cruising into January? How about the row of soccer dads in back of me yelling at me for standing up...when the Colts were on defense? Or the eruption of cheers, yes cheers, when Peyton Manning threw his second pick-six on the night.
Look, I'm sure most of you are fantastic Colts fans. You care about the team, hence why you're reading about them in an extra-curricular capacity. But this week has been all about painful truths (including the painful truth, according to 18-to-88's Nate Dunlevy, that Manning is playing terrible football), and here's an especially abrasive reality: Colts fans at/not at Lucas Oil sucked last Sunday. I'm sure I'll be flamed for saying that, and I'll receive more than a few comments informing me that this pathetic display was merely contained in my section (642, shoutout to Big Ugly if you read this site), but it's my painful truth of the week.
This all seemed to be reinforced by the fact that I brought a buddy to the game -- only his second Colts game at Lucas Oil ever -- and he asked me upon leaving: "are the fans always this lame?" Maybe not. To be fair, the Colts have done a good job at taking fans out of the game in their last two home contests and Cowboys fans travel well. But I can only speak for what I saw Sunday, and what I saw was a stadium that seemed to have far too many season ticket-holder seats occupied by Dallas fans.
That's my weekly rant unrelated to the actual breakdown. And that's all I have to say on that subject, so let's move on to the breakdown. As is the case with most painful losses, there were a multitude of things I could have dissected. In the end, I decided to take a look at Dallas' at-the-time go-ahead drive, their fourth quarter march that began with 12:56 remaining on the clock and the Cowboys down by one and ended nearly 10 minutes later with Dallas up by a touchdown.
I'm not saying this is the reason the Colts lost. There were a variety of elements that factored into the loss, not the least of which was Manning's turnover-happy performance, but this is the one I wanted to look closest at. There was no reason that the Cowboys should have taken the ball 80 yards over 10 minutes and put up eight points. This should never have happened. At the very least it should have been three points, but even then, the defense should have made a stop sooner. So while it wasn't necessarily the reason the Colts lost, this, to me, was the game. The defense's chance to make a stop and prevent the Cowboys from going ahead on the scoreboard, and its subsequent failure to stop both the opposition and themselves from letting the game swing the other way.
I want to look at all 20 plays on this drive, but I'm going to have to break this up a bit. First, there is a limitation on both your bandwidth and our software regarding the amount of pictures I can post per page. As such, I can only really dissect about five plays per post. I'll start out with the first five here, but as the Colts have a game Thursday night, I don't exactly have the luxury of posting for four days (five plays per post, 20 plays total, one post per day) when we will inevitably have a lot more to talk about by then.
So here's my compromise: I don't want to flood Stampede Blue with Big Blue Breakdowns yet I don't want to skimp on content. So I'm going to post the first five plays now, Tuesday afternoon, and try to get the next five plays up tonight. Should my schedule allow for that to happen, I'll just pick the relevant remaining plays tomorrow and go through those, though getting a Luke Links post up with be the priority.
Still, this should give you a pretty good idea of what happened on this drive. Look for another round tonight, possibly.
1. 1st-and-10 from DAL 19 with 12:50 remaining in Q4
Cowboys line up in an obvious run formation, with RB Felix Jones and FB Chris Gronkowski in the backfield. Colts counter by stacking the box, bringing the front seven to within five yards of the line-of-scrimmage. QB Jon Kitna is going to hand off to Jones and the play is going to be designed as a run off right tackle, with TE Jason Witten setting an edge block:
But the Colts execute very well on this play. Eric Foster, playing DE, holds the edge against Witten and allows the defense to begin to flow and fill. Dan Muir in particular is going to crowd Jones' intended running lane here, moving himself and his blocker into the intended hole and forcing Jones to hesitate, all as the linebackers continue to run downhill:
Jones (red) hesitates and Muir and Pat Angerer (yellow) eclipse any daylight. Jones' only options here are to cut completely back against the grain and chance bouncing outside left, where Aaron Francisco has contain, or to just cut his losses, burrow straight ahead and see what he can gain.
Jones (red) chooses the latter and darts into the middle of the line, crowded with blue and white jerseys. There isn't much to gain here, obviously.
End result: Jones (red) is swarmed and gains three yards. Nearly forty seconds run off the clock until the next play is run. This is a decided victory for the Colts' defense and a well-executed stop.
2. 2nd-and-7 from DAL 22 with 12:11 remaining in Q4
Cowboys line up in shotgun formation here, with Jones in the backfield next to Kitna. As this is obviously more of a passing look, the Colts go nickel and leave Gary Brackett and Tyjuan Hagler (their two strongest coverage LBs) as the only linebackers on the field. Cornelius Brown comes in at nickel back. The Colts think they have a good pass defense in the game. The only problem with that, though, is that the Cowboys run the ball.
Dallas runs a draw here and Jones gets the handoff from Kitna. Look at the defensive line at the point of handoff. Dwight Freeney is manhandled by a single blocker (LT Doug Free) outside. Foster is similarly handled by RT Jermey Parnell at the bottom the screen. And then there are the defensive tackles. Muir is singled up and shoved off the line by a single blocker; Antonio Johnson is doubled and contained next to him. As the defensive line is occupied and the rest of the defenders are still reacting to the handoff, Felix Jones begins to head upfield.
Look at the hole that Jones has. Freeney is way too far upfield to do anything, Foster has been sealed out of the play and the defensive tackles are now glued. Also we can now see Witten making a block on Hagler as Hagler reacts to the play, and the only unblocked player with a chance of making a play (Brackett) at the 25-yard line, some seven yards away from Jones.
As the run continues to develop, Brackett is sealed out of the play. Jones (red) has zero traffic in his running lane as he sprints outside. Witten (yellow) throws Hagler around like a rag doll.
Here's where it starts getting really ugly. As Jones (red) approaches the first-down line, the wall of blockers breaks and Colts defenders begin flooding the run lane. I count six defenders within three yards of Jones. Key to the continuation of this run, though, is Cowboys WR Miles Austin, who initiates a nice block on Antoine Bethea to shield him from the play and essentially just gets in everyone's way enough to allow Jones more space as Indy defenders make some fairly pathetic attempts at tackling the RB.
You would think the Colts have Jones (red) here. Granted, they have him for a first down, but they still have him. Mookie and Brown are hanging from his back. Surely, he'll be tackled here. Right?
Nope. Jones (red) shrugs off those tackles and continues forward, where Bethea eventually has to clean up (common sight) and make the tackle. Remember: Dallas RB Marion Barber was out for this game. Supposedly, Jones is the finesse back of the attack. He's supposed to be the speedster, the guy who gets out in open space but doesn't necessarily power through defenders. Well, apparently the Colts' defense can make any runningback look like Marion Barber.
End result: 11-yard gain. Colts clearly weren't prepared for the draw. It's a great playcall by Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and you have to give him credit, but no RB should ever have a path as free as Jones' path on this play, and there simply is no excuse for sloppy tackling, especially when it's been a problem all year. If technique is indeed correctable as 2006 proved and Bill Polian continually claims, then this is a coaching issue, because these yards-after-contact have been far too common this season.
3. 1st-and-10 from DAL 33 with 11:28 remaining in Q4
Another obvious run look from Dallas. Another stacking of the box by the Colts. Handoff will go to Tashard Choice here, who lines up in the backfield.
The Colts' defense swarms to the hole. Daylight is quickly closed for Choice.
Likes Jones on the drive's first play, Choice just cuts his losses and barrels into the middle of the line.
End result: three-yard gain. Good discipline and fill technique by the Colts, along with strong anchoring by Muir, allows Hagler to make the tackle.
4. 2nd-and-7 from DAL 36 with 10:48 remaining in Q4
Another second-down shotgun look by the Cowboys. This time, the Colts show a double A-gap blitz by Brackett (pink) and Hagler (yellow.) Brackett will end up blitzing while Hagler will drop off into coverage.
It's another draw. Choice (red) ends up getting the handoff this time, and the Colts are considerably more prepared for this possibility after having seen Jones take them like suckers for 11 the last time around.
A good reaction and block shed by Foster (green) inside will slow Choice (red) down just enough inside the hole so that Bethea (orange) can fly in and make the stop. Bethea absolutely explodes into the hole, too. His closing speed is something to behold.
Foster forces Choice (red) wide, where Bethea (orange) can easily run him down and make the tackle. Again, this is a pure speed play by Bethea, assisted by a great forced re-direction by Foster.
Bethea (orange) makes a tremendous diving tackle and gets Choice by the shoelaces just as Choice is about to turn the corner and start upfield. Notice if Bethea misses this tackle, though, that Foster (green) is in place to close and make a play. This is just great two-man play. Reminds me of a two-on-one fast break in basketball, at least in terms of chemistry and communication at full speed. Foster forces Choice to bounce outside, Bethea closes, Foster takes an angle to cover Bethea in case he comes up with nothing but air. But because Bethea is an elite safety, he makes this play and tackles Choice.
End result: one-yard gain by Choice. Great two-man effort by the Colts. This forces the Cowboys into exactly where the Colts want them (you would think): 3rd-and-6.
5. 3rd-and-6 from DAL 37 with 10:05 remaining in Q4
The Cowboys show a passing look, empty backfield, out of shotgun. Indy responds by lining up Brackett in the A-gap and backing off in coverage. Just look at those cushions. Brackett will rush on this play, giving the Colts a total of five rushers.
Kitna is going to correctly read that the Colts have no idea what the hell they're doing on this play. Hagler, who was calling out defensive signals prior to the snap, has to race over toward a wide-open Witten. The Cowboys' two wideouts at the top of the screen simply run clearout go routes to leave Witten completely unmarked (as both Colt cornerbacks are retreating with their wideouts in coverage.) It's difficult for me to tell whether Bethea or Hagler should have been covering Witten, but I do know that there is know what that both of these guys (circled in white) should have been where they were once the ball was snapped.
That's just no man's land. What could those guys possibly do from there? Someone screwed up. One of those guys should have been, if not over top of Witten, then at least in his proximity. I tend to think that Hagler had that zone coverage responsibility, but it's possible it could have been Bethea too. Not as likely, but possible. I'd have to see the defensive playcall.
To his credit, Freeney (yellow) almost blows this whole thing up anyway. He motors right past Free and is in Kitna's face as Kitna is forced to quickly unload to Witten (red.) Fortunately for the Cowboys, Witten is still unmarked and the closest defender, Hagler, is a fair distance away.
At the point of reception, we can see that Witten (red) is already at the first-down line and Hagler (white) is still not quite on him. Easy first down for Witten, who lunges forward for an additional four yards and a total gain of 10 yards on a 3rd-and-6.
Inexcusable error on behalf of the Colts. This is akin to forgetting about Wes Welker when playing the Patriots. If I'm playing the Cowboys, I've got to know where Witten is at all times. I can't even fathom how he was this open and pretty much gifted a first down. Mental errors. Poor fundamentals. Again, this reflects on coaching.
End result: first down Cowboys, drive continues. And it continues downhill. Stay tuned for more on that.