07 Jan 2007
When I finished writing last week's Too Deep Zone article about the Colts' terrible run defense, I secretly knew they would turn around and have an awesome game. It's Murphy's Law as it applies to sports journalism.
I reviewed the game tape this morning to see what the Colts were doing differently on defense. The first thing I noticed was the presence of Rob Morris, who has been starting for several weeks in place of Gilbert Gardner. Morris, a starter with the Colts for several seasons before losing his job in 2005, is a classic two-down linebacker: a big guy who isn't very fast but can shed isolation blocks and make plays between the tackles. Bob Sanders was back on the field, allowing CB/safety tweener Marlon Jackson to move back to cornerback, where he's an asset in run defense. And reserve defensive end Josh Thomas rotated into the lineup more regularly as a sub for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Thomas weighs 270 pounds and is a more effective point-of-attack run defender than Freeney or Mathis. All three personnel moves improved the run defense.
Overall, the Colts did a very good job of filling their assignments. The defensive tackles got good penetration. Linebackers shot their gaps and made sure tackles. Freeney and Mathis did a fine job of pursuing plays along the line and dragging down Larry Johnson or taking away cutback lanes. At the same time, the back-side defense didn't over-pursue. The Chiefs ran some reverses and misdirection plays to catch the Colts keying on Johnson, but the Colts' stay-at-home defenders stayed at home.
Of course, the Colts knew what was coming, and that may have been the biggest boon to their run defense. On three of their first four drives, the Chiefs ran Johnson on first and second downs. It wasn't exactly a subtle gameplan. The Colts could concentrate all of their energy on run defense because everyone in the stadium knew that the Chiefs had no interest in throwing the ball.
Next week, the Colts face the Ravens, a team with a little more offensive balance. Steve McNair likes to throw the ball over the short middle of the field, and he will be looking for Morris in coverage. Brian Billick, for all his flaws, isn't quite as single-minded as Herm Edwards. He'll try to loosen the Colts up a little before unleashing Jamal Lewis. The Colts will have to use their nickel package more on early downs. Freeney and Mathis will have to work harder to get to McNair and may start vacating their run gaps again.
I have a feeling that the Colts haven't solved all of their problems on run defense. They played a great game on Saturday. Let's see how they fare against a multi-dimensional offense and backs who haven't been run into the ground this season.
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?