Film Room

Analysis beyond the numbers

Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Doug Farrar

Run to Win?
New York Jets 10 at Indianapolis Colts 15
Week 16 -- December 27, 2009

No, that score isn't a misprint. In the spirit of various DVOA adjustments, we're taking the Curtis Painter Experience out of the equation and talking about the "Real Colts" versus the Jets they'll face in the AFC Championship game. Ostensibly, the marquee matchup would be the Jets' array of crazy blitzes against Peyton Manning's seemingly vanilla three-wide single-back stuff with all the pre-snap adjustments beneath the surface. But in reviewing the last time these teams faced off, another theme became obvious -- the Colts and Jets each spent time playing out of type, and it could happen again.

It was the Colts who started the game with wacky formations, while the Jets played as base a nickel defense as you'll ever see from Rex Ryan: a 4-2-5 with a simple deep safety. On their own 20-yard line on the first play of the game, Indy had three wide, with Dallas Clark split wide left (safety Eric Smith covering close), Darrelle Revis on Reggie Wayne in a tight zone shade on the other side, and Austin Collie in the right slot. Wayne motioned inside Collie pre-snap, which made Revis play off and move that zone side inside. The call was an end-around to Collie, but Smith easily broke off his coverage of Clark and made a dramatic tackle of Collie as the rookie receiver tried to jump over the defender. Loss of one, and a reset for the Colts. I'm not sure what they thought they'd see on that play, or if they just wanted to see how Revis would react to motion, but offensive coordinator Tom Moore might want to rip that one out of the playbook in preparation for Sunday.

Time to reign it in -- the Colts next went play-action out of a two-tight end set, with Manning rolling right and hitting Clark on a deep cross from left to right for 18 yards, under safety Kerry Rhodes. That was the second play in a row where you weren't seeing something out of the typical Colts oeuvre. In 2008, Indianapolis ranked 29th in two-tight end sets, and no team ran fewer plays listed as "outside pocket." In my mind, it was an indication of how much the Colts respected the Jets' defense that they didn't just come out banging the three-wide drum from the start -- they seemed to be feeling out Rex's defense and seeing where the holes and traps were.

The third play saw both teams in more recognizable formations -- the Colts in shotgun, three-wide, single-back, and the Jets in a four-man front, with strong-side slanted dual linebackers and man coverage underneath. Smith was on Clark in the left slot, with Revis locked on Wayne outside left. The call was a delay to Joseph Addai, and tight end Gijon Robinson did an outstanding job of dual-level blocking on the play, As Addai bounced outside right, Robinson first blocked end Shaun Ellis inside, then peeled off to take linebacker Bart Scott, who had shaded to the line pre-snap. Addai ran through the gap Robinson created when he took Scott outside, and gained seven yards before linebacker David Harris sifted left and took him down. (Side note: Nice blocking by Collie outside the stretch on Lito Sheppard -- that's been a notable aspect of Collie's play before.)

Three-wide for the Colts on second-and-3 with 12:59 left in the first quarter from their own 44-yard line, and Manning called for the tight ends to switch in formation pre-snap -- Clark from right to left slot, and Robinson from tight left to tight right tackle. The Jets switched their safeties at the same time in a man-under front, and Sheppard batted away the quick pass to Collie on the right side. Collie then set the Colts back five yards with an illegal formation penalty.

The Jets stacked the line and brought more man-under looks on second-and-8, and the Colts countered with slide protection to the right and Addai hitting it for six yards up the middle. Then, an empty backfield set on third-and-2, with the Jets bringing six to the line and a cluster of pre-snap pressure over right slot. Manning threw the quick out to Clark, who dropped the pass over tight coverage by Dwight Lowery. Clark gave Lowery a stutter from left slot, but Lowery followed him outside, and the Colts were forced to punt. The first and most overwhelming thing I noticed was that the Jets had no problem whatsoever with the concept of playing man underneath instead of backing off into floaty zones. There was the occasional disguised zone for which Ryan is renowned, and you'd see a straggling blitz once in a while, but the primary plan seemed to be using their great cover guys in the flats as the drive went on. Ryan was cautious at first, but it didn't last long.

Having seen specifics in the first drive, I was looking for trends on the second, more successful one. What I found interesting was that aside from a 13-yard quick out to Collie, every play that brought the Colts forward to their first touchdown was either a run or a Jets penalty. The Jets seemed to go a bit more vanilla, mirroring the Colts to a point -- if Indy went three-wide, the Jets would counter with man looks on the wideouts, and off coverage on the slot. If the Colts went with a tight twins formation, the Jets seemed to prefer bracket concepts; even if they went to Revis' side. But the real surprise here was that the Colts were able to get consistently productive runs by bouncing Addai outside in two-tight end sets, and sending Addai or Donald Brown up the middle as the line's zone slides washed out the front. Manning orchestrated more plays out of two-tight end sets than I'd ever seen from this team, and it was clear that the Colts had a plan for it -- augmenting a line that finished the season ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards, and splaying the Jets' defense across the field.

The Colts also got a break on fourth-and-1 from the Jets' 31 with 7:35 left in the first quarter, when Brown couldn't penetrate the 46 front, but someone from Terry McAulay's crew caught Bart Scott's blatant tripping penalty. Manning then sent an errant throw to Wayne in the vicinity of Revis Island. On the next play, the Jets played pass on second-and-10 from the Jets' 21, and Manning handed the draw to Addai out of the shotgun up the middle as Indy's interior line split New York's front, and Addai blew in for a score. More and more, I was impressed by the Colts' ability to adapt; as the Jets focused on Indy's passing game despite the myriad under fronts, Manning saw and exploited vulnerabilities in the run defense. I don't think Ryan will play pass out of run defense-style fronts in the same way in the rematch.

The Delicate Sound of Thunder
Baltimore Ravens 3 at Indianapolis Colts 20
Divisional Round -- January 16, 2010

Speaking of atypical Indianapolis formations, let's focus on the Colts' defense, which is perhaps the most underestimated aspect of this postseason. Last week, when I wrote about the Ravens' offense and what they needed to do to win the Divisional round rematch, I spent too much time on Baltimore and not enough on the Indy defense. Part of the reason they're playing so well is a slightly increased blitz percentage under new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Of course, we have to take the word "slightly" in context. Based on the 2009 regular season data we've collected so far, the Colts rushed three just 3 percent of the time (down from 5.3 percent in 2008), rushed four 71 percent (down from a league-leading 84.8 percent in 2008), rushed five 20 percent (way up from a league-low 7.8 percent in 2008) and brought six or more 4 percent of the time -- twice as often as their league-low total of 2.1 percent last season. We'll talk more specifically about how those increased blitz numbers affect opposing offenses in a minute, but against the Ravens in the playoff win, the concept was overall defensive speed.

A penalty for an illegal block above the waist by L.J. Smith negated a 64-yard Jalen Parmele kick return after the Colts' first touchdown (and likely had Mike Tanier laughing his ass off), so the Ravens were stuck to start their first drive at their own 6-yard line. They came out with their staple six-man line, plus Todd Heap on the left side. The Colts answered with cornerback Jerraud Powers playing Derrick Mason tight on the offensive right side, and five in the middle (two defensive backs playing downhill) behind a four-man front. Clearly, Indy expected a run to one side, and the pursuit was blazingly fast after Joe Flacco handed off to Ray Rice around right end. Rice gained only one yard before linebacker Clint Session wrapped him up. Flacco then hit Mason for 16 in the zone, and followed with an end-around out of play action to take advantage of that fast pursuit. Clayton gained eight more yards, setting the Ravens up at their own 32-yard line. A fullback blast to Le'Ron McClain gained only two yards because Robert Mathis was so fast coming off the left edge, he was able to double back and make the tackle after rolling around that side.

After a quick 12-yard gain to Mason -- a short pass underneath the zone -- the Colts tightened up for a screen to Rice out of offset-I. Rice caught the ball about five yards behind the line of scrimmage and got up a good head of steam, but linebacker Gary Brackett shot back down to the line after dropping into coverage out of a nickel set, blew past guard Ben Grubbs, and tackled Rice for no gain. I've written about Clint Session's speed before, but Brackett's is just as exceptional. Between Mathis, Dwight Freeney, and the outside linebackers, I don't think there's a defense in the league with as much outside speed to the ball as this one. Rice was originally looking to bounce the screen outside, but Session was there waiting for him, and he had to cut in.

When last I reviewed the Baltimore offense against the Indy defense, I hypothesized that the Ravens should take advantage of the Colts' tendency to align their fronts to motion. The next play, on second-and-10 from the Baltimore 47 with 7:09 left in the first quarter, told me why I was full of beans. Heap motioned from left to right after McClain motioned into the backfield for an I-formation set. The Colts moved their line one step over, and the Ravens ran Rice the other way, heading outside left as Freeney took his spin move inside. Of course, the pursuit speed of linebacker Philip Wheeler negated the idea, and Rice gained only three. Flacco got a 27-yard pass to Mason over Kelvin Hayden on third-and-2, but the Ravens ran into another problem -- literally -- as they got closer to the goal line.

Rice tried a couple of nifty cutbacks, but there was always someone there who had anticipated his intent and was in a big hurry to stop him. Flacco converted a third-and-2 at the Colts' 8-yard line with a sneak. Then, a two-yard gain by Willis McGahee, which was almost a five-yard loss as Freeney just about had him in the backfield. Perhaps afraid of that potential yardage loss, Baltimore went with pass plays -- both incompletions -- on second- and third-and-goal. They would have to settle for another field goal, and those would be the last points they'd see in this match.

Why Adjusting to the A-Gap Blitz is a Good Idea
New York Jets 10 at Indianapolis Colts 15 (Part Deux)
Week 16 -- December 27, 2009

I didn't have a lot of time after those first two wrap-ups, but I wanted to go back and share a few notes about the Jets' pass protection and schematic foibles against one particular type of blitz in their Week 16 game. Mathis and Session were inactive, but Freeney picked up two sacks. The first came with 2:00 minutes left in the first half. New York had a shotgun, empty backfield set, and the Colts brought six to the line in a dual A-gap blitz with Brackett and linebacker Ramon Humber. Freeney shot off the right edge untouched, and I have to think that either someone didn't adjust the protection or that Sanchez had a one-read-and-throw route to the right side and he just blew it by scanning to the middle. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson blocked inside to stem the tide of the blitz, and Freeney came through untouched. Seems to me that someone might have benefited from a time out there, but that's what opposing lines have to adjust to now -- the Colts are using all that speed in blitz mode a bit more often, and it has made them a more effective and unpredictable defense.

The second Freeney sack happened with 6:04 left in the third quarter; it was the final Jets offensive play before the Painter Experience began. Despite that fact that I am a huge Rex Ryan fan, I have a bone to pick with the Jets' coaching staff on this one. Once again, the Colts went with the six-man front, dual A-gap blitz. Once again, the Jets were five wide, though Sanchez was under center this time, which limited his ability to evade pressure even further. The Jets were down by five points, driving into Colts territory, and they knew full well that if they blocked the blitz inside, Freeney was going to tee off on Sanchez like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, that's exactly what happened. Once again, the Jets pinched inside on the blitz. Once again, Freeney came through untouched. Once again, Sanchez was on the ground. Duh, guys. The Colts expect to have Freeney and Mathis healthy for this game -- add in the potential for Brackett and Session to head up the A-gaps together, and the Jets are looking at a recipe for quarterback disaster that they'd best adjust to this time around. And of all the teams not to adjust to a dual A-gap blitz!

There will be no Cover-3 next week; I'm taking off early Monday morning for Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl for the Washington Post. Tune in two weeks from now for this season's Cover-3 finale!


23 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2010, 9:04pm

1 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by CoachDave // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:24pm

Brilliant article. Well done, very insightful and the right amount of focus on the units that will likely determine the game.

Thanks Doug for a great read!

And BTW...if you are a seafood fan...Felix's Fish Camp on the Battleship Pkwy in Mobile is worth the trip. Can be a bit "touristy" but the food is great and the Abita is always cold!

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8 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Doug Farrar // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:40pm

Thank you, good sir. This is my first trip anywhere near the Gulf Coast, and I'm imagining quite a bit of seafood in my near future.

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2 It's a pander.

by nat // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:25pm

No, that score isn't a misprint

The Colts are a great team that nevertheless feared they didn't have the toughness to go nineteen games with only three bye weeks. Stop pandering. Seriously, have you ever adjusted DVOA so much - or scores ever - to support one team?

Good article otherwise.

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14 Re: It's a pander.

by Bobman // Jan 20, 2010 - 4:43pm

I don't think they have.

But I ask you this: Has one team ever had so many season-leads and early playoff slots wrapped up that they routinely sit their starters as much? In 2004 and 2005, Manning sat out roughly ten quarters each year--think about that. 2.5 games worth of fewer opportunities. When you see the DSR page and see the Colts with 20 fewer drives per year than other top scoring offenses, compound that with the time Manning is cooling his heels on the bench. Standard stats cannot adjust--it's yards, YPG, pts, PPG and that's it, but DVOA can and does adjust. That's why it's good. Pretty sure they had to do adjustments in 2004/2005 as well, maybe even bigger ones, just to keep things apples to apples.

To your "stop pandering" I'll respond with stop whining.

To whom are they pandering, that enormous bloc of Colts fans out there? Pandering implies one has something to gain... again, do their data suggest that a sizeable of FO readers who are Colts fans are not buying the premium data, and this pandering would score some sweet subscriptions because the Colts fans are suddenly in better moods? Does every offseason tweak of their system constitute pandering?

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19 Re: It's a pander.

by Pat (filler) // Jan 20, 2010 - 7:07pm

Yes, they have. When resting starters affected a team a ton, they excluded it.

This started back in 2004 when resting starters was probably the biggest deal it's been ever - at the time, they were unsure, because the team with the biggest gap (Philly) also seemed to have a late-season slide prior to resting starters, so it raised the question "well, is it resting starters or is it Philly sliding?" The postseason kindof made it more obvious.

To quote, from 2004:

The team that gets most affected here is Philadelphia, because they played two of these rotten games. But after some thought, I've come to the opinion that Philadelphia's poor performance in the last two weeks tells us just as much about the Eagles as their big wins earlier in the year.

Then, in the semifinals:

As I mentioned last week, if you take out the final two regular season games where they sat their starters, Philadelphia's offensive DVOA would move from sixth to fourth, just ahead of the Patriots.

Then, by the Super Bowl...

Because Philadelphia played primarily second-stringers in the final two games of the regular season, those games were removed when computing the Eagles' trendlines.

You also see "PHI does not include Weeks 16-17" in tables in that article.

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22 Re: It's a pander.

by Bobman // Jan 20, 2010 - 7:58pm

I just noticed the header.... It's been a few years since I lived in NYC, but isn't a pander a black and white bear from China?

In the movie Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen was training a boxer and trying to set him up with Linda. The boxer asked, "Is that with an er or a ur?" Woody: "Is what with an er or a ur?" Boxer: "The girl, Linder."

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3 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Mike O // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:29pm

Mark Sanchez addressed the question about the A-Gap blitzes in his press conference and admitted that both of them were his fault.

On being sacked by Dwight Freeney twice…

The first one, I was signaling to a receiver, but I should have signaled to the other side. The second one, I called the wrong play and so I was thinking the right play, called the wrong play. They ran different routes than what I was expecting so I looked to routes that I was expecting, but didn’t call if you’re still following. That’s when I realized.

On being sacked by Dwight Freeney twice…

It was an all-out blitz. You’ve got to beat it with the throw. The best way to see it is [Tom] Brady does it all the time. [Peyton] Manning, we did the same thing to him and he got the ball off. We have five wide receivers out and you can’t block everybody.

On if D’Brickashaw Ferguson was supposed to be blocking down field when Sanchez was sacked by Freeney…

He’s supposed to on both of them. We only have five guys to block and they’re bringing more than five. They all had to push down. Trust me, I messed it up. I promise [laughter]. It wasn’t Brick. You just get the snap and throw and it would have been perfect if I had called the right play. I’m thinking, "OK, here goes our guy on a little flat route. Oh, I called the wrong play."

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5 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Doug Farrar // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:34pm

Wow. Cool find! Yeah, the play concepts just seemed off in those situations. I know it looked as if Sanchez blew it on the first sack when he looked to a second read after the quick read right.

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7 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by C // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:39pm

Interesting the Sanchez ( now compared to by some to Jamarcus Russell) is calling audibles as a true rookie that skipped his senior season in college.

There are some 5 year vet quarterbacks in the league ( that some people defend)that aren't even allowed to call audibles.

I'd like to think that a rookie will learn from his mistakes and get better but then who am I to speculate on his career?

I love how when Sanchez isn't Matt Ryan-like as a rookie people dog him, but when certain people screw up it's " their lines fault, their receivers fault, their coaches fault etc."

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20 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Pat (filler) // Jan 20, 2010 - 7:16pm

Comparing Sanchez's season to Russell's first season is not the same thing as comparing Russell to Sanchez.

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10 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by nat // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:52pm

What a class act. I feel better about rooting for the Jets this weekend.

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15 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Bobman // Jan 20, 2010 - 4:44pm

Or are you just rooting against the Colts and all the pandering that got them to 14-2?

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4 Picking at Nits

by MCS // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:31pm

I believe you intend to say rein it in, not reign it in.

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6 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by C // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:35pm

Colts blitzing.
For that reason I give credit to Caldwell and Coyer. The uber conservative ( let's not try and win, let's let the playoff opponent beat us) Dungy wouldn't be doing THAT.

I just don't understand how you guys write previews without actually picking, guessing, or predicting an outcome to the game you are breaking down. Most people read a preview, look for insight as to why a team will win, with all of the break down hoopla.

For example, the Colts will win because their defense will put pressure on Sanchez with a higher percentage of blitzes in the past, Manning was facing a 4-2-5 defense in their previous meeting and adapted and blah blah blah. Or the Jets will win because their O-Line and RB's will limit the number of possessions that Manning has and shrink the game and blah blah blah.

and FYI, I believe you can still write an excellent game preview without even predicting the correct score or even outcome. I just think it's silly to put all that work in there without picking the game.

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9 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Monkey Business // Jan 20, 2010 - 2:47pm

The Jets not adapting to the double A-gap blitz was what confused me during the last game. Dwight Freeney is fast for a linebacker. The only problem is that he plays defensive end. Leaving him unblocked is tantamount to giving the Colts a free shot at your QB, and no one is better than Freeney and Mathis in turning a 5 yard sack into a 40+ yard strip sack and return for a TD.

They showed replays of Sanchez during those plays and you could see the warning bells start to go off in his head as soon as the ball was snapped. The funny part was watching Freeney, who appears to slow down for a second as if expecting contact, barrel straight ahead to destroy Sanchez. He didn't even have enough time to think "Oh shit.". He got to "O". He didn't even have time to get to the "h".

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11 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by C // Jan 20, 2010 - 4:08pm

Yeah and do you know what the cure for that is? Experience.

It's like driving. It's not like your instincts or anything get better, but you start to KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR. You are cruising down the best buy parking lot and see brake lights, and know that there is about a 5% chance that some teenager backs up right into your car without even looking. You are cruising down the road and know that that car MIGHT pull out right in front of you and make that right on red.

Mark Sanchez isn't stupid, and he's going to learn what to look for as he progresses as an NFL player. It's the Colts job to confuse him, attack him, and force him into mistakes and those Oh S*** moments.

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12 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Purds // Jan 20, 2010 - 4:25pm

Did the Colts run more 2 TE formations in the first Jets game because Garcon was sitting that game with a hand injury? I can't remember if Mr. Playboy was in that game in 3-WR sets or not.

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13 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Bobman // Jan 20, 2010 - 4:39pm

That's The Big Bunny-Boy Baskett, to you! (I actually forgot he was on the team until you mentioned it.)

Interesting question--2TE used to be a staple of the O back in the Dilger/Pollard days. They drafted and signed a bunch of young talent about 5 years ago to compliment Dallas and it never quite worked (Hartsoch and a couple others that same year) and just last year with Tamme and Santi. It seems that Moore doesn't want to leave the 2TE sets in the trash can, but can't quite make the personnel work. Which is weird, because if you have to audible out of it, you can always split Clark out as a flanker.

Eh, our WRs have been blocking like TEs this year anyway, which is neat to see. Not sure why--added attitude of the younger guys? Staff emphasis on it? Reggie mentioned "getting back to my roots" in terms of blocking WRs because it was a point of emphasis at Miami. Of course, blocking on a run is what cost Harrison his career, so you have to take the bad with the good.

Anyway, thanks Doug, for a great read. And thanks for your pandering--the check is in the mail.

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23 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by John // Jan 20, 2010 - 9:04pm

Of course, blocking on a run is what cost Harrison his career

Thanks, Bob, for the reminder. Run left, Addai, run left! That's one of the plays forever burned into my memory.

And now for something completely different: anyone know why Wayne didn't move (consistently) to the right flank when Marvin disappeared? He commented during the 18 to 88 years that being on Peyton's blind side was a bit of a downer (actual quote is obviously long gone from my feeble memory).

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16 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Jetspete // Jan 20, 2010 - 6:15pm

In terms of the first Jet game, my boys were victimized by horrendous field position seemingly all game. The Jets have to find a way to win the field position game and get first downs. Yes, that sounds obvious but the Jets won last week not getting first downs. I believe the defense can prevent the Colts from going 75 yards, but they cannot prevent them from going 45 yards.

And like last week, the jets need to hold the colts to field goals instead of touchdowns. The colts offense is too good to hold in check all game. Hidden yards and hidden points will be how this game is won.

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17 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by commissionerleaf // Jan 20, 2010 - 6:38pm

The Colts should win the game relatively easily. The Jets are a good team that has been playing out of its mind just to get here. They'll be happy with a conference championship appearance. To the Colts, getting this far is the preseason. The defense is finally getting relatively healthy and the Jets can be run on, so the offense should reliably score points.

The two TE stuff worked for the Colts when they had Utecht and Fletcher as 2nd and 3rd TEs. At this point the young talent is stronger at WR3 than at TE2, so it makes sense to go 3 wide, especially given the devolution of the running game since the retirement of Tarik Glenn. TMQ was insane to call this line one of the top 4 in the league. They're arguably not in the top half.

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21 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Bobman // Jan 20, 2010 - 7:55pm

I disagree about something up there, commish. I don't think any professional athlete would be happy just to make it to the AFCCG. These men are top athletes with a lot of pride and ego. I'm pretty sure they'll go all out to win. Maybe by the 4thQ if they're down by 17 they'll start to feel, "well, we gave it a good shot." (That is when, of course, the Colts start thinking "Come on, guys, we're only down 17, let's put this baby away.")

About the rest, I am 100% in agreement. TMQ was baing lazy. I miss Glenn. Ugoh is a decent run blocker, but not the guy I want protecting Manning's blind side.

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18 Re: Cover-3: AFC Championship

by Micranot // Jan 20, 2010 - 6:41pm

Doug - this was a fantastic article. I usually take the good FO content without commenting, but this especially was extremely well done and the perfect appetizer for the upcoming rematch. Kudos!

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