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Big Blue Breakdown: The Colts v. Raiders Everything Edition

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I've decided, for the time being, that I'm going to stick with last week's format for these articles, primarily because it allows me to address multiple topics instead of narrowing my focus to one.  Should any pressing single point constitute its own thorough examination then, yeah, I'll go back to the Russian novelist-length photo essays.  For now, though, let's continue to give the new format a shot and see if that provokes more discussion or encourages more feedback.  I get the sense that folks are finding some of the screencap breakdowns difficult to follow or finish, and as someone who skips from website-to-website on a daily basis, I completely understand the lack of attention span.

Today, we'll examine some topics from last Sunday's contest between the Colts and Raiders, some issues relevant to that game and some represented by that game but relevant to the larger season.  It was nice to surprisingly see a December game this year that didn't really matter (much, at all.)  Once Graham Gano sealed the Washington's win over Jacksonville, I found myself able to relax and actually analyze and enjoy a Colts game this year without worrying about the score.  Crazy concept, I know.

After the jump, we'll take a look at a few topics relevant to that game.

1.  I'm becoming concerned with the defense's inability to close out games.

This trend really began to surface, in my opinion, at the beginning of the month when the Colts hosted Dallas.  I wrote my article about the defense's final stand (or lack thereof) against the Cowboys that week (Part 1, Part 2) because I was so frustrated with what I was seeing. 

In Week 14, the Colts found themselves in a similar position on a visit to Tennessee.  Leading 27-14 in the fourth quarter, the Colts had a chance to knock Tennessee completely out of the game by squelching any last minute drives but allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the final score much closer than it ever should have been (30-28.)  You could argue that the last Titan touchdown was in garbage time, and given the complete, inexplicable lack of urgency from Tennessee's offense that drive, you might have a case.  But the first Titan touchdown that quarter, a four-yard pass from Kerry Collins to Bo Scaife, came on a drive where the Colts only forced one third down on a 66-yard march.  And the second Tennessee touchdown, though ultimately meaningless, would never have been if Jerry Hughes hadn't jumped offside to negate a Jacob Lacey interception.

The Tennessee game isn't an egregious example of this trend, but still, the Colts allowed 14 fourth-quarter points when they should have absolutely erased their seemingly disinterested opposition.

Week 15, then, saw this issue crop up again, this time much more explicit than the previous week and reminiscent of their shortcomings against Dallas.  Against the Jaguars, the Colts led 27-17 with 3:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Starting at their own 49-yard line, it took Jacksonville only one minute and 17 seconds to score a touchdown that narrowed the margin to three points.  This drive included:

  • A 25-yard pass from David Garrard to Rashad Jennings (short left.)
  • An 11-yard pass from David Garrard to Marcedes Lewis (short right.)
  • A 9-yard pass from David Garrard to Marcedes Lewis (short middle.)
  • A 5-yard run by David Garrard (up the middle.)
  • A 1-yard touchdown pass from David Garrard to Mike Sims-Walk (short middle.)

See the pattern?  The Colts allowed the Jaguars to nickel and dime them at an alarmingly fast rate, trading huge chunks of uncontested yardage underneath for security up top.  This ultra-conservative approach barely worked the Jaguars into a sweat as they needed just seven plays, or slightly over one minute, to put up seven points.  Again, the Colts had a chance to make a defensive stand and put this game away and chose to go with a defensive gameplan so conservative that it managed to shame even Rush Limbaugh.

You probably see where I'm going with this, then, as it relates to last Sunday's game.  After the defense allowed only nine Raider points through the first three quarters, they allowed 10 in the final quarter.  Nursing a 31-19 lead, the defense allowed Oakland to cut the score to 31-26 on a 14-play drive that began with 5:02 remaining in the quarter and ended with a Jason Campbell touchdown pass to Zach Miller with 1:54 remaining.  With the exception of one 26-yard reception, these were all underneath plays as well.  The drive chart looks very similar to the one I detailed for Jacksonville.

So what's the issue?  Well, especially last week, it seems that the Colts are playing one defense for three or three-and-a-half quarters and then eschewing what worked to go with some failsafe prevent defense that isn't quite failsafe.  I know why they're doing it: historically, it has worked for them, even before Larry Coyer got here.  The defense used to close out games in the fourth quarter.  Melvin Bullitt singlehandedly ended four games, I believe, in the 2008 regular season.  Last year, the Colts had the defensive firepower to make these plays in the clutch as well, whether a Clint Session pick-six against Houston, an Antoine Bethea interception of Chad Pennington against Miami or a Gary Brackett pick of Joe Flacco to end Baltimore's comeback hopes.

This year, the Colts don't have much defensive firepower and even Indy regulars aren't making these plays in crunch time.  Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis certainly closed the game against Cincinnati, but other than that, the Colts have not made many defensive plays to seal the game in the fourth quarter.  Coyer is trying to play defense in these instances like he still has Jerraud Powers or Bullitt out there, but the reality is that this secondary is significantly weaker than in recent years and the Colts either don't have guys to step up and make these plays or aren't getting them.

It also doesn't help that the Colts have been lackluster in the red zone in recent weeks when considering fourth quarter drives.  The defense usually waits to make its stand in the red zone, but is schematically treating this sacred area like it exists between the 20s.  Coverage isn't tightening up.  So, my proposal to Coyer would be to go with what works.  Pressure the passer.  Force incompletions, bad decisions.  It worked for three-and-a-half quarters.  In most of these games, Freeney and Mathis were eating up opposing offensive tackles and even the interior linemen were generation pressure.  So go with that.  Bring the heat in the fourth quarter.  If the alternative is giving up a touchdown anyway, as the Colts have shown a propensity for doing, what's the harm?  Heck, you can play soft between the 20s as long as you tighten up where it counts.  The Colts aren't doing that lately.

And it's becoming a habit of concern.

2. The offensive playcalling in the third quarter had me scratching my head.

In the first half, the Colts ran the ball 16 times for 57 yards, a 3.6 ypc average.  That is actually weighted down by a -5 yard carry by Pierre Garcon, so in reality, no Colt back averaged less than 3.8 yards per touch and Donald Brown actually averaged 4.6 ypc for the half.  The Colts weren't sexy running the ball, but they ran effectively.  The run game was there.

Dominic Rhodes started the second half with a 15-yard run up the middle.  Manning then proceeded to throw a (bad) interception on the next play.  Next offensive possession?  Rhodes runs for 15 up the middle again, then two yards left, then two Manning incompletions kill the drive.  Punt.  After that?  A four-yard pass by Manning that generated a first down on penalty, followed by a six-yard run by Joseph Addai and then...two incompletions by Manning to kill the drive.  Punt.  The Colts did score on the ensuing drive, thanks primarily to Oakland's inability to cover without mugging an Indy wideout, but the offense was abysmal coming out of the locker room.

Manning, in particular, played a poor third quarter.  I know it's sacrilege to suggest he's anything less than perfect, and honestly if it wasn't for the third quarter I'd probably say he played a good game.  But on the quarter, he was 3-8 for 17 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.  He also promptly threw another bad interception a few plays into the drive continued from the third into the fourth quarter.

Though each interception was bad and certainly Manning's fault, I take more issue with the playcalling than anything else.  The Colts ran the ball eight times in the quarter against nine passes (one nullified by penalty.)  Rhodes alone, in only three touches, had twice as many yards rushing in the quarter as Manning had passing, yet the Colts favored the pass despite running well in the first half and having a hot hand in Rhodes.  I wondered, when I looked at the game again, if that meant the Raiders had adjusted to the Colts' effective first half running and stacked the box.

They didn't.  Not in the third quarter.  Not when Manning threw his pick, not on either of Rhodes' 15-yard runs.  No matter what, they kept their safeties back.  The Raiders, by all accounts, were still inviting the Colts to run...and why wouldn't they take their odds with a 3.8 ypc average against Manning's arm?  But Manning insisted on throwing some questionable passes anyway, even though the run game was there, and I really don't understand the thought process.

If this team is going to go anywhere in the postseason, it has to be able to establish the run.  Manning also has to feed the backs when the run is there.  For whatever reason, he didn't do this in the third quarter.  He took to the air too much and made some bad passes.  This isn't to say that he played a bad game, but that the third-quarter playcalling was questionable at best.  I'd much rather see Manning handing off to a red hot Rhodes than forcing no-chance passes to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.

3.  Indy's offensive line can play nasty.

I have two trains of thought regarding the second-quarter scuffles between Indy's offensive line and Oakland's defensive line.  On one hand, I think the run call with 1:03 remaining in the quarter/half was clearly a "revenge" call.  It was designed so that Kyle DeVan and company could get revenge on LaMarr Houston for his attempted eye gouge the play before.  DeVan absolutely obliterates his man off the snap and slams him to the turf, piling on top and getting a few licks in.  This prompts a scuffle which sees Ryan Diem dragged across the field by his facemask and could be called against anyone, but ends up going against Diem because the Colts more or less initiated the fight with DeVan's drive-and-pummel. 

As it was a revenge call -- and I doubt many would dispute that -- it was pretty dumb on the Colts' part to more or less voluntarily subject themselves to a 15-yard penalty.  Say what you want, but everyone knew when that call was made that the Colts would retaliate for the previous play and more than likely get flagged.  From this perspective, it wasn't a smart move. 

But perhaps it was more of a statement than some simple revenge call.  The Colts' offensive line has been maligned by the media (rightfully so) all year.  Maybe this was their way of saying "okay, you wanna play nasty, well we can do that, too!"  It was their way of showing that the offensive line isn't some pushover group, but guys who can get mean and move their defensive counterparts with less than complete consideration for their well-being.

You can consider it dumb or consider it brave, but I consider it, coupled with the recent running game resurgence, an attempt at making a statement from a group of men that certainly have not played well or consistently well all year.  They have controlled the line of scrimmage the last two games.  This game, they controlled it with pure, brute strength.  Now -- and maybe this is too tangential to what I'm getting at -- I don't know why this line-of-scrimmage control had to wait until the season was in doubt.  I don't know why both lines got bullied in the season opener yet with no change in personnel are able to manhandle stronger opposition.  Some of that points to coaching, I think, poor preparation to start the season and good catchup work in crunch time.  Just a thought.  But for now, it's just nice to see the offensive line in a position to make statements.

They can get nasty, and they're not afraid to.  It's a nice statement to make.  I just hope they can keep it going, because while these last two games have been nice, they're going to have to pull out five more.  I'm losing skepticism with each game, but until I see this becoming a consistent pattern, I'll always have my doubts.

4.  The defensive line is starting to dominate.

Freeney has had dominant games all year and Mathis has played lights-out in spurts.  But until the last few games, we've yet to see any consistently good effort from the defensive tackles.  Even without Dan Muir on Sunday, the Colts absolutely controlled the line of scrimmage on defense as well.

Fili Moala in particular has been playing very well.  I thought he was the best defensive tackle last week and Bill Polian echoed that sentiment in this week's Polian Corner.  I still think Moala is an inconsistent player and I'm not even close to ready to claim that he's "arrived" yet, but you can sure see the glimpses after these last few weeks.  I don't think it's any coincidence that the Colts are stuffing the run as Moala is playing much better football.  He finally looks to have a motor, and he looks quick out there.  Moala has a unique sort of build for a DT, more athletic than fat but still big, and he finally looks to be playing like he knows how to use it, how to gain leverage, how to shed blocks and get in the backfield.

I'm not surprised that Antonio Johnson is playing well against the run because he has all year.  I think you could easily make an argument that A. Johnson should be starting over Muir right now.  Muir has had his good games (he dominated Jacksonville) but A. Johnson has been more consistently effective this season.  Combine his good play with Moala's, and Darren McFadden was getting stonewalled in the backfield most of the day.  When he wasn't, linebackers were filling gaps, defensive backs were making solo tackles and the defense played smart and disciplined football all day long.

And of course, when the defense stops the pass, they can turn loose on the passer.  I don't have the stats to back this but I'm pretty sure I'm right: the only quarterback the Colts pressured more this season than Jason Campbell last Sunday was Eli Manning in Week 2.  Campbell was under constant pressure all day from a variety of pass-rushers.  Freeney and Mathis made his life a living hell, of course, but the defensive tackles and blitzing linebackers like Gary Brackett did their jobs too.  The Colts will need this kind of pressure against the Tom Bradys and Ben Roethlisbergers of the league, should they be so lucky (or is it unlucky?) as to face them this postseason.

5.  For as much as the run defense has improved, though, fullbacks still give them problems.

I still have nightmares of Vonta Leach destroying Philip Wheeler and Antoine Bethea in the season opener.  After the last few weeks, I'm not sure the Colts have really improved much against fullbacks, though.  Ahmard Hall was able to get some critical seal blocks for Chris Johnson a couple weeks ago, and Marcel Reece stonewalled Brackett and company a few times last Sunday.

On the Raiders' longest offensive play from scrimmage, a 28-yard scamper by McFadden, Reece completely knocks Brackett out of the play as Brackett converges on the hole.  Combined with good blocking from the offensive line and Zach Miller (on Pat Angerer), McFadden is able to run untouched up the middle of the field until Bethea brings him down.  The catalyst for this play was absolutely Reece, who knocked the Colts' middle linebacker clean out of the hole and ensuing running lane.  This has happened more than a few times with fullbacks this season.

The Raiders' second-longest rushing play and fourth-longest offensive play, a 15-yard run up the middle by Michael Bush, came off the same play design.  Again, Reece met Brackett in the hole and again he knocked him out the play.  In both instances, it wasn't a full-on block so much as it was just a violent knock that sent Brackett reeling and stumbling out of the play.  On this play, though, Reece is able to even knock helmets with another Colt defender before Bush is brought down.

This is purely an "eye tendency" I've picked up, I have no substantial proof that the Colts are struggling against fullbacks this year, but it would sure appear that way to me.  You do have to consider that Leach and Reece are two of the most talented fullbacks in the league and will knock plenty of linebackers out of running lanes.  But I've seen it enough to note it, and I'm thinking Brackett will be seeing a lot of Ahmard Hall next week.