Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
10 Jan 2007
by Michael David Smith
You already know the Indianapolis Colts -- the team whose run defense made us cover our eyes -- held Larry Johnson to 32 yards on 13 carries on Saturday. But as I watched and re-watched the Colts' defense on every play of their 23-8 domination of the Kansas City Chiefs, I wanted to find out how it happened, and whether it could happen again Saturday when the Colts play the Baltimore Ravens. The short answer: The Chiefs' offense deserves more blame than the Colts' defense deserves credit, and I don't expect a repeat performance in Baltimore.
The real story of the game was the Chiefs' game plan, not the Colts'. Many of the Chiefs' plays looked poorly designed. Take the first-and-10 when Larry Johnson took a handoff around the right end and cornerback Marlin Jackson stopped him for no gain. The announcers praised Jackson's tackle, but why did the Chiefs run a handoff to the outside and not assign anyone to block the cornerback who was going to be there? At the very least, why didn't the Chiefs have a receiver run a pass route on Jackson's side of the field and try to draw Jackson away from Johnson? I routinely found myself scratching my head at such plays.
As ineffective as he was in limited duty, the Chiefs' decision to give Johnson only 13 carries was mind-boggling. In the first half they faced third-and-5 twice, third-and-3 once and third-and-2 once. Even though they were facing a Colts defense that allowed a ridiculous 5.3 yards per rush this season, the Chiefs passed all four times -- and failed to pick up the first down all four times. Johnson carried the ball on a third down exactly once all game, when he converted a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter. (That run was what we thought we'd see all day: center Casey Wiegmann and guard Will Shields double-teamed McFarland, pushing him back, and Chris Terry pushed Josh Roberts back to open the hole for a gain of three.)
On a third-and-5 when Dwight Freeney sacked Trent Green and forced a fumble, the Colts were in their nickel package with just six in the box, while tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Kris Wilson were both on the field and Johnson was behind Green. With a two-tight end formation against a nickel defense, why didn't the Chiefs trust Johnson to pick up five yards in that situation? Even if they called a pass in the huddle, the Chiefs should have changed the play at the line when they saw the Colts' defensive alignment.
The Chiefs also made the mistake of running straight up the gut too often, rather than trying any misdirection plays. It's telling that the Chiefs' longest run was a misdirection handoff to receiver Dante Hall in which Hall lined up just outside the left tackle, took the ball from Green, and cut to the inside. That play picked up eight yards. Misdirection plays like that use the Colts' speed against them, getting the Colts' front seven out of position when they see motion in the other direction. It's hard to understand why Kansas City didn't run plays like that more often.
Other than that handoff to Hall, the Chiefs' best-designed run was probably the handoff to Johnson with 1:35 left in the first half. It was second-and-10 and the Chiefs were lined up in the shotgun. Freeney, sensing Kansas City would pass, took an outside rush, and Green gave the ball to Johnson on an inside handoff that allowed him to scoot past Freeney. Left tackle Jordan Black pulled and buried linebacker Cato June, and for a moment Johnson looked like he'd have a big hole. Unfortunately, as Black went to the ground on top of June, Johnson stumbled over his legs, allowing Colts defensive end Robert Mathis to bring him down from behind for a gain of four.
Of course, at times this year the Colts' run defense has looked so pathetic that even the blandest running attack imaginable should manage more than the 32 yards Johnson had on the ground Sunday. The Colts did change their defensive approach against Kansas City, especially in the way the defensive ends showed more discipline against the run.
On the game's first play, for instance, the Colts had eight in the box and everyone was playing run. Dwight Freeney, the defensive end who's notorious for rushing to the outside on every play, cut to the inside immediately at the snap, shoving Black off his block and helping defensive tackle Raheem Brock make the tackle.
The Colts also kept their defensive backs closer than usual to the line of scrimmage. On second down, cornerback Nick Harper played more like an outside linebacker, less than a yard off the line of scrimmage and only a couple yards outside Gonzalez. Harper ran directly to Johnson at the snap and made the tackle. Given the way Harper was lined up, a play-action pass to Wilson, who was in the backfield and outside Gonzalez, likely would have gone for a huge gain.
There was no one defensive player who did the bulk of the work. Of the Chiefs' 15 handoffs (13 to Johnson, one to Hall, one to Michael Bennett), only two Colts, Robert Mathis and Anthony McFarland, were in on more than two tackles.
McFarland had the best game of any Colt. On second-and-6, McFarland did a great swim move to get past center Casey Wiegmann and tackle Johnson. That was a great play by McFarland. The knock on McFarland throughout his career has been that he makes great plays like that but then disappears for long stretches, and he did fade a bit late (it's telling that Johnson's only two first downs were on his last two runs), but McFarland deserved a game ball.
Despite all their offensive problems, the Chiefs were down only 6-0 when Ty Law returned an interception inside the Colts' 10-yard line in the second quarter. First and goal from the 9 for the Chiefs: This was the moment when Kansas City would overpower Indianapolis.
On first down, Johnson took a handoff up the middle for six yards. It was his longest run of the day, and he did it because Black and Wilson drove linebackers Keith O'Neill and Gary Brackett back and opened up a big gap. Those were the Colts linebackers opponents got to know and love this season.
On second down Johnson got the ball again. This time he managed only one yard when the Colts came out with a five-man line and linebacker Freddie Keiaho came in unblocked to drill Johnson just as he crossed the line off scrimmage. On third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Green tripped when Chiefs left guard Brian Waters stepped on his foot. Lawrence Tynes missed a chip-shot field goal on the next play, and that drive typified the Chiefs' day.
Can the Colts stop the Ravens if Baltimore gets a first-and-goal this weekend? I have serious doubts. Most of the focus will be on whether Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden can keep Freeney from sacking Steve McNair, but the real focus should be whether Ogden can keep Freeney from tackling Jamal Lewis. Ogden is so much bigger and stronger than Freeney that I expect the Ravens to have a big day running to their left, especially if second-year guard Jason Brown, a very talented but somewhat inconsistent player, has one of his good days. I also think the Ravens will have a much better game plan than the Chiefs, perhaps including getting backup running back Mike Anderson more involved in the offense than he has been this year. That doesn't mean the Colts can't win in Baltimore. But the Ravens are favored for a reason, and the Colts can't count on another opposing offense playing right into their hands.
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. Especially this time.
104 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2007, 6:47pm by Rob