Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
20 Dec 2005
by Ned Macey
When Indianapolis got to ten wins and began thinking about an undefeated season, the Chargers game loomed large for a number of reasons. Many people remembered last year's 34-31 overtime thriller, and a shootout reminiscent of the Colts' victory over the Bengals seemed a real possibility. Instead the Chargers defense dominated the Colts offense, and they left the RCA Dome with a 26-17 victory.
The Chargers match up particularly well on paper with the Colts. The Colts had struggled all season against opposing tight ends, and the Chargers featured Antonio Gates. The Colts, despite massive improvements, still occasionally struggle against the run, and LaDainian Tomlinson was coming to town. What people forgot in the analysis was that San Diego harassed Manning repeatedly a year ago, and that was before they developed a fearsome pass rush.
The Chargers' one glaring weakness a season ago was their inability to get to the passer. Last season their pass rush ranked second to last in our adjusted sack rate measurement. This year, with the addition of rookies Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo, they rank fourth. (Adjusted sack rate measures sacks per pass play, rather than total sacks, adjusted based on situation and opponent strength.)
One week after failing to get to the surprisingly elusive Gus Frerotte, the Chargers were all over Peyton Manning, literally from the first snap. Manning was sacked 12 times in his first 13 games, but he went down four times on Sunday. Credit for the pass rush is deservedly going to Merriman, one of a seemingly unlimited number of talented rookie linebackers in the league this year. While Merriman had an amazing game, the whole defense was involved in stopping the Colts.
The domination by the San Diego front seven was not limited to their four sacks. In fact, a week ago, Manning was sacked three times in Jacksonville and still able to shred the Jaguars secondary. On Sunday, the Chargers applied constant pressure up front and completely halted the Indianapolis rushing game. Edgerrin James was held to 25 yards on 13 carries, and if you remove his 13-yard run, he averaged one yard per carry on his other 12 runs.
The Colts' slow-developing run plays never got a chance to develop with defensive tackle Jamal Williams constantly pushing the Colts interior linemen into the backfield. An injury to tackle Ryan Diem brought inexperienced rookie Dylan Gandy into the line-up at guard. That certainly did not help, but by the time Diem was hurt in the first quarter, the Chargers already had two sacks.
On passing downs, pressure from the outside provided by Merriman forced Manning to step up in a pocket that had collapsed. The four sacks were important, but the constant pressure that prevented Manning from ever setting his feet was the key.
In the end, with the Colts down two but in field goal range, the Chargers broke through on consecutive plays. On the first, Manning took an intentional grounding penalty, and on the second he got sacked. Those two plays pushed them out of field goal range and set up Michael Turner's game-clinching run.
A week ago, the Chargers pass rush harried Frerotte, but he was able to move out of the pocket and make throws down the field. Peyton Manning may be the most effective passer in the NFL, but throwing on the run is not his strong suit. He did make several plays out of the pocket, but just as often his passes went wayward when the pressure came.
The Indianapolis offense is a timing and precision offense. The offensive line is only forced to hold blocks for a short period of time before Manning gets the ball out to one of his talented receivers. San Diego's pressure coupled with aggressive, physical man-to-man play by their cornerbacks completely upset the timing of the Colts offense. The much-maligned Chargers secondary is vulnerable if the pass rush fails to materialize -- the Colts did complete five passes over twenty yards -- but no receiver got behind the defense for a quick-strike touchdown.
Offensively, the Chargers showed a blueprint for how to attack the Colts early. Indianapolis is a better pass defense than a rush defense, so teams often construct game plans that attempt to â€œestablish the run.â€? Much of the Colts' strength as a pass defense, however, is that they know it is coming after they get ahead in games. The best way to attack the Colts early, when they still are looking for the run, is to test their secondary.
The Chargers threw on nine of their first 11 offensive plays, the last one a 29-yard touchdown to Keenan McCardell on a blown coverage by the Colts. After the secondary was pushed back and the defensive line became concerned about getting to the passer, running lanes appeared. On their first drive of the second quarter, the Chargers ran on nine out of 17 plays and marched to the Colts 2-yard line before being held to a field goal.
After the first quarter, Brees managed only two completions that were longer than 11 yards while throwing two interceptions and fumbling. The San Diego passing game had already built them enough of a lead, and the running game was able to provide the rest.
San Diego's chances of winning out are severely limited by LaDainian Tomlinson's nagging injuries. He is just not the same back he was when fully healthy. He gained only 76 yards on 24 carries before leaving the game and allowing for Turner's heroics. Since single-handedly beating Washington in Week 12, Tomlinson has averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and has not scored a touchdown. Turner's emergence is a welcome one for the Chargers, who need the explosive running plays an injured Tomlinson is unable to give them.
What Tomlinson needs most is a few weeks off to get his legs back, but with one more loss effectively eliminating the Chargers from contention, a week off is not in the cards. For the Colts, while they by no means wanted to see their unbeaten streak come to an end, the one positive is a chance to limit Edgerrin James' carries down the stretch.
James has carried the offensive load for most of the season and is on pace for a career high in carries. That should worry Colts fans, because James tired noticeably down the stretch a year ago, a phenomenon repeating itself this year. Here is a table James' performance through the first eleven weeks of the season and after that point the last two seasons. The stats listed here include several advanced metrics that are explained fully here. "Suc" stands for success rate, which is explained here.
|Edgerrin James Rushing Through Week 11 and After|
Last year's totals do not include the playoffs, in which he totaled only 102 yards on 32 carries. While a major drop a year ago happened after Week 11, James really declined starting in Week 14: he didn't have another game that season in which he ran the ball at even replacement player level. At that point, he had carried the ball 261 times. He hit that total this year during the Tennessee game in Week 13, and in the two games since, he has again been below replacement level.
The Colts should heartily thank James for being almost as valuable as Manning in helping them get to a 13-0 start -- by letting him start resting his legs for the final three games they need to win.
Taking out an undefeated team on the road is certainly a marvelous win. But not only are the Chargers unlikely to make the playoffs even if they win out, they could easily fall as soon as this weekend. Their defense matches up well with the Colts, but on the season it is a below-average group. Even on Sunday in unseating the Colts, the offense struggled at times. As mentioned a week ago after they fell to Miami, a hampered Tomlinson makes what was once a dynamic offense only above average.
Indianapolis fell to 13-1, and suddenly everybody wants to talk about how vulnerable they are. The Patriots sport a similar active front to the Chargers, and with their recent play, a potential second-round match-up is very intriguing. But even factoring in Sunday's loss, the Colts remain the best team in the league. The Colts have played four of the five teams likely to join them in the AFC playoffs, and won all four games by an average of 12 points.
Nonetheless, the Chargers proved the Colts are not invincible. A disruptive front seven can cause serious problems for their offense, and if their offensive line does not get itself in order, the Colts will be seriously challenged throughout the playoffs. A rested James will bring diversity back to the offense and slow opponents' pass rushes. If that happens, the Colts who failed to join the 1972 Dolphins as an undefeated team will be able to join them and 38 other teams as Super Bowl champions.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
45 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2005, 1:18pm by Jerrod Sieberg