Is the Colts defense "bend-but-don't-break," or is it something else?

First off, congrats to the USA World Cup team. Despite getting robbed of yet another goal by these seemingly incompetent FIFA refs, Landon Donovan redefined the term clutch by pulling the futbol equivalent of a "Reggie Miller," scoring the winning goal over in the 92nd minute of USA's 1-0 win over Algeria. USA wins Group C and will move on to the knockout round.

From futbol to football, I'd like to highlight an article written by Gang Green Nation's JohnB talking about the concepts of the Tampa-2 defense. It's a good piece that talks very generally about what a "Tampa-2" is and how it works. One part of his article was particularly interesting:

The downfalls when not run effectively are numerous. If the front cannot generate a pass rush, a quarterback has all day to pick apart zone coverage underneath. It can turn into death by 1,000 cuts. The small defensive front also leaves the unit at risk against big physical run games. Think about what would have happened had Shonn Greene not been injured against Indianapolis' Tampa 2 in the AFC Championship Game. Things possibly could have been different had Indy had to face Greene pounding them every play and wearning them down instead of Thomas Jones' less physical style.

While Shonn Greene's injury certainly had an effect on the game, I think most people outside of the NY Jets sphere of influence believe the Colts would have won the AFCCG regardless. Peyton Manning and the Colts offense dominated the Jets defense, especially in the second half. Last I checked, Shonn Greene was not a pass rusher or a corner. It's also worth noting that the reason Greene was knocked out was due, in part, to the Colts defense being more physical than the Jets offense, in particular their o-line.

The Jets ran for 86 yards on 29 carries, with no touchdowns.

This is consistent with how the Colts physically beat the Ravens the week before (19 carries, 86 yards) and how they stoned the Saints running game in the Super Bowl (18 carries, 51 yards). In the playoffs, the Colts did not allow any team to run for over 100 yards on them, and no team scored a rushing TD. This is worth noting because all three of the teams the Colts faced in the 2009 Playoffs were ranked #1 (Jets), #5 (Ravens), and #6 (Saints) running the ball during the regular season.

So, yeah, no offense to Jets fans, but Greene or no Greene, your team was still gonna lose the football game.

After the jump, more chit-chat about how the Colts defense is not quite what folks think it is.

Regarding the comment that " small defensive front also leaves the unit at risk against big physical run games," that really is not accurate. The Ravens, Jets, and Saints o-lines are BIG, and their running games were bruising in 2009. All got stoned by the Colts. The one game during the 2009 season where the Colts seemed to revert to 2008 mode was the Week Two contest against the Dolphins. However, this game was a bit odd because it wasn't the Dolphins just lining up and blowing the Colts off the ball, but rather the mis-direction and trickery of the "Wildcat" offense that seemed to really throw the Colts defense for a loop.

The Dolphins game was the only time (when they weren't resting starters) in 2009 the Colts surrendered more than one rushing TD in a game (two) and over 200 rushing yards. It was also a game the Colts won!

However, even with the Week Two anomaly, if you throw out Weeks Sixteen and Seventeen of the 2009 season (which had the Colts infamously resting numerous starters on offense and defense), the Colts surrendered 1,574 rushing yards and only 8 TDs with a 4.1 yards-per-carry average allowed. Those numbers would put the Colts near the top 10 in rush defense. It's really the last two games of the season that skew the overall effectiveness of the Colts defense; two games where management and coaches clearly did not care what the outcome was. The Colts surrendered 202 and 248 yards (respectively) on the ground against the Jets in Week Sixteen and the Bills in Week Seventeen.

This is one of those cases where the overall stats really lie about how good a team really is. The truth is in the details, and if you look at the Colts, in 2009 they had a very good run defense.

This sort of takes me to the point of this article, which is to offer discussion on whether the Colts defense is "bend-but-don't break." When you look at the rushing numbers, they aren't. What is troubling is the third down conversion percentage, which is mostly QBs finding ways to hit soft spots in a the zone to convert third downs. However, in the red zone, teams often stalled because, at that point, it's about scoring, not converting downs. Prior to resting starters, the colts only allowed an average of 18 points-per-game, which would rank them in the top 5 in scoring defense.

As we all know, yards mean nothing. Points are everything.

If your definition of "bend-but-don't-break" is to see a defense allow multiple third down competitions due to scheme but, at the same time, shutdown an opponents offense near or in the red zone (again, 18 points-per-game allowed), then I guess you could call the Colts Tampa-2 "bend-but-don't-break." I, personally, don't see that because all great modern defense is then "bend-but-don't-break."

Preventing the other team from scoring is paramount in all defensive philosophy. Philosophies that rely more on preventing yards are often failed philosophies. The Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009 were one of the best teams in the league at preventing yards (allowed only 305 total a game). However, if you are going to tell me the Steelers had a good defense in 2009, I'm going to laugh in your face... and so will Mike Tomlin. The Steelers surrendered 22 passing TDs last season, which was a major factor in them missing the post-season. The Patriots also struggled to stop teams from scoring (25 passing TDs allowed) but were good and keeping yardage low (320 a game).

It's no coincidence that both these teams run a base 3-4, whose major weakness (if not run properly) is the surrender of the big play. In Tampa-2, the core principle is to deny the opponent the big play. "Death by 1,000 cuts" is always preferable over a team scoring three quick TDs on three long pass plays. Just ask that Miami Dolphins.

So, if Tampa-2 is "bend-but-don't-break" to some, then a base 3-4 is probably "break-but-don't-bend."

I'll close this out by highlighting a comment in the article's comments section that I found... amusing:

Bend but don’t break," exactly.

We saw the Colts use it and sneak by with it many times last season, games like Miami got dominated in TOP but still managed to sneak out a win by clamping down in the red zone. But it can obviously backfire when you have a QB that is able to pick the secondary apart for short chunks and find the seams down after down……

Enter Drew Brees.

Obviously, Tampa-2 certainly did not "backfire" in the Super Bowl, as this Jets fan suggests.

Regardless of whether your team runs a base 4-3, 3-4, 4-6, or whatever, if you are unable to rush the opponent's QB and get pressure on him, he will pick you apart. It doesn't matter if the guy's name is Drew Brees or Rex Grossman. Pressure is EVERYTHING in the modern NFL.

Also, I don't see how comparing the Dolphins game in Week Two and the Super Bowl helps this guy's argument. The Saints running game was totally shutdown in the Super Bowl, unlike the Week Two contest against the Dolphins.If his point was that, like the Week Two game, the Saints were able to control the ball and win, that has less to do with scheme and more to do with the Colts' inability to pressure Brees in the second half of the Super Bowl (where he did most of his damage). I mean, imagine if the Colts had run a 3-4 base, but had no one capable of rushing the passer. The Saints would have dominated the Colts they way they did the Patriots in Week 12 with big plays in the passing game.

I especially enjoy the commenter's line that the Colts "sneak by with [the defense] many times last season." Yeah, they really sneaked by the Jets in the AFCCG, didn't they.

Regardless of the commenter's poor assessment of the Colts defense, the article is very good and worth a read. Just ignore me getting into the faces of Jets fans in the articles discussion section.

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