Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
18 Nov 2006
by Aaron Schatz
(Sunday, 4:15 pm)
For the second straight year, the Indianapolis Colts have made it past the season's halfway point without a loss. Only three teams with winning records remain on their schedule, but Dallas may be the biggest obstacle between the Colts and a perfect season.
By wins and losses, the Colts are far superior to the Cowboys. In reality, the two teams are very close. Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- rank the Cowboys a surprising sixth, while the Colts are just one spot higher. The Colts may be undefeated, but only two of those wins have come by more than a touchdown, and they've had trouble pulling away from opponents both good and bad.
Two other factors make the Cowboys the favorites to hand the Colts their first loss. Dallas may not be Buffalo, but there's a difference between playing in a dome and playing outside as the sun sets on a November afternoon. More importantly, the Cowboys are similar to two teams that beat the Colts last year, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Those similarities start with the Cowboys' 3-4 defensive scheme. The Colts offense is based on quarterback Peyton Manning adjusting plays at the line, and he historically has trouble against the 3-4 because the identity of the pass-rushers before the snap is hard to discern.
|IND Offense, Week-by-Week|
Fans may think that Indianapolis's recent win over New England exposed Manning's 3-4 problems as a myth, but that's not the case. After adjusting for strength of schedule with DVOA, two of the three lowest-rated games for the Colts offense are the game in New England and the only other game against a 3-4 team, a last-minute victory over the Jets.
The Cowboys love to bring pressure from their linebackers, and DeMarcus Ware would love to rattle Manning just like past nemeses Joey Porter, Shawne Merriman, and Willie McGinest. The Colts do get a break now that linebacker Greg Ellis, second on the team in sacks, is out for the year with a torn Achilles. Losing a veteran at linebacker means the Cowboys need to start getting production from rookie Bobby Carpenter, their first-round draft pick who has hardly even set foot on the field this year.
Another popular strategy against the Colts is to leave defensive backs all back in coverage, shutting down long passes to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and forcing Manning to build drives around dink-and-dunk passes to open tight ends and running backs. This is the strategy that both Tennessee and Buffalo used in their near-upsets, the only two games this year where the Colts have scored less than 21 points.
Most fans, when they think of the Dallas pass defense, remember a series of long bombs in nationally televised games against Philadelphia and the Giants. Those plays make it hard to believe that the Cowboys could stop the Colts from throwing deep, no matter how many defensive backs are in coverage.
But that was just five plays; consider every play this season, and the Cowboys are actually an above-average defense against wide receivers. More importantly, all five of those plays were blown in large part by one player, rookie safety Pat Watkins, who has since been benched. With veteran Keith Davis starting instead of Watkins, the Cowboys' pass defense has climbed from 29th to 18th over the past three weeks.
With defensive backs in coverage so often, Colts running back Joseph Addai usually sees just six or seven defenders in the box. That's a big reason why the Colts are the best team in the league running up the middle or behind the guards. But with nose tackle Jason Ferguson blocking the way, this happens to be the strength of the Cowboys' run defense as well. Overall, the Cowboys are third in the NFL, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry.
The bad news for Dallas is that their biggest defensive weakness matches the popular strategy they are likely to play against the Colts. The Cowboys give up a lot of yards and first downs on passes to tight ends and running backs. Maybe he won't hit Harrison for any 50-yard bombs, but Manning should have no problem slowly marching the Colts down the field with passes to Addai and tight ends Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht.
Therefore, it isn't enough to slow the Colts; you have to outscore them. This is another place where Dallas fits the mold of teams that beat the Colts: a big-time running game, and a variety of weapons in the passing game.
The Dallas ground attack, led by the one-two punch of Julius Jones and Marion Barber, ranks fourth in the league in DVOA. The Cowboys have more runs from running backs than any other team -- surprising, considering that teams usually pile up carries while closing out wins, and nine teams have won more games than the Cowboys.
The Colts have played their two best defensive games of the season in the last two weeks, but they still rank 29th in DVOA run defense and allow more than five yards per carry. Their chances of stopping Dallas get a lot better if safety Bob Sanders can play; after returning from a month-long injury, he made a huge impact against New England, then had to sit out again last week.
Using Sanders or another safety to stop the run leaves things open for the pass, and the Colts' defense is below average there too. Although sack totals are down this season, the strength of the Colts defense is still the pass rush. That would have been a great weapon against Drew Bledsoe, but the Cowboys replaced Bledsoe with Tony Romo specifically because of Romo's ability to avoid both sacks and bad decisions under pressure.
Romo will have plenty of weapons downfield to choose from, because Dallas has the best receiving corps in the league. The Colts often control the opponent's best receiver, but give up big plays to other guys. Against the Colts, Jerricho Cotchery outgained Laveranues Coles, Eric Moulds outgained Andre Johnson, and David Kirkus outgained Javon Walker. Between Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Patrick Crayton, and Jason Witten, someone is bound to get open.
This game should have a lot of offense, and a lot of long drives. The Colts are the only team in the league to convert more than half of their third-down opportunities, and the Cowboys rank second at 49 percent. Although the Dallas defense is above-average stopping third-down conversions, Indianapolis ranks 30th.
Dallas has all of the ingredients needed to upset the Colts: home field, a running game, a varied passing attack, and a 3-4 defense. Of course, New England had all these ingredients as well, and the Colts won anyway. Even if you can play the right cards against the Colts, sometimes the Peyton Manning card will just trump them all.
An edited version of this article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
This game preview is a bit different than usual. Most readers know that I write these previews for the New York Sun, then run them on FO the next day. I generally begin by going through all my spreadsheets and collecting tidbits of information that will be useful for the article. Then I form sentences around those tidbits.
The plan this week was to write 500 words on Colts-Cowboys, and 500 on Chargers-Broncos. After I started writing, it was clear that I was going to hit my word limit on the Colts-Cowboys game alone. But I collected some interesting notes on the Chargers and Broncos, and I don't want them to go to waste. Therefore, FO readers get to enjoy them exclusively, and we're gonna do it notebook-style:
33 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2006, 11:27am by Rick