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Big Blue Breakdown: Colts v. Redskins Edition

First article, so work with me, Colts fans. I won't bore you with the biographical (at least for now), but I am very grateful for this opportunity to work with SB Nation, Stampede Blue and its fantastic editorial staff. Every week, I will try to analyze performance from a specific position from the weekend's contest.

This week, for instance, I will take a look at defensive line play; specifically, I will examine the issue of missed tackles against Ryan Torain and the Washington Redskins. I will also be responsible for each week's Luke Links, and apologize for the delay in posting those this week - I'm attempting to get up and running here as quickly as possible!

For now, though, we'll consider defensive line play in last Sunday's contest versus the Redskins.  Specifically, one statistic I think should catch every Colt fan's eye.

One tackle for a loss.

That's not a cumulative team statistic, rather it's the total TFL accumulated by the Colts' defensive line.  That's right, folks.  On a night where guys like DT Fili Moala and DT Antonio Johnson had Washington RB Ryan Torain dead-to-rights in the backfield numerous times, only DE Robert Mathis managed to produce a TFL.

(In the interest of full disclosure, DLs Keyunta Dawson and Eric Foster did split a TFL on Washington RB Keiland Williams on a 3rd-and-17 with 8:29 left in the first quarter, but for all practical purposes that was a conceded down playcall that just put the 'Skins in a slightly better position to punt, so I'm largely ignoring this shared TFL.)

Jerraud Powers had the most TFLs on the team, and even on a basic eye test, that shouldn't be surprising.  Powers was incredibly sound in not only coverage, but the art of tackling as well.  But this isn't an article meant to praise Powers, a player trending toward Pro Bowl level who may have just played the best game of his young career.  I want to look at these DL tackling miscues instead, the (arguably) minor details that continue to plague this defense and prevent it from realizing any sort of elite status forecasted before this season's kickoff.  And while it's great that the defensive line is capable of getting penetration and did - at least for one game - consistently contact the RB in the backfield, these guys still have to finish the play

Finishing, and finishing with consistency, has been a problem all year long for the Colts.  And it's a problem that, if not rectified, could compound itself down the road.

The first play we'll consider is a Washington 1st-and-10 from their own 48-yard line.  Torain is going to take the handoff from QB Donovan McNabb and run off right tackle.  Fullback Mike Sellers will run out ahead of him and the flanker WR will crash in to block.  The initial problem for the 'Skins is that the play takes a split second too long to develop, as McNabb stretches out the handoff and shows it for quite a while.  The Colts' defensive line is able to get excellent penetration by the time Torain touches the pigskin, with both Mathis and Moala in the backfield.  Moala doesn't even have to swim or rip to get through the line, in fact.  He just seems to hop to his left and shoot a gap between the RG and RT.  It's an excellent read by Moala and an agile move to put himself in a position to make a play.  He has a clear shot at Torain and closes on him quickly.  Unfortunately for Moala and your now-shattered remote control, he lunges at Torain, wraps his arms around his upper body and fails to wrap up.  Moala slides off the tackle, Torain continues upfield, where Philip Wheeler now fails to strike when within arm's reach, delaying his lunge just a fraction of a second too much. 

The result?  Torain continues scampering upfield past Moala and Wheeler's missed tackles, jukes Antoine Bethea out of his cleats and is finally knocked to the ground by Clint Session after a gain of 16.  All from a play that should have gone for a loss of three or four yards.

The next play is on the same drive, a 1st-and-10 from the Colts' 18-yard line.  It's a simple screen pass for Washington's offense, which means penetration is invited upfield so that Torain can slip out to McNabb's left, collect a pass and scoot upfield after faking a block.  Contrary to that play design, though, is the presence of Antonio Johnson, who diagnoses the play, sheds a block and meets Torain shortly after the catch.  A beautiful read-and-reaction by Johnson.  Like Moala's previous misadventure, though, he simply fails to tackle Torain one-on-one.  Again, a wrap-up slightly above the waist.  Torain's hips are turned upfield at this point whereas Johnson is now perpendicular to the direction of the play.  You would think a 310-pounder would be able to take a 220-pounder to the ground at this point.  But Torain simply performs a hard stop, shifts his weight and allows Johnson to slide off.  Moala and Mathis tackle him nine yards later.  Another play where everything went right except for the tackle. 

Unfortunately for the Colts, the tackle is often the most important detail.

The last play we'll examine, just for sake of not writing a novel, is a Washington 1st-and-10 from their own 40-yard line with 6:31 left in the second quarter.  The 'Skins show an obvious run look with Torain back in an I-formation, Sellers in front of him, TE Chris Cooley positioned slightly behind the offensive line and both WRs pulled in close.  The run is designed to be a quick-hitter, a jaunt to the left through a hole between LT and LG.  And it would have been well-designed...had DE Dwight Freeney not shed his block and stood on the peripheral of the hole fully anticipating Torain's emergence.  Freeney spins off his block, briefly stumbles and regains his balance, ready to engage Torain.  He quickly closes as Torain moves to run past him, violently clasping his arms around Torain's upper body.  The force initially throws Torain backwards and eventually spins him completely in a circle.  Like the other two plays we've already seen, though, the tackler (Freeney) simply slides off Torain.  Greased Pig Syndrome.  Torain, now facing forward again, darts back across the middle and is tackled four yards later.  This may not have been a TFL is successful, but it would have been a no-gainer.  Instead, four yards that should have never made it into the gamebook.

I realize that no player is perfect and the easiest way to check into the nuthouse as an NFL fan is to expect a flawless performance on behalf of your favorite team.  It's encouraging that Moala, Johnson, Freeney and Mathis put themselves in positions to make plays.  It really is.  This kind of penetration was nonexistent at the beginning of the season.  However, just because the defense has corrected one wrong doesn't mean they've corrected them all.  Missed tackles, arm tackles and all other forms of sloppy tackling have been on display all season long.  Guys have been in position to make plays and simply haven't.  And it's not just the defensive line.  Linebackers have had their shots and missed.  Lord knows the defensive backs have as well.  It is a problem, currently, for the Colts' defense, and it is something they will have to continue to work on should they wish to make any serious postseason run.  On most of these plays, it looks like the read and effort are both there.  Players know where they need to be and generally find a way to get there.  But execution in these cases is left unfinished, and without making that tackle, all other work goes for naught.

The Colts' defense has improved since essentially quitting in the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans.  But if they ever want to be considered elite (and let's not forget, both ESPN analyst John Clayton and QB Peyton Manning offered quite a bit of optimism in regards to this unit's potential), they're going to have to finish plays with more consistency.  And right now, the defense is lacking the consistency needed to carry this team into February.