"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
30 Jan 2007
by Michael David Smith
Do the Indianapolis Colts have a good offensive line? The general consensus around the league seems to be that they do. After all, Peyton Manning threw 557 passes this year and was only sacked 14 times. And the Colts' running game gained 1,762 yards this season. It's hard to do that without the guys up front contributing.
But after watching that line on every play of the Colts' AFC Championship victory over the New England Patriots, I'm not convinced. I saw a line with a good player in the most important spot -- left tackle Tarik Glenn -- but big problems elsewhere, especially in short-yardage situations.
Those short-yardage problems are borne out in the statistics. The Football Outsiders offensive line stats show that when the Colts had a yard or two to go on third or fourth down, they converted just 60 percent of the time, ranking 22nd in the league. And 22nd is actually the best the Colts have ranked in the last five years.
In the first quarter against the Patriots, the Colts faced third-and-inches at the New England 26-yard line. This is where offensive linemen earn their paychecks, when they have to push the opposing defensive line back in short yardage. The Colts' line didn't earn much of anything on this play. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork had no trouble at all getting past center Jeff Saturday and hitting Addai behind the line of scrimmage. Addai fell forward, and with the help of what appeared to be a generous spot by the official, he picked up the first down, gaining about five inches when the Colts needed about four inches. Still, there was no excuse for the Colts' failure to move the Patriots back. Not only did Wilfork easily win his individual battle with Saturday, but right tackle Ryan Diem got pushed back and got in Addai's way on the run.
That was one of many bad plays for Diem. On the next play Diem was called for holding, pushing the Colts back 10 yards. That stalled the drive, and the Colts ended up settling for a field goal.
The problems with run blocking aren't confined to short-yardage situations. Late in the second quarter Addai was stopped for no gain on a second-and-10. Left guard Ryan Lilja got knocked straight back, and even Glenn, usually the stoutest member of the line, was overpowered on the play. Addai never had anywhere to go because none of his linemen opened any holes at all. Jarvis Green made the tackle, but the Patriots' entire defensive line got into the backfield without much trouble. When an offensive line plays this badly on running plays, it's easier for the defense to focus on stopping the pass.
There were some successful run blocks. Early in the third quarter Lilja had a nice block on New England linebacker Eric Alexander, allowing Rhodes to run directly behind him to pick up the first down. Even on that play, though, nothing came easy, as Wilfork overpowered Saturday.
Saturday is often mentioned as one of the best centers in the league, but Wilfork beat him for most of the day. Saturday did have a noteworthy block against Wilfork in the third quarter on a second-and-goal from the 5-yard line, when he gave Addai room to take the ball inside the 1-yard line. And he beat Wilfork on Addai's winning touchdown run, although on that play it looked to me like Wilfork's feet got tangled up in the scrum. On most plays, Saturday wasn't strong enough to beat Wilfork one-on-one.
The Colts' offensive line -- particularly the guards -- also struggled in pass protection. The Patriots sacked Manning on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On the first sack, New England's Ty Warren lined up directly opposite right guard Jake Scott and flushed Manning out of the pocket. Manning had nowhere to go and tried to roll out of the pocket, but he should have thrown the ball away, as Alexander took him down a yard behind the line of scrimmage.
On the second sack, Lilja looked clueless. At first he tried to help Glenn block Richard Seymour (Glenn was doing fine and didn't need any help), and then he turned and saw linebacker Rosevelt Colvin coming at him. He barely even laid a hand on Colvin, falling down as Colvin ran past him to sack Manning.
During the Colts' drive at the end of the first half, Manning frequently faced pressure. On one pass to Aaron Moorehead, Seymour drilled Manning by looping to the outside, around both Lilja and Glenn. Later on the drive, Scott initially looked like he got into good position on Ty Warren, but as soon as Warren tried a spin move, Scott was helpless to stop him, and Warren hit Manning just as he threw an incomplete pass to Clark.
In fairness to the Colts' linemen, it should be mentioned that certain aspects of the Colts' offense make life harder for them. For instance, the Colts' constant use of the no-huddle means they get less time to rest between plays than most linemen do. Huddles aren't just for calling plays, they're also for getting a breather. Asking 300-pound men to run straight to the line of scrimmage and get into their stance as soon as the whistle blows at the end of the previous play is asking a lot.
And the Colts' linemen look as well-conditioned as 300-pound men can be: Despite playing in that no-huddle attack, in the last two playoff games, the Colts' line has looked fresh in the fourth quarter while the Ravens' and Patriots' defensive linemen looked gassed.
The Colts' offensive line also does a good job on the stretch handoff that is the staple of the Colts' offense. The stretch play requires more quickness than power, and that's what the Colts' line has been designed for. And the Colts' play-action passes work, in large part, because the Colts' offensive linemen sell the fake as well as Manning does -- their first step is the same whether the play is a run or a pass, meaning opposing linebackers can't get a read on them.
Finally, it should be noted that the Colts don't devote as many resources to the offensive line as most teams do. Glenn is the only offensive lineman who has a big contract, and Colts general manager Bill Polian practically pretends the offensive line doesn't exist when draft day comes around. You get what you pay for, and the Colts don't pay much for the offensive line.
The Colts' great offensive numbers are a reflection on the type of offense they run and on the great skill position players they have. Manning gets rid of the ball as quickly as any quarterback ever has, meaning the Colts don't have to sustain their pass blocks as long as most linemen do. And Addai's speed (combined with the fact that opposing defenses play pass-first, run-second) means he can make things happen even when he doesn't get big holes. But the offensive line is the weak link, and if the Bears stop the Colts' attack, it will be because their front four outplays the Colts' line.
(Ed. note: Mike criticizes Jake Scott's pass-blocking, but I did want to note that I wrote a FO FOX blog post back in November, talking about how great his run-blocking was against Denver.)
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
74 comments, Last at 12 Feb 2007, 10:42pm by Rob Sartelle