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Big Blue Breakdown: The Comprehensive Third Down Edition

A couple things before we delve into that game you've been trying so hard to forget (SPOILER: the Colts lost.)  First, I would like to wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Be safe in your travels -- driving 465 northside today was nasty in this sleet, so really, be safe -- and enjoy your various Turkey Day traditions, whether that includes a game of backyard football with the family (or if you're a scrawny ex-soccer player like me, a game of the "other" football...sacrilege, I know) or just watching the hapless Lions get slaughtered for the seventh year in a row.

As a second point, I apologize for not having this up earlier.  This week has been a mess, personally and professionally.  Also the server decided to take a break as I was finishing this breakdown, so I couldn't get it published immediately.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to write for Stampede Blue and really enjoy engaging folks and providing what I hope to be useful content, but I'm juggling a lot to pay the bills right now, and obviously avoiding eviction has to take priority at times, lest you really want to see my dog and I wandering the streets of downtown Indianapolis asking for your change (presumably, I would ask and my dog would just look sad and cold; I'm afraid that if my dog asks, people will just be freaked out.)

Finally, I want to acknowledge that I have done something horrible.  Something unforgivable, something that will surely cause you all to turn your backs on me and cast me off as something well south of a sinner.  You know that little poll I did, asking what you wanted to see in this week's breakdown?  The one where 39 percent of voters wanted me to analyze Peyton Manning's three interceptions?

Yeah, I'm going to completely ignore that.  Throw the results out.  Treat this like a Ugandan presidential election (or the state of Florida.)  Not because I don't value your feedback, but because I found something more interesting to write about and should have included it as an option in the first place.  Let's face it: we've seen enough of the interception replays.  We get it.  Manning made some bad reads.  Some really bad reads.  And he followed through with some bad throws.  Hey, it happens.  But you're not going to learn anything new from looking at stills from the same clips that have cycled in your nightmares about a half-dozen times since last Sunday. 

Instead, we're going to look at the Colts' third-down defense.  In the first half, the Colts allowed the Patriots to complete six of six third-down conversions for a 100 percent conversion rate.  You don't have to break out the abacus to know that a 100 percent conversion rate isn't exactly a glowing endorsement of the defense.  Yet in the second half, the Patriots only converted one of five first downs, totaling a 20 percent conversion rate for the second half and a 64 percent conversion rate (seven of 11 attempts) for the game.

How did this happen?  Let's take a look.

I'm not going to show stills of all third down attempts simply because some of them aren't remarkably complex and consequentially don't deserve the space.  If the Patriots converted a 3rd-and-1 by running for a yard, that's not something that's really worth the server space.  We get what happened, and it happens.  The defense should always strive to stuff a 3rd-and-1, but they're going to be converted.  To paraphrase Reggie Wayne, the other guys are on scholarship too.

So let's take a look at the Pats' eleven third-down conversion attempts.

1. 3rd-and-1 from IND 23 with 8:49 remaining in Q1

Nothing fancy here.  Patriots line up in a heavy-I formation with only one receiver out wide, multiple TEs in close and both a FB and RB in the backfield.  Colts stack the line and linebackers are set within 5-8 yards of the line-of-scrimmage.  Give is to the FB who initially gets stopped at the line but fights forward on a second effort to gain the first down.  Nothing much to see here, good battle by both sides but (unless your FB is Eric Foster) the offense is going to win that battle nine times out of 10.

2. 3rd-and-5 from NE 29 with 4:41 remaining in Q1

Brady is going to take this snap in shotgun, Danny Woodhead adjacent to him.  The Pats stack their WRs at the top of the screen, play TE Aaron Hernandez just off the line-of-scrimmage to the right and line WR Deion Branch out wide at the bottom.  It looks like this:


I know that screencap reads 4:47, but all that happens between 4:47 - 4:41 is that Brady calls an audible, Pat Angerer briefly shows in the A-gap and then backs off to where he was initially standing.  We'll jump forward a few seconds after the snap to take a look at the Colts' rush and the Pats' pass protection:


As you can see, the edge rushers are fine.  Both Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis get excellent leverage and force angles that will effectively pinch the pocket.  DT Eric Foster loops out wide toward Mathis in an effort to take advantage of the attention Mathis is drawing, and DT Keyunta Dawson is unfortunately stonewalled close to the original line-of-scrimmage.

When Brady steps up in the pocket, though, Foster can't quite split the gap between blockers and both Freeney and Mathis rush upfield.  With no one to push the middle of the pocket (Dawson is still stonewalled), Brady has a clear throwing lane.  He also has Woodhead breaking free on a square out across the middle of the field, with Tyjuan Hagler trailing in zone coverage.  You can see all of that in this frame, where Woodhead is circled in red and the Colt defensive linemen are circled in white, displaying Brady's throwing lane and the location of his intended receiver:


Now, I would argue a few things here.  Obviously, the pass rush just isn't good enough.  Typical upfield rush by the defensive ends and lack of push from the defensive tackles.  I've been critical of Dawson in the past and think he's actually played rather well for his standards this year, but too often he gets bullied by offensive linemen.  He was drafted as a linebacker intended to play defensive end and has seen far too much time as an undersized defensive tackle for my liking.  Dawson is easy for offensive linemen to single up and stonewall, as we see happening here.  This gives Brady a clear throwing lane and allows Woodhead to break off his route toward the middle.

Hagler is covering the zone where Woodhead breaks and consequentially is trailing Woodhead.  Looks like he's a little slow to react to Woodhead's cut and turn.  It's not the biggest deal in the world, though, because as Woodhead crosses toward the middle of the field, he enters Angerer's zone at MIKE.  And Angerer (white) is there to close in and make the tackle on Woodhead (red):


Except this happens...


Completely avoidable error.  Just a sloppy job by the rookie MIKE.  Angerer slows down, takes a poor angle, slides around Woodhead on the attempted tackle and falls flat on his face, failing to make the simple form tackle.  Sometimes, when Bill Polian provides that line about "technique errors" and "execution"...he's right.  This is just bad technique.  Angerer knows better.  Most of the time, I think he makes this tackle.  But he doesn't here, and a play that's reasonable well defended ends up going for a first down when Hagler cleans up Angerer's whiff.

Lackluster pass rush, but overall a well-defended play, Angerer just has to make that tackle.  He was in position to do so.  I'm sure most of you remember this play and, if you're like me, your remote control suffered for it.

3. 3rd-and-6 from NE 42 with 3:24 remaining in Q1

Here's a complete pass defense look by the Colts against the Pats in a typical Patriot formation: Brady in shotgun with Woodhead beside him, three receivers stacked at the top of the screen and a lone wideout (Deion Branch) at the bottom of the screen:


It's an interesting formation in terms of defensive spacing for the Colts, but here's the one thing I will never understand.  Look at Kelvin Hayden at the bottom of the screen, covering Branch.  Look where he is.  This is pre-snap.  He begins his backpedal at the first-down line, more than six yards off the line-of-scrimmage.  Which means when Brady sits back in his drop, this is what he's looking at, a wide open Branch (red):


I would have circled Hayden in white, to give you a spatial relationship between the two, but he's not even on the screen!  This cushion allows for an easy completion, and there seems to be a disproportionate amount of defenders covering the space toward the top of the screen as contrasted with the acres of green space available at the bottom.

Now, look where Branch (red) catches this ball and where Hayden (white) is when the reception is made.  Also note that there is a safety, Aaron Francisco (pink), over top, so Hayden wasn't completely alone on Branch:


Now, to me, that's just a poor defensive playcall.  It's the dreaded cushion problem that we all thought would go away when Ron Meeks left but still tends to rear its ugly head all too often.  Again, Hayden begins this play backpedaling at the line-of-scrimmage.  By the time Branch catches the ball, Hayden is closing and still three or four yards away from the receiver.  Now, my first thought is usually that, when you see a cushion like that on third down, the corner must be singled up on the outside with no one over top.  But Francisco was playing over top some 15-20 yards downfield.  Of course, that begs the question where.  Because maybe if he was playing center field, Coyer didn't trust him to close quickly enough on the sideline to prevent a big play should Hayden let his man past, thus the cushion.

Well...I don't think that's the case:


Clearly, Francisco is favoring Hayden's side to assist the cornerback in coverage.  I would assert, then, that there is no reason for Hayden to give the cushion that he does.  Absolutely none.  It's third down.  The defense's job is to get the offense off the field, not give up automatic completions.  If Hayden was alone on Branch, maybe I understand the cushion.  But he had a safety over top, favoring his side.  As such, he can't be starting his backpedal at the line-of-scrimmage.  That infuriates me to no end.  I have no idea what Coyer is thinking when he draws this up, but whatever it is, a QB like Tom Brady will eat it alive each and every time.

4. 3rd-and-1 from IND 10 with 15:00 remaining in Q2

This one has Kavell Conner (white) covering Wes Welker (red) out of the slot as Welker runs a quick out.  Just one picture, to capture the play and save you the pain of thinking about this any longer than you have to:


Yeah, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Conner on Welker is a mismatch.  And if I'm the defensive coordinator gameplanning for my squad to play the New England Patriots, I'm probably going to steer away from putting a linebacker on Welker, especially without any help in bracket coverage. 

Also savor that pocket that Brady has.  Imagine Manning has one of those, too.  Imagining is the closest we'll ever get...

5. 3rd-and-8 from IND 8 with 13:20 remaining in Q2

Pats with another obvious Brady-passing-from-shotgun look.  Colts really load the line.


This time, the Colts' defense is going to pay so much attention to Welker that it will hurt them and allow Aaron Hernandez to leak out (on a quick in over the middle of the field) and make the catch.  The following screencap is a bit busy but shows the general idea of what's happening: the Colt defenders are focusing on the two receivers up top (vision in yellow line) while Hernandez takes advantage of Bethea's hesitation/focus on Welker and cuts in over the open middle:


When Hernandez makes the catch and turns toward the endzone, Bethea is trailing and Francisco is tasked with coming up and making the tackle:


Needless to say, Francisco does not make the tackle...


And really, this is just a play that Welker creates by being Welker.  The defense, specifically Bethea, is so focused on what Welker is doing that Hernandez is allowed to slip freely into the middle of the field.  From there, it's just a matter of breaking a tackle from Francisco.  And, turns out, there's a reason Francisco was available in free agency more than a quarter of the way into the season.

6. 3rd-and-3 from NE 25 with 4:56 remaining in Q2

Alright, now we can start having some fun.  The Pats line up with trips right and Brady in the shotgun.  A quick look at the X's and O's:


The Colts stack the line here, showing the potential for a double-A gap blitz -- a staple look for Larry Coyer's scheme -- and leave two cornerbacks and a safety out to cover the three receivers to the left of the formation.

Here's a look at the play after the snap, when the Colts show their rush and routes begin to develop:


The Colts only end up rushing four, and there's the Colts' front four in a snapshot: Freeney is rushing hard off the edge, ditto Mathis on the other side.  Each only have one man to beat.  The defensive tackles, as you can see, have not generated much push at all.  That's essentially the story of the Colts' defense away from home.  And consequentially, there is a perfect pocket for Brady to step up into.

As the play continues, you can see Woodhead turning inside on a square in just shy of the line-of-scrimmage.  Angerer is sitting on top of the point where Woodhead initially drops, but Woodhead's route and ensuing possession is going to run him into Hagler's zone.  First, though, the look at Woodhead (circled in red) turning that square in and Angerer (circled in white) sitting on top of the route:

[EDIT:]  I just realized I accidentally circled the wrong guy.  The nice thing about novel-length breakdowns is that no one notices these things, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point it out.  I circled Welker, but the target, Woodhead, is still releasing out of protection/the pocket.  He's a bit blurry, but you can see him literally on the 15-yard line.


Now, key to this play is timing.  How does the route develop?  How is Woodhead allowed to continue running his in?  Easy, pass protection.  I know it's a rare sight for Colts fans used to watchingManning, but Brady's line manhandles the Colts on this play and affords Brady a tremendous amount of time.  As such, the pocket looks like this, with Brady circled in red and the Colt defensive linemen circled in white:


This is a problem.  This is a problem seen all too often on the road.  Freeney and Mathis rush upfield.  The QB steps up in the (clean) pocket to avoid their edge rush.  The defensive tackles (Keyunta Dawson and Foster) are taken out by single blockers.  Brady has a throwing lane suited for a cruise missile.  And this is the result:


Woodhead gets the ball with plenty of space to create a first down.  It's not a bad play by any defender in coverage, really.  Angerer sat on top of the zone initially and stayed with his zone responsibility as Woodhead continued running his in toward the left hash.  He then entered a zone between the OLB (Hagler) and CB (Jacob Lacey.)  Lacey actually has a shot at making the tackle here, but as we've seen all too often on the road, the attempted tackle looked like this:


And consequentially, Woodhead is able to stumble forward to the first-down line, where Hagler cleans up with a solid tackle.  Now, it is my opinion from all the film I've seen that Lacey just is not a good cornerback.  He tends to get burned down the sideline (Braylon Edwards in the AFC Championship Game was perhaps his most notorious coverage slip, but there are other examples, more than a few this season...just watch the Broncos game), usually has poor balance and is just not a consistent form tackler.  I like Justin Tryon on the outside a lot more than Lacey, but I'm just making that quick point that I don't think Lacey is a good corner and really for an UDFA second-year man, we shouldn't expect a lot anyway.  He reminds me of former Colt, current UFL cornerback Keiwan Ratliff in a way because he does make the occasional flashy play, but more often than not he's unreliable in coverage and your third or fourth option at best. 

That's not to say this conversion was primarily Lacey's fault.  I was just pointing out my opinion formed from watching enough Colts games in his tenure.  This conversion primarily falls on the feet of the defensive tackles, and we shouldn't be surprised because it's a recurring problem for the Colts: the defensive ends generate a substantial edge rush and force the QB to step up in the pocket...but there's no one there to clean up or pressure the passer by collapsing the pocket.  Fili Moala occasionally shows flashes of doing this but is by no means consistent.  It's not easy to find that kind of athletic pocket-pusher who can still hold up against the run, but the Colts need that player badly, because until they get that kind of performance consistently, they are essentially throwing $90 million worth of defensive end investment out the window by watching Freeney and Mathis rush upfield and do their jobs without anyone in the middle to clean up and do theirs.  This play is a combination of poor pressure and bad tackling, with the lion's share of blame falling on the (lack of) pressure.

7. 3rd-and-10 from NE 38 with 12:36 remaining in Q3

Now, in the second half, Indianapolis picks up its third down defense, starting with this 3rd-and-10 play.  Rather than keep describing the formations to you, as I've written enough already, I'll just show you the pretty pictures:


Brady is going to see Lacey (white) playing about eight yards off Brandon Tate Branch (red) at the bottom of the screen and immediately target Tate Branch on a quick screen:


Now Lacey is going to make a solid stick here, atoning for his earlier missed tackle, and that really was a big difference between the first and second halves.  A simple, but big difference: fundamentals.  Technique.  Proper tackling.  The Colts, for the most part (Woodhead's 31-yard touchdown run would disagree) tackled better in the second half.  Which begs the question: why were they so sloppy in the first half?  Why did they look so unprepared?

Whatever the reason, they picked it up in the second half, as you can see in this textbook tackle by the inconsistent Lacey:


Lacey beats Hernandez, who was attempting to block Lacey out, to the ball and strikes beautifully.  Hagler doesn't really even have to clean up the tackle; it's a solid solo effort.  Again, these were the types of one-on-one battles defenders were not winning in the first half.

8. 3rd-and-1 from NE 30 with 4:43 remaining in Q3

Simple handoff to the FB.  Similar to the first third-down play we looked at, not much to see here.  Straight-ahead run play that's good for three or four because Brady smartly hurries his team up the line and smashes a tired Colt defensive line.

9. 3rd-and-6 from IND 7 with 10:32 remaining in Q4

Another successfully defended pass.  Brady drops back in shotgun and lines up as such:


What's interesting about this play is that Dawson is going to actually drop off the defensive line and into coverage.  We saw this last week against the Bengals, too, when the Colts went to a three-man rush against Carson Palmer.  Here's a look at Dawson (orange) dropping off:


The Colts cover the receivers well and force Brady to go underneath to an open Julian Edelman, running yet another square-in.  I think the Colts have seen enough of these by now.  Here's a look at Edelman turning and looking for the ball as he continues to drift across the middle:


Fortunately for the Colts, Edelman ends up dropping the ball.  But it isn't simply a "luck" play.  It was well-defended.  Take a look at this screencap of Edelman at the point where the ball hits his hands.  Even if he pulls it in, I like how the Colts have corralled his route and I like the Colts' chances of stopping him short of a first down:


Again, well-defended.  This kind of confidence, speed and cohesiveness in coverage was not present in the first half.  The defense, though, really tightened things up in the second half, save for some sloppy work in run defense, and it made a difference.  In the first half, I truly believe this play goes for seven if Edelman catches the ball.  In the second half, it goes for three.

10. 3rd-and-4 from NE 29 with 7:20 remaining in Q4

Critical third down for the Pats.  Brady in shotgun again.  Surprise.  Our matchup to watch is Branch at the top of the screen against Cornelius Brown, who had just come in for an injured Lacey.  Here's the look:


  The first thing you'll notice is that Brown doesn't give a cushion.  He forces the issue.  He sticks to Branch right away.  The Colts also bring pressure here, with Angerer (orange) blitzing into the A-gap:


This rush is actually going to generate some decent pressure on Brady and force him to get the ball out of his hands.  Naturally, he looks to his best wideout (Branch, red above) against the UDFA rookie corner who has just come in for Lacey (C. Brown, white above.)


Brown plays Branch close the entire time though, not allowing him to get a clean release or a clean turn out of his break.  It's all within five yards, so it's legal and a taste of the Patriots' own medicine really.  You can see the physicality at the point of reception, the lack of distance between Brown and Branch.  Brown stays physical throughout the entire play and makes a great play on both Branch and the ball.  Incompletion.

Let's take a closer look:


Notice where Brown lines up, just a few yards off Branch.  No cushion here.  Colts are going to pressure Brady and attempt to hold Branch up until the pass rush gets there.  That means this play is Brown's chance to sign.  He's going to have to give the Pats a taste of their own medicine and maul the wideout within the first five yards of his route.  He is also going to have to re-direct him and prevent him from getting a clean break out of his route, as you can see below:


Brown, remarkably without holding or interfering actually, meets Branch out his his break and prepares to fight Branch for the reception.  Look at Brown's position as the ball arrives:


This is just the reward of being smart and physical.  Brown fights Branch for the ball at the point of reception, positioning his arm so that Branch cannot bring his hands together to make the catch while simultaneously swiping for the ball.


And there you see the ball being wrestled away.  What a tremendous individual effort from Brown, who has looked good in a few spot instances this year.  See what happens when you don't leave a huge third-down cushion?  When you allow the secondary to play physical and your front seven to generate pressure?  You get the offense off the field.

11. 3rd-and-7 from NE 32 with 2:38 remaining in Q4

The last third-down stop.  It looks like this, pre-snap:


The idea of this play is that Edelman is going to draw Hagler in coverage away from Welker, so that Brady has a clear path to his third-down machine.  Edelman runs a drag route which is supposed to take Hagler just far enough to the offensive right for Brady to have a shot at connecting with Welker.  Below, you can see Hagler following Edelman.


But Hagler does something Brady doesn't expect; he peels off Edelman.  He stops running with Edelman completely and breaks back toward Welker, who is running a delayed route over the middle behind Edelman.  Brady never sees Hagler when he throws this ball.


Welker, who already drew Jerraud Powers in coverage, can only watch helplessly as the ball sails into Hagler's chest.  Unfortunately for the Colts, Hagler can't snag it.


It's a great individual play, though, by Hagler, and it's a tendency play.  The Colts know what Brady wants to do here.  It's a crucial third down; he's not going to Tate or Edelman.  He's going to Welker, and the Colts know this before the ball is even snapped.  Hagler makes a smart play to sell his commitment to covering Edelman before eschewing that responsibility for crowding the path between Brady and Welker.  As a result, he almost grabs a pick.

Now that we've (exhaustively) analyzed these third downs, we can see the difference between third down failures in the first half and third down successes in the second half is largely due to the little things: technique, coverage, finishing, fundamentals, etc.  The difference is Lacey making a tackle he'd previously missed or Hagler playing a tendency or Brown challenging the receiver for the duration of his route and attempted reception.  The Patriots only capitalized on one third-down conversion in the second half, and it wasn't some magnificent chance in defensive scheme (although some coverages were tweaked certainly) that sparked it.  It was just a matter of players shaping up the rough edges, taking care of the things they'd previously neglected to do.

So, tired as the adages get, Polian is right sometimes when he says that these errors are a matter of technique and are entirely correctable.  This game is testament to that.  You just have to question, though, why the Colts come out so sloppy to begin with, if the second half is evidence that they can play much better.  Is it on the coaches?  The players?  That's a question for another day, perhaps.