Big Blue Breakdown: The Eight Point Edition, Part Two

Hey, Stampede Blue readers, long time no see.  Welcome to 'The Two Towers' edition of The Eight Point EditionWhoa, quote Keanu.  A lot of editions involved.

When we left off, Hurley had found another hatch, Jack Bauer learned of a new bomb location, Tuco kidnapped Hank and Jesse, Trinity had discovered Dexter's true identity for the first time, Rick managed to crawl into a tank and the Colts allowed the Cowboys to convert a critical third down, leaving Jason Witten uncovered on a 3rd-and-7.

Third downs were interesting in this game.  On the Cowboys' first scoring drive, which covered 80 yards, they did not have to convert a single third down!  Yikes.  On their second scoring drive, an 84-yard drive courtesy a Peyton Manning interception, they only had to attempt two third-down conversions (going 1-of-2.)  Indy finally forced a three-and-out on Dallas' fourth possession, but on it's fifth possession, Dallas' offense traveled nearly 40 yards while only needing to convert two third downs.  End half.

What does that tell me?  The Colts' defense gave up far too much on early downs.  They didn't really appear ready to play this game.  To their credit, they did manage to buckle down at times, but at times is not good enough when you're 6-5 (as they were in this game) and in danger of missing the playoffs.  When a unit is not prepared to play, as neither the offense nor defense looked to be, you have to look at coaching.  And not just Jim Caldwell. 

Some of the defensive performances this year, especially on the road, have really made me question Larry Coyer.  If anyone remembers his previous experience, he started out crafting and calling a stellar defense in Denver that completely fell apart over the latter half of his tenure, hence why he was available when Caldwell looked to select a defensive coordinator to replace Ron Meeks.  It's easy to blame injuries for poor defensive performances, but by all accounts Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have been healthy all year, and that's really where the defense begins and ends: with the pass rush.  I'll make this argument more elaborate another day, but Coyer seems to waste $90 million worth of defensive end investment at times because he just doesn't seem to know how to use them.  This defense, though, is predicated on the rush of its ends -- the interior tackles are just marginally effective at best -- and those ends have been healthy all year.

Yeah, you lose coverage over the middle when Pat Angerer is forced to replace Gary Brackett or press ability when Jacob Lacey replaces Jerraud Powers or general competence when Aaron Francisco replaces Melvin Bullitt replacing Bob Sanders.  I'm not saying injuries don't have an impact.  What I am saying, though, is that I feel the injury excuse is drawing attention away from some problems that would exist irregardless, and I believe a lot of those problems have to do with Coyer's scheme and playcalling.  Defensive coaching has been poor this season, and that starts with the defensive coordinator and position coaches and ends with the players.  It seems like folks keep excusing the defense because the offense is so much more noticeable in its poor play.  But honestly I think the defense, once projected to be an elite unit in the preseason, has contributed to several losses on its own accord.

We'll continue looking at this inexcusable drive after the jump.

6.  1st-and-10 from DAL 47 with 9:26 remaining in Q4

The look:

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Another run look for the Cowboys, so the Colts again go heavy in the box.  They even bring Antoine Bethea (orange) down on the line-of-scrimmage, where he'll tussle with Miles Austin on the inside.  Austin actually wins the battle, which impresses me with Austin more than it disappoints me with Bethea.

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Kitna turns to hand the ball off.  The Colts get great push and fill off the snap.  Notice how the DEs aren't charging upfield?  The Colts knew the Cowboys were going to run here and adjusted accordingly.  Of course, after seeing that initial look, my nine-year-old cousin probably knew the Cowboys were going to run.  But you won't knock the defense for making the right call.  The swarm to fill gaps is great and we can tell from this point, even before the ball is handed off, that Felix Jones is going to have to bounce this one outside, where there are still quite a few edge defenders.

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Here, Jones has just received the handoff.  The middle is a mess; we'll credit some great inside push by the DEs and anchoring by the DTs for this, as well as the linebackers crashing the line.  This is going to force Jones to bounce outside toward Cornelius Brown and Jacob Lacey, and will force a cornerback to make a tackle.

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Here, Jones is forced to go aerial as Lacey (yellow) and Brown (obstructed by Lacey) converge for a tackle.  One Cowboy blocker can't take out two Colt defensive backs and Jones is sent flying forward for only a three-yard gain.  Great physical play by both Brown and Lacey; Brown is actually credited with the tackle.  All too often, defensive backs have missed tackles this season, and on a defense that relies on all players swarming and making tackles, it's great to see a good effort in that area of the game. 

As a brief aside: Brown has played really well in short minutes for the Colts.  I'm not saying he's the cornerback of the future or anything.  Jerraud Powers and Kelvin Hayden are clearly, and justifiably, the starters on this team.  I think there should be a debate as to whether Lacey or Justin Tryon is the third best corner, but that's another debate and the point is not that Brown should be starting or anything, but that he has performed well when called upon.  He had a terrific pass break-up in the Patriots game that made it into my breakdown.  Brown is a young defender that is playing well in tough situations on short notice, and surely we'll all pay more attention to him come training camp next year.

End result: three-yard gain, outside run contained by solid discipline and tackling.

7.  2nd-and-7 from 50 with 8:46 remaining in Q4

The look:

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My first reaction is to say I'm not a fan of that kind of cushion at all.  There are two safeties about 13 yards off the line-of-scrimmage.  Do both corners really need to be beginning their back pedal at the first-down line?  I understand that you don't want Kitna to beat you deep at this point, but still, this seems like an unnecessary amount of respect to the receivers given the presence of both safeties in the defensive backfield.

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Now, this ball isn't going to end up being thrown wide, but it just as easily could have been.  As Kitna takes the second step of his drop, look how far the corners are off their receivers.  In particular, look at Tryon (orange) at the top of the screen.  The Cowboys would have actually been better off running a comeback or out at the sticks, at least in terms of degree of ease.  There were multiple ways to generate a new set of downs.  The Cowboys instead looked to their first down machine on this drive: Witten.

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Does anyone else ever think, while watching football, that the game is remarkably similar to basketball at times?  The key to both games is mismatches.  A 6'2" shooting guard might switch to guarding a 6'8" small forward during the course of play, and that's a mismatch.  Players look to exploit that advantage by quickly getting the ball into the small forward's hands and allowing him to go to work on the smaller defender.  Similar to that principle, the Cowboys are targeting Gary Brackett here.  Martellus Bennett (pink) is basically going to take Tyjuan Hagler out of the place on a zone coverage clearout route.  Witten (red) is going to cut out toward the sideline as soon as Bennett begins clearing Hagler.  The expert timing of this play will slow Brackett just a fraction of the second as Bennett and Hagler clear out of his path and he finds himself in a trail position to Witten, who is a faster player than Brackett.

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Bennett probably clears out faster than he should and doesn't impede Brackett as much as I imagine the play was intended to hold up the Colts' MLB, but it's still effective.  The Cowboys put a fast, athletic TE on a MIKE with turf toe and know that's a matchup they win irregardless of any kind of pick or rub anyway.  It's a mismatch.  And again, it's a mismatch I don't quite understand.  While not as bad as leaving Witten (red) uncovered as Hagler did in the last series of plays, you're still matching up your injured MLB on Dallas' best receiving option on the day and a guy who has hurt you time and time again.  Cornelius Brown is just chillin' out in the middle of the field with no coverage responsibility and everyone else has started so deep and ended backpedaling so much that they're practically out of the picture.  That leaves two TEs LBs isolated on two athletic TEs, and I have to believe those TEs win that battle most of the time.

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Here, Bennett and Hagler have cleared and Brackett is in clear trail position.  Witten has a clear path to the sideline for the drag out and a clean catch. 

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Witten (red) makes the catch with Brackett still trailing and begins to turn upfield.

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Brackett (white) finally dives and makes a shoelace tackle on Witten for a seven yard gain.  And again, I just feel this is a poor defensive playcall.  The pass rush, as you can tell in the progression, is non-existent.  Kitna has too many places to go with the ball and too clean a pocket to throw from.  Despite his options, though, this was Witten-on-Brackett from pre-snap.  The Cowboys saw the mismatch and knew Brackett would not be able to take Witten in coverage on a drag out with a marginally-successful pick route by Bennett.

End result: defensive playcall had too many 'lose' options and the Colts give up seven yards on a mismatch.

8.  1st-and-10 from IND 43 with 8:15 remaining in Q4

The look:

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Cowboys show obvious run.  Colts stack the box.  Yawn.  By the way, these last two plays were originally explained very well, and then SB Nation's wonderful blogging software decided to nonchalantly delete an hour of my work.  Just for fun.  Because that's what blogging software does before it eventually evolves into SkyNet and kills us all.  Anyway, like I was saying, power run with Choice.  SAVE DRAFT, CLICK.

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Tryon (orange) manages outside contain here, should Choice decide to bounce it outside.  He won't, but Tryon has to handle that if he does.  I don't really like Tryon's chances against a blocker out on the edge, but at least he strings out the run or slows it down if that happens.  Angerer (pink) is the linebacker responsible for this gap and must fill it as Choice begins to run into the hole.

More important here is what's happening along the defensive line.  Antonio Johnson is double-teamed and quickly forced to the turf.  That is not good.  Daniel Muir (green) is single-blocked and should have the best chance at crowding the hole and narrowing Choice's run lane.  Muir, however, cannot move himself or his blocker and does nothing to complicate this play despite being single-blocked.

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Here we see Tryon making a choice to come down into the hole as Choice commits to the same hole.  Angerer (pink) also sees Choice committing to this hole and begins to fill it, though he is still fighting off a block.  Muir (green) remains unable to shed his block, push his blocker into Choice's path or generally make any kind of impact on this play.  Mookie is on the ground.  You can't do much from the ground.

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Choice enters the hole.  Tryon (orange) is engulfed by a block.  Angerer disappears in a sea of jerseys.

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Angerer (pink) now reappears at Choice's side and bearhugs him into a tackle. 

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And they all live happily ever after five yards later.  Angerer eventually drags Choice down on the pure power run, and this is the resulting pile.  Mookie has obviously picked himself up off the ground, though someone will have to straighten out his jersey.

I think this is why the Colts like Angerer at SAM, though.  He's smart.  He has good instincts.  He knows where he needs to be.  He'll only get better with time, but right now he reminds me of 2006 Rob Morris at SAM (nothing to laugh about, Morris was a perfectly decent SAM.)  I still have some concerns about Angerer: he gets dragged too much for a MIKE and his coverage skills are fairly poor.  But you have to think, given Bill Polian's recent draft history anyway, that he looks like a good pick so far.

End result: five yard gain.  I'd like to see the defensive tackles do more here.  Or, you know, do anything here.  But it's a well-designed, well-blocked run and there are worst things in the world.  Like the next play.

9.  2nd-and-5 from IND 38 with 7:38 remaining in Q4

The look:

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Another run look, another stacking of the box.  Thanks to FOX's not-so-excellent broadcast, this was the first frame I was able to capture, after the ball has been snapped.  That's only significant because Choice starts out facing toward the right and, upon the ball snap, turns toward the left.  It's a counter!

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IT'S A COUNTER TOSS!  But cool your jets, Colts fans.  Cool your jets.  Dwight Freeney (orange) has got this.  He didn't bite inside.  He saw this play all the way and has Choice on the outside.  Right?  Right?

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Wrong.  Freeney (orange) takes a horrible angle and allows Choice to turn outside.  Here, Freeney is just starting to react to Choice bouncing outside, after already having taken a step inside.  If Choice can beat Freeney, the flow of the defense is completely walled off (gray line) from the play and the only defender out in front is Tryon (pink), who is about to be engaged by Witten (green.)  That's a battle Witten will always win.

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Freeney (orange) is so fast, he almost closes.  Almost gets to Choice.  Almost.  But ultimately, he doesn't, and by this point Witten (green) has sealed Tryon (pink) out of the play.  Choice has a running lane.  Choice has a running four-lane highway.

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And so the race begins.  Freeney is trailing Choice.  Tryon is blocked by Witten.  The only defenders on screen with a chance are Hagler and Brackett, both well ahead of the play.  At best for the Colts, this is a 15-yard gain.  Their only hope is that the linebackers can get to the sideline and make a stop.

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One of the few good plays made on this play comes courtesy Tryon (pink), who manages to disengage from Witten's block and turn to run in the same direction as Choice.  This will prevent Choice from cutting further toward the sideline and ultimately taking the sideline, avoiding the pursuit of the linebackers attempting to close.  Tyjuan Hagler (yellow) will eventually converge with Tryon to make the tackle.

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Tryon prepares to wrap up Choice as Hagler and Brackett continue closing.  Again, if Tryon does not shed his block and catch up with Choice, this play goes for even more yardage.  Maybe even a touchdown.  This is an excellent individual effort for Tryon, who should have never stood a chance with the markedly-stronger, taller, bigger Witten blocking him.

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And finally, the tackle, courtesy Hagler and Tryon.  You can see Aaron Francisco beginning to emerge over top, suggesting he might have been in position to make a touchdown-saving tackle if his efforts were needed.  However, I've learned never to trust Francisco to do anything, so maybe not.

End result: 26 yard gain by Choice.  Dwight Freeney has to make this play!  He doesn't.  He takes a bad angle and gets beat outside.  Freeney has to take an outside angle from the beginning of the play here.  Even if it's a bad outside angle, it at least slows Choice up and allows defenders a better chance at making a play, or maybe it even forces Choice to cut back inside into the teeth of the defense.  Whatever the case, Freeney was in position to make a play and didn't.  And that's what is most unfortunate about this sort of big play.  One guy does his job, the play is either stopped for nothing or at least contained.  Freeney allows Choice to get outside, though, and then the play breaks wide open.

That was the story of this drive, though.  The defense was in position to make plays and they didn't.  They didn't tackle correctly or didn't cover correctly, didn't pressure the passer, etc.  They didn't do what they needed to in order to win.  Just as Peyton Manning botched a chance for the offense to win and Kavell Conner botched a chance for special teams to win, the defense cost the team a chance to win this game.  I have a problem with folks saying that defense is not the problem, that it's solely Manning and the offense.  That's simply not true.  You could argue that Manning was the biggest problem Sunday, but not the only problem.  Defense has been shaky all year.  This drive was this year's defense in a nutshell.

Obviously, this play put the Cowboys in the red zone.  And tomorrow, we'll try to take a look at the part of this series that took place in the red zone.  Not every play, but certainly the most important ones.  But if you want to take anything from this part of the breakdown, just take away the fact that the defense shares some blame in this 6-6 record too.  They have been horrid on the road and hardly dominate at home lately.  Their run defense is a problem, a big problem.  Their coverage isn't exactly stellar either.  And perhaps more than anything, this defense is not forcing turnovers.  They got by with some spotty play here-and-there last year and in 2008 by forcing turnovers.  Well, they're not doing that this year.  Often, they're not even putting themselves in position to do that.  As much as many folks knocked Ron Meeks prior to his departure, I would take a 2005-08 Meeks defense over the 2010 Coyer defense any day of the week, cushions and all (though it's not like Coyer exactly cleaned out the cushion issue, is it?)

Again, tomorrow, we'll look at the red zone part of this drive.  And I lost a lot of this article due to software issues, so I probably forgot to clarify something, so feel free to comment about any confusion.

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