Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
29 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Sometimes the best thing to do is just tap Ctrl-Alt-Delete twice and move forward. There’s no shame in doing that following a disastrous 2-14 season when, for 12 years before that, you ran one of the sharpest programs in your industry. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay can be proud of what his club accomplished during the Peyton Manning Era, and he can be proud of the all-in approach he’s taken in commencing what he hopes will one day come to be known as the Andrew Luck Era.
The Stanford star whom many have described as the best pure quarterback prospect to enter the NFL in two decades is the centerpiece of Indy’s rebuilding effort, but he’s far from the only piece. Irsay recalibrated the front office, replacing 69-year-old legend Bill Polian with 40-year-old up-and-comer Ryan Grigson. Grigson, a former director of college scouting and player personnel with the Eagles, is expected to wield less power than his predecessor, though that will change if he proves to have his predecessor’s eye for talent.
What really made Polian special was the clarity with which he constructed his team. Polian knew exactly how to build around his star quarterback. Of course, everything fell apart as soon as the star quarterback became unavailable, but building 100 percent around your star quarterback is smart. It allows you to cut the right corners and economize. It clarifies most of the inherent minutia for your coaching staff and allows your scouts to be more precise in the players they target.
Grigson figures to have the same level of commitment building around Luck that Polian had to building around Manning, but his methods of operation will be different. The man Grigson hired to coach the team, 51-year-old Chuck Pagano, is a career-long defensive assistant who subscribes to a physical 3-4 scheme. That’s virtually the antithesis of the Tony Dungy Tampa-2 that Indy ran for most of Polian’s tenure. Pagano has brought in an entirely new staff: he kept only running backs coach David Walker and offensive coordinator-turned-quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen from Jim Caldwell's staff. The man hired to coordinate his offense, Bruce Arians, runs a motion-based system that’s vastly different from Manning’s standstill scheme. To accommodate these new philosophies, the Colts have overhauled about half of their starting personnel on both sides of the ball. More changes are likely to come.
While drastic change doesn’t have to mean slow change, the Colts aren’t making any bones about the magnitude of their current endeavors. Expectations are tempered for 2012 and TBD for the immediate future after this season. You can’t help but root for a club like this. Isn’t a little self-perspective and realism refreshing amidst the bravado and hyperbole that clamors throughout the rest of pro football?
It’s somewhat surprising that so many are championing Andrew Luck as the best quarterback prospect since John Elway considering that Luck doesn’t have a big-time arm by NFL standards. Luck certainly has a good arm, but he wasn’t asked to make a lot of difficult downfield throws at Stanford. Some respected experts have noted that he has a few quirks in his mechanics that prevent him from effectively driving the ball.
Where Luck thrived at Stanford was in diagnosing defenses and making adjustments before the snap (sound familiar, Colts fans?). He operated primarily out of condensed, tight-end heavy formations, where he could set up timing- and rhythm-based throws in the short and intermediate areas. That’s Luck’s game in a nutshell.
Ultimately, if Luck is going to fulfill expectations and make the most of Bruce Arian’s scheme, he’ll have to improve his arm strength and downfield prowess. Good quarterbacks can do that after arriving in the NFL. Still, Ryan Grigson recognizes what Luck is, and seems fully committed to building around his quarterback’s strengths. That’s why he took Luck’s Stanford teammate, tight end Coby Fleener, with the 34th overall pick and why he used his third-round selection on Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen. Both will assume prominent roles right away in Arians’ two-tight end base offense. Fleener is the more fluid receiver, cut from the Owen Daniels cloth. Allen is a superb all-around athlete, but doesn’t have the speed to consistently stretch the seams. He’ll get plenty of work as a motion-based blocker, especially since Arians doesn’t believe in fullbacks.
The frequent single-back sets could make things challenging for the Colts running backs. Donald Brown and Delone Carter are both more effective runners when working behind a lead-blocker. Of course, neither of them are particularly effective runners in the bigger picture. Brown, a former first-round pick, finally showed signs of life last season after doing little his first two years. Down the stretch he was able to consistently gain yards after contact for the first time, and he flashed a "next gear" when reaching the second level. Still, Brown is not a natural downhill runner, and he lacks decisiveness and physicality.
As for Carter, slow feet and a propensity for mental gaffes marred his rookie season. It’s hard to forecast a role for the fourth-rounder given that he’s not uniquely powerful and can’t contribute on third down. If the new regime were intrigued by Carter, they probably wouldn’t have drafted Vick Ballard in the fifth round. Ballard isn’t a third-down back either, which is why veteran Mewelde Moore was signed.
If the Colts rely heavily on their ground game this season, Moore will be on the field often, as third-and-long will be nearly as common as first-and-10 for this offense. It’s not just that Brown and the rest of the backs are underwhelming, it’s that the Colts don’t have anything remotely resembling a road-grading offensive line. It’s a mostly revamped unit, which is a good thing when you recall the group Indy trotted out last season. The only returning starters are left guard Joe Reitz and left tackle Anthony Castonzo, though former starter Jeff Linkenbach is also still on the roster.
Reitz isn’t anything special, but he won’t have as much trouble sustaining blocks late in the down as Linkenbach had. He may still be somewhat of a liability, though. At least Castonzo can provoke optimism. The first-round pick from a year ago shows very natural athleticism. He moves well, and his already solid mechanics should only get better.
As for the newcomers ... Samson Satele has always been somewhat hit-or-miss at center, but when healthy, he can be a very good lock-and-drive run-blocker. He doesn’t have the size to move piles in the ground game, but he plays strong when working off designed movement. At right guard, Eagles castoff center and recent Bengals backup Mike McGlynn is expected to start ahead of young journeyman Seth Olsen. At right tackle is Winston Justice, who underachieved for most of his six years in Philadelphia. What progress Justice did show in 2009 and 2010 was negated by a knee problem that wiped out most of his 2011 campaign. The Colts desperately need Justice to contribute in 2012, as their backups at tackle are undrafted Mike Tepper, a fringe guy who has had several "inactives" his first two years, and little-used journeyman Seth Olsen.
It’s a good thing Luck thrives on three-and five-step drops because that’s a tactic that a front line like this will require. Many of his passes will go to tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, though Luck is too savvy a pocket passer to not consistently include the wideouts in his progressions. Twelfth-year veteran Reggie Wayne was, surprisingly, re-signed this past offseason after the much younger Pierre Garcon got away in free agency. At 33, Wayne doesn’t have the same burst and quickness that once made him a flawless route runner, but he’s still physically strong and has an unparalleled feel for playing the position. Of course, he’s basically learning an all-new position, as Arians is casting him in the Hines Ward role. That means, instead of just lining up outside on the left, Wayne will be going in motion, splitting tight to the formation (almost like a third tight end), and even catching swing passes out of the backfield.
Wayne’s new chores will primarily occur out of three-receiver sets. Filling the more traditional receiving roles will be Austin Collie and veteran signee Donnie Avery. Collie is a sound possession target who can get downfield; Avery is more of a diminutive speedster. Both come with injury baggage, as concussions have been a problem for Collie (he suffered another one in the second preseason game) and knee problems have basically kept Avery off the field since 2009.
Fittingly, Avery missed most of training camp with a hip injury. That opened the door for fast-but-undersized third-round rookie T.Y. Hilton, who is expected to become the team’s long-term solution in the slot. Also in the receiver mix is sixth-round rookie LaVon Brazill, though some scouts were concerned about his lack of quickness coming out of Ohio.
Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky surely understand that 2012 is likely to be a rough transition year for this defense. A lot of players are learning new positions, and many of them will prove to be ill fits. The only dire wish in all this is that the "ill fits" won’t include Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, as, just like in the old 4-3, those two are expected to be the cornerstones of this scheme. Indianapolis backed up their faith in Mathis with a four-year, $36 million contract; the Colts are taking a wait-and-see approach with Freeney, who is a free agent after this season.
In the Tampa-2, Freeney and Mathis had to focus simply on pinning their ears back and attacking the passer off the edge. Now, standing up in a two-point stance and aligning just off the line of scrimmage, they’ll have to worry about reading run-pass, taking on blocks in run defense, and occasionally setting up pass-rushing lanes for others in some of Pagano’s sub-package blitz designs. They have the acumen to handle the new assignments and enough gas left in the tank to execute them, but there’s a reason they’ve thrived playing just one style their entire careers. At their core, both are still pure edge-rushers. Mathis, in particular, simply doesn’t have the size to be a vociferous run anchor).
Pagano and Manusky know this. And they know that Freeney’s and Mathis’s edge speed is the best thing this defense has going for it. They’ll defer to this in obvious passing situations. Hopefully they can defer to Jerry Hughes, as well. The 2010 first-round pick has been a complete bust thus far. With none of the new major decision-makers in this organization having any ties to Hughes, this could be his last chance to impress. Hughes played in a quasi 3-4 at TCU and figures to be more comfortable in this new scheme, but it’s wise to be skeptical of his prospects. He’ll get plenty of opportunities given that the only other backup outside linebackers are undrafted 27-year-old Justin Hickman and seventh-round rookie Tim Fugger (whose name is terrifying to say in front of someone you don’t know).
It will be interesting to see what the Colts get from their inside linebackers. Third-year man Pat Angerer is a developing, energetic run-stopper who plays faster than his timed speed or raw athleticism suggest. He’s not very big, but he compensates by being a quick, firm tackler. In this 3-4, unlike as the Mike in the Tampa-2, he’ll have to shed blocks. And he won't be very schooled in his new assignments considering a fractured foot suffered early in training camp will likely keep him sidelined until late September.
Either Jerrell Freeman or Moise Fokou will start in Angerer’s absence. Both would have trouble making a lot of other NFL rosters. At the other first-string inside spot will be Kavell Conner, a fast, fluid, finesse-oriented third-year pro who started 15 games on the outside last season.
Indy’s personnel is just as precarious in the trenches as it is at the second level. Pagano brought Cory Redding with him from Baltimore to provide quality experience at one of the defensive end positions. Redding is a high-motored veteran who knows how to get off blocks and into the backfield. He can help Fili Moala learn the nuances of the new scheme. The fourth-year pro did a good job holding his ground in lateral movement as a defensive tackle last season and could be an ideal fit at the five technique spot (aligned over the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder). At nose tackle will be solid clogger Antonio Johnson, a low-to-the-ground 340-pounder. Johnson was supposed to backed up by former Raven Brandon McKinney, however, McKinney was lost to a torn ACL in the preseason. His replacement, fifth-round rookie Josh Chapman, has been on the shelf with a knee injury. Rounding out the startling thin second-string defensive line is last year’s third-round pick, Drake Nevis, who will probably have to add weight for this scheme.
Expect Pagano to use plenty of pre-snap disguises and overload blitz looks in obvious passing situations if for no other reason than to compel offenses to play at a more hurried pace. Pagano can’t afford to have this pass-rush be as anemic as it was in 2011. If it is, the Colts defense will yield a completion percentage greater than 70 for a second straight year.
Manufactured pressure is a must when your starting cornerbacks were slated to be Jerraud Powers and Cassius Vaughn. The Colts recognized their futility at this position and dealt their 2013 second-round pick to Miami for corner Vontae Davis. The supremely talented, mercurial, fourth-year pro immediately supplanted Vaughn in the starting lineup and gave the Colts a capable man-to-man defending playmaker. The second-rounder was a steep price, as it will likely be a high second-rounder, but Davis has shown the ability to be worth it.
Powers has been decent as an off-coverage corner for most of his first three years in the league, but it remains to be seen whether he can handle a wide variety of coverages as a true No. 1. Vaughn was mostly a sub-package player in Denver and missed the second half of last season with a fractured fibula. He’ll compete for slot duties with free agent acquisition Justin King, who doesn’t change directions smoothly enough to be an everydown player. The rest of Indy’s cornerbacking depth is comprised of little-known commodities like the recently traded-for Josh Gordy and a bunch of undrafted guys.
Fortunately this secondary has a pair of veteran safeties. Two-time Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea is underrated in all facets. He is great at entering the box or making openfield run stops, and he takes smart angles in coverage. Part of his success stems from always playing in a familiar Tampa-2, however, which is why the veteran leader could, for the first time in years, find himself requesting guidance instead of administering it. The man Bethea would turn to is strong safety Tom Zbikowski, who played for Pagano in Baltimore.
Twenty-five-year-old Pat McAfee is evolving into one of the better punters in the business. It’s weird to think about Adam Vinatieri still kicking for this rebuilding team considering we associate the 17th-year veteran with so many big game moments. Vinatieri still has plenty of leg. LaVon Brazill was drafted to be the fulltime return artist; if he can’t secure that job, fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton will get a look.
The Colts will certainly be better than they were last season, but they have a lot of groundwork still to lie. The most important piece is in place (Andrew Luck), and it helps that they’re already cultivating long-term receiving targets for him. But there are still needs in the backfield and offensive line, and the entire defense is frighteningly thin.
14 comments, Last at 19 Oct 2012, 5:00am by So su