Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Jan 2010

ESPN: What Improved Colts Defense?

Has the Colts' defense really improved? We take a look at ESPN.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 28 Jan 2010

17 comments, Last at 31 Jan 2010, 1:09pm by Anonymous6789


by Micranot (not verified) :: Thu, 01/28/2010 - 4:10pm

Great article, I hope this will put an end to the odd amount of Dungy-hate that has been going on recently in regards to how he managed the game, and especially his defense.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Thu, 01/28/2010 - 5:53pm

I think most of the Dungy HATE comes from one specific person, at least around here anyway.

by Jay (not verified) :: Thu, 01/28/2010 - 6:16pm

I wish my team would hire Dungy. Then, after a few years, we could bring in another coach and go to the super bowl. I don't mean this to be a knock on Dungy - quite the opposite, in fact. Has there ever been a coach who has set up two different teams to go to the super bowl the year after he left?

by R. Carney (not verified) :: Thu, 01/28/2010 - 7:05pm

"The Indianapolis Colts-long as offense first team with a history of early flameouts in the playoffs, save a Super Bowl win three years ago"

AFC Championship 2003, 2006, 2009
Playoff Appearances 2002-2009
Division Champs 2002-2007, 2009
Super Bowl Championship 2006
More wins thatn any other team over a decade
Record for consecutive reg season wins
2nd SB appearance last 4 years

In an era when the AFC is the toughest its ever been (Pats Dynasty, great SD team that can't get over the hump, great vintage Steelers teams), I can't understand where this comes from. The first sentence is preposterous, and is where I stopped reading. I am a Bills fan, and I'd sell my soul for this kind of run. What do you want from these guys?

by Eddo :: Thu, 01/28/2010 - 7:35pm

No one said the Colts haven't been successful or wonderful to root for, and none of what you cite refutes the opening sentence. The Colts do have a history of "early flameouts".

1999: first-round bye, lost first playoff game**
2000: wildcard, lost first playoff game**
2001: missed playoffs
2002: wildcard, lost first playoff game**
2003: division champ, lost third playoff game
2004: division champ, lost second playoff game
2005: home-field advantage, lost first playoff game**
2006: division champ, won Super Bowl
2007: first-round bye, lost first playoff game**
2008: wildcard, lost first playoff game**

The Colts have lost their first playoff game in six of the last ten years. I think the whole "Peyton's not a good playoff QB" is a load of crap, but if you can't see why they have a reputation for early playoff exists, I'm not sure what you're basing your opinion on.

by nat :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:16am

Um, you should check your facts.

2003 - AFC Runner-up, yes?
More regular season wins than any other team over a decade, yes?
More wins than any other team except one over a decade, yes?

I agree that that one-and-done reputation gets overblown, and doesn't really apply any more. The Colts will have a solid claim on the title "second best decade of professional football ever" if they win their next game. If they don't win, they can still claim "best decade of regular season football ever".

All-in-all, it's been a pretty good decade for the Colts. Congrats and good luck in the big game. (Oops. You're a Bills fan. Good luck next year, then. You guys deserve some good times.)

by Purds :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:16pm

Clearly, the Colts lost a lot of first-round playoff games, and that reputation, while a bit overused, does fit.

But, it's not like other teams haven't had their problems:

Pitt: They won two SB's, but they couldn't even make the playoffs in 2000, 2003, 2006, & 2009, and went 1 and done in 2007. That's five seasons without a playoff win.

SD: No playoffs in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, & 2005. 1 and done in 2004, 2006, & 2009. That's eight seasons without a playoff win.

Even NE, with an awesome decade, missed the playoffs in 2000, 2002, & 2008. 1 and done in 2009. That's four seasons without a playoff win.

So, while the Colts lost a lot of first-round playoff games this decade (6, right? I didn't check), SD and Pitt are right in that league in terms of years without a playoff win. Only the Pats really separate themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of playoff performances, and they missed the playoffs in 3 years.

by .woobly doobly (not verified) :: Sun, 01/31/2010 - 1:52am

oh god, anyone who has ever watched espn knows what it means. dont play coy.

by Jeff Fogle :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 12:25am

Is it really conventional wisdom that the "early flame-outs" were the result of a defense that needed to be improved?

Scores in playoff losses the past few years:
17-17 in regulation at SD (about 280 yards allowed in reg)
24-28 vs. SD (admittedly not great)
18-21 vs. Pitt (only 295 yards allowed)
3-20 at NE (only 325 yards allowed)
14-24 at NE (349 yards allowed)

That's the five losses going back to 2003. It's not like anyone scored 30 or more on the Colts. The median points allowed was 21 vs. Rivers/Ben/Brady. The offense only reached the 20's once, with a median of 17.

The failures were with the offense, not the defense...to the degree there were failures against a tough slate. This isn't Dan Marino going bombs away because his defense can't stop anyone.

Marino's Dolphins' points allowed in his playoff losses:
17-22-27-29-31-37-38-38-44-62 (from low to high)

And, in the Super Bowl winning season...Indy held its first two opponents to 8 and 6...then had the 38-34 shootout with Brady, before holding the Bears to 10 offensive points in the SB after Hester returned the opening kickoff for a TD. Mostly a FANTASTIC defensive run outside of the Manning/Brady battle for the AFC crown that year.

Indy's playoff points allowed the past 3 years, throwing out Hester's return (from low to high):

6-8-10-17(in reg)-28-34

They didn't face Rivers or Brady this year...they faced a second year QB who struggled on the road in the opener, then a rookie QB in round two. They allowed 388 yards and 42% third downs to the offense led by the rookie! A bit bas-ackwards from trending toward improvement given that context.

Agree with the author's premise that the defense is at about the same level of other recent Colts teams. Is public perception really that the Colts had a crappy defense while shutting down so many playoff opponents the last few years...then played great defensively last week against the Jets? Hopefully everyone will be on the same page now.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:26am

Agreed, and let's not forget that the 34 the Patriots scored in the AFCCG included a pick-6, which is not the defense's fault. There was also a fumble at the goalline recovered by an offensive lineman in the endzone. It does fall on the defense that they got down to the 1, but that still could have been a stop with a little luck.

Nevertheless, I do think that there is a general public perception that the Colts have been held back by their defense over the years. In the Mora years, they did have a bad defense, especially in the regular season. So the reputation developed that the Colts were a team that was entirely reliant on offense to win, and that reputation has stuck, beyond the point when it was accurate.

by Jeff Fogle :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 2:53pm

Thanks for the reminder about the pick-six Drew.

That gives us this from low to high in six playoff games from 2006-2008 (the recent period when people would be drawing conclusions about the caliber of Indy's defense in playoff games for the transition from Dungy to Caldwell):

Offensive Points Allowed in regulation:

Yardage Allowed in regulation:
125-244-265-280-319-411 (280 is approximate in SD OT game)

Strong midpoints on both of those charts...

Six Game Averages:
Points: 16.0
Yards: 274.2

The Colts allowed third down conversions just 33% of the time in those six games (23 of 70).

Everybody was watching these games!!! Why would there be a perception that defense was a weakness in the playoffs prior to the change from Dungy to Caldwell?

Not really something where DVOA is needed to make the point either I guess. Points and yards already tell the story.

by nat :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 4:34pm

I suspect the reputation for weak playoff defense was developed earlier, at the same time they were developing a reputation for early flame-outs. It's not clear to me it is deserved. But you need to look at years like 2002 and 2003 to get the picture. These things tend to lag behind reality.

by Jeff Fogle :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 5:17pm

You may be right Nat. But, Dungy started in 2002 with the mission of fixing the defense. Here are some quotes from his current wikipedia page about the situation:

"During his early tenure in Indianapolis, Dungy struggled to fix the Colts' defense and had mixed results in the postseason. In his first season at Indianapolis the Colts were shut out 41–0 by the New York Jets in a first-round playoff game, and the team lost postseason games to the New England Patriots in both 2003 (in the AFC championship game) and 2004 (in the second round of the playoffs). Dungy signed a three-year contract extension in October 2005[11] for US$ 5 million per year.[12][13]

The Colts focused on defensive improvements during the 2005 offseason, signing five-year defensive tackle Corey Simon...

...The Colts 2006 playoff run was characterized by a marked improvement in defensive play, as the Colts defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, holding one of the NFL's best running backs to less than 50 yards, and upset the favored Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. On January 21, 2007, after trailing 21-3, the Colts defeated the New England Patriots to become AFC Champions and advanced to Super Bowl XLI. This was the largest comeback in the conference-title game history.[14]

On February 4, 2007, Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI 29–17 over Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears at Dolphin Stadium in Miami."

End of wiki stuff...

So, we have a 41-0 loss in his first year as a coach (on that dreadful torn up turf at the Meadowlands that the Jets were used to playing on but nobody else could handle late that season...ah, the memories!), allowing 396 yards.

In 2003 we have:
10-24-24 in points allowed (KC scored 31, but 7 on a kickoff return)
322-349-408 in yards allowed...not great, but far from horrible when facing playoff caliber opposition.

Then we have wiki acknowledging increased emphasis on the defense before 2005, and celebrating the defensive performance of 2006.

I guess it's a failure of the mainstream media if the Dungy era is thought of as a defensive failure where some one-and-outs were caused by poor defense. At least wikipedia got it generally right. I'm not saying he built a defensive juggernaut or anything. The stats don't suggest a group that was out of place in the postseason. They had more losses where the offense didn't do anything rather than the defense was playing like matadors.

Maybe there's just a knee jerk assessment where:
*Peyton is a god
*Indy had some one-and-outs
*Therefore, it must have been defense that cost them

When I was digging up the old boxscores on ESPN during the Super Bowl year, they still had the video clips on the pages with postgame interviews. The defense was particularly celebrated after shutting down Larry Johnson and the Chiefs. Maybe everyone's letting what Peyton did this year color all the memories of the decade. It wasn't a Dan Marino replay. Peyton had some spotty outings...the defense often sparkled, and more than held its own much of the time given who they were facing.

by ChiJeff (not verified) :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:30pm

Great points Jeff. Clearly Dungy's first playoff game with the Colts was pretty bad although they were not exactly a Super Bowl contender that year. Even the loss to San Diego in Indy a couple of years ago had a lot to do with the fact that Robert Mathis had missed the previous 6 games and was clearly hampered and they were completely missing Dwight Freeney. Colts got absolutely zero pressure that game. But for the most part the Colts playoff defense have kept them in the game. It isn't like the Colts were losing games 55 - 54 with Peyton Manning throwing 6 td passes a game but watching helplessly as the Colts D gave up lead after lead.

by jedmarshall :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:35am

The quality of the defense is all about health. For the most part the defense the last few years has been the same above average, not elite unit WHEN HEALTHY.

In 2006 they were healthy for the playoffs and won the SB. The last two years they were decimated with injuries and lost close games early. This year they are mostly healthy again and back in the SB. I still maintain their best team was 2007 and they were every bit as good as the Patriots except for he injuries that destroyed them (especially to Freeny) at the end of the year.

2 observations

1. They are much better against the run this year than at any point other than the 2006 playoffs. When you aren't getting gashed on the ground every series, the perception of better defense is present.

2. The main reason the Colts defense looks better is the other team starts from the 20-25 instead of the 35. Special teams, namely coverage units, are significantly better this year with Pat McAfee. Upgrading from worst ST several years running to roughly average has made all the difference this year.

by Anonymous6789 (not verified) :: Sun, 01/31/2010 - 1:09pm

For 2007, you mean when Billy Volek came off the bench to put the winning td drive against them? Injuries are great excuse except when you lose to a team with a back up qb playing.

by doktor (not verified) :: Fri, 01/29/2010 - 10:43pm

I think thought its more than just points regarding the picture of the colts Defense, its how many of the playoff games played out, where the opponents would run the ball and keep it away from Peyton/Colts to limit the scoring for both sides. Thus the real perception the defense could not step up to stop the opponent when it had to and thus were the liablity as Peyton would only get the ball back after the other team scored on a long drive. As you see in most cases, the Colts defense yielded lots of 100 yard rushers. The colts defense is really predicated on Peyton/offense getting a lead(7-10+) to make the other team one-dimensional and have to pass.

For example in 1999, Eddie George/Titans goes 26/162 yards.

the 2000 Dolphins-Colts playoff game, Dolphins RB Lamar Smith rushes 40 for 209 yards. Colts could not stop Dolphins from running. Also, Colts kicker misses a long FG to win and instead games goes to OT.

2002 playoffs vs Jets, Curtis Martin/Lamont Jordan combine for 35 carries and 169 rushing yards.(exception to my scoring "theory" with 41-0 Jets win)

2003 playoffs vs Pats, Antwan Smith rushed for 100 yards
2004 playoffs vs Pats, Dillon rushes for 144 yards, K Faulk 56 more.

2005 vs Pitt, ran the ball 34 times with Bettis/Parker for 105 yards.

2006 playoffs, Colts D strong vs run but KC, Balt were pretty much one-dimensional running teams. Thomas Jones of Bears runs for 112 in Super Bowl.