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Tale of the Tape: Colts Defense Stout Against the Cardinals on the Ground Part I

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Each week in the Colts 2017 season should be interesting because there has been so much turnover over the last 9 months. No unit in the NFL has experienced more turnover than the Colts defense, and after giving up a lot of points in the season opener, it was interesting to see how the unit would bounce back.

One of the most successful areas for the defense in Los Angeles was in stopping the run. They held the Rams ground game to 1.9 yards per carry and bottled up Todd Gurley for much of the game.

The problem with using the Rams game as a barometer for the run defense has to do with situational advantage. Teams with big leads tend to run the ball more to eat up clock. Defenses and coordinators know this so they load up the box and play in run strong packages that could paint an inaccurate picture.

Against the Cardinals, the Colts defense had no such benefit. The game was close throughout and there was never a time that Bruce Arians and the Arizona offense was forced to go one way or another. Granted, this was a different unit without David Johnson in the game but defensive discipline and preparation for all phases was required for the full game.

In the end, the Colts held the Cardinals to a respectable 3.3 yards per carry on the ground. Over two games, they are holding opposing running backs to 2.5 yards per attempt (2nd in the NFL) and have given up the 7th lowest rushing yards per game at 73. They have given up no carries of 20 or more yards.

Let’s take a look at the tape and see where Indianapolis showed strengths and weaknesses in defending against the run.

On this play, you will see Henry Anderson chase down the run and meet up with Jon Bostic who read the ball carrier from the hand-off. They partner for the tackle.

This play would have been even better if Johnathan Hankins doesn’t get turned away from the play on the double-team and if Jeremiah George is more active in initiating contact rather than getting shoved out of the hole, waiting for the play to come to him.

This is another play where Anderson sees Chris Johnson coming up the middle and locks out the offensive lineman with his left arm to control the engagement. Once he realizes the run is coming inside, he disengages from the block and comes down to make the stop on his own. This is a great individual play.

Here, Jon Bostic performs a run blitz. He slashes through the center of the offensive line and cuts off the running lane left. This forces the runner to cut back into the middle of the field where Jeremiah George makes the tackle. This is a nice job by the inside linebackers and leads to no gain.

This would have been the Cardinals biggest running play of the day but you will see in the middle of the screen that inside linebacker Jon Bostic is held as he tries to hold the backside edge. The video is slowed down so you can clearly see the hold.

If the hold doesn’t happen, it is likely that Chris Johnson still has a good gain because the defensive line is so aggressive and because John Simon and Matthias Farley are too far into the backfield when the hand-off happens to adjust and make a play. This was play design, and not individual error, but could have cost the team a big run.

This is a good individual effort by Matthias Farley who reads the run very quickly and gets inside of Larry Fitzgerald to make the stop. This play was aided by the fact that is was during the Cardinals final push in overtime to setup the winning field goal.

It is worth noting that while Jabaal Sheard appears to overrun the play a bit here, he pushes the blocker all the way back into Chris Johnson’s running lane. Sheard’s effort and control of the blocker is what makes it so easy for Farley to make the tackle.

If you watch this play just focusing on Johnathan Hankins, your first impression will be that he did this all alone. I don’t want to take anything away from the fact that his strength at the line played a big role in the outcome of this play, and he clearly makes the tackle, but watch the play again focusing instead on Jeremiah George (#59).

You’ll notice that he run blitzes through the B gap and when he does, the tackle has to disengage Hankins. The tight end not only has no chance against Hankins one-on-one but he also has to disengage from the block to get outside — the ball carrier intends to run around the end.

This play is one part defensive coordinator dialing up the run blitz, one part Jeremiah George wreaking havoc in the play side B gap, and one part Johnathan Hankins being a nasty run defender with a nose for the football.

Interestingly, Barkevious Mingo has an impact in the ground game on this play. You will see that he holds the defender and keeps the edge. This is important as it forces the ball carrier to cut inside and Jon Bostic has been tracking him the whole way. You can see at the pause that Bostic is looking right at the hand-off and meets the rusher in the hole.

For another round of “did you miss it?” — take a look at Hassan Ridgeway (#91) who is lined up in front and to the left of Bostic. Notice that he holds a double-team at the line of scrimmage. The is also key to the play because it keeps Bostic clean. If Ridgeway fails to hold the double-team here, the offensive lineman will release and get a body on Bostic, resulting in a longer run.

Believe it or not, Mingo makes another appearance against the rush. In this play, he and John Simon are lined up on the left side of the defense. Mingo’s job is to hold the edge. He does a very nice job.

What makes the play even more impressive is that Mingo disengages the block as Chris Johnson turns the ball up the field and brings him down with the help of Matthias Farley, who was tracking the run from very early in the play.

One of the biggest runs given up on the day came on “the drive” when the Cardinals scored their sole touchdown and brought themselves back into the game. Even during the game, I questioned why the second-team defensive line took over. It seemed like an odd time, during a key part of the early/mid fourth quarter to bring in backups.

I settled on the idea that this must be the Colts “pass rush” package or that this was done because these players were fresh and could take advantage of a tired Cardinals offensive line. Hassan Ridgeway did end up getting a sack on the drive.... I digress.

The reason I didn’t like the call to swap out these players is that the previous group made it super hard to get first downs. Anything in the middle of the field and almost any run play wasn’t going anywhere.

While we will never know if the first team group would have a different outcome on this play, I do know that the starters did not give up a monster sized running lane in the middle of the field at any point. On this play, Grover Stewart does a reasonable job of holding the line but Hassan Ridgeway gets off-balance and gets blown out of the hole one-on-one with A.Q. Shipley.

Remember how I pointed out Ridgeway holding a double-team that allowed Jon Bostic to make a play? This is an example of how utterly failing at the point of attack leaves the guard free to come up in Bostic’s face. This is a recipe for long runs. During this point in the game, things like this can’t happen.

They should have kept in the starters — regardless of Ridgeway’s sack.

Outside of a hold that resulted in a big play and some questionable substitutions, the Colts front seven looked awfully familiar to the one from the film a week ago. The defensive line is very difficult to move out of the hole, linebackers do a good job of holding the edge, and inside linebackers and safeties are free to flow to the ball to make tackles.

You can work with defensive efforts like this every week of the season and if this group stays healthy, they should continue to be the best run defending unit the Colts have had in many years.