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?
10 Oct 2006
by Ned Macey
In the early days of the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans were the Colts' nemesis. Those days seemed long gone when the Colts ran off six consecutive victories between 2003 and 2005. In those six losses, the Colts always scored at least 29 points. On Sunday, the worst team in the Titans' brief history went into Indianapolis and fell 14-13 in a closely contested game. The loss highlighted some bright spots for the Titans -- and told us more about a Colts team that will struggle to remain among the elite.
What makes this result so striking is the fact that the Titans are a very bad team. Even after Sunday's game, they still rank as the worst team in football according to DVOA. Against their two other playoff-caliber opponents, they lost by a combined 85-21. They are equally inept on both sides of the ball, ranking 31st on offense and defense.
The Super Bowl-hopeful Colts fell behind this supposed patsy, finally took a lead during the fourth quarter, and then held on for dear life after the Titans had the ball across midfield in the final five minutes. This game, the most recent in a series of close wins against inferior competition, requires the Colts to do some serious soul-searching if they want to contend in the playoffs.
The primary area of concern is the Colts run defense. Always a worry for the slight, undersized Colts defense, it has reached new level of ineffectiveness. The Titans took the ball 88 yards on their first possession without ever calling a pass play. The Colts run defense ranks 30th in the league, even worse than the Titans (who are 28th). Tony Dungy is not your typical defensive-minded coach. He has always prioritized pass defense at the expense of the run. A year ago, the Colts ranked fourth in pass defense and 17th against the run.
In response to this imbalance, Dungy did what any reasonable man would do. He made starting defensive end Raheem Brock a starting defensive tackle and made pass-rushing specialist Robert Mathis the starting defensive end. He also planned to bench safety Mike Doss in favor of Antoine Bethea, who is better in coverage. Defensive tackle Larry Triplett and linebacker David Thornton were allowed to leave. Linebacker Gary Brackett, who excels in coverage, got an extension.
Dungy took over a defense that ranked 30th in DVOA before he arrived and had improved it to 8th a season ago, so he gets some latitude on personnel deployment. Also, run-stuffing safety Bob Sanders has yet to play this season, and Dungy did not know Corey Simon would be physically unable to play. The unmistakable fact, however, is that the Colts defense is as bad as at any point in the Dungy era.
The Titans took advantage with Travis Henry and also rookie LenDale White. Henry is a known quantity. He is a tough runner who is not particularly good and will be 30 by the time the Titans may be competitive. White may be the future. The Titans are giving him only a handful of carries each week, but for the second week in a row he was impressive. The most encouraging play for White and Titans fans was a simple four-yard run in the fourth quarter where the bulky White turned on the afterburners to get the outside corner. White was being chased by a bevy of speedy Indianapolis defenders, but he turned an apparent loss into a respectable gain. Few doubted his ability to run between the tackles, and if he flashes that sort of speed, he could develop into a quality back.
White's most impressive play may have been in the fourth quarter, but most of the damage on the ground was done in the first quarter. The Colts run defense has been especially bad in the first quarter, perhaps as an overreaction to what killed the Colts a season ago. Last year, they struggled mightily against the pass early in games when Sanders played close to the line of scrimmage. Brock was often at defensive end on first and second down, limiting the pass rush.
This year, the Colts have been reluctant to bring a safety anywhere near the box, and Mathis and Dwight Freeney consistently rush upfield. As a result, the Colts are getting killed by draw plays, a tactic frequently employed by the Titans on Sunday. Freeney and Mathis are probably just doing what they are told to do. On two plays during the Titans' first-possession touchdown drive, Freeney was replaced at defensive end by Bo Schobel, who promptly rushed upfield and let the draw come in behind him for big gains.
When Sanders returns, the Colts may return to aggressively deploying him inside the box where he excels. With Freeney and Mathis on the field, the Colts may then be able to hold their own against the pass with only one safety deep. Still, it is difficult to imagine one player, even one as talented as Sanders, making that big a difference on a team being so consistently gouged.
With all the kvetching about the defense, it goes unnoticed that the juggernaut Colts offense scored only 14 points. They punted six times, turned the ball over twice, and scored only two touchdowns. The Colts offense has struggled on multiple occasions this year, and while still among the league's best, it is no longer dominant.
The Titans' defensive game plan could not have been simpler. They played a base 4-3 defense with both safeties extremely deep. When three receivers came in, they went to a nickel defense and had only six men in the box. They almost never blitzed. The defense forced the Colts to work underneath and with the run game.
The Colts' running attack has been mediocre without Edgerrin James. Both Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai sport below average DVOAs. With seven and sometimes only six men in the box, the Colts often went to run plays. They ran the ball effectively, but eventually the Titans would make a big play or the Colts would self-destruct. Kyle Vanden Bosch short circuited two drives with stops in the backfield. Another drive stalled after a holding penalty.
Despite little pressure from the Titans, the Colts rarely threw the ball down the field. This was largely attributable to the Titans' conservative defense, leaving Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne often double-covered. In particular, Manning stayed away from favorite target Harrison because of the quality play of Pac-Man Jones.
Insisting as a rookie that your name is a video game character sets you up to get noticed. When you proceed to holdout, get into trouble with the law, and play unevenly in your first several starts, you develop a negative reputation fairly quickly. If your team continues to struggle and no national media watch your games, you only make the highlights when you make a mistake. If this description fit you, you might start trying to make a name for yourself through your game rather than through the tabloids. Pac-Man finally seems to be following this advice.
Unfortunately, the nation has largely missed the development of one of the top young cornerbacks in the league. A first-round pick a year ago, Jones struggled early before becoming a dominant force later in the year. This season, teams rarely throw in his direction. For the whole game, the Colts only attempted two downfield throws to Harrison with Jones in coverage. On one, Jones knocked the pass away. On the other, Harrison got the best of him for a 13-yard gain.
Even more telling may be that on the one play where Jones had to come out of the game with an injury, the Colts immediately went to Harrison for their first touchdown. For most of the game, Manning's first read was to the left, Wayne's side, but on that play he went right to Harrison. The rest of the game with Jones in coverage, Harrison caught two balls for 16 yards.
The problem for the Titans has been Reynaldo Hill on the other side. Also a second-year player, seventh-rounder Hill is not developing. The Colts tried to attack him early. In the first quarter, they just missed on a would-be touchdown to Wayne and had a completion for a first down called back for a holding penalty. The Titans responded by rolling coverage to Wayne, leaving the middle of the field open for Brandon Stokley to snag five balls in the afternoon. Good coverage by the Titans linebackers held four of those receptions short of first down distance.
Football Outsiders' game-charting project tracks the defender in coverage on various passes. Through the first three and a half weeks of the season (Week4's second half is not yet charted) opponents targeted Hill 23 times and Jones only 15 times, despite Jones covering the opposition's top receiver more often than Hill. The passes to Hill's man averaged over 10 yards per completion. Passes in Jones' direction averaged only seven. After his performance on Sunday, that total will likely drop. Last year, he allowed 6.6 yards per pass attempt, which ranked among the top 20 cornerbacks in the league.
Jones has a bright future, but the most important player for the future of the Titans is Vince Young. In his second start, Young made some nice throws and added a nifty touchdown run. On the whole, however, he struggled. He completed only three passes to wide receivers. The conservative game plan contained numerous screens and dumpoffs. The Titans finally freed him up to make a big play on their final meaningful drive, and he threw a strike to Colts safety Mike Doss. (Fortunately, Bethea made his best play of the season to break up the would-be interception.)
Evaluating Young at this point may be impossible. The first-year struggles of Eli Manning and Alex Smith make any snap judgments of Young a dangerous proposition. As Aaron Schatz points out in this week's Quick Reads, he has been much more successful in the shotgun than on traditional plays, a surprise to nobody considering he played in the shotgun almost exclusively in college. The most encouraging play of the day was actually an incompletion, a precise deep ball that went through the hands of Bobby Wade.
I think Vince Young will be a good quarterback, but nothing in Sunday's game or any game this season is going to tell us whether I am right. He is still too raw and too sheltered by his offense (to say nothing of hampered by injuries to his receiving corps). Young should not be playing this year. Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers are just two examples in the endless parade of high first-round picks who have enjoyed success after sitting out their rookie season. If a quarterback is ready to play right away, he should play. If he needs to learn how to read the field while dropping back, he should learn it in practice rather than developing bad habits trying to survive in games.
That the Titans were unable to work out a new contract with Steve McNair or find a better caddy for Young than Kerry Collins is the biggest indictment of a franchise flailing in the wind. Sunday's result highlighted some of the talent the team has, but it remains a franchise in disarray looking at a long season.
The Colts were hoping for a long season that featured a deep playoff run. Despite their 5-0 record, they have real work to do. The Colts last lost a meaningful regular season game in Week 8 of 2004 against Kansas City. That streak will come to an end sometime in the first three weeks after the bye. They face Washington, Denver, and New England, three of the best ground attacks in football.
Of their 26 wins the past two seasons, only three were by fewer than seven points. They already have three such wins this year in five games. What separates great teams is not winning the close ones; it is destroying inferior competition. Right now the Colts are decidedly not great. A weak division will likely get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year, but absent a defensive turnaround, their stay there will be only as long as a year ago.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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