17 Jan 2006
by Ned Macey
This season was long thought to be the Indianapolis Colts' year. When their nemesis, the New England Patriots, lost on Saturday night, a trip to the Super Bowl seemed preordained. But the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't get the memo, and they dominated the Colts early before hanging on for dear life in one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history.
The Colts beat the Steelers in a 26-7 thrashing in Week 12. A return to the scene of the crime seemed likely to produce a similar result. That changed in the first quarter, in which the Steelers jumped to a 14-0 lead by changing their philosophy. By the time the Colts recovered, the deficit was too large and a ferocious Steelers pass rush dismantled the once-dominant Indianapolis offensive line.
The Steelers attempted to impose their will on the Colts during their regular season encounter. They ran the ball on their first seven first down plays. As I mentioned after the Chargers beat the Colts, such a strategy plays to the Colts' strengths. They sneak active safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss into the box to shut down the run. The better strategy is to pass early when they expect the run.
Bill Cowher either read my column, or more likely learned from his own mistake. He had the offense come out firing against the Colts. Ben Roethlisberger threw on seven of the first ten plays in leading an 84-yard touchdown drive. Taking advantage of the Colts early is essential to beating them. They ranked 31st in the league in defense in the first quarter according to DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' main advanced metric and is further explained here.) In the other three quarters they were among the best in the league. Pittsburgh's offense also excels early, and the quick start changed the entire complexion of the game.
While the Steelers eschewed the run early to great effect, the Colts were undone by their pass-happy ways. The signature play of these teams' first encounter was Peyton Manning's 80-yard touchdown to Marvin Harrison on the team's first play from scrimmage. The Colts followed with a lengthy drive that stalled only after a personal foul penalty. At that point in the game, Manning was 5-of-5 for 124 yards.
The Steelers then made some crucial adjustments, double-teaming Harrison and bringing their creative blitz package. From that point forward, Manning was a rather pedestrian 10-of-20 for 121 yards with two sacks and an interception. The Colts mounted no drives of even 40 yards the rest of the game. The strong running of Edgerrin James controlled the clock and earned enough first downs to prevent a comeback, but the Steelers were clearly on to something.
The Colts appeared not to have noticed the adjustments of the previous encounter and came out throwing on Sunday. They ran on only three of their first 14 plays. While James' three runs yielded nothing, the eleven pass plays yielded as many sacks as completions. Only on their fifth drive did they commit to the run. More than half the plays were runs, and most of the passes were underneath. Tarik Glenn's false start denied a touchdown, but the drive still covered 96 yards.
The Colts failed to learn from that successful drive and started the second half with seven passes and only two runs on their first two drives. The deficit was then only eleven points, and a balanced offense was still an option. Manning makes the decision about whether to run or pass on any given down. Such a system allows flexibility to exploit a defense's weakness and is a major reason the Colts boast the league's best offense.
On Sunday it also allowed a quarterback to indulge his own hubris. Manning himself noted the trouble the offensive line was having with the Steelers blitzes. The offensive line was consistently confused and inept on passing plays. Nonetheless, he insisted on throwing the ball. Not one of Hunter Smith's six punts followed a sequence when the Colts ran on two of the three preceding downs.
The last of these early second-half pass plays was a sack at the one-yard line. The ensuing punt return gave the Steelers the ball on the Colts' 30-yard line. They converted the great field position into their final score and a 21-3 lead. At that point the Steelers went into a prevent, allowing Manning to gain some rhythm. He played well down the stretch, and thanks to a bogus replay reversal and a great play by linebacker Gary Brackett, Manning had one last chance.
He did his job marching the team into position for a game-tying field goal. Unfortunately for the Colts, long-time kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed badly on the most important kick of his career. As the ball sailed wide right, Manning and Coach Tony Dungy were left to face the now familiar question of whether or not they can win the â€œbig one.â€?
Dungy is now 5-8 in the playoffs. This was the first of the eight losses to come in a home game. Dungy's teams have been thoroughly trounced in several of his playoff losses. He will never escape the fact that Tampa Bay won it all the year after they fired him unless he wins a Super Bowl on his own.
DVOA in Sunday's IND-PIT Game
He was clearly out-coached on Sunday despite the close score, with Pittsburgh's aggressive early play coming as a surprise. His team, however, was not exactly outclassed. The Colts outgained the Steelers in terms of both yardage and yards per play, and forced the only two turnovers that withstood replay review. Because the Pittsburgh offense slowed in the second half, and Manning's only interception was overturned, Indianapolis actually ended up with the higher DVOA for the game. If Barry Switzer and Brian Billick can win Super Bowls, Dungy certainly can. He is among the best regular season coaches in football, guiding his team to the playoffs a league-best seven straight times. He may not be part of the solution to the playoff failures, but he is not the problem.
Manning will have a reputation for poor performance when the stakes are the highest until he wins a Super Bowl. Since his second year, the Colts have been in the playoffs as much as any other team. He is now just 3-6 in those opportunities and has only made one AFC Championship game. In his six defeats, the oft-maligned defense has given up more than 24 points only one time. The 18 points scored by the Indianapolis offense on Sunday marked its best showing in a losing effort.
If Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady (inexperienced 2001 version) can win the Super Bowl, Manning is clearly not the lone problem. Manning has had exceptional playoff performances when his team wins, and his overall playoff numbers are adequate. Manning is certainly asked to do more than those quarterbacks were, and the Colts spend a good portion of their cap on him. Despite this investment, they have now built a quality defense, and the skill players and offensive line are also well-compensated.
The last three playoff losses all boil down to the same weakness. The offense in general and the offensive line in particular struggle with physical 3-4 defenses. Last season Manning and Co. throttled a Denver defense that was statistically as strong as New England's. Yet Manning ran for his life the last two years in Foxboro, and on Sunday the line never gave him a chance on a number of plays.
The Indianapolis offensive linemen have consistently been near the top of our rankings in terms of both run and pass blocking. They ranked first in both this year. Much of this is done with technique rather than pure skill, however. Blocking for Manning (who likes to unload the ball) and with James (who is one of the best backs at blitz pick-up) inflates their stats. Manning's skill in detecting where a blitz is coming from increases their effectiveness a great deal. Against a 3-4 with only three known rushers and so many players close to the line, neither Manning nor the line always knows which players will attack.
The results in past playoff failures have been bad, and the results on Sunday were disastrous. Second-year left guard Ryan Lilja frequently was a step slow in determining whom he was supposed to block, and nobody picked up pass-rushing linebacker Joey Porter on two consecutive blitzes in the fourth quarter. Manning struggles when under duress even more than most quarterbacks. It is hard to imagine this potent offense getting off the ground against this style of defense until the line can hold against a pass rush when it is unsure of who is rushing the passer.
For the past three seasons, the Colts have kept their team intact while waiting for Dungy to build a defense. This was supposed to be the year, and in the regular season Dungy's defense delivered. Now the Colts face serious upheaval. Manning has never lined up in a playoff game without Edgerrin James behind him, and Reggie Wayne has been on the left flank since Dungy arrived.
Both are free agents who will be difficult to retain. James' ability as a rusher can be reasonably replaced, but his skill as a blocker and pass catcher is much harder to replicate. The importance of Wayne was highlighted on Sunday. The Steelers took away Harrison, forcing Manning to look Wayne's way 14 times. It is unlikely that Harrison will ever see single coverage with Brandon Stokley, a rookie, or a mid-level free agent lining up on the other side.
Defensive starters Raheem Brock and David Thornton are also free agents, but the defense will probably improve even if they leave. Only one defensive starter is even 30 years old, and the increased experience of Sanders and Doss will help prevent the errors that caused problems in the passing game this year.
Kicker Mike Vanderjagt, now a miserable 0-2 in meaningful playoff kicks, will likely depart as a free agent as well. He will not be missed. The last difficult clutch kick he made came in the 2002 regular season. His inability to kick off wastes an extra roster spot. He could be economically replaced by a number of different players this off-season.
These departures after another early flameout will lead many observers to believe the Colts' window with the current nucleus is shut. For inspiration, the Colts should consider the team that sent them to an early vacation this year. The Steelers were coming off a 15-1 season that ended bitterly with a home defeat in the AFC Championship game. They lost their second receiver in the off-season and started a new running back this season. They find themselves back in the AFC Championship game, and this time they do not have to face New England.
The powerful Colts offense and the constant Brady-Manning comparisons have made the Colts-Patriots â€œrivalryâ€? over-analyzed. The team that has been most tormented by the Belichick/Brady combo is actually the Steelers. Twice the Steelers have hosted the Patriots in an AFC Championship game, and twice they have been defeated. Bill Cowher is now in his 10th postseason tournament, and he has no rings to show for it.
The Steelers go into Denver this week as the first sixth seed to make the AFC Championship game. They are far from your typical sixth seed. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers are now 25-4, with two of the losses coming to the Patriots. Even counting games Roethlisberger did not play, the Steelers ranked as the fifth best team in all of football according to our DVOA metric.
Denver is the best team remaining in the playoffs, but they did not exactly appear dominating against New England. Everything about Cowher says he will return to the run game against Denver. He needs to consider leaning on Roethlisberger more in run situations. Against Indianapolis, the Steelers running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry. DVOA says that the Steelers are more successful on passing plays than running plays, even after including the Tommy Maddox games. When John Lynch walks into the box on Sunday, Cowher would be wise to let Roethlisberger throw down the field.
Conventional wisdom says the difficulty of going on the road for the third straight week will be too much of an obstacle for the Steelers. After beating the Colts when everybody told them they might as well stay home, I doubt they're too concerned with conventional wisdom.
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.
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