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?
15 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
When the schedules came out this past spring, "Colts-Patriots, November 18" looked like nothing more than a fresh relic from a once-epic rivalry. Absolutely no one imagined both teams would come in with records of 6-3. We’re familiar with the Patriots –- let’s break down this matchup with a focus slanted towards the upstart Colts.
Andrew Luck has been every bit as good as advertised. He doesn't have a rocket arm, but he gets exactly the amount of velocity he needs on every throw. Downfield bombs, deep outs and tight-window slings at the back end of intermediate-level routes haven’t been a problem. In fact, Luck not only makes these throws, he makes them late in his progressions, both in and out of the pocket.
Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has done a fantastic job building a user-friendly system for his star rookie. Arians' playbook has opened wider and wider as the season has worn on, but most of Luck’s reads have been straightforward and defined. The Colts do a lot with play-action and rolled pockets, especially early in the game and on early downs. From a play-calling standpoint, Luck is almost never put in an uphill position.
Not that he finds uphill positions uncomfortable. Statistically, the Colts are the best third-and-long offense in football. Luck has flashed a Roethlisbergerian ability to extend the play and complete precision throws just before absorbing hits. With his sound mechanics and veteran-quality football IQ, we tend not to notice that he’s a 6-foot-4, 234-pounder who can run.
If Luck is running, it’s generally because his protection broke down. At his core, Luck is a pocket passer with the polished footwork and eyes-downfield poise to thrive behind an iffy offensive line, ala predecessor Peyton Manning. And not to pour it on, but Luck has also shown a preternatural feel for reading defenses before the snap. He’s been sharp in pass-protection adjustments against the blitz and in diagnosing coverage disguises.
So what does the rookie need to work on? Everything. There are no glaring weaknesses in Luck’s game, but his youth still shines through at times, as he’ll leaves some plays on the field or make the occasional ill-advised throw into a crowd. But truth be told, there’s not a lot to complain about with Luck. What’s more, his supporting cast is rapidly improving.
It’s way too early to declare anything, but at this point, it’s looking like Colts general manager Ryan Grigson's first draft could be one that goes down in NFL lore, much like Jimmy Johnson and his first few years in Dallas. The foundation is being set, as Luck is surrounded by five contributing rookies who are not just emerging players, but also perfect fits for Indy’s new system.
At tight end, second-round pick Coby Fleener is a flexible receiver who can hit the seams and also work the intermediate crossing routes. He’s a big target and a solid route runner. Perhaps more impressive is third-round pick Dwayne Allen. Though he ran only a 4.85 at his Pro Day, Allen has solid all-around football speed as a short-area H-back. He’s an excellent on-the-move player in the underneath passing game and as a blocker. His versatility has given Indy’s offense an element of deception, which the run games needs.
Spearheading that run game is fifth-round pick Vick Ballard, who captured the starting job ahead of former first-round pick Donald Brown. (Brown is still somewhat limited despite improvement this year.) Ballard is developing a sense of patience, timing, and vision at the pro level. Skill-wise, he’s up to par and getting better by the week, particularly when it comes to running between the tackles. Ballard has good burst and coordination in his lateral movement, and more encouraging is his aptitude as a receiver not just out of the backfield but also split out wide.
Then there are Indy’s rookie wide receivers. Third-rounder Ty Hilton has tremendous stop/start quickness and control. The Colts love to get him in catch-and-run situations, often via the screen pass. They’ve also sent Hilton deep more often lately –- something they’ve been doing with sixth-round burner LaVon Brazill as well. Opposing defenses are starting to play with a disadvantageous cushion when these guys align in spread sets.
Last, but certainly not last in Luck's progressions, is Reggie Wayne. He’s obviously not a rookie, but at 34, he’s had to learn a whole new position in a whole new system, as Arians cast him in his old Hines Ward role. Wayne has responded with arguably the best season of his illustrious career. He’s been phenomenal with motion-based assignments (both pre-and post-snap), fervid as a blocker, and is running smart routes out of the unfamiliar tight formations and trips-bunches that Indy uses regularly. And, of course, Wayne has still been viable as a traditional downfield receiving threat.
A 22-yard catch two weeks ago at Tennessee offered a great illustration of Wayne and Luck’s chemistry and football intelligence:
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
As the season has worn on, the Colts have become more and more aggressive with downfield shot plays. Expect to see a barrage of them Sunday, as the Patriots defense leads the league in passes of 20 or more yards allowed, with 47. Deep throws aren’t the only way Indy will attack, though. Against two-deep zone teams (which is what the Patriots have been this year), the Colts like to stretch the back seven defenders with rolled pockets and slow-developing plays. Expect the Colts to do what the Bills did last Sunday and attack New England’s linebackers through the air. The Bills went spread to do this; the Colts generally involve their tight ends in the passing game out of base sets that allow for play-action and misdirection. The absence of Fleener, who was declared out early in the week, could limit their ability to take advantage of this though.
Indy guards Joe Reitz and Mike McGlynn can flash surprising power at times, but they’re mostly mudders who have to rely on a size advantage. Size advantages don’t exist when you face Vince Wilfork, who might be having the best season of his nine-year career. The Colts will squeeze their protections inside to deal with Wilfork, which means they’ll trust gifted second-year left tackle Anthony Castonzo to handle rookie end Chandler Jones, while hoping fringe utility player Jeff Linkenbach or, if healthy, Winston Justice, can contain Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich on the other side. If it’s Linkenbach, he’ll need help; expect Allen to throw chip blocks and run a lot of leak-out patterns from his pass-blocking spots late in the down.
If Luck gets time, the throws should be there. The Patriots don’t have a corner capable of covering Wayne* and, with Indy’s speed on the outside, they’ll likely play their safeties a step or two deeper than usual. That will only widen the voids that have been ubiquitous in the deep-intermediate levels of their zone coverages.
*-This might change, though, with the arrival of Aqib Talib. It remains to be seen how quickly Talib can integrate into New England’s system. It’s possible Belichick could alter the system and allow Talib to play man-to-man, which he’s best at.
At the beginning of the year, the only reason Indianapolis even had a chance at successfully running Chuck Pagano’s hybrid scheme is, with newly acquired cornerback Vontae Davis, they could at least play bump-and-run coverage on the outside. As it’s turned out, Davis has missed more than half the games with knee problems, And No. 2 corner Jerraud Powers, a zone-playing veteran who was looking better than expected in man coverage, just went on IR with a toe injury. What’s more, Indy’s only proven linebacker, Pat Angerer, sat the first six weeks with a broken foot and has only seen rotational snaps in his four games.
And yet, somehow, the Colts have survived. How? Lucky bounces haven’t gone their way –- this defense has just six takeaways on the season. Perhaps there’s been some luck in the scheduling, though. The Colts have faced weaker offenses in the Vikings, Jets, Browns, Titans, Dolphins, and Jaguars (twice). Asides from Week 1 at Chicago, their only true challenge has been against the Packers in Week 5. In that game, the Colts mixed their fronts to keep the Packers from getting into any sort of a rhythm. They also came alive with big pass-rush plays down the stretch to pull out a 30-27 victory.
Mixed fronts are a featured element of Indy’s defense. In fact, mixed everything is. The Colts have very few traceable tendencies. They’ll use a variety of different front-seven personnel packages. This is, in part, because they're still short a few cogs in their rebuilding stage. They change up their coverages regularly.
Indianapolis' only truly distinguishable tendency is that they love to bring pressure on third down, either via the blitz or off a four-man rush involving some sort of a stunt. Interestingly, there have been times this season where they seem to be purposely excluding Dwight Freeney from those stunt designs. Most likely, that’s because they want their 11th-year star operating one-on-one outside. Freeney has only two sacks on the season, but he has transitioned to his new outside linebacker role quite well. Opposing offenses still have to schematically account for his tremendous power-to-speed combination. Just ask the Dolphins, who saw star left Jake Long get embarrassed by Freeney two weeks ago.
It’s entirely possible that the Patriots will peel back the curtain on the Colts defense and reveal the mountain of short-comings that we all expect to be there. The Patriots have one of the better power-run games in football, which the Colts’ fluid-but-non-instinctive linebackers like Kavell Conner will have trouble against. Also, as the Jets showed in Week 6, if nose tackle Antonio Johnson can be handled one-on-one, energetic ends Fili Moala and Cory Redding can be overpowered with double teams. With running back Stevan Ridley showing better power and vision by the week, expect New England to go to the ground quickly and often on Sunday.
When the Patriots go to the air, they’ll obviously try to get Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and, if he plays, Aaron Hernandez involved over the middle. But look for them to prioritize Brandon Lloyd on the outside. Colts corner Cassius Vaughn has struggled against isolation routes at times, and it’s doubtful the Pats fear their former corner, Darius Butler, on the other side. One-on-one opportunities will be there, as the Colts will likely rely on quarters and man coverages. They’ll have to in order to use a lot of their pre-snap disguise and Byzantine blitz concepts, which they hope can coax the up-tempo Patriots into more of a chess match.
Steelers offense vs. Ravens defense
With Ben Roethlisberger out, the Steelers need their rushing attack now more than ever. The Ravens run defense is not what it used to be –- especially right now. Haloti Ngata sat out last week against the Raiders with a bum knee and shoulder after looking like a shell of his usual self against the Browns the previous week. Explosive second-year end Pernell McPhee has missed the last two games with a leg injury.
At linebacker, though less than 100 percent, Terrell Suggs has been a welcome addition on the outside. He and Paul Kruger both set the edge well. Also, rookie Courtney Upshaw has started to flash his athleticism more regularly against the run. Inside, however, Ray Lewis’s replacement, Dannell Ellerbe, has struggled with run recognition in the base defense. Ellerbe has terrific downhill speed, but that doesn’t matter if he’s drifting laterally and waiting for blockers. The Steelers have blockers who can reach Ellerbe, too -– mainly inside with guard Willie Colon and center Maurkice Pouncey. The question is whether those blockers can overcome the dynamic presence of strong safety Bernard Pollard, who will surely be dropping into the box in an effort to make Byron Leftwich throw.
Ravens offense vs. Steelers defense
Who do the Ravens think they are? No, seriously –- who do they think they are? They seem to be searching for an identity. At the beginning of the year, the Ravens thought they were a spread, multidimensional, up-tempo passing offense. But in recent weeks, they’ve taken the game out of Joe Flacco’s hands and have reverted back to more of their traditional base formations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing –- after all, Baltimore ran the ball effectively against Cleveland in Week 9 and annihilated an undisciplined Oakland defense in Week 10. But against tougher opponents (like, say the one they face this week), ambiguous game plans don’t usually fly. Expect the Ravens to commit to base personnel and try to win on the ground Sunday night. Pittsburgh’s front seven is playing well, but it sometimes struggles against zone run-blocking schemes. Plus, staying in base keeps the Steelers from using their sub-packages, which is where they’re most creative and dangerous.
Packers offense vs. Lions defense
Just when he seemed to be getting a disastrous season back on track, right tackle Bryan Bulaga hurt his hip and landed on IR. Now, the Packers are presumably once again weak on the edges, as left guard T.J. Lang is filling in at a position in which he’s struggled over the years. (Evan Dietrich-Smith will assume Lang’s duties inside.) This doesn’t mean the Packers are toast -– it just means Aaron Rodgers' job will be harder. Rodgers' pocket mobility often masks a lot of Green Bay’s pass-protection shortcomings. More than that, though, a big reason why Rodgers is a superstar is that he’s great at adjusting protections before the snap. Lately, those adjustments have included aligning H-backs in the backfield for chip-blocking support outside.
Chip-blocking takes care of Green Bay’s protection issues, but it also limits the number of targets going out on routes. That was the problem in the playoff loss to New York last year: the Packers kept the Giants’ four-man rush at bay, but they often played three-on-seven through the air. This week the Packers face a fairly potent –- though somewhat under-performing -– Lions front four. Instead of investing four blockers just to stop Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch outside, they may want to spread out and incorporate more three-step timing into their passing game: the Packers are at their best when throwing quickly anyway.
Lions offense vs. Packers defense
There will be an intriguing battle of youth through the air on Sunday. With Nate Burleson done for the season due to a broken leg, the Lions have had to turn to callow second-year wideout Titus Young and untested rookie Ryan Broyles. The Packers, playing without Charles Woodson and Sam Shields for most of the past month, have had to rely on second-round rookie Casey Hayward and 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House in their prominently-used nickel packages. Hayward has shown good zone awareness and impressive closing speed in the slot. He’s also made some plays in downfield coverage. House, who operates on the outside, has been solid, particularly against slant patterns. The Lions love to run slants beneath lifted coverage on Calvin Johnson’s side. This matchup very well could come down to which team’s youngsters perform best in the passing game.
Chargers offense vs. Broncos defense
With his suspensions (plural) now served, D.J. Williams –- whom some have said is the most gifted athlete to ever come out of The U -– is back with the Broncos. But where will the ninth-year veteran play? Thanks to Denver’s seven-year run of new defensive coordinators and systems, Williams has experience playing every conceivable linebacker position. On this 2012 defense, though, he may not be needed. Though he’s a stellar pass defender, it’s hard to envision Williams simply supplanting Wesley Woodyard and rising fleet-footed rookie Danny Trevathan in the nickel packages. In base, Von Miller is a fixture on the strong side and Woodyard has been too reliable to simply remove on the weak side. Perhaps Williams can push Keith Brooking for Mike linebacker duties, but Brooking is only in there because the coaches wanted someone who was quicker with the signal calls than Joe Mays. Having not yet played for Jack Del Rio, Williams likely won’t be prepared to make any calls.
Broncos offense vs. Chargers defense
It will be interesting to see if the Broncos have any new offensive wrinkles designed to punish Chargers safety Eric Weddle for his pre-snap freelancing. You may recall when these teams met on Monday Night back in Week 6, Weddle gave Peyton Manning pause a few times by running all over the defensive formation prior to the snap. The Pro Bowl safety made several sturdy stops in the box that night, while the secondary he conducts did a good job jumping Denver’s short passing routes. The Broncos adjusted well during that game. (It helped that their offensive line had no trouble with San Diego’s pass rush.) Most likely, the Broncos will have to make more adjustments during the week and be more unpredictable.
Browns offense vs. Cowboys defense
Brandon Weeden has continued to be up and down in his rookie season. His fellow first-round pick has, lately, been more "up." The Browns are finally starting to revolve around Trent Richardson. That’s what they need to do, given their limited receiving weapons. Their offensive line has been outstanding at times with run-blocking against seven-man boxes. With no Browns receivers capable of shedding press-corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have every reason to play an eight-man box this Sunday.
The key for Cleveland won’t be locating the safety in the run game, it will be locating Bruce Carter. The ragingly athletic second-year inside linebacker is playing faster by the week. Alongside him, newly acquired Ernie Sims has stood out in taking on blocks and beating ballcarriers to spots from his weak-inside spot.
Cowboys offense vs. Browns defense
Nobody has been able to cover Jason Witten on short out routes this season. The Browns may have someone who can change that: T.J. Ward. The third-year strong safety has been regarded mostly as a hitter since being drafted in the second round. This season, however, Ward has shown aptitude as a man-to-man defender against tight ends both off the line of scrimmage and split out wide. He handled Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta admirably last week, and he dominated at times in his matchup against Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham in Week 6. Witten poses a difficult challenge because, unlike Pitta and Gresham, he doesn’t need much separation in order to haul in catches. Ward has good strength and physicality in open space; this is his chance to apply it in coverage.
Falcons offense vs. Cardinals defense
Patrick Peterson has been more up-and-down this season than he’d like, but he hasn’t been as bad as his Week 8 Monday night clunker suggests. (In fact, he wasn’t even awful in that game -– Michael Crabtree made a lot of tremendous individual plays.) Who will Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton have Peterson defend this Sunday? Roddy White is Atlanta’s best all-around receiver. But Julio Jones is their primary big-play threat. Peterson’s spectacular ability to defend deep balls in trail technique coverage might be a viable answer for Jones’s downfield routes. The guess here, however, is that Peterson will defend White. Whichever star receiver William Gay or Jamell Fleming defend, they’re probably going to need help anyway. The fine-tuned White knows how to beat help coverage. Jones, in just his second year, is still learning the technical aspects of that.
Cardinals offense vs. Falcons defense
Arizona’s offensive tackles managed to give up just one sack in their last game. (In case you’re counting, some may have credited the sack to guard Daryn Colledge, which would have made him culpable for both Cardinals sacks allowed at Green Bay, but Colledge was trying to cover for a mistake made by stunningly slow-twitch left tackle Nate Potter.) More three-step timing plays and a stronger commitment to chip-block help on the right side for Bobby Massie made for a relatively clean Cardinals passing game. Or, at least, as clean as it’s going to get in 2012. Will the Cardinals stay committed to this approach in Week 11? On third downs, yes –- Ken Whisenhunt knows his guys can’t block John Abraham.
But Whisenhunt had better be vigilant on first and second down, too. He might be tempted not to, as lately, the Falcons have been using three defensive tackles along their four-man line. The three-tackle line hasn’t made for a slower unit, though, as the tackle moonlighting outside, Johnathan Babineaux, has been stellar in the unfamiliar role. Babineaux has great initial burst and an ability to shed blocks. If the Cardinals don’t respect him (or if they foolishly respect their own offensive tackles), they’ll pay.
28 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2012, 3:59pm by JF