Before I get into this week's breakdown, I just want to say that just making the postseason this year is a huge accomplishment for this team. It's hardly an original thought, but one worth repeating. This is a team that, by my count:
- Lost its starting RB for almost half of the season and was once down to a rotation of the third-string RB and a fourth-string emergency signing for stretches.
- Lost both its WR3 and WR4 for the season.
- Lost its starting, Pro Bowl TE for the season.
- Has been forced to play an injured LT all season long.
- Lost its best run-stuffing DT for a quarter of the season.
- Lost its defensive captain for a quarter of the season.
- Lost its playmaking weakside LB for effectively three-quarters of the season, and may not get him back.
- Lost its best cornerback for the year, and likely lost his counterpart as well.
- Lost a starting safety, that safety's backup and that safety's backup for the season.
- Lost its kick returner for the year.
- And finally, lost a rookie third-round pick before training camp even started.
How many teams survive that? Really? How many teams could make the postseason with that many hits? Yeah, maybe the Colts got a little lucky that the AFC South had a down year and Jacksonville managed to Del Rio itself out of playoff position yet again. But you have to give credit where credit is due, and that credit goes to guys like Peyton Manning and Gary Brackett, who refused to let this team give up, and coach Jim Caldwell, who quietly coached the Colts back to relevancy after teetering on the brink of irrelevance. You can criticize a lot on this team, but leadership is not one of those things.
So here's a pre-emptive shame on you to whatever bonehead analyst claims the Colts "choked" if/when they bow out of this postseason run, or more appropriately, exhaust their horses. I don't personally believe the Colts have the firepower for another title run this year, not considering the defenses they'll face and the prospects of Indy's depleted secondary standing toe-to-toe against elite aerial attacks. But if/when they do indeed lose, I would never say they choked. Save that talk for San Diego. Fact is, the Colts just willed themselves into the playoffs. It's an accomplishment whose significance is unfortunately diminished by their impressive history, at least in the eyes of the media. Anything from here, I figure, is just a nice bonus.
All that said, I still have some pretty big concerns about this team, concerns I fear could be amplified as early as Saturday night. Let's take a look at them after the jump:
1. Stunting is a habit. A bad one.
Beyond a David Banner reference (you've heard that song a million times if you've gone to a game this season), that means that the Colts simply stunt their way out of too many defensive plays. I've made this argument before. Well, I'm making it again.
Let me just preface with this: I don't see the point of stunting on obvious passing downs. The Colts turn to defensive line stunts on way too many third-and-longs. They send their undersized defensive ends inside toward the meat of the offensive line and their ineffective pass-rushing defensive tackles outside to take on guys geared to stop a speed rush. In the process, they effectively create a pocket for the quarterback. That's right. Stunting on obvious passing downs actively counters their own pass rush; they do the offensive line's work for them. The Colts took themselves out of position to rush the passer on almost every pass-rush stunt.
In the interest of fairness, I will say this though: even the prototypical edge rush wasn't working for the Colts last Sunday. For three quarters, Dwight Freeney was owned by Michael Roos in a way I've never seen Freeney owned before. It was ugly. On at least two obvious passing downs in the first half, a 3rd-and-13 with 9:36 left in Q2 and a 3rd-and-5 with 5:13 left in Q1, the Colts came with a standard four-man edge rush and failed to get anywhere near Kerry Collins because Freeney and Robert Mathis were stonewalled by the Titans' offensive tackles.
Until the Colts brought extra pressure in the fourth quarter, they didn't lay a finger on Collins. And they really didn't feel they could bring much extra pressure until Kenny Britt was injured.
This is what primarily concerns me about Saturday's game. The Colts are going to worry so much about Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes that they likely will not bring much extra pressure against Mark Sanchez. As a result, if the four-man rush gets stonewalled like it did against the Titans, the Colts could be in big trouble. Since the Jets have a good, strong offensive line, I could see this as a very real possibility. And even when the Colts do bring pressure (heck, even when they don't), they're leaving the middle of the field wide open. Dustin Keller and LaDanian Tomlinson on release routes are going to eat that up.
I suppose I got a bit off track, but my point was until Britt came out, the Colts couldn't do anything in the pass-rush department. It was their worst pass-rushing performance of the season for three quarters, and would have been the whole game had Britt not been banged up late. Freeney and Mathis were dreadful for a large portion of the game, and that was not helped by John Teerlinck's and Larry Coyer's joint defensive line playcalling, largely due to the presence of stunts that took the pass rush out of the play completely.
2. That whole Antoine Bethea missed field goal return was a mess.
Let me just get the controversial part out of the way: Brackett initiated a unnecessary, dirty hit on that play and will be fined a lot of money for it, if not suspended. The more I look at it, the more I think Brackett was uncharacteristically stupid for doing it and understand why Jeff Fisher may have been lobbying for his ejection.
If we break down the play:
Brackett (red) is charging downfield to wall off Eugene Amano (yellow), the Titans' snapper who is attempting to tackle Bethea on the return.
At the point where Brackett lowers his helmet to make contact (more on that later), Amano really isn't even close to Bethea. He's a few yards away and Beteha has an upfield angle. Really, all Brackett needs to do is get in Amano's way. If he literally just steps in front of him and either shoves him or even just lets Amano run into him, it takes Amano out of the play, as the snapper really isn't in any position to tackle Bethea here anyway.
As you can see, and will see better from another angle, Brackett actually lowers his helmet and leads with it into this blindside block. Again, this is at the point of contact. Bethea is well-separated from Amano.
That's Brackett targeting Amano, who we should also keep in mind is much slower than Bethea at this point (but by the end of Bethea's return, could probably beat him in a foot rage with one foot in a bear trap.)
Brackett lowers his helmet and leads with it. Completely unnecessary and dangerous. At this point, as Brackett is initiating contact, Amano just realizes that Brackett is there.
Brackett launches up into a de-cleating tackle from that position, blasting Amano in the helmet.
And you can see how far back Amano's head snaps from the impact.
I really just don't understand this play by Brackett. He's such a smart player and a good guy, and this hit is just so indescribably stupid. Let's consider that Brackett has already been fined twice for helmet-to-helmet hits this year (though both were very borderline and went unflagged in their respective games.) If anyone should know that the NFL is cracking down on these hits, he should know. Yet he specifically leads with his helmet on a vicious, unnecessary hit and knocks Amano back to Narnia. Why?
Honestly, if the situations were reversed and Justin Snow was leveled by Stephen Tulloch, Colts fans would be enraged. Let's just be honest about it. It was an unnecessary hit to begin with, but it was made infinitely worse by the fact that Brackett led with his helmet and launched into Amano's helmet. This is the exact sort of play the NFL is looking to eliminate, and Brackett should know better than anyone. In this week's Polian Corner, Polian confirmed this was an absolutely correct call and hinted that he thinks Brackett will be subsequently fined.
I'm not sure if Fisher was arguing for Brackett's ejection or for the penalty to count on the kick instead of the return, allowing Rob Bironas another shot at three points from 15 yards further in. But I do know that Fisher and the Titans had every right to be livid about this hit, and I'm having a tough time reconciling how Brackett of all players was responsible for it.
The return was then made messier, in my opinion, by the fact that Bethea ran out of gas around the 20-yard line. He was chased down and successfully tackled by a tight end. A tight end. Look, Bethea is a very good safety. With a dynamic counterpart in the defensive secondary, maybe even great. But a safety should not be chased down by a tight end, not with the separation that Bethea had.
I'm fairly certain that the default excuse, then, is that Bethea has to play literally every defensive snap, so of course he's liable to get gassed on a 100+ yard return. Well, if that's the case, why the hell is Bethea returning that kick? Why not Dominic Rhodes? Why not Pierre Garcon or Justin Tryon? It's almost like the Colts didn't approach it as a potential scoring play. You've got to put someone back there who can take it the distance, because if Brackett hadn't committed such a dumb penalty, it's entirely possible that it could have gone for six in the Colts' favor. So why put an exhausted, every-down safety back there?
This was just a mishandled play all around, really. And it's a shame, because it had the potential to be a scoring play. Bethea got better blocking than any Colt returner has all season, most of it legal. The Colts need to approach every play like they have a chance to get on the scoreboard. I don't know what they were thinking on this return, but they completely mishandled it, which is a disappointment because it could have been the most dynamic play a lackluster special teams unit had seen all season.
3. Conversely, my play of the game...
...is this awesome back shoulder throw-and-catch from Manning to Blair White on 2nd-and-10 from the IND 38 with 1:20 remaining the game.
White (red) is just going to run up the seam, slightly angled toward the sideline, and cut quickly back a few yards after the sticks to look for the back shoulder throw. To make this possible, so he has back shoulder position, Garcon (orange) is going to fight a jam and eventually run a short in route that takes the outside corner out of White's route and leaves coverage responsibilities solely to the nickel back, Alterraun Verner.
At the bottom of the screen, you can see Garcon fighting the aforementioned jam. What we're looking at in this frame, though, are the coverage guys concerned with White's presence. The linebacker inside in zone coverage (yellow) is simply eying White. If White breaks the route off into a slant, for example, the linebacker can either undercut it and go for the pick or otherwise ensure that White doesn't leave Verner (pink) in trail position to make an easy grab and force a backpedaling defensive back to come up and make the hit short of the marker.
Once White (red) commits to the seam route, though, the zone linebacker loses interest, holding his position I suppose in the case that Joseph Addai leaks out from pass protection to receive a pass. That won't happen though.
Something to note here is the protection, which held up well on the play. The interior line absolutely engulfed the Titans' defensive tackles and the offensive tackles, in this frame, are just starting to give way to the edge of their protection drop. It probably looks bad in this frame, but that's plenty of space -- largely thanks to the interior line -- for Manning to step into and make a clean throw.
Again, look at the pocket Manning has. That's clean. That was a rarity on the day, but that's why I'm showing this play, because it was such a good all-around play. Clean protection, clean throw, clean catch. You can see Garcon at the bottom of the screen, too, cutting in and taking that outside corner with him.
This frame illustrates the point in which White (red) must make that quick cut and disengage himself from coverage. You can see the ball hanging in the air and White waiting until it has been thrown to sneak a glance back at it and prepare himself for the cut back toward it.
And there's the catch. Verner is slow to react because White times it perfectly, and is left simply to drag White down after the pass has been completed.
I like this play a lot because everyone executes perfectly and it's a demonstration of trust between Manning and a greenhorn wideout. This is a pass Manning typically only throws to experienced receivers, so it's great to see it working for an undrafted rookie like White. If the Colts are to make any sort of run in the postseason, they'll need a run game first and foremost. But they'll also need this kind of execution from the snap to the catch.
This play, of course, set up the game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal two plays later.
4. Rhodes' fumble wasn't his only questionable play of the afternoon.
After Bironas notched his first field goal of the afternoon to knot the score at three, he kicked off to Rhodes deep. And that's where the fun began.
Ah, the ol' coffin corner kickoff. No worries though, right? Rhodes (red) can just let the ball (yellow) bounce. It could bounce out of bounds, in which case the Colts would get the ball at the 40-yard line. Or it could bounce in the endzone, in which case the Colts would get the ball at the 20-yard line. Neither, considering it's the Indianapolis return unit, is a bad option. Either is preferable to...
For the love of God and all that is holy, just don't...
DON'T RETURN THIS KICKOFF! YOU MORON!
RHODES! I DON'T CARE THAT YOU MADE THAT GUY MISS! LOOK WHERE YOU ARE!
Sigh. Guess what team has the fourth-lowest kickoff return average in the NFL? Ding ding ding. Correct, it's the Colts. So why, Rhodes, why in pluperfect hell would you ever field and return this ball? Worst case if you just let it go, you get the ball at the 20-yard line with no penalties and no injuries. That's worst case.
I'm just surprised the Colts didn't tack on their obligatory special teams holding/block in the back penalty along with this stellar 15-yard return.
I have a proposition, and I don't know that I'm joking: the only reason for a Colt return man to ever field a kickoff is if the ball is going to bounce in the field of play with no certainty or chance of being a touchback or kick out of bounds. If the ball so much as kisses the goal line, it should be taken as a touchback. The Colts should actively aim for touchbacks. Why? They average 19.6 yards per return on the year! A touchback is preferably to a return not only in eschewing injuries and penalties, but because sadly, a touchback is worth more than the average Colt kickoff return.
That's my radical proposition. And I don't know that it's so radical after all.
5. To stand any chance in these playoffs, some Colts are going to have to make some New Years Resolutions.
I guess they technically should have acted on them last game, as it was their first game in January, but regardless, some Colts are going to have to change their ways or work on some weaknesses in order to progress this postseason. Affectionately, anyway, the postseason is a "new year" for the Colts, so here are some resolutions they need to make in order to continue enjoying it:
- Peyton Manning: resolve to keep his error-minimized streak going and refrain from reverting to the midseason funk which saw him throw 28 points the other way.
- Pierre Garcon: resolve to catch the damn football and worry about everything else after the fact.
- Reggie Wayne: resolve to play bigger than he did for the entirety of the regular season and impact games regardless of who he draws in coverage.
- Blair White: resolve to work every second of every day getting timing down with Manning and making sure he knows where he needs to be on the field at all times.
- Jacob Tamme: resolve to be that safety net that Manning can trust if all else breaks down.
- Ryan Diem: resolve to put a bad regular season behind him and just focus on putting together the best postseason performance he can.
- Jeff Saturday: resolve to rally the offensive line and remind them that they're capable of playing some good football when it's them against the world.
- Joseph Addai: resolve to be the playmaker he was prior to his shoulder injury.
- Dominic Rhodes: resolve not to fumble the frickin' football.
- Dwight Freeney: resolve to take over games on the defensive end and make opposing QBs pay every time they drop back to pass.
- Robert Mathis: resolve not to simply rely on Freeney, but to dominate the game in his own right unlike Super Bowl 44.
- Fili Moala: resolve to continue improving and making a difference at DT.
- Gary Brackett: resolve to lead this defense through whatever challenges it may encounter and remind them that postseason games are won on the defensive side of the ball.
- Antoine Bethea: resolve to remain the mainstay in the secondary and keep plays in front of him.
- Adam Vinatieri: resolve to be Captain Clutch when called upon.
The Colts are going to need these guys to step their games up another 10 levels for the postseason. This team has a lot of guys who give tremendous effort but overall just aren't as talented as their play time demands they be. That means the leaders of this team are going to have to play on another level entirely. These guys need to make a difference. It is not acceptable to me if Wayne gets shut out or if Garcon drops three more passes or if Mathis generates no pressure on Sanchez. It's the postseason. The Colts will need postseason performances by some of these guys to advance.
Maybe that doesn't end up being good enough. Who knows? The Colts are an extreme longshot right now, and that has nothing to do with their heart or desire to win, but rather just their overall talent level right now. When I look at these Colts, I see a group of men with a lot of resolve and much desire to play beyond their means. I see a quarterback who wills his team to wins (despite costing them a few this year), an offensive line that has refused to throw in the towel, a defensive end that can take over games, a linebacker whose return has helped turn the Colts from sieve to stone wall, a safety who plays his heart out every snap when no one else can stay on the field and a kicker who remains undaunted by anything.
But I also see a porous secondary forced to start Jacob Lacey and Aaron Francisco, a wide receiver corps that is effectively two-and-a-half receivers deep (no offense to White), two offensive tackles who have really struggled at times this season and a special teams unit that has fans holding their collective breath every time they kick. I see an offense that struggles sustaining drives with Austin Collie and Dallas Clark and a defense that has failed to generate many turnovers on the year.
I've said all along that the Colts' only chance to win this postseason is to run the ball with remarkable consistency and stop the run. You can add "force turnovers" to that list as well. I just don't know how much faith I have in the Colts to consistently do all of those things unless they go on a miraculous run and turn some things around. I'll give them the run-stopping -- I believe in the run defense now. Can they hold up another four games? I don't know, but I know they can stop the run with the guys they have. I don't know that I buy the run game yet, as the offensive line looked to take a step back last game. And I certainly don't buy the defense's ability to force turnovers, not with how soft they play and not considering the players they currently have manning the secondary.
I hope for the best this postseason, I really do. But I don't expect much. To make the playoffs is remarkable. To make a true title run would be nothing short of miraculous. This is a team that has probably exhausted all its horses just to get where it is now.
As valiant as that is, I just don't know how much magic they have left in them.