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Tale of the Tape: Colts secondary good when aggressive and bad when not against the Texans

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In our first look at the Colts defense, in particular the play of Pierre Desir in the secondary, we showed how press man coverage forces receivers to make contested catches and forces quarterbacks to make throws into tight windows. We also showed the difference when Desir played off of the line in zone coverage.

Today, we’ll take another look a the secondary and examine when the Texans struggled to complete passes against when they were able to move the ball. We will finish with a bonus look at a ridiculous defensive scheme the Colts have run throughout the year, particularly late in games with a lead, and how it giving up big yards at key times during games.

One of the most common themes for Nate Hairston is that he is often asked to play with more cushion in the nickel role in the defense. On this play he backs up prior to the snap to create a little more space between himself and Will Fuller. He is clearly doing his best to not allow Fuller get over the top of him.

What is impressive is how quickly he diagnoses that Fuller is the target and is able to recover. Even if Fuller is able to make this catch, Hairston forces him out of bounds.

This is another example of how Hairston’s play-style is different from the boundary corners. He is more often tasked with reading the play in front of him and breaking on the ball. In this case, he is responsible for the short zone on his side of the field. He is patrolling the first down marker and ultimately wants to stop the exact pass that is thrown to Hopkins in front of him.

While Hopkins can’t haul this pass in, partially due to a low throw from Savage, Hairston has good timing to make sure the ball is dislodged. It would have been a difficult catch to make while taking hard contact.

In what was the most important play of the game, Hairston is matched up in press man coverage with DeAndre Hopkins at the goal line. He plays outside shoulder here in an effort to slow down a fade route. While he clearly makes contact in the end zone, the officials did not call him for pass interference. He does a nice job of timing the ball and knocking the pass down.

One thing that it is important to understand in press man or bump-n-run coverage is that there will be more instances of defensive pass interference or holding. It’s the nature of the play-style. However, as on this play, contact will not always be called and the aggressive style will often do more to frustrate an opponent than it will cost the team in penalty yards.

Rashaan Melvin is in man coverage on Hopkins. He plays inside shoulder, fights with him early in his route to slow down his progress across the field, and forces Savage to pump the ball. This is an example of the positive relationship between press man coverage and generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. By the time Savage releases the ball, partially because he feels pressure around him, he throws right into Melvin. This would have been an easy interception if he had his head around looking for a pass.

This is a view from the sideline of the same play. Notice that Hairston is still playing off coverage against Fuller. Desir is in man coverage along the sideline nearest the camera. Everywhere you look, receivers are contested, Most are in tight coverage and two are hit at the line of scrimmage.

Savage had no where to go with this pass. He chose what should have been a sure interception.

This is Rashaan Melvin in press man coverage on Hopkins. Hopkins was frustrated with getting knocked off of his routes over and over and decided to push back. He pushed off at the top of his route, creating separation, and was called for offensive passing interference. This is a great example of how playing more aggressive and physical with a receiver through his route might be riskier from a defensive holding and passing interference perspective but will also draw offensive passing interference penalties.

Compare the previous plays to this one. I point out Pierre Desir at the bottom of the screen because he is the player who is asked to make the play here. Notice the problem? The Colts back off into a soft zone with every defender about 15 yards off of the line of scrimmage. The result? Bruce Ellington gets a free release on a short out and takes the catch for a first down.

Imagine him trying to make a contested catch on this out if the Colts stayed with their aggressive defensive philosophy. It’s unlikely he gets a free look at the ball and based upon our examination of much of the game, more likely that the ball gets knocked down.

Another soft zone coverage with man coverage on the outside. Texans tight end Stephen Anderson gets a free release into his route, is entirely untouched at the line of scrimmage, not chipped by the linebacker, and runs right into a hole in the zone. This is a reception every time. Also, a first down. We might as well just give them 14 yards.

This is another example where Hairston is asked to play zone coverage at the first down markers. Knowing that he will setup here, the Texans attack the next level behind him. The play draws vertical coverage on the seam route and leaves a huge space for an easy pass over the top of Hairston.

Unless the pass rush gets into Savage’s face very early, these zone coverage looks will give up plays like this all the time.

Another easy pass to complete against these soft coverages is the dump-off to a running back right in the middle of field. Just as the Colts should do with Marlon Mack, the Texans get Lamar Miller in space, and allow him to make a guy miss and pick up extra yards. This play was wide open and will often be this wide open if the Colts play soft zones.

For your bonus play breakdown, we take a look at the Colts classic two down lineman scheme. Margus Hunt and Henry Anderson are lined up in a 3 tech and 5 tech role. There are three offensive lineman to handle either player, potentially. In this instance, the Texans shield off Hunt, release the tight end to get a block at the second level, and Miller is off to the races.

This gives an even better look at just how wide open the running lane is up the middle. This defensive alignment gives Houston numbers in the trenches. It has consistently resulted in long gains on the ground that look very similar to this. There is no reason to have the tight end stay in on this play, allowing a free blocker to get to the linebackers. This is a horribly designed defensive alignment that will get scorched all of the time.

Similar to the conclusions we reached with Pierre Desir on Thursday, the Colts defense excels when it plays a more aggressive style. The defensive backs had strong performances playing in press man coverage. Nate Hairston plays more off coverage and does his best to keep the receiver from getting behind him but he is so athletic that he can close the gap quickly and contest incoming passes.

On the other hand, when this defense goes into softer coverages, zones, and prevent packages, it is a losing proposition. It is no surprise the team has lost so many second half leads when you realize that these soft defenses are most often deployed late in halves, when playing with a lead.