To all the non-believers -- especially you, Tom Jackson! -- the New York Jets have proved they can stand toe-to-toe with the league's elite.
Lost, to some extent, in all the rejoicing about the Patriots not going to the Super Bowl and the sounds of frantic paper-shuffling sounding from Bristol as ESPN personalities scramble to explain why losses are not a quarterback statistic after all (apparently it's a team game now that Tom Brady is 0-3 in his last three postseason outings) is the fact that, employing two slightly-different strategies, the Jets were able to handcuff two of the league's best passers.
It's no small feat (not that Rex Ryan has a problem with small feet), and it's made especially impressive by the fact that both efforts occurred on the road against teams whose offenses had previously flustered the defensive-minded Ryan.
After the jump, we'll take a look at how the Jets defensed both the Colts and Pats.
I'm sure most Colts fans are aware of the Jets' defensive gameplan from wildcard weekend by now. According to Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Stats & Info, the Jets only sent five or more rushers at Peyton Manning for 14.8 percent of their defensive snaps. This number represents a dramatic decrease from the following year, where the Colts shredded a Jets defense that sent five or more rushers 63.4 percent of the time in the 2010 AFC Championship game. Against that defense, Manning completed 16 of 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Against New York's considerably-more-reserved wildcard gameplan (and without the help of Austin Collie or Dallas Clark), Manning completed 18 of 26 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown.
Those numbers are strikingly similar. For all the talk about the Jets "shutting down Manning", Manning still threw a similar number of both completions and attempts for a similar amount of yards. The only differences, and they're not to be discounted, were in touchdowns (two last year to one this year) and yards per attempt (down to 8.7 from
15.1 9.7, a significant decrease.)
I think the more appropriate term is that the Jets, and arguably a conservative offensive gameplan, limited Manning. They didn't shut him down. He still completed almost 70 percent of his passes, threw no interceptions, did not fumble and was only sacked on a give-up play at the end of the first half.
The Jets' biggest defensive accomplishments against Manning and the Colts' offense were anchoring down on defensive third downs (the Colts only converted six of 13 third-down attempts) and limiting big plays (Manning's 57-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon was certainly an anomaly on the night.) Most importantly, the Jets limited Manning to one of four -- just 25 percent, according to my fourth-grade math brain -- third down conversions of six yards or fewer that were attempted through the air. Normally, those are money conversions for Manning. The Jets and Blair White's hands insisted otherwise that night.
But how did the Jets defend the Colts? How did they manage to keep plays in front of them so well, save one long touchdown pass from Manning to Garcon? How did they present problems on third downs?
Take it from the man himself:
"They had seven DBs, they had 34, [cornerback Marquice] Cole at defensive end, it was 100 percent pass coverage," Peyton Manning said. "That’s a lot of DBs. We just thought they’re not going to think we’re going to run it. We’ve got to be able to pick those up."
The Jets showed the Colts multiple heavy coverage looks, and that should hardly come as a surprise given the statistics we've already covered. They rarely rushed more than four, sometimes only rushing three, and dared the Colts to run the ball.
The Colts, however, could not run the ball. And they couldn't convert short passes. Not on their first third-and-one, when Manning hurried the Colts to the line against an unprepared New York defense that still managed to stuff Joseph Addai for a loss because Jacob Tamme was absolutely blown up on a poor block (this one play after Tamme, who really had an awful game when the Colts could least afford it, dropped a relatively easy pass on 2nd-and-1.) You could argue, though, that Addai should have cut back inside on this run too. Either way, it was a mess of a run play and the Colts couldn't convert a simple third-and-one.
Not on their second third-and-one, one series later, when White ran a sideline drag route short of the sticks and hauled in a Manning pass for no gain. Just poor situational awareness from White, who had shown a propensity for running third-down routes short of the marker for the season.
Not the next series, on yet another 3rd-and-1, this one actually on a very poor decisions by Manning to throw to a covered White instead of airing it out to Garcon who was wide open down the sideline with no one in front of him. As I said in my recap, Manning really should have looked to Garcon much earlier than he did. He was taking Antonio Cromartie's lunch money from the start. This is the only third-down failure I really put on Manning's shoulders, but it was a big one. If he waits just a second longer -- and he had the protection -- he sees Garcon running free down the sidelines after he easily releases from Cromartie's half-hearted jam, and the Colts have an easy six on the board.
Not on a later third down (unfortunately I've lost track of where this one was) where Jeff Saturday got absolutely manhandled by Mike DeVito, allowing the New York DL to get considerable penetration and make a play in the backfield.
You see a common trend: the Jets stopping the Colts on third-and-short. Even against heavy coverage looks, the Colts just couldn't run the ball with any consistency, with any sort of determination. This was a game, once the gameplans began to play out, that I thought projected much like the Colts' divisional round win at Baltimore during their title run of 2006. A slugfest where the more determined team at the line-of-scrimmage would win the game. And unlike that 2006 game, the Colts didn't own the line-of-scrimmage in the wildcard round. They didn't even rent a room in its above-garage apartment. The Jets imposed their will on both sides, and that just cannot happen when a defense is dropping multiple players into coverage. Guys like DeVito weren't just winning one-on-one battles, they were demolishing Colt players in the process.
The Jets used personnel groupings like 5DB/2LB and 5LB/5DB (with three LBs playing as DL next to one true DL) to draw Manning away from the big play and steer him toward the short-yardage passing and run game. As those were the Colts' two primary options in moving the ball, let's take a look at each.
The short-yardage passing game was limited by talent, plain and simple. Garcon, White and Tamme were responsible for all but two receptions on the day. With a team-high six receptions, White was the primary short-yardage target. Knowing that, you see why the Colts struggled at times in this area: White just isn't that good. That's not a slight against White, who has certainly overachieved as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, but a stark reminder of the injury-plagued 2010-11 season. I guarantee, and I know visiting Jets fans won't like to hear this (or Bart Scott, for that matter) that if the Colts had either Clark or Collie for this game, they win. If they had both, they win going away. I guarantee it like George Zimmer.
But they didn't, and as a result, their replacements dropped passes and ran routes short of the sticks. Drops and poor routes from Tamme and White -- and a poor blocking attempt in Tamme's case -- killed at least three conversion attempts. You could argue four, depending on how you feel about Manning's final pass to White.
On the flip side of the offense, the Colts should have been able to run better than they did. Much better. There is no excuse for averaging only 3.4 yards per carry against a vacated box. Interesting, maybe only to me, is that the Colts only used Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Addai averaged 4.6 yards on 13 carries (for 60 yards) and Rhodes averaged a mere 2.4 yards on 14 carries (for 33 yards.) It seemed, if ever there was a game for Mike Hart to get some carries after his ankle healed up, this was probably it. I can understand why the team shied away from Donald Brown, especially in pass protection, but I really can't understand how Hart did not even get in this game. Rhodes proved to be a tremendous sparkplug for a flat running game, but there is no way, absolutely no way he should have had 14 carries in this game. In my opinion, this game was ripe for Hart to get four or five touches, at least in short-yardage situations, and his absence was certainly curious.
Regardless of distribution, though, the running game was sadly typical of the season. Addai (a rusty Addai at that, this man needs to be re-signed) slithered out 4.6 yards per carry, on par with his season average, despite the offensive line opening up limited space for him to work with. Rhodes, a boom-or-bust back it seems, struggled to stake out the same yards at his counterpart. In the end, the fault doesn't lie with either back but with an offensive line that really struggled to block guys like DeVito, and simply did not rise to the challenge that New York's defense presented: run the ball, we dare you. Again, this performance typified the 2010 season.
Manning, I would say, did what he could with what he had. The Jets defensed him with heavy coverage looks, with multiple linebackers and defensive backs on the field at once, and Manning only missed on one or two throws that I can think of. He didn't tempt fate against coverage looks and he shouldn't have. If I were to identify one fault with Manning's game, it would be more schematic than anything else: he didn't look to get Reggie Wayne moving around enough. Sometimes, the Colts' "do what we do" mantra works against them. In this case, the offense -- again, this through scheming or either Manning or Clyde Christensen or both -- actively conceded the left side of the field. Instead of looking for a back-shoulder throw or moving Wayne around to get him in the slot or running drag routes across the middle or crossing routes with Tamme or White, the Colts just left Wayne on Revis Island without so much as a compass or a coconut phone. For an offense that proved predictable on the season largely due to its limited ability with the "next man up", the Colts sure made things harder on themselves than they had to be by just allowing themselves two-thirds of the field to work with.
To summarize how the Jets attacked the Colts' offense: they didn't. They dared. They dropped multiple defenders into coverage and invited the Colts to run the ball. The Colts couldn't rise to the challenge.
Now let's look to the Jets' divisional game against the Patriots this past weekend. Would Rex Ryan approach Team Brady with the same gameplan he used against the Colts?
To some extent, yes. The Jets dressed 11 defensive backs on the day. Subtract their kicker, punter and holder, who are barely football players much less actual human beings (I kid, I kid, that's just for my good friend who is a former NCAA kicker/punter and any canal-braving punter who may or may not read this site), and the Jets devoted a quarter of their roster to coverage.
The immediate, striking statistic that highlights the difference between Manning's outing against the Jets and Brady's performance is that Brady was sacked five times to Manning's lone, give-up dive. With that many takedowns, you would assume the Jets attacked Brady with more than their standard front three or four, that Ryan dialed up his blitzes a week after sitting on them (and promptly smothering them.)
You would be wrong though. All five of Brady's sacks and his interception came against four or fewer rushers. The Jets just absolutely plastered the field with coverage, and defensive lineman Trevor Pryce claims in Michael Silver's subsequently-linked piece:
"It was an unbelievable game plan," Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said in Michael Silver's column on Yahoo! Sports. "It was out of sight. We did some stuff I've never seen a football team do. We flooded coverages, had man schemes that looked like zone and zone that looked like man.
Facing coverage floods similar to those Manning faced, but probably more varied in look because the Patriots didn't actively concede one-third of the field against Revis, Brady averaged 3.2 yards per attempt less than his regular season average and experienced a 32-point dropoff from his regular season passer rating to his postseason figure before mounting a garbage time, five-of-seven for 59 yards and one touchdown drive that ultimately boosted his stats to numbers not quite fully representative of his struggles (manufactured by the Jets' defense.)
The primary difference you'll notice between Manning and Brady is that Brady threw a helluva lot more passes for less yards per attempt. Whereas Manning was a cool, efficient 18 of 26 on the day, Brady was all over the place at 29 of 45. And though Brady passed for more yards (299 to Manning's 225) and touchdowns (two to Manning's one), he also threw a costly interception and completed 64 percent of his passes to Manning's 69 percent, although that last figure might be negligible.
The Jets' defense also dared the Patriots to run, which New England managed to do more respectably than the Colts. In total, their attack averaged 4.0 yards per carry, a figure weighed down by Patrick Chung's botched fake punt run and a sneak by Tom Brady. Danny Woodhead finished with 14 carries for 46 yards (3.3 yards per carry), BenJarvus Green-Ellis finished with nine carries for 43 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate both added 11 yard carries. Summarily, the Patriots ran the ball with more efficiency than the Colts, converting more third-down attempts on the ground and averaging more yards per rush on more rushes.
New York hung their hats on underneath coverage all day, often singling Revis and Cromartie in one-on-one over top matchups with safeties near the box to cover Wes Welker and the dangerous tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. No one had tried this approach, at least for the duration of a game, against the Patriots all season. This is precisely why the Patriots seemed to feature one of the aforementioned tight ends or Alge Crumpler on the touchdown reel every week. Teams were mostly still shadowing over top as if Brady was still throwing to Randy Moss or something.
The Jets basically said you're not going to beat us with Deion Branch and Brandon Tate. And they were right. Neither Branch nor Tate could shake free of single coverage on numerous attempts, and safeties lurking in underneath coverage helped Jet linebackers and extra defensive backs to bracket underneath receivers. Brady simply had nowhere to go with the ball. Whereas he made a living this season off checking down to Woodhead or catching Gronkowski one-on-one with a linebacker, the Jets kept all their coverage efforts focused on these guys and recorded five sacks as a result. Most of Brady's sacks didn't come from New England offensive linemen getting instantly beat from the snap, but rather resulted from coverage sacks. No one was open, and the lucky few rushing Brady feasted on the fact.
Now, was this gameplan different from the one employed against the Colts? To an extent, yes. I think there were some notable differences, mostly the spacing tendencies of the safeties. Against the Colts, the Jets still kept their safeties over top or at least considerate of over-top coverage most of the time. Manning burned them with the 57-yarder to Garcon on one of the few snaps they didn't (he also missed the third-down touchdown I mentioned previously in a similar no-safety-respect situation.) The Jets were more worried about Wayne and Garcon getting open over top and down the sidelines, or Tamme running down a seam, than they were any receiver getting open underneath. It's why Manning was more efficient than Brady and targeted guys like Tamme and White so much. While I wouldn't say the Jets "conceded" coverage underneath, they certainly honed in moreso on Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez than White and Tamme.
In both contests, though, the Jets held back on pressure and often went max coverage. The strategy worked to varying extents. Against the Colts, it was good enough to hold them to 16 points but not quite good enough to prevent the Colts from taking a go-ahead lead with less than a minute remaining. Against the Patriots, it was good enough to force an interception and make Brady look uncharacteristically scattershot, but not quite good enough to keep the Patriots from still making a game of it (tell me you weren't convinced the Patriots would recover one of those onside kicks, especially the one Cromartie returned.)
The difference was largely in the safeties and coverage focus. Manning was dared to check to runs and throw underneath. Brady was dared to check to runs and throw over top. In the end, Manning didn't have the reliable run game or underneath options needed to churn out yards, make tough catches and extend drives. And Brady didn't have to deep threats able to stretch the field and take advantage of one-on-one coverage. It's funny: for as far as Randy Moss has fallen, the Patriots sure could have used him on Sunday.
Some will turn this into a Manning versus Brady argument, but I think the larger focus should be on what the Jets did, how they mired each offense. In this league, passers like Manning and Brady are expected to give superhuman efforts to compensate for areas in which their team might be lacking. Often they do. But this postseason, neither could quite do enough to counter the Jets' brilliant gameplans. I would argue that Manning at least kept his team in the game and drove for what should have been the winning points -- do experts expect him to play special teams and defense in that last 50 seconds, too? But ultimately, each quarterback was stymied by Rex Ryan's defense and prove the doubters wrong.
Especially Tom Jackson.