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 Jan 2010
by Doug Farrar
No, that score isn't a misprint. In the spirit of various DVOA adjustments, we're taking the Curtis Painter Experience out of the equation and talking about the "Real Colts" versus the Jets they'll face in the AFC Championship game. Ostensibly, the marquee matchup would be the Jets' array of crazy blitzes against Peyton Manning's seemingly vanilla three-wide single-back stuff with all the pre-snap adjustments beneath the surface. But in reviewing the last time these teams faced off, another theme became obvious -- the Colts and Jets each spent time playing out of type, and it could happen again.
It was the Colts who started the game with wacky formations, while the Jets played as base a nickel defense as you'll ever see from Rex Ryan: a 4-2-5 with a simple deep safety. On their own 20-yard line on the first play of the game, Indy had three wide, with Dallas Clark split wide left (safety Eric Smith covering close), Darrelle Revis on Reggie Wayne in a tight zone shade on the other side, and Austin Collie in the right slot. Wayne motioned inside Collie pre-snap, which made Revis play off and move that zone side inside. The call was an end-around to Collie, but Smith easily broke off his coverage of Clark and made a dramatic tackle of Collie as the rookie receiver tried to jump over the defender. Loss of one, and a reset for the Colts. I'm not sure what they thought they'd see on that play, or if they just wanted to see how Revis would react to motion, but offensive coordinator Tom Moore might want to rip that one out of the playbook in preparation for Sunday.
Time to reign it in -- the Colts next went play-action out of a two-tight end set, with Manning rolling right and hitting Clark on a deep cross from left to right for 18 yards, under safety Kerry Rhodes. That was the second play in a row where you weren't seeing something out of the typical Colts oeuvre. In 2008, Indianapolis ranked 29th in two-tight end sets, and no team ran fewer plays listed as "outside pocket." In my mind, it was an indication of how much the Colts respected the Jets' defense that they didn't just come out banging the three-wide drum from the start -- they seemed to be feeling out Rex's defense and seeing where the holes and traps were.
The third play saw both teams in more recognizable formations -- the Colts in shotgun, three-wide, single-back, and the Jets in a four-man front, with strong-side slanted dual linebackers and man coverage underneath. Smith was on Clark in the left slot, with Revis locked on Wayne outside left. The call was a delay to Joseph Addai, and tight end Gijon Robinson did an outstanding job of dual-level blocking on the play, As Addai bounced outside right, Robinson first blocked end Shaun Ellis inside, then peeled off to take linebacker Bart Scott, who had shaded to the line pre-snap. Addai ran through the gap Robinson created when he took Scott outside, and gained seven yards before linebacker David Harris sifted left and took him down. (Side note: Nice blocking by Collie outside the stretch on Lito Sheppard -- that's been a notable aspect of Collie's play before.)
Three-wide for the Colts on second-and-3 with 12:59 left in the first quarter from their own 44-yard line, and Manning called for the tight ends to switch in formation pre-snap -- Clark from right to left slot, and Robinson from tight left to tight right tackle. The Jets switched their safeties at the same time in a man-under front, and Sheppard batted away the quick pass to Collie on the right side. Collie then set the Colts back five yards with an illegal formation penalty.
The Jets stacked the line and brought more man-under looks on second-and-8, and the Colts countered with slide protection to the right and Addai hitting it for six yards up the middle. Then, an empty backfield set on third-and-2, with the Jets bringing six to the line and a cluster of pre-snap pressure over right slot. Manning threw the quick out to Clark, who dropped the pass over tight coverage by Dwight Lowery. Clark gave Lowery a stutter from left slot, but Lowery followed him outside, and the Colts were forced to punt. The first and most overwhelming thing I noticed was that the Jets had no problem whatsoever with the concept of playing man underneath instead of backing off into floaty zones. There was the occasional disguised zone for which Ryan is renowned, and you'd see a straggling blitz once in a while, but the primary plan seemed to be using their great cover guys in the flats as the drive went on. Ryan was cautious at first, but it didn't last long.
Having seen specifics in the first drive, I was looking for trends on the second, more successful one. What I found interesting was that aside from a 13-yard quick out to Collie, every play that brought the Colts forward to their first touchdown was either a run or a Jets penalty. The Jets seemed to go a bit more vanilla, mirroring the Colts to a point -- if Indy went three-wide, the Jets would counter with man looks on the wideouts, and off coverage on the slot. If the Colts went with a tight twins formation, the Jets seemed to prefer bracket concepts; even if they went to Revis' side. But the real surprise here was that the Colts were able to get consistently productive runs by bouncing Addai outside in two-tight end sets, and sending Addai or Donald Brown up the middle as the line's zone slides washed out the front. Manning orchestrated more plays out of two-tight end sets than I'd ever seen from this team, and it was clear that the Colts had a plan for it -- augmenting a line that finished the season ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards, and splaying the Jets' defense across the field.
The Colts also got a break on fourth-and-1 from the Jets' 31 with 7:35 left in the first quarter, when Brown couldn't penetrate the 46 front, but someone from Terry McAulay's crew caught Bart Scott's blatant tripping penalty. Manning then sent an errant throw to Wayne in the vicinity of Revis Island. On the next play, the Jets played pass on second-and-10 from the Jets' 21, and Manning handed the draw to Addai out of the shotgun up the middle as Indy's interior line split New York's front, and Addai blew in for a score. More and more, I was impressed by the Colts' ability to adapt; as the Jets focused on Indy's passing game despite the myriad under fronts, Manning saw and exploited vulnerabilities in the run defense. I don't think Ryan will play pass out of run defense-style fronts in the same way in the rematch.
Speaking of atypical Indianapolis formations, let's focus on the Colts' defense, which is perhaps the most underestimated aspect of this postseason. Last week, when I wrote about the Ravens' offense and what they needed to do to win the Divisional round rematch, I spent too much time on Baltimore and not enough on the Indy defense. Part of the reason they're playing so well is a slightly increased blitz percentage under new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Of course, we have to take the word "slightly" in context. Based on the 2009 regular season data we've collected so far, the Colts rushed three just 3 percent of the time (down from 5.3 percent in 2008), rushed four 71 percent (down from a league-leading 84.8 percent in 2008), rushed five 20 percent (way up from a league-low 7.8 percent in 2008) and brought six or more 4 percent of the time -- twice as often as their league-low total of 2.1 percent last season. We'll talk more specifically about how those increased blitz numbers affect opposing offenses in a minute, but against the Ravens in the playoff win, the concept was overall defensive speed.
A penalty for an illegal block above the waist by L.J. Smith negated a 64-yard Jalen Parmele kick return after the Colts' first touchdown (and likely had Mike Tanier laughing his ass off), so the Ravens were stuck to start their first drive at their own 6-yard line. They came out with their staple six-man line, plus Todd Heap on the left side. The Colts answered with cornerback Jerraud Powers playing Derrick Mason tight on the offensive right side, and five in the middle (two defensive backs playing downhill) behind a four-man front. Clearly, Indy expected a run to one side, and the pursuit was blazingly fast after Joe Flacco handed off to Ray Rice around right end. Rice gained only one yard before linebacker Clint Session wrapped him up. Flacco then hit Mason for 16 in the zone, and followed with an end-around out of play action to take advantage of that fast pursuit. Clayton gained eight more yards, setting the Ravens up at their own 32-yard line. A fullback blast to Le'Ron McClain gained only two yards because Robert Mathis was so fast coming off the left edge, he was able to double back and make the tackle after rolling around that side.
After a quick 12-yard gain to Mason -- a short pass underneath the zone -- the Colts tightened up for a screen to Rice out of offset-I. Rice caught the ball about five yards behind the line of scrimmage and got up a good head of steam, but linebacker Gary Brackett shot back down to the line after dropping into coverage out of a nickel set, blew past guard Ben Grubbs, and tackled Rice for no gain. I've written about Clint Session's speed before, but Brackett's is just as exceptional. Between Mathis, Dwight Freeney, and the outside linebackers, I don't think there's a defense in the league with as much outside speed to the ball as this one. Rice was originally looking to bounce the screen outside, but Session was there waiting for him, and he had to cut in.
When last I reviewed the Baltimore offense against the Indy defense, I hypothesized that the Ravens should take advantage of the Colts' tendency to align their fronts to motion. The next play, on second-and-10 from the Baltimore 47 with 7:09 left in the first quarter, told me why I was full of beans. Heap motioned from left to right after McClain motioned into the backfield for an I-formation set. The Colts moved their line one step over, and the Ravens ran Rice the other way, heading outside left as Freeney took his spin move inside. Of course, the pursuit speed of linebacker Philip Wheeler negated the idea, and Rice gained only three. Flacco got a 27-yard pass to Mason over Kelvin Hayden on third-and-2, but the Ravens ran into another problem -- literally -- as they got closer to the goal line.
Rice tried a couple of nifty cutbacks, but there was always someone there who had anticipated his intent and was in a big hurry to stop him. Flacco converted a third-and-2 at the Colts' 8-yard line with a sneak. Then, a two-yard gain by Willis McGahee, which was almost a five-yard loss as Freeney just about had him in the backfield. Perhaps afraid of that potential yardage loss, Baltimore went with pass plays -- both incompletions -- on second- and third-and-goal. They would have to settle for another field goal, and those would be the last points they'd see in this match.
I didn't have a lot of time after those first two wrap-ups, but I wanted to go back and share a few notes about the Jets' pass protection and schematic foibles against one particular type of blitz in their Week 16 game. Mathis and Session were inactive, but Freeney picked up two sacks. The first came with 2:00 minutes left in the first half. New York had a shotgun, empty backfield set, and the Colts brought six to the line in a dual A-gap blitz with Brackett and linebacker Ramon Humber. Freeney shot off the right edge untouched, and I have to think that either someone didn't adjust the protection or that Sanchez had a one-read-and-throw route to the right side and he just blew it by scanning to the middle. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson blocked inside to stem the tide of the blitz, and Freeney came through untouched. Seems to me that someone might have benefited from a time out there, but that's what opposing lines have to adjust to now -- the Colts are using all that speed in blitz mode a bit more often, and it has made them a more effective and unpredictable defense.
The second Freeney sack happened with 6:04 left in the third quarter; it was the final Jets offensive play before the Painter Experience began. Despite that fact that I am a huge Rex Ryan fan, I have a bone to pick with the Jets' coaching staff on this one. Once again, the Colts went with the six-man front, dual A-gap blitz. Once again, the Jets were five wide, though Sanchez was under center this time, which limited his ability to evade pressure even further. The Jets were down by five points, driving into Colts territory, and they knew full well that if they blocked the blitz inside, Freeney was going to tee off on Sanchez like there was no tomorrow.
Of course, that's exactly what happened. Once again, the Jets pinched inside on the blitz. Once again, Freeney came through untouched. Once again, Sanchez was on the ground. Duh, guys. The Colts expect to have Freeney and Mathis healthy for this game -- add in the potential for Brackett and Session to head up the A-gaps together, and the Jets are looking at a recipe for quarterback disaster that they'd best adjust to this time around. And of all the teams not to adjust to a dual A-gap blitz!
There will be no Cover-3 next week; I'm taking off early Monday morning for Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl for the Washington Post. Tune in two weeks from now for this season's Cover-3 finale!
23 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2010, 9:04pm by John