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Big Blue Breakdown: The Bad Blitz Edition

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This week, I gave Stampede Blue readers (hi mom) a chance to vote on what they would like to see analyzed in this week's Big Blue Breakdown.  Audience participation was unprecedented.  We broke American Idol records.  And in the end, 10 of you voted that you would like to see me discuss the Colts' contain strategy (or lack thereof) against Eagle QB Mike Vick and 10 of you voted that you would like to see me look at players forced into action due to injury.

America has voted.  Well, 36 Americans.  Presumably.  I really don't know where you're all from.  If you're a Colts fan in Kazakhstan, more power to you.  But in the end, as the vote ended in a tie, I decided that I would look at the Colts' contain strategy against Vick.  You know, that fast QB that occasionally breaks contain?  Yeah.

A breakdown of Vick's big-gainers and the Colts' corresponding defensive strategy after the jump.

Vick's first big gain is going to go for 24 yards on a 3rd-and-9 at the Eagles' 33-yard line with 11:03 remaining the second quarter.  It's pretty much Vick's only notable run of the first half, where the Colts did a decent job of containing Vick (but a terrible job of containing DeSean Jackson.)

How frustrating is this play, first of all?  Though the drive will "only" end in a field goal, the Colts had the Eagles in a 3rd-and-9 and had momentum on their side.  A three-and-out here after scoring their first touchdown and the Colts would have had a chance to score another seven points and jump back into the lead 14-13.  But as has been typical of the Colts' defense (particularly their road defense) all year: they didn't take advantage of an opportunity.  The defense hasn't taken advantage of enough third-down opportunities and/or takeaway opportunities this year, especially away from home, and this play really seems to typify that problem.

The Eagles give the Colts a pass look, with Vick in shotgun, LeSean McCoy to his left and three WRs split out.  TE Brent Celek (who might want to do something in his career before running his mouth about one of the best defensive ends in NFL history) stays in next to RT.

In response, the Colts present six men on the line: the pass-rush look front four (LE Robert Mathis, DT Dan Muir, DT Eric Foster and RE Dwight Freeney) in addition to MLB Gary Brackett in the 'A' gap (between C and RG) with OLB Pat Angerer mirroring him in the adjacent 'A' gap (between C and LG.)  It's a double-A gap blitz look, which is a staple of Larry Coyer's defense.  In this position, the linebackers can either blitz or just show blitz and drop off into coverage.  On this play, both linebackers drop off into coverage but instead, NB Deshea Townsend comes in on a blitz from the defensive left, hoping to cut inside of Mathis and have a bead on Vick.  He does not.

Brackett drops off to take Celek, who begins running a seam route, and Angerer just kinda sits in no man's land on the defensive right, presumably in some sort of zone coverage/spy contain look should either Vick or the RB decide to take off toward his side.  Vick just stands in the pocket as Freeney and Mathis come hard outside, Muir is swallowed by a double-team inside and Foster is stoned by a single blocker (sigh.)  Tell me if you've seen this movie before: Freeney and Mathis rush too far upfield and are taken out of the play, neither DT can get off a block and Townsend, who had been cutting inside, is the only one with a clean look at Vick, and even that look is a few yards off.  Vick steps up in the pocket and sees daylight.  For the Colts' defense, it's officially "uh-oh" time.

Vick easily eludes Townsend, who may or may not be able to beat OG/TE/probably this week's RB Jacques McClendon in a footrace.  And it's a story of bad angles from here.  Angerer, who had been in no man's land, has essentially a spy position covering to defensive right, preventing Vick from bouncing it out that way.  Okay, thinks Vick, I'll cut further inside and bounce it left.  Inside wouldn't be a problem had Celek not drawn Brackett on that seam route toward the defensive right, close to Angerer.  And once Brackett recognizes the run, he takes an extremely poor angle to meet Vick instead of allowing Angerer to shut down that side, sees Vick make that little sly cut back inside and has to plant a hand on the ground as he slips and attempts to get back to Vick with the agility of a comatose circus clown.  This does force Vick to think for a moment and allows Townsend to gain a little ground.  But it's Towsend.  So Vick is able to continue forward untouched and is eventually forced out-of-bounds 24 yards later by the lone remaining competent safety on the squad, Antoine Bethea.

Speed kills, folks.  And that goes both ways.  Vick is special and has really evolved as a dual-threat passer, so I'm not trying to take anything away from him.  His speed kills you.  But so, too, does poor defensive speed and the resulting awkward angles.  Townsend and Brackett were too slow for this play even though both had a chance to contain Vick and it killed them. 

I really don't understand this blitz call at all (sending Townsend on a NB blitz.)  The front four had been playing really well.  The DEs were generating pressure and, though they were handled on that play, the interior linemen had been shedding blocks and pressuring Vick as well.  If your front four are handling things, why send that extra guy?  Isn't he better used a spy?  The Colts completely conceded their defensive left here, which Vick was easily able to cut back into once he eluded Brackett and was able to beat Townsend in a footrace.  IF I blitz a CB, I make sure I blitz a speedy CB.  I don't blitz Townsend.  Not only does he lack the speed to get to the QB, but he lacks any hope of recovery speed should the QB step up in the pocket to avoid pressure and begin scrambling.  Especially if that QB is Mike Vick.

Still, Vick "only" had 27 yards rushing at half, so that's not terrible.  That third-down play was costly, but not a backbreaker.  Surely, the Colts would learn from their mistakes.  They would put a spy on Vick or generally not call ineffective blitzes and gift Vick acres of turf before he came into contact with the second level of the defense.  Especially on third-down, when your defense has the chance to get off the field and get the ball back into your offense's hands


Fast forward to a 3rd-and-4 from the 50-yard line with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter.  The Eagles show another passing look, bunching two receivers left (WR, TE stack), a wideout to the right (WR Jeremy Maclin) and a flanker coming in position from right-to-left (Jackson.)  Vick is in the shotgun with McCoy to his right.

The Colts show another amoeba-esque look, this time setting three linebackers and a safety (Francisco) in the box.  This time, the Colts actually blitz.  DT Keyunta Dawson loops wide outside and Angerer and Brackett attempt to cross blitz in the 'B' gap.  Mathis attempts to then stunt in the 'C' gap with the Eagles presumably overwhelmed, but comes in too fast and can't react to Vick's first step.  Mathis overshoots Vick and attempts to slam on the brakes, but by then it's too late.  Vick's pocket now consists of four blockers (three OL, RB) occupying two defenders to his right, two blockers occupying two defenders to his left and a hole even Optimus Prime would find spacious.  For good measure, the LT puts Francisco on his ass as Vick emerges in the hole, Mathis and Dawson trailing after having taken themselves out of the play.  And because Muir, Angerer and Brackett are swallowed by blockers, there is no one spying on Vick and not a single defender less than 30 yards to Vick's north.  The closest defender to Vick by the time he gets through the hole is Muir, and the chances of Muir beating Vick in a footrace are about on par with the chances of a Stampede Blue blogger getting media access from the Indianapolis Colts this season.

32 yard gain.  First down.

Again, bad blitz.  Bad defensive philosophy.  There is a place for heavy blitzes.  That place is not, however, against Michael Vick.  The Colts can blitz effectively at times, but I would not call them a good blitzing team.  They are an opportunistic blitzing team, occasionally a "smart" blitzing team (not vs the Eagles, though.)  But they are not going to consistently overpower tackles, beat blockers and shoot gaps.

What Coyer is essentially saying by these blitzes is: we are going to get to Vick, and I am so sure of this that I will sacrifice any sort of a spy defender to do so.  What the Colts actually sacrificed, in both instances, was a chance to get off the field.  On both plays, there was too much overpursuit by DEs.  On both plays, the blitzing defenders did not get to Vick nor did they create sufficient distraction in traffic to allow others to get to Vick.  In both plays, Vick was easily able to step up in the pocket and maneuver his way to a first down without fear of being caught from behind or slowed by a spy defender ahead.

Now, I would point out that each play design had an opportunity to be successful (in the way that intercepted passes have a chance to be successful...until they are intercepted.)  On the first play, effective DT play (AKA not being completely handled by Philly's OL) would have allowed for a DT to meet Vick as he was forced up into the pocket or at the very least slowed him to the point where Freeney and Mathis, having overpursued, could chase him down from behind.  On that same play, Brackett had an opportunity to cut Vick off but instead took his angle too far to Angerer's side and allowed for Vick to bounce back to an open end of the field.  And on the other play, Mathis had a shot at Vick but simply ran right past him.  So there were to chances, in the interest of being fair.  But they weren't executed and Coyer banked too hard on something the Colts couldn't do consistently, especially in the second half: get to Vick.

Credit Vick as a special athlete who has upped his passing game considerably and acknowledge the injury situation as it forced a guy like Townsend into a NB spot.  But still, I would argue that these were two very costly defensive breakdowns that could have been avoided had Coyer not been so eager to blitz.  Given the defenders the Colts had and their limitations, I don't think blitzing was wise in either case.  It would have been much more sensible to drop a spy into zone coverage and let the front four do their work.  I like my chances of Vick throwing into heavy defensive coverage (seven defenders against three receivers) much better than my chances of Vick having 30 yards of open field in front of him.  Maybe if it's Kerry Collins, you take that chance.  But not against Vick. 

It also does not help that the defensive ends on this team, as brilliant as they are, crashed as far upfield as they did against a QB who they had to know wouldn't exactly be waiting for them once they ducked inside.  Time and time again, these guys went too far upfield and in response, all Vick had to do was step up in a pocket untouched by any DTs or blitzing LBs/CBs.  You think at some point, Freeney and Mathis would have been told to take a more contain approach toward Vick as opposed to the constant upfield hellraising, but I guess that never happened.

Going forward, I hope the Colts learned some lessons from this game, especially as they face a December playing  Vince Young and the Tennessee Titans twice.  Those games could be for the division.  And if the Colts haven't learned how to better deal with a mobile QB, then the playoff picture might not come together in a manner favorable to Indy.  Don't oversell your ability to get to the QB with five or six and don't undersell your ability to generate pressure with four. 

The Colts did both on Sunday.  And as a result, they burned themselves on the blitz.

Agree?  Disagree?  Please feel free to comment, or follow me on Twitter @cmccolloI need more followers, you need more pundits and prognosticators to be your Hatfields and McCoys.  It's a win-win!