Last Saturday against the Detroit Lions, Colts coach Jim Caldwell scratched DT Ed Johnson from the game even though he had practiced all week and was healthy enough to play. Mike Chappell explains why:
That was coach Jim Caldwell's plan going into the third preseason game. That game is when conditions most mirror those of the first game of the regular season, and Johnson isn't eligible to play in the Sept. 13 opener against Jacksonville.
"We wanted to look at our team without him,'' Caldwell said.
The result was a Detroit offense that dominated the line of scrimmage in the first half, converting on numerous third down situations and utilizing a diligent running game. So, if Caldwell indeed wanted this game to "mirror those of the first game of the regular season," then the third pre-season game was a complete and utter disaster from an execution standpoint. Even with a bad (and beaten up) offensive line last year, the Jaguars were still able to run the football at will on the Colts. This year, their line is improved, they've added Torry Holt at wide receiver, and David Garrard is healthy.
The the Ed Johnson-less Colts play like they did late Saturday, the Jags might get another 300 yard rushing day.
Now, before we continue, I'll state that I am aware that several Colts starters did not play on defense Saturday. Even though he was healthy, Gary Brackett was held out. Why? Who knows. Maybe they wanted to see if Freddy Keiaho could step in for Brackett. Hopefully, they learned what we learned: Freddy can't play MIKE. Also absent was Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Kelvin Hayden, and Antonio Johnson (for much of the game).
But, as we have seen for years and years, the Colts have a habit of incurring big injuries at inopportune times. This forces key reserves like Daniel Muir, Jordan Senn, Jamie Silva, Matt Giordano, Fili Moala, and Keyunta Dawson to step in and play significant snaps. From what I saw Saturday, many of these same players were terrible doing the most basic, fundamental things all football players should know how to do: Tackle and pursue.
No disrespect to the Lions, but our back-ups should be able to get them off the field, especially in third and long situations. Twice on one drive (which resulted in a Lions TD), the Colts got Daunte Culpepper into third and long (9 and 13, respectively). Twice, Culpepper converted. Back-ups or not, that is unacceptable.
Like many of you, what the first half of last Saturday's game looked like was what every game looked like last year for the Colts. And, just like Saturday's game, the Colts were without Ed Johnson for 90% of the season last year. This begs the question, is Ed really THAT important?
Take a look at 2007, Ed Johnson's rookie year and his first as a starting defensive tackle (a nose tackle then) for the Colts. The Colts defense allowed only 3.8 yards a carry and was #1 in the league in points allowed. They were ranked 15th in run defense, 6th in yards per carry, and 9th in rushing TDs allowed. This allowed their offense to stay on the field longer and have more opportunities to score.
Fast forward to 2008.
The Ed Johnson-less Colts defense was 24th in rushing yards allowed, 19th in rushing TDs scored (18 TDs), and allowed 4.2 yards a carry. They were dead last in forcing offenses in three-and-outs, and were dead last in preventing teams from converting on third down. This contributed to Indy dropping to 13th in points per game on offense, as Peyton Manning had fewer and fewer chances to score points.
Now, other factors did play into the defensive regression of 2008. Bob Sanders missed much of the year (again), and key reserves like Quinn Pitcock were also gone. But since the emergence of Melvin Bullitt, I'm starting to sense that it is not Bob's absence that the Colts cannot do without. It's Big Ed's.
Key to overcoming our reliance on Ed is for reserves like Daniel Muir to stop whiffing on tackles he should make! The Colts also cannot afford to lose Gary Brackett for any length of time either. The defense struggled even more after Brackett went down last December with a broken leg, and the depth behind the MIKE spot is sorely lacking.
It's important to note that there is a very strong possibility that Bob Sanders could start the season on PUP. This would shatter any and all hope of Sanders ever shaking loose the stigma that he is an "injury-prone" player who cannot be relied upon. With the possibility of both Bob and Ed out for Week One, and with key players like Raheem Brock and Antoine Bethea nursing hand injuries, one has to be concerned that this Colts defense is not up to snuff; that they have not improved from last season's disaster.
In any case, after considering all this, I have to say I like how Caldwell ran things last Saturday. I make the comment often that the Colts "do not care about pre-season." The reason I say this is because they often sit starters and play lots of people who will, ultimately, either get cut before the season starts, or are back-ups. For me, the game is "taken seriously" when the starters start and play most of the game. That's why they are starters.
However, it seems Caldwell is looking at how good his team is sans key players like Sanders, Big Ed, and Gary. He seems to be working on shoring up the obvious weaknesses in the event one or several of these key players gets hurt and has to miss time. I applaud that, but make no mistake, if the Colts want to beat the Jags Week One, they cannot have a repeat performance of what we saw in Detroit, back-ups or no.