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Big Blue Breakdown: The Colts v. Jags Everything Edition

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I apologize, folks, but I likely will not have time to go back and grab screencaps for this week's B^3, holiday travel season and all.  I did, however, want to offer a few thoughts before everyone closes their laptops over the next few days and surrounds themselves with loved ones...and in-laws.

Instead of a traditional breakdown, I want to look at a few random topics, issues, triumphs and concerns that emerged from the Colts' 34-24 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.  This battle for division tiebreakers certainly had a lot of talking points, not the least of which was the officiating.  But we'll get into that a little later.

Before we jump into these talking points, I wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or whatever the appropriate phrase is these days.  I truly hope you all enjoy your time around family and friends and wear the most hideous sweaters you can find.  No matter what your year has been like -- and I'm more than aware of how rough a year can be -- I hope you at least enjoy being around those who matter most to you for this little stretch of time.

With that said, let's jump ahead and take a look at a few things from last Sunday's game:

1. Yes, the officiating really WAS that bad.  And it was made worse by Dan Dierdorf misinforming the television audience and apparently not understanding critical NFL rules, despite being paid to do so.

Let's start with the unnecessary roughness penalty likely leveraged against Aaron Francisco, but perhaps Antoine Bethea...we'll never know, because Mike Carey couldn't be bothered to specify.

Carey's explanation: "Personal foul, unnecessary roughness, on the defense...a blow to the head, on a defenseless receiver.  15 yard penalty, automatic first down."

Dierdorf's input: "They're calling it a blow to the head, but I don't think they're...I'm assuming it was on Francisco coming in late, even though it wasn't a blow to the head."

Gumbel's objection: "...but you know, the penalty marker almost beat Francisco to it..."

Dierdorf again: "Yeah, so I'm not...I wish he would have identified which player it was against."

So basically, Carey calls an unnecessary roughness penalty for a blow to the head.  Except Mike Thomas' head is never touched on this play.  A penalty flag comes in as Francisco is arriving to help gang tackle, so it's likely not a late hit penalty misidentified as a blow to the head.  It's just a bad call.  Although, to be fair, this crew completely missed Robert Mathis going helmet-to-helmet on David Garrard on the previous drive, which really just serves to demonstrate how bad this crew really was.

It's all amplified by Dierdorf, though, really not knowing what's going on.  He agrees with the penalty, basically, but he's not sure why, because he's not sure who the penalty was called on, or what the penalty really was.  He just agrees.

Let's jump ahead to the mysterious invisible third-down.  With 5:34 left in the first quarter, Maurice Jones-Drew took a shotgun handoff from Garrard and was swarmed by the Colts' defense for maybe a gain of one yard.  Immediately as the defense swarmed, a penalty flag was thrown.  An official huddle ensues.  How many of these did we see Sunday?  Far too many.

Here's the official explanation:

Carey's explanation: There is no foul on the play, therefore no play.  Third down.  Replay third down.

Gumbel: Well...I've got to say, that's most surprising that that's gonna come, that's gonna cause a replay of third down.  I thought the penalty marker flew after the ball was snapped.

Dierdorf: Well Mike Carey is insinuating, or what he's saying is that the whistle blew and there was no play.  This is very rare to see something like this, where you see a play play all the way out and then you're told it didn't count...well Mike Carey again just said no foul on the play, we're replaying third down.  Well, I'm perplexed.

Actually, no hate for Dierdorf here.  I was similarly perplexed.  I have a laundry list of issues with this series of events.  Now, if any of you read yesterday's Polian Corner, you know that Polian believes the play was blown dead prior to the snap and that's why Jacksonville was essentially granted two 3rd-and-4s (one of which didn't count.)

Okay, then why was a flag thrown post-snap?  If that's the case, then not all officials knew the play was blown dead.  And that raises questions about what the flag was.  Most folks believe the flag was thrown on Jacksonville LT Eugene Monroe for a false start, which is actually a pre-snap penalty.  If that's the case, and that flag really couldn't have been anything else, it should have marched the Jags back five yards.  Except after discussion, Carey decides that there was no pre-snap he came to that conclusion is beyond me, as the wing judge obviously thought it necessary to throw a flag.  Unless he unleashed a sneeze that would shake the heavens above, I doubt his flag dislodged itself from his pocket and threw itself out there.  Obviously it was thrown for a reason.  How did the officials come to disregard it?

I also have a huge problem with this play being run with no real sign of protest from the officials, even if the crowd noise prevented the whistles from being heard if indeed anyone blew their whistle.  It seems like the only thing the league has talked about this year is player safety, so what message does it send to fans if league officials allow a meaningless play to begin, develop and terminate in a tackle?  What if Jones-Drew had been hurt on that play?  What if Dwight Freeney had sprained his ankle?  For all talk the NFL does on behalf of player safety, they sure don't back it up on the field consistently.

Obviously, this no play or invisible play as I'm calling it allowed the Jags to extend their drive and put three points on the board.  But as a flag was thrown, either there was a penalty or there wasn't.  If there was, the Jaguars should have been assessed the appropriate penalty yardage.  If there wasn't, the play shouldn't have been blown dead.  I'm shocked the officials didn't uphold the penalty, if nothing else to save face and avoid the awkwardness of having a play that didn't really count.  The refs were clearly in the wrong here.

So as not to dwell on the topic too long, let's take a look at Thomas' controversial 78-yard punt return touchdown.

Dierdorf: You know, Greg, this crowd is really unhappy.  The more they look at it, the unhappier they get.  But in reality, that was not a fair catch signal.

Gumbel: The more we look at it, the more we're convinced that the Colts kinda duped themselves into thinking it was a fair catch.

Dierdorf: If they did, that was their mistake and I guarantee you every special teams coach in the league this week is gonna pay a little more attention to just that scenario.  But that was a gotta put the arm straight up over your head, wave it vigorously, identify that you're making the fair catch, and that was far from it.

Dierdorf spawned a huge misconception here and apparently CBS producers were unable to correct him.  Yes, Dan, to signal for a valid fair catch, a player must put his arm above his head and wave it.  But a player can also signal an invalid fair catch, prompting a five yard penalty from the spot of the signal, and that has a different set of rules:

Item 2: Invalid Fair-Catch Signal.

If a player raises his hand(s) above his shoulder(s) in any other manner, it is an invalid fair-catch signal. If there is an invalid fair-catch signal, the ball is dead when caught or recovered by any player of the receiving team, but it is not a fair catch. (The ball is not dead if it touches an opponent before or after it strikes the ground. See Article 3b).  Note: A fair-catch signal given behind the line of scrimmage on a scrimmage kick is ignored and is neither valid nor invalid.

Penalty: For an invalid fair-catch signal: Loss of five yards from the spot of the signal.

So to make a valid fair catch, a player must wave his arm above his head.  But a player can also make an invalid fair catch, and this rule was put in place to prevent returners from giving ambiguous signals to slow the coverage team or disinterest them from making the tackle completely.  The question, then, is whether Thomas raised his hand above his shoulder.


Looks pretty clear to me that Thomas' hand is well above his shoulder.  It's at least to his facemask.  As a returner, you are not allowed to raise your hand above shoulder level unless you are making a fair catch, in which case you have to raise your arm above your head to make the fair catch.  Anything else is ambiguous and should be penalized.  It doesn't matter why Thomas' hand was above his shoulder, just that it was.  I've seen some Jaguars fans try to excuse it as Thomas attempting to catch his balance, but even if that was the case (and clearly it's not, at least in any realm of reality), it doesn't matter.  The zone between the shoulders and helmet could essentially be re-named the "invalid fair catch zone."  Or maybe now, the "Mike Thomas zone."

Nice of Thomas to return it, flip into the endzone and taunt fans though.  Gee, who will ever remember Devin Hester in the annals of history when you've got a guy like Thomas around, gifted a touchdown by an incompetent officiating crew?

The officials did a terrible job on Sunday, and while I thought their officiating overall favored the Jaguars, certainly calls went against Jacksonville too, like the aforementioned no-call on Mathis' helmet-to-helmet hit.  I'm not going to feature these calls, obviously, as it's a Colts blog and coverage is Colts-centered.  But Jacksonville was hit or not hit with a few iffy penalties as well, and with a game of this magnitude, bad officiating is simply inexcusable.  The way I see it, the officials essentially gifted Jacksonville 10 first half points (three on a drive that should have never continued due to a phantom third down, seven on a punt return that should have never counted due to an invalid fair catch signal.)  Again, in a game of this importance, there is no reason the refs should be huddling every drive, missing obvious calls or dismissing plays entirely.  Fans of both teams should be enraged by the effort put forth by Carey's crew last Sunday.

As a final point on the issue, announcers like Dierdorf perpetuate misinformation and do more harm than good.  Perhaps more dubious than Dierdorf are the CBS producers who didn't properly research the fair catch rule and inform him that he was babbling nonsense into the microphone.  There are fact-checkers for a reason.  CBS would be wise to use them.

2.  Daryl Smith's hit on Austin Collie was not malicious or designed, but just a terribly unfortunate incident.  Similarly, Peyton Manning's throw did not lead Collie into a collision.

I've seen some discussion amongst Colts fans regarding the intent of Smith's hit that concussed Collie.  Believe me, I hate the Jaguars.  I know it's easy to assume that every one of their players is a murderous, thieving, firebreathing scumbag on a mission to climb through your windows and snatch your people up.  But nothing I've seen on the hit suggests that Smith was trying to do anything more than his job: dislodge the ball from Collie.

Smith unfortunately gets Collie as Collie is attempting to go down to avoid a helmet-to-helmet hit like he experienced in the Eagles game.  There is nothing Smith can do about this.  He is just coming in to make a play on the ball, which by all appearances Collie is going to catch, and is coming in full force as Collie is diving toward the turf to avoid a collision.  I think Smith is as surprised as anyone that Collie gets low as quickly as he does and sort of twists his body as well.  You can tell Collie was seeking sanctuary by trying to go down there and Smith is just looking to make a play in the Jaguars' porous secondary.  The unfortunate result of these two things is a collision that leaves Collie concussed and eventually sends him to IR.

It's also been suggested that Manning should have never thrown this ball, that he led Collie into the collision, but I just don't see that.  It's a great throw.  Collie beats the corner and the safety is well over top, Manning puts the ball low where only Collie can make a play on it and where Collie can quickly get down to avoid a big hit and continue the drive.  I think Manning does misjudge the speed at which Smith is coming in, but it's unrealistic to expect Manning to calculate that.  He correctly made a read on the corner and safety and put the ball in a good place for Collie to make a catch and get down.  Smith makes an outstanding individual effort to peel off his zone and display defensive back speed as a linebacker.  If Smith doesn't get there, it's a clean catch.  Even if Smith gets there and doesn't have the awkward meeting with Collie as Collie is going down, it's probably a catch and a smack or an incomplete pass. 

But I really don't think Manning leads Collie into anything.  Collie had almost caught the ball when he was hit, and usually when a QB leads a WR into a hit, he places a ball in a position where the receiver can either be sandwiched by a corner and a safety or otherwise is forced to take a head-on collision with a defensive back charging over top.  Here, Manning just makes an incredibly difficult throw that should theoretically put Collie in good position to make a catch and go down.  It just doesn't end that way, because that's the way this season has gone.

3.  Stunting was great for disrupting the Jags' run game.  It wasn't so great, however, on obvious passing downs.

I don't know how many of you noticed, but Dwight Freeney may have played his best game of the season last Sunday.  Yes, even without a sack.  He absolutely owned Monroe.  It was an All-Pro performance, no doubt.  Bull rushes.  Spin moves.  Great angles.  Great leverage.  Domination in the run game.  Even live at the game, where I am usually too emotionally-invested to appreciate individual matchups, I could see what Freeney was doing.  Chances are, when he ends up enshrined in Canton, no one will ever talk about this game.  But I'm telling you, it was one of his best.  He took the edge rush to a new level.

And credit goes to the Colts' defensive line, really, for playing a great game across the board.  Fili Moala probably put together his best Colt performance in particular.  Dan Muir and Antonio Johnson were stalwarts all day.  Eric Foster made some noise.  It was a beautiful performance by the defensive line, and one that complicated what the Jaguars were attempting to do.  Credit John Teerlinck and Larry Coyer for working in tandem to design a scheme that locked down Jones-Drew:

"[The Colts] did a lot of passing stunts on running downs," said Jaguars guard Uche Nwaneri. "A lot of guys cross-slanting at the line of scrimmage. There wasn’t much of an opportunity to [physically] get on them. It was crazy."

The Jaguars were obviously unprepared for the way the Colts' defensive line played this game, and it cost them a running attack.  For that, I applaud the coaching staff.  Jim Caldwell challenged the defense in particular to rise up for this game, and they did.  Coaches innovated and came up with creative ways to shut down the Jacksonville running attack.  In that regard, coaching decisions were magnificent.

But when the Colts had the Jaguars in obvious pass situations, they still stunted.  And stunted.  And stunted.  As you all know, I'm not a huge fan of stunts to generate pass rush.  The Colts were destroying the Jaguars' pass protection with vanilla edge rushes.  Why go away from that?  Stunts hinder the Colts' pass rush.  And while they might be fine in ambiguous run-pass situations, 3rd-and-8 is not an ideal time to use one when your edge rush is working just fine.  I don't understand why the Colts kept going to stunts on obvious pass situations when Jones-Drew was not a factor as a runner.  They had the Jaguars right where they wanted them...and then gave up their ultra-effective edge rush.  I don't understand it at all.

The Colts wanted to force Garrard to pass the ball by shutting down Jones-Drew.  They did that.  But then they failed to put their best pass-rushers in a position to make Garrard pay for his dropbacks, and to me, for as well-coached as the defensive line was against the run last Sunday, it was poorly-coached against the pass.

4.  Having Gary Brackett back and healthy makes a BIG difference.

Most will, of course, point to Brackett's tackle of Jones-Drew two yards in the backfield on the Colts' goal-line stand that left the Jaguars with three points instead of seven.  But Brackett was all over the field on Sunday.  And his biggest impact, believe it or not, might not have even been his play between the whistles, but his leadership before and after them.

The Colts' defense communicated a lot more than we've seen at any point this season.  Defensive ends communicated with linebackers, linebackers with defensive tackles, safeties with linebackers.  Jones-Drew indicated that the Colts filled every gap, every time, and I have to believe a lot of that is due to the defense's quarterback being back and healthy.  For as much field as Brackett covered during plays, he was just as active calling out defenses, making adjustments and setting players up for success beforehand.  The Colts have looked leaky against the run on more than a few occasions this year, mostly all a result of Colt defenders not properly filling a gap and giving the RB nowhere to go.  Brackett ensured that everyone was where they needed to be pre-snap and post-snap, and you can't discount the effect that had on the defense's performance.

Brackett allows for more defensive flexibility, which might be his greatest asset.  Pat Angerer did an admirable job filling in for Brackett while the defensive captain was injured, but my guess is that Angerer was extremely limited in his defensive playcalling ability.  The Colts probably just ran whatever vanilla playcall Coyer was able to relay to the rookie linebacker.  But Brackett allows for adjustment, and Brackett can see things Angerer doesn't necessarily notice at this point in his career.  I'm not trying to knock Angerer, he's a fine SAM who will probably be a good MIKE when Brackett nears the end of his career and Angerer knows the defense better.  But right now, there is no substitute for experience, and Brackett has shown once again, as if we ever forgot, that he is irreplaceable.  Or at least until Angerer logs a few more years.

5.  For as well as the defense played most of the game, they still did not execute well in the clutch, and this is perhaps becoming an area of concern.

Don't get me wrong, the defense was awesome for most of the day.  As I said, the officials essentially gifted the Jaguars 10 points, none of which the defense should really be accountable for.  They shut down Jones-Drew, held him under 50 yards.  They'd never held him under 100 yards in any previous meeting.  That's not just good.  That's spectacular.

But, as they did against the Cowboys, the defense let the opposition back in the game.  They failed to seal the deal.  With Jacksonville down by 10 points with 3:21 remaining the game, the Colts' defense allowed the Jaguars to drive the field and score, largely due to an overly-conservative defense.  The defensive scheme wasn't entirely dissimilar to the one employed against the Cowboys which let Jon Kitna drive Dallas to a go-ahead touchdown with minutes remaining that the Colts had to eventually tie to force overtime.

I only mention this because we might be seeing a trend here.  The Colts have been content to sit back in coverage on this drives, which isn't atypical for a Colt defense.  But they've been failing to step up in the red zone, which is extremely atypical.  As mgrex03 wrote this week:

For the second week in a row, the defense did struggle in the Red Zone.  They've been so good all year, I hope they can get back to their first 12 game form for the home stretch of the schedule.

The Colts' defense has struggled in the red zone for two consecutive weeks and also let the Cowboys drive over them when they needed to buckle down most (The Eight Point drive.)  I don't like the direction this is trending.  It seems like, recently, the defense plays well for most of the game and then either lets the opposition back in it or lets the opposition threaten to get back in it.

Part of it is philosophy.  As I said earlier, the Colts' edge rush was destroying the Jaguars' pass protection all day.  Garrard only had seconds to throw.  As such, the Colts should not have given the cushion they did at the end.  Their scheme was a little too conservative considering the success they were having with Freeney and Mathis on edge rushes.  Now, couple that cushion with passing situation stunts that took away the pass rush, and I really don't understand what the defensive coaches thought they were doing or thought they had in terms of a fourth quarter gameplan.  If I'm Coyer, I bring my corners a little closer to the receivers, focus linebacker coverage on the tight end and let my edge rush do its work.  This isn't calling for Justin Tryon or Jacob Lacey to press or jam receivers, it's just calling for them to play a little closer than 8-10 yards off.  That kind of cushion negates even the best pass rush, and then of course passing down stunts negate any pass rush at all.

Simply put: I think the defense, from a schematic viewpoint, is counterproductive at times.  Sometimes, you have to see a weakness and go for the kill.  Coyer seems content just to not die, if that makes any sense.

6.  The Colts figured out how to use Donald Brown, receivers are proving to be very good blockers and we saw a little too much Dominic Rhodes.

It only took 3/4ths of the season, but the Colts figured out how to use Brown.  He's not a great blocker.  He's not a bulldozer.  He is, however, dangerous in the open field with a little help from blockers.  So finally, the Colts ran some plays to take advantage of that.

Brown excelled primarily between the tackles, as much as that stretch play might lead you to believe that he ran better outside.  The Colts ran a number of traps and delays for Brown, running plays considered typically 'finesse' in nature.  These blocking schemes opened up huge holes in the Jaguars' defensive front for Brown to sprint through and enter the second level.  And from there, my suspicions were confirmed: the Colts block really well at the second level.  I've always compared Pierre Garcon to Hines Ward...not that he's anywhere near Ward's level, just that he's extremely physical, a great downfield blocker and willing to scrap.  Jacob Tamme showed a little something in his downfield blocking, too.  And most impressively, offensive linemen were able to hustle downfield and make plays.  The effort displayed by guys like Charlie Johnson, Kyle DeVan and Mike Pollak was tremendous.

The Colts went away from those running plays in the second half because the Jaguars switched to a base, three-linebacker defense in Collie's absence.  Whereas draws, delays and traps are easy to run against nickel packages, they are decidedly more difficult to execute when an extra linebacker in is in the play.  I think the Colts then should have gone to Brown more as a receiver, forced a linebacker to make a play on him one-on-one in coverage, and they tried to at points but were ultimately unsuccessful.  It's a shame, too, because Brown has been ridiculously productive as a receiver out the backfield this season and really for his young career.

It was nice to see Brown run with some confidence, too.  Even on those plays that didn't generate 45+ yards, Brown was running with a little extra oomph between the tackles.  He moved piles, churned out extra yards, did the things we've been praising Joseph Addai and Mike Hart for all year long.  Brown is a back that needs carries, needs confidence and certainly needs blocking and correlated success in order to do well.  If you just give him a handful of carries against a loaded defensive front and behind a shoddy offensive line, Brown -- like most NFL backs -- will fair poorly.  Utilize him well, though, and Brown will run even some of the weaker plays in his arsenal with much more confidence.

As a final note on the run game, Rhodes played too many snaps for my liking.  Other than a handful of carries, he wasn't remarkably effective.  Rhodes is a great guy to have in the locker room and is a solid cog in an offense that relies on familiarity.  But 2010 Rhodes isn't the same as 2006 Rhodes.  He struggled on several runs last Sunday and wasn't particularly effective in his time on the field.  He's a good blocker and a decent receiver, which helps, but I think you could have taken away maybe 5-10 of Rhodes' snaps and split them up between Brown and Javarris James.

7.  It's about time to write that flanker screen out of the playbook.

Unless any of you really enjoy seeing Wayne and Garcon fight to get back to the original line-of-scrimmage.  Maybe that play works three years ago, or heck, even three months ago when the Colts had a plethora of weapons.  Now, with defenses focusing on the outside receivers, it really doesn't work and the Colts are lucky to avoid a loss on that play.

They're not really running it to set up much either.  Rarely -- if ever -- will you see Manning pump fake to the flanker screen while the outside receiver releases deep, leaving an overzealous corner in his wake.  It's just an ineffective play that doesn't do much for setting up other plays.  The Colts are running out of weapons to run it anyway, and even if they had them, I don't think it's really worked to great effect since Garcon's game-winning touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 2 of the 2009 season.

I, for one, wouldn't be sad if that play was written out of the playbook this year.

8.  When Kelvin Hayden returns, Justin Tryon should start at the other corner position, not Jacob Lacey.

I think Tryon has proven himself a more consistent, more impactful player than Lacey this year.  I'd say their tackling skills are about even, but Tryon has made far more plays in coverage.  I just like Tryon as a corner better.  I have all season.  He gives more cushion than Lacey but has much better closing speed.  His ball skills are also uncanny.  I'm not saying he'll be a lockdown corner in this league any time soon, but for right now, I think he's a better play than Lacey.

You could argue that Lacey knows the defense better, has been around longer and has more chemistry with the rest of the squad.  I could argue that despite that chemistry, Lacey has found himself lagging in coverage an awful lot this season.

9.  Not all mid-to-late season free agent signings are garbage.

True story: Tyjuan Hagler has had a bigger impact on this season than Bob SandersTaj Smith has had a bigger impact on this season than Anthony Gonzalez.

I don't know why the Colts failed to bring Hagler in earlier than they did, but he's proven to be a solid pickup thus far.  I'm sure that doesn't surprise many folks who follow the Colts; when healthy, Hagler has always been a solid player.  Smith has been an instant impact to special teams, whether through luck or skill.  He's always in the right place at the right time and has brought energy and playmaking ability to an oft-maligned unit.

Sure, nobody gets excited when the Colts sign a David Pender or Al Aflava to their active roster.  But not all late pickups are garbage.  Some will be relied on to make plays, and some will make plays on their own.

10.  Pat McAfee hasn't been Pat McAfee since his suspension.

He's look a bit off, granted he's a good enough player where "a bit off" is still on par with an average NFL punter's performance.  But McAfee, for my money, is one of the better punters in this league when he's on his A-game.  He just hasn't been consistently on an A-game since his suspension.

Last Sunday may have been his worst performance of the season.  He only averaged 22.7 yards per punt, compared to Adam Podlesh's 47.3 yards per punt.  His touchbacks have been down considerably post-suspension.  It just seems that his overall game, for whatever reason, has faltered since the infamous canal dive.

I'm not trying to rag on McAfee too hard here.  I know he can be a very good punter.  He's a fun guy, great to fans, accessible, etc.  But the fact remains that his play has fallen off, for whatever reason, since his suspension.  I don't think he would argue that.  We've seen that punters and good field position can make the difference between winning and losing a playoff game, just as Mike Scifres.  So should the Colts be lucky enough to make the postseason, McAfee will need to step his game up a bit.