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Tale of the Tape: Colts Run Defense Bends Against the Browns Part I

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After two stifling performances by the run defense, the Colts finally gave a bit of ground. The Browns rushed for a total of 111 yards on 21 total carries, which is a disappointing 5.3 yards per carry average.

In order to bring the performance into focus, we’ll study the run defense with eyes first on runs by the Browns running backs and then on quarterback scrambles. What we will find is that the run defense was still relatively stingy against the running backs — except for a 19 yard touchdown run that includes a blatant hold — and that some of the quarterback runs were caused by game situation and defensive scheme.

This won’t make everyone feel better about the performance, nor should it. But it will help understand what went right and what went wrong and how it impacts the total numbers.

Consider that without Kizer’s 44 net rushing yards on seven carries, the Browns running backs ran 14 times for a total of 67 yards — a 4.8 yards per carry clip. If you remove the 19 yard run Johnson was gifted on the Browns first touchdown, Cleveland’s running backs gained 48 yards on 13 carries — a 3.7 yards per carry clip.

By comparison, the Baltimore Ravens defense allowed 93 rushing yards on 21 carries for 4.4 yard per carry in Week 2. The Pittsburgh Steelers defense only allowed 57 rushing yards on 26 carries for 2.3 yards per carry but Duke Johnson also didn’t get a single carry in week 1.

Either way, the Colts defense played relatively well on traditional runs and somewhere in line with two other respected NFL defenses. We’ll see tomorrow that it was Kizer’s rushing yards — many of them late in the game — that really busted things open.

For some reason, the Colts chose to slant a lot more with defensive ends and outside linebackers in the Browns game. The results were mixed but I got the impression that Cleveland benefited from these calls more often than not.

Watching the game live I was stunned that Crowell busted off a 10-yard run to start the game and worried that it was a bad sign for the Colts outlook. Now I see that this was a perfect situation for the Browns as Anderson took himself out of the play and opened up a running lane.

Anderson’s slant also allows the guard to pull and the right tackle to get right into the second level of the Colts defense. If Farley doesn’t flow correctly, Crowell might still be running.

Result: 10 yard gain.

This is what we’ve been used to seeing. Simon sets the edge and forces Crowell to cut up the field. Johnathan Hankins chases the play down from behind and helps make the stop.

Result: 1 yard gain

Again, this play is more like what we’re used to seeing. The defensive linemen command double teams and do not allow large holes to open up. Sheard beats the tight end inside and punished the full back, forcing Crowell to redirect and allows Bostic and Farley to make the play.

Result: 1 yard loss

Here we see another slant, only this time it is outside linebacker John Simon. When he does this, the responsibility to set the edge transfers to Bostic. While he does his job, he is further outside and further down field, allowing Crowell more room to run. Antonio Morrison makes the stop from the backside.

Result: 6 yard gain

The pulling guard blows up Henry Anderson and forces him out of the play. John Simon takes on the tight end and forces Crowell to cut up the field, which allows Jon Bostic to make the tackle.

Result: 4 yard gain

Once again, John Simon slants inside on this play and hands off the edge setting responsibilities to Matthias Farley. While Farley does a fine job of setting the edge and gets a great punch on the tight end, this exposes the gap vacated by Simon and yields positive yards.

Result: 6 yard gain

While every hold is not going to be called in a football game, it was interesting that this crew called offensive pass interference penalties for picks but ignored holds in the ground game. Without the hold, it is possible that Hankins is able to get to Crowell before he turns the corner. Bostic is both held and then shoved in the back to throw him off balance and keep him from making the play.

Despite that, the biggest failure for the Colts defense here is that Sheard fails to get far enough up the field to keep Crowell inside. Hankins shouldn’t be making tackles near the sidelines.

Result: 8 yard gain

Since this is the biggest and most important traditional run of the football game, I’ve given you both the live broadcast angle and the All-22 angle. What you will notice is that Sheard does a better job here of setting the edge — after giving up the edge to Crowell on the previous run. He nearly makes the stop himself, which would be impressive with a blocker in his face.

Instead, the blocker hooks his shoulders as he fights to make the tackle and ends up pulling him to the ground. This is a horrible no call, regardless of the play outcome. It just so happens that this was the Browns first touchdown — making it even more brutal for the Colts defense.

Result: 19 yard gain and TD

Things don’t get any prettier when you look at the play from the backside. In fact, it might be even easier to see the hook with the blocker over running Sheard as he is cutting back to make a tackle, Sheard’s shoulders as he goes by him.

This play is another example of Anderson slanting. This time things work out a bit better as Morrison and Bostic are in perfect position to stop Crowell. The pulling guard can only take on one of the linebackers and that leaves Bostic to make the tackle.

Result: 1 yard gain

This is another traditional run defense look with the first team line. Johnson gets positive yardage here but the defensive line occupies all blockers and allows Morrison to make the tackle.

Result: 4 yard gain

The Colts have their pass rush defensive package in on this series. When Hunt, Anderson, and Mingo are all on the field at the same time, it should favor the offense. In this case, Mingo and Hunt do a great job of mirroring the play direction and allowing Basham to run the ball carrier down from the backside.

Result: 1 yard gain

This is a difficult play for an outside linebacker because he is on an island with the read option in front of him. He has to choose to either contain the quarterback or give up a running lane and pursue the running back. Sheard makes the right choice here and relies on his teammates behind to help cover the pitch.

On this particular play, Pierre Desir is the best chance the Colts defense has at making a quick tackle and stopping the play in its tracks. He is held by the wide receiver, it is so blatant that you can see the receiver plant his legs and get pulled by Desir. Still, no call and Crowell scurries out of bounds.

Result: 4 yard gain

Johnathan Hankins is asked to slant on this play and he drives the center well into the backfield. This disrupts any chance Crowell has of getting anything going. Sheard helps cut off any cutback lane on the backside and Hooker is free to make the tackle in the hole.

Result: 1 yard gain

Our last traditional run play of the game shows the first team line playing straight up against the Browns offensive line. Al Woods plays a crucial role in holding two blockers for long enough to slow Crowell as he tries to pick somewhere to run. This allows Henry Anderson to come from the backside of the play, and Johnathan Hankins from the front, to make the stop.

Result: 3 yard gain

As I mentioned in the introduction, the Colts certainly gave up more yards on the ground per play against the Browns than they did in the previous two games. The 111 total yard mark is a bit misleading, as is the yards per carry mark, but it still wasn’t the team’s best effort.

It should be noted that the Browns offensive line is the best unit the Colts have faced to this point in the season as well. This certainly was a more difficult task than the Cardinals without two starters and a Rams line that has not been impressive for some time. However, I feel like there were more slants called in this game that took outside linebackers and defensive ends out of position on many plays.

Coincidence or not, these slanting defenders often presented the Browns backfield with running lanes and helped free up offensive linemen to lay blocks on linebackers. This defensive line is excellent at demanding and holding double-teams, while clogging running lanes, without these techniques and I’m not convinced that it is in the run defense’s best interest to continue these practices.