by Ned Macey
The Indianapolis Colts are in the AFC Championship game for the second time in four years. The previous time, they rode into New England following two amazing offensive performances. This time, their much-maligned defense has held opponents to 14 points in two games. That defense slowed the Ravens' running game, forced turnovers, and won another game in which the vaunted Indy offense was only mediocre.
The Baltimore Ravens imported Steve McNair to give a long-suffering offense a spark. The regular season results were exceptional: a 13-3 record, the best offense of the Billick era, and Baltimore's first-ever playoff bye. Unfortunately, on Sunday McNair chose a bad day to have a terrible game.
The national media has understandably moved their focus to the impending Manning-Brady encounter, but the Ravens deserve a brief comment before becoming a historical footnote.
The Ravens are coached by a man who has won a Super Bowl, and their quarterback has played valiantly in making a Super Bowl. Therefore, the easy morality story -- that the team just can't win in the playoffs -- is not available. The next easy answer is that the Ravens were not a very good team. But that could not be farther from the truth.
The Ravens were an excellent team who played poorly on one given day and lost to a very good team. They recovered none of the numerous fumbles in the game and saw an Indianapolis field goal bounce in off the crossbar.
In Brian Billick's first seven seasons, not once did the Ravens sport an above-average offensive DVOA. The signing of McNair and development of some young offensive weapons broke that string. The Ravens offense was above average for the season and was a very solid unit once Billick took over play-calling duties.
The offense was successful almost exclusively through the air. They ranked 11th in passing offense DVOA and 24th in running offense DVOA. McNair took some time to adjust to a new offense, but as the season progressed, he was highly effective with a short-range passing attack. The developing Mark Clayton combined with the already established Todd Heap and Derrick Mason to give the Ravens three solid receiving weapons.
On the ground, however, the offense struggled. Jamal Lewis, once an elite back, had another subpar season. Lewis faced a heavy workload in carrying the offense for the Ravens early in his career. Those carries have come home to roost, and he lacks the explosiveness he had through 2004. Nonetheless, Billick rode with his known quantity. Back-ups Mike Anderson and Musa Smith got only 39 and 36 carries respectively. Anderson, signed as a free agent off an impressive season in Denver, was oddly ignored by the offense.
Facing a reconfigured Colts defense, the lack of a running attack posed a serious problem. Lewis gained 53 yards on 13 carries, a 4.1 average well above his season average of 3.6. 18 yards came on one impressive run. The other 12 runs averaged less than three yards per carry. An inability to dominate led Billick to abandon the run. In the second half, Lewis only had four carries.
Failure to convert third downs was the common theme for Baltimore and the primary reason a slightly improved Colts defense appeared to be world-beaters. On most scoring drives, a team needs to convert at least one third down.
During the regular season, Indianapolis ranked 30th in third-down defense according to DVOA. Through two games, Colts opponents are 4-for-24 on third and fourth down. That level of defensive success is unsustainable. The Colts defense has forced some long-yardage situations, but they have not dominated the early downs. They have faced a third or fourth down of six yards or less 14 times and allowed only two conversions.
The Ravens consistently threw the ball in mid-range third down situations. Too often their throws netted yardage short of the first down. Baltimore's first three failed third-down conversions featured completed passes. The Colts defense was not afraid of the Ravens' ability to complete the deep ball. As a result, the secondary could play more aggressively and cut off the underneath routes.
The Colts third-down pass defense was far from dominant in the regular season, but it was substantially better than their run defense. The run defense gave up a higher percentage of conversions facing third downs of 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 yards. In the playoffs, the Colts have faced only three runs on third down. Two of those converted.
The difference between three and five yards on third down is a big deal and a sign of a possible real reason for the Colts' improvement. The Colts were as likely to face a third down of 1-3 yards as 4-6 yards during the regular season. In the playoffs, they are holding opponents to slightly fewer yards on the ground, creating more mid-range third downs. As a result, they are able to get off the field.
The improvement in defense is part scheme and part personnel. The changes in personnel are easier to explain. The two biggest changes are the return to health of safety Bob Sanders and the insertion of Rob Morris. Sanders, the Colts' best run stuffer, played only four regular season games. Morris, the former middle linebacker, is the Colts' best run defender at linebacker. He provides size and sure tackling to a unit lacking in both. Less noticeable is the insertion of Marlin Jackson at cornerback for Jason David in likely run downs.
Schematically, the Colts are not doing anything revolutionary. A Tony Dungy team is unlikely to abandon the Tampa-2. Still, there have been noticeable changes. The defensive ends, notorious for scarcely playing the run on the way to the quarterback, are now playing much more conservatively. The defensive tackles also are focusing more on pinching the middle rather than attacking to the backfield.
Meanwhile, not only are the Colts often putting eight in the box, but they are also putting a premium on playing the run first. The linebackers, in particular Morris, are attacking the line of scrimmage first rather than reacting to hand-offs. Of course, none of this is possible without sure tackling that was lacking in the regular season.
The run defense has not exactly been tested at length. They have faced about 30 meaningful runs by running backs in two games. The Ravens, in fact, started to run successfully in the second quarter. After an Ed Reed interception, Baltimore had the ball on their own 45-yard line. Four runs and one pass later, they had first-and-goal at the 7-yard line.
Three plays later, McNair made the pivotal mistake in the game. He saw Heap clear Cato June, but he missed Antoine Bethea on the other side. The safety cut in front of Heap for the interception. A field goal would have tied the game. The mistake was one of many for McNair on what was far from his finest day. The aging quarterback remains above average, if past his prime. One bad game, even a pivotal one, should not undo what was a solid season. McNair did not play markedly worse this weekend than the two quarterbacks who will play in the AFC Championship.
McNair's struggles followed an abysmal game by Trent Green the week before. For all the attention paid to the improved run defense, the Indianapolis pass defense has been equally improved. Against Kansas City, the pass rush harried Green. The Colts rush rarely got to McNair, but the secondary played well. The Ravens feared the pass rush and threw quickly underneath.
The Ravens tried to take a few shots down the field, but they were covered well. The Colts' defense is not prone to giving up the deep pass but is susceptible to the 15-20 yard deep ins and deep posts. Those plays take time to develop, and Billick and McNair appeared to not trust their offensive line.
The Baltimore defense played well but not exceptionally. The two pivotal drives were the drive following the Bethea interception and the Colts' final drive. The only positive of the interception was that the Colts were pinned at their own 1-yard line. The Colts put together a 13-play drive that ended when Adam Vinatieri hit a 51-yard field goal. On the drive, Manning hit Marvin Harrison for three completions, all netting first downs. Had the Ravens forced a three-and-out, the Ravens would have recouped the ball in Indianapolis territory.
The game-clinching drive was a more shocking display. The Colts received the ball with 7:36 left in the game up by six points. They proceeded to run Dominic Rhodes on 10 of 11 plays, marching 47 yards, taking 7:16 off the clock, and setting up a Vinatieri's last field goal. The Ravens defense prides itself on physicality, but the Colts ran right at them with a power drive.
The success of Rhodes is an interesting subplot for Indianapolis. Joseph Addai was a far better player during the regular season, but Rhodes was clearly superior on Sunday. One major reason is that Rhodes is the better runner between the tackles. The Colts' preferred stretch play struggles against a quality 3-4 defense. As a result, Addai had little success on the outside runs where he usually excels.
The Colts may be mildly concerned about Peyton Manning. He now has five interceptions in two games. The Colts offense avoided the sacks that sank them a year ago against Pittsburgh. To deal with the constant blitzes, the Colts left in tight end Ben Utecht and a running back to block. The result was few options for Manning underneath if his star receivers were taken away. The Colts' solution to keeping Manning standing needs to be coupled with a way to complete passes if he is standing. Odds still favor a stronger performance from Manning than the resurgent defense.
Baltimore has a long off-season to consider what might have been. The Colts have a week to figure out how to defeat their long-time nemesis. The big question is whether or not this new and improved playoff defense is for real. The answer appears to be "somewhat." They are not the second-coming of the 2000 Ravens, but they are an average unit.
New England will likely learn from the Colts' success and attack the revamped defense in a different fashion. Both Kansas City and Baltimore favored heavy packages to overpower the undersized Indianapolis defenders. The Patriots will probably go to multiple wide receivers, which will get Morris off the field. Spreading out the Colts will require their run defense to make more plays in space. Draws to Kevin Faulk are a likely part of the arsenal. If the Patriots go two tight ends, they should try and throw at Morris, who struggles in coverage. Regardless, they are likely to convert more third downs than Baltimore and sustain drives.
A loss on Sunday will doubtless lead to condemnation of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy. Last weekend's impressive effort against Baltimore will be inaccurately considered a win over an inferior opponent. Beating New England will go a long way to cementing the legacies of both men. Rarely has an individual game been so important for a player, a coach, or a franchise. The Colts are the Patriots' equals and capable of repeating their regular season victory. They are equally capable of falling, a loss that will lead to an off-season of doubt about the direction of the franchise.
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.