by Ned Macey
The Titans' upset of the Colts is seen as a shocking result around the NFL. Closer observers of the two teams should hardly have been stunned. The Titans have developed into a quality team, and the Colts have spent most of the season living on the edge. The Colts had only beaten an inferior version of these Titans by one point earlier in the season. A couple of bounces of the ball and a gust of wind allowed the Titans to close the deal this time.
The national consensus is now developing that the Colts run defense will likely undermine their Super Bowl ambitions. Two losses in three weeks have awoken the chattering classes, but anyone who saw the Colts eke out win after win to start the season observed these flaws on a weekly basis. Indianapolis has been unable to stop the run all year. The defense is consistently bled to death, keeping the high-profile offense off the field. On Sunday, the offense played well but only got nine possessions.
The good news for Indianapolis is that they actually lost to a pretty good team. Tennessee will not make the playoffs, but they have played at a very high level for the past eight weeks. Their upset of the Giants last week earned a place in this very space a week ago. This week the Titans controlled the game on the ground, limited the Colts' ground game, and had Vince Young make just enough plays to keep them in the game. As a result, the game was left up to Rob Bironas to make a 60-yard field goal that finished the Titans upset.
The Colts loss has led many to recalculate what the team's expectations are. The loss does have an impact on the important race for home field advantage, but this game was no more damning of the Colts ability than their previous one-point escape of Tennessee in Indianapolis. Or their one-point escape over Buffalo in Indianapolis. Or their three-point win against the Jets where they scored the winning TD in the game's last minute. Or their four other wins that were in doubt late in the fourth quarter.
The Colts are disadvantaged in their quest to blow teams out because of tempo. Our main statistics, DVOA and DPAR, are based on measuring each individual play compared to the league average. Plays are successful or not based on advancing toward a first down or touchdown. By that measure, the Colts rank first in the league in offense. Conventional statistics, both yards and points, rank the Colts third.
A reason for the mild discrepancy is that the Colts simply do not have the ball as often as other teams. Going into last week's games, the Colts had eleven fewer possessions than any other team, the equivalent of a full game's worth of opportunities. On a per possession basis, the Colts average the most yards, the most points, and the fewest punts. The difference in yards between them and second place New Orleans was larger than the difference between New Orleans and 12th place Denver.
Indianapolis gets fewer possessions in part because of their defense's design. The Colts are built to get the opposition into obvious passing downs. Ideally, this happens when the Colts grab a big lead, as was the case last year. In close games, they rely on making a big play on first or second down and getting the team into third-and-long. The defense focuses on keeping most plays in front of them, requiring their opposition to put together a string of successful plays. Inevitably, a run defense even as bad as the Colts' will make a stop for no gain.
Also, the more plays the opposition runs, the higher the chances for a turnover. The Colts rank 10th overall in turnovers created, but they rank third in turnovers created per opponents drive.
The Colts would prefer to score quickly, but opposing defenses have adopted the same strategy as the Indianapolis defense. If your personnel are overmatched, prevent the big play and hope to make one big play yourself. The Titans were not perfect at this, giving up two big completions to Marvin Harrison, but they were good enough.
This resulting combination of offensive efficiency, a bend but don't break defensive philosophy, poor rushing defense, and cautious opposition dramatically limits possessions. The Colts have the longest average drives in terms of plays and time of possession on both offense and defense. Fewer possessions magnify any offensive mistake the Colts make.
A week ago, Philadelphia took this strategy to the extreme by playing exclusively a nickel defense. The Colts responded by gashing them with Joseph Addai. This week, the Titans adopted a cautious defense, but thanks to their athletic linebackers, they were able to play most downs in a base 4-3 defense.
The Colts tried to run through this defense as well, but the Titans were able to control the Indianapolis ground game. Addai and Dominic Rhodes were limited to 95 yards on 28 carries. The Tennessee run defense stiffened considerably in the second half when it allowed 12 yards on 10 running back carries. Peyton Manning is oft criticized for padding his own stats, but at least on Sunday, he should have thrown the ball more often.
The defensive line did its job by preventing the Colts linemen from getting to the second level, but the plays were made by the linebackers. Keith Bulluck, Peter Sirmon, and David Thornton were all over the field. The play of Thornton, in particular, was noteworthy since he left Indianapolis as a free agent. Thornton was never made an offer by the Colts, so he must be pleased on some level to see the run defense struggling without him.
The linebackers were able to stay on the field to stop the run because they excel in pass defense. They played in coverage on a number of plays, and only once, on a pass to Bryan Fletcher, did they give up a big play. Meanwhile, Manning's first interception came when Thornton whacked Marvin Harrison, forcing the ball loose and into the hands of Sirmon. The second interception came on a great individual play by Bulluck, who read Manning the whole way and made a perfect play on a pass intended for Fletcher.
This second interception completely changed the course of the game. The Titans were trailing 14-3 at the time with only 40 seconds left in the first half. Vince Young quickly led a three-play touchdown drive that made a burgeoning blowout a competitive game.
Young's entrance into the lineup has spearheaded the Titans' charge, but for most of the season he has been a replacement level quarterback. Sunday's game flashed his potential, hinted at some development, and highlighted the steps that still need to be taken.
The reason Young could be a transcendent quarterback is his ability to make big plays with his legs. The Titans converted 8-of-13 third downs. Six of those conversions were scrambles by Young. The Colts almost exclusively play zone defense, and they often assigned what appeared to be a spy. Nonetheless, Young proved impossible to bring down in those situations, often rendering helpless whichever Colts linebacker was in position to make the play.
Throwing the ball, Young remains a work in progress, but his struggles are largely attributable to his unfamiliarity with taking the snap from under center. Young's college career was spent mostly in the shotgun, and he is clearly ready for the NFL from that formation. Dropping back is another story.
Young has attempted 132 passes from the shotgun and 131 from under center. He has a DVOA from the shotgun of 35% compared with -43.9% from under center. To translate, he has basically been Drew Brees from the shotgun and Ryan Leaf from under center. The dichotomy is nearly as strong when he scrambles. He averages over eight yards per carry if he starts in the shotgun and less than three yards per carry if he starts under center.
Tennessee fans will be pleased to note that both of Young's touchdown passes came when he was under center. Both were accurate throws made in rhythm. At the same time, both were passes made to his first read on the play.
Tennessee fans will be less heartened to hear that both of his interceptions also came when he was under center. They were also both his first read. The first interception was a slight overthrow of a one-on-one shot on the outside. The second was a pass right down the middle where Young never saw the safety.
Young is the definitive work in progress as a passer. Still, his success in the shotgun shows his promise, and with Norm Chow as a mentor, he should be in good hands in developing his game.
A week ago, I suspected that Tennessee would pull a big surprise down the stretch, but now that it has come the next week, the Titans likely want more. Is a run at .500 unreasonable? They can certainly win two of their next three games before hosting New England, where they may get a shot at the Pats JV.
For Indianapolis, this loss is potentially devastating if they end up losing home-field advantage, but what happened on the field is not particularly troubling. They gained 70 more yards than the Titans and had the same number of turnovers. The Titans recovered both of their own fumbles. The Colts kicker missed a 53-yarder with the wind at the end of the first half, while Tennessee's hit a 60-yarder in the same direction to win it.
The presence of a unique player like Young makes it hard to evaluate the defensive performance. Bob Sanders, the Colts' theoretical run defense savior, returned to the line-up, but the team gave up 219 yards on the ground. The silver lining was that they mostly controlled Travis Henry, who had a couple long runs but a lot of minimal gains. The problem was that whenever they forced third downs, Young was able to gain them on the ground. Young's scrambles were marked by over-pursuit and poor tackling by the defense, hallmarks of the Colts' struggles all season.
The Colts will not win the Super Bowl if their defense does not improve. They simply are staying on the field too long, limiting opportunities for their potent offense. One solution could be a change in personnel, such as playing Rob Morris at middle linebacker more in running situations. The Colts have insisted all season that the problem is merely execution, but after 12 games, that explanation is becoming harder to believe.
One other help would be if the Colts pass rush, still capable of forcing hurries, converted more into sacks. They ranked second in adjusted sack rate a year ago but are in the middle of the pack this season. Sacks are a rare occurrence and not always the best indicator of the quality of a pass rush. At the same time, they are extremely positive plays for a defense and usually stall an opponent's drive.
The Colts are not the best team in football, but no team is substantially better than they are. If the Colts have home field advantage, they still would be favorites to make the Super Bowl. If they have to travel to Baltimore or San Diego, they would be underdogs in either case. The next two weeks, they face talented opponents in Jacksonville and Cincinnati. They have to split and win out against Houston and Miami to garner the home field.
The only way to do that is find a way to get the opposition's offense off the field. Otherwise Manning and Co. have to be perfect. They are the closest thing to perfect we currently have in the NFL, but as the Titans proved, a few big defensive plays are all a team may need to spring the upset.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.