"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.
11 Sep 2007
by Michael David Smith
What could stop the Colts this year?
After the defending champions dominated the Saints Thursday night, the immediate answer is "not much."
But there is one thing that would bring the Colts' hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs to a screeching halt: An injury to Peyton Manning. And although Manning has lost all of one play to injury in his career so far, the off-season retirement of longtime left tackle Tarik Glenn leaves rookie second-round draft pick Tony Ugoh protecting Manning's blind side. So the biggest question facing the Colts is this: Is Ugoh up to the task? To find out, I watched the tape of Thursday's game with my eyes trained on Ugoh on every play.
What I found is that Ugoh looks much better run blocking than pass blocking, that he has the quickness to get out in front of a play and block a linebacker but lacks the power to take on defensive linemen one-on-one, and that overall he has the potential to develop into a good player, but this year the Colts will miss Glenn.
Ugoh's first three plays served as a nice summary of what his entire night would look like. On the first play of Ugoh's NFL career, the Colts lined up a tight end, Ben Utecht, next to him, and had Utecht help Ugoh in pass blocking -- something they'd do a lot Thursday night. On his second play, a handoff to running back Kenton Keith around the left end, Ugoh did a nice job pulling to the outside and blocking Saints linebacker Scott Shanle -- again, something he did well all night. On his third play he was whistled for a false start, and although that didn't happen again, he did make some other mistakes.
You can tell just by looking at the formations the Colts lined up in and the plays they called that they don't have complete confidence in Ugoh's ability to protect Manning's blind side. When Ugoh didn't have a tight end next to him, it often meant Manning would take a very quick drop and throw the pass immediately, as he did on second-and-6 on the Colts' second drive. On that play, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison were both to Manning's left, and Manning took the snap, turned, and immediately passed to Wayne. Manning threw so quickly that Ugoh and the rest of the offensive line were basically inconsequential to the play.
On the next play, Ugoh again had Utecht next to him, but this time Utecht ran a route instead of staying in for protection, and that left Ugoh one-on-one with Saints defensive end Will Smith. Although Manning stayed upright long enough to get the pass off, Ugoh didn't do a very good job protecting him, and Smith drilled Manning just as he released the ball. That was not the type of play that inspires much confidence.
Ugoh takes too many plays off, especially on running plays in the opposite direction. He seems to figure that when a running play is going to the other side of the field, he doesn't need to try. That might have been true in college, but in the NFL there are too many fast defensive linemen for him to get away with that approach, and I have no doubt that he was reminded of that during film study this week. On a third-and-1, running back Joseph Addai took a handoff around the right end for five yards to pick up the first down, but it could have been a much bigger gain if Ugoh had managed to sustain his backside block on Saints defensive lineman Antwan Lake. It was Lake, lined up at right defensive tackle, who fought through Ugoh's block and got to the other side of the field to trip up Addai. Similarly, on the last play of the first quarter, Ugoh totally whiffed on Smith when Addai ran to the right. Although Ugoh got away with it because Smith didn't run down Addai on the backside, if Ugoh ever wants to be a top-notch offensive lineman, he will have to make all his blocks, whether the play is in his direction or on the other side of the field.
But on the very next play (the first play of the second quarter), Ugoh showed how much potential he has. It was a handoff to Addai around the left end, and Ugoh pulled to the outside and led the way, helping out with blocks on two linebackers, Mark Simoneau and Scott Fujita. For a 300-pounder, Ugoh can really move.
While he's effective against smaller, quicker players like Simoneau and Fujita, Ugoh struggles taking on opponents his own size. On a second-and-7 early in the second quarter, Ugoh was matched one-on-one with Saints defensive tackle Brian Young, who was lined up on Ugoh's inside shoulder. With the handoff going to go to the right side, Ugoh needed to take a quick first step and get his head across Young's body. Instead, he barely got his hands on Young and did nothing to prevent Young from getting into position to tackle Keith.
When the Saints' defensive ends tried to get around him, Ugoh showed off some good pass blocking skills. On a first-and-10 early in the second quarter, Ugoh did not have help from a tight end and went one-on-one with Saints defensive end Josh Cooper. Ugoh's footwork was perfect as he walled off Cooper when Cooper tried to rush to the outside, and when Cooper attempted to cut back to the inside, Ugoh knocked him off balance. Cooper never got close to Manning on that pass.
But, again, Ugoh just wasn't consistent enough. On the very next play he was matched one-on-one with Smith, and Smith crushed Manning just as he threw the ball. Ugoh was standing totally upright when he made contact with Smith, and that allowed Smith to get lower, have all the leverage and cut to the inside to get to Manning. The Colts simply can't afford to have Ugoh allowing Manning to get hit like that.
John Madden pointed out during the TV broadcast, and a couple ex-coaches I talked to this week agreed, that Ugoh is often too high when he takes on opposing defensive linemen. Offensive linemen have to keep their knees bent and their butts close to the ground -- those squats they do in the weight room are building the most important muscles they use on the field. Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd needs to stay on Ugoh about having perfect fundamentals on every play.
Nonetheless, Ugoh has obvious skills. He looks like he's already one of the quickest tackles in the NFL. He'll do good work getting into position against speed rushers. (He can probably hold his own against Dwight Freeney in practice.) The Colts drafted him with the idea that some day he can develop into a very good left tackle, and I think they're right. At the time they drafted him, though, they thought he'd spend a year learning from the sidelines while Glenn protected Manning. Instead he'll learn on the field, and he'll take some lumps. So will Manning.
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.
50 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2007, 1:26pm by doktarr