by Mike Tanier
The Colts run defense is really awful.
That isn't exactly news. It doesn't take Football Outsiders-level statistical analysis to see that the Colts allow 5.3 yards per attempt, or that opponents like the Jaguars and Texans were able to beat them simply by running the ball right into the teeth of the defense.
But why is the Colts run defense so bad? There's only one way to find out: by breaking down the film. We combed through three full Colts games looking for plays in which the run defense looked terrible. That didn't take long. We then analyzed those plays to see what went wrong.
So what did we find? Do the Colts have a problem with their personnel? Their scheme? Their execution? Yep, they sure do.
Beyond Size and Scheme
Before we get to the play diagrams, let's examine the two most common theories about the Colts run defense.
1) The players are too small. There's a kernel of truth to this. In the examples to come, we'll see some instances where a bigger, stouter defender would have stopped a long gain before it started. The Colts defensive linemen are generally small for their positions (only one starter is listed at 300 pounds), and the linebackers are downright tiny.
Remember, though, that defensive linemen are almost always smaller than offensive linemen, and that every defense is at a size disadvantage at the snap. If it were impossible for small defenders to hold their own against massive blockers, there would be no such thing as a 3-4 defense. When it comes to run defense, it is not the size of the dog in the fight that matters. Smaller linemen must use initial quickness and good leverage to shoot gaps and occupy blockers. Smaller linebackers must use speed to their advantage when avoiding huge offensive linemen. And all defenders must anticipate plays and beat blockers to their gaps in run defense. Tape study shows that the Colts do a poor job of anticipating plays and defeating blockers.
2) The scheme isn't designed to stop the run. Again, there is some truth here. When a coach calls a Cover-2 or Tampa-2 defensive play, he is all but spotting the offense a four-to-five yard run on the ground. The linebackers and safeties are too far from the line of scrimmage to stuff ball carriers.
But no coach calls a Cover-2 or Tampa-2 defense on every play. The Colts' system is labeled a "Cover-2 Scheme," but it's just a label. Tony Dungy calls lots of two-deep zones, but he also calls plenty of one-deep, three-deep, and four-deep zones, plus all manner of man-coverage schemes. And the Colts run defense isn't bad because they allow five-yard gains as they drop into coverage. It's bad because they allow 20-yard gains when they are stacked to stop the run.
In the examples to come, we'll see some plays where the Colts appeared to be in the wrong alignment or just called a bad defensive play. But don't blame the whole system on a few lapses.
It's time to go beyond the broad explanations and oversimplifications. Just what are the Colts doing wrong? And how can they get better?
The Colts have done a terrible job defending draw plays and delays. The Jaguars, Titans, and Eagles all had success running basic draw plays, and not just in third-and-long or two-minute situations. By lining up in the shotgun or in a multi-wideout package, these teams forced the Colts to switch to their nickel personnel and deep zone philosophy. They also took advantage of the Colts' over-aggressive pass rush. As stated earlier, a team that drops its safeties deep and tees off on the pass rush is conceding a short rushing gain on a draw play. But these weren't short gains.
|Diagram 1: MJD for 17 yards|
Diagram 1 shows one of Maurice Jones-Drew's 17-yard scampers in the second quarter in Week 14. It's second-and-3, a natural down to take a shot with a deep pass, so the decision to use nickel personnel and a two-deep look in reaction to Jacksonville's three-wideout set makes some sense. The Jaguars execute a simple draw: the two tackles drop into pass protection to sell the fake, Jones-Drew squares to block (sort of) for a split second, and the tight end, slot receiver Matt Jones, and center Brad Meester all fire out to block the linebackers and strong safety on the second level.
On a play like this, it's imperative that defenders read quickly, react, and shed their blocks. That doesn't happen on this play. Gary Brackett is blocked easily by Meester. Cato June is engulfed by the tight end. Left tackle Khalif Barnes follows Dwight Freeney on a wide pass rush and barely has to engage him: Freeney is going right where the Jaguars want him to go. The right defensive tackle (it appears to be Booger McFarland) is easily single-blocked, creating a big hole on the left side. Jones-Drew glides through the second level, then starts dodging and breaking tackles. If the strong safety or Brackett sheds his block, or if either defender reads the run action in the middle of the offensive line and shoots his gap, Jones-Drew goes nowhere.
The Eagles ran a similar delay in Week 13, only they ran it from the shotgun. On that play, left tackle William Thomas was able to take Freeney wide, turn, and climb out to help block safety Kelvin Hayden on the second level. Brian Westbrook gained just four yards on that play because Hayden made a great individual play to beat two blocks. Bob Sanders, the Colts' regular strong safety, can make those kinds of plays, but he shouldn't have to. Unfortunately, Colts safeties and linebackers are always playing with a hat in their faces, and all of them struggle to shed those second-level blocks.
|Diagram 2: Westbrook shovel pass|
The Eagles also used a shovel pass to exploit an over-eager front four. It's a pass in name only, so the play belongs in this discussion of run defense. This play occurred in a two-minute situation, and the Eagles were in a passing formation, with three receivers, Jeff Garcia in shotgun, and both Brian Westbrook (marked "RB") and Correll Buckhalter in the backfield. Again, Tony Dungy has to go with nickel personnel under the circumstances. At the snap, both Buckhalter and Westbrook veer right, and left guard Todd Herremans pulls. Right tackle Jon Runyan down blocks an interior lineman, leaving the left end (Josh Thomas on this play) to charge straight upfield at Garcia. Garcia shovels to Westbrook, who slips past Thomas and finds himself with a two-blocker entourage. Herremans takes out Brackett, Runyan peels off his block and nails June, and Westbrook runs for 19 yards before Thomas chases him down.
The Colts defense didn't anticipate on this play. There were plenty of indicators that the Eagles were going to run some kind of draw, screen, or shovel pass. There was a pulling guard, a down block by a covered tackle, a two-halfback backfield. Thomas should have squeezed and flattened toward the quarterback when he saw that he was unblocked (he may have reacted to Buckhalter slipping into the flat, but Buckhalter wasn't his responsibility). The linebackers, reading the flow of the play, should have been able to beat the blockers to the hole. And while Westbrook isn't easy to bring down in the open field, the Colts could have given a better effort.
The Colts' problems go far beyond their difficulty with draws and shovel passes. They have trouble with basic, early-down runs as well. Even when they appear to have a play stopped, they sometimes beat themselves by forgetting their fundamentals. That will be a major problem against the Chiefs.
The next example is from the Colts' loss to the Titans in Week 13. Diagram 3 shows a 21-yard run by LenDale White on first-and-10 midway through the third quarter. The Titans lined up with two receivers to the left side. The Colts countered with a man coverage look: Safety Marlon Jackson and cornerback Nick Harper are head-up on the receivers, with cornerback Jason David acting as the deep safety. Safety Bob Sanders is the Colts' best run defender, and he's in the box. The Colts clearly expect the Titans to run to their left, and they have two safeties in position to stop a play to that direction.
|Diagram 3: White for 21 yards|
The Titans do intend to run left. At the snap, their entire line slants hard to the left, and the Colts line responds. The fullback (it may be H-back Ben Hartsock on this play) lead blocks left, and White starts left after taking the handoff. But Dwight Freeney blows up the play by beating left tackle Michael Roos off the snap and eating up both Roos and the fullback in the backfield. White cuts right to avoid the Freeney pile and briefly disappears into the trash along the line of scrimmage. This is where the Colts' problems begin.
Linebacker Gilbert Gardner is the player marked as a linebacker on the far right side of the diagram. He is the "force" defender. His responsibility is to stay outside in run defense, forcing any run to the offensive right back inside. As soon as the entire offensive line slants left and the tight end blocks, Gardner's job is to prevent a cutback or a reverse. He must "stay at home," but he doesn't. He follows the flow of the action, drifting into the backfield. When White cuts back, Gardner is in no position to make a play. He lunges at White, who easily escapes him, breaking the defensive containment. Gardner's mistake is compounded by the fact that Sanders and the other Colts linebackers get trapped in the trash along the line of scrimmage and cannot pursue White.
The Colts were pressing on this play instead of minding their assignments: they clearly wanted to stuff White for a loss, so no one was in a position to stop him for a two-yard gain after he reversed his field. The mental lapse was particularly inexcusable when you realize that the Colts were facing Vince Young, a quarterback who could easily beat you by bootlegging after a play-action fake. The Colts had to have drilled about containment during the week before facing the Titans. By this play, they forgot.
Maurice Jones-Drew executed a similar cutback against the Colts the following week for a long gain. Once again, the Colts appeared to be pressing to stop the run. Once again, they forgot about containment, allowing Jones-Drew to cut back into the middle of the field. Larry Johnson has a reputation as a straight-ahead runner, but he is excellent at reversing his field and keeping plays alive. And if the Colts ever face the Chargers, they're in deep trouble. Not only do the Chargers run a lot of end-around plays to punish opponents who key on LaDainian Tomlinson, but they also execute some of the best-designed counter plays in the league. If Gardner and his teammates think they can defend the run by ignoring their responsibilities and chasing plays from behind, they are in for yet another rude awakening.
At times it seems like so many things are going wrong with the Colts run defense that it is impossible to assign blame to any one defender. Diagram 4 shows such a situation: a simple eight-yard run by Travis Henry in Week 13 that should have been stopped after a yard or two.
|Diagram 4: Henry for 8 yards|
The Titans lined up with two tight ends to the right of the formation and two receivers (not shown) to the left. Their goal was to create extra gaps for the Colts to defend along the line. Typically, the Colts would respond by putting Sanders in the box, and Sanders does stem down to the weak side of the formation before the snap. It appears that Sanders is responsible for the backside C-gap (outside the left tackle), Cato June has the backside B-gap (outside the guard), Gary Brackett has the strong side C-gap, and Gilbert Gardner is the force defender outside the tight ends. The interior gaps are vulnerable; if the Titans run up the middle, it's up to June and Brackett to pinch and the defensive tackles to either occupy or blow up the center and guards.
The Titans don't do anything fancy at the snap. The center, guards, and right tackle double-team the Colts interior linemen. Henry takes one step left and cuts right. It's a simple counter play with no trap blocking or other trickery to sell the misdirection. But the Colts linebackers either severely overreact to Henry's first step or they all have backside gap responsibilities. Freeney takes left tackle Roos wide, and June shoots his gap. Brackett charges into his backside gap. Henry runs into the big hole that Brackett vacated. Gardner is cut off by Hartsock as he tries to fill. To compound the Colts' problem, Nick Harper is dragged several yards while trying to tackle Henry.
It's easier to list the players who did the right thing on this play than to mention everyone who did something wrong. Both defensive tackles had to engage double teams, but neither ate up the blockers. The left defensive tackle in particular did a poor job occupying right guard Benji Olson and right tackle David Stewart; Stewart was able to climb out and block Brackett before he could make a play. June and Hackett overreacted, or else the coaches put them in a position to fail by making them shoot backside gaps. Gardner gave a half-hearted effort of escaping Hartsock. Robert Mathis beat a Bo Sciafe block and nearly tripped Henry at the line of scrimmage, but nobody else won a battle on the line. And the defensive call effectively made Bob Sanders a bystander.
Diagram 5 shows yet another defensive system collapse, this time against the Eagles in a third-and-3 situation. The Eagles are in a three-wideout formation with a tight end (the split receivers are not shown). The Colts respond with a nickel personnel package. Third-and-3 is a neutral down for some teams, but the Eagles generally threw in these situations at this point in the season. Dungy lined up safety Kelvin Hayden against slot receiver Hank Baskett, giving him some extra run-stopping power in the event of a handoff.
|Diagram 5: Westbrook for 10 yards|
As soon as the ball is snapped, it's clear that the Eagles are running the ball. Right tackle Jon Runyan pulls left: a dead giveaway. On the left side of the formation, tackle William Thomas mirrors Freeney on one of his usual long-distance pass rushing excursions. Left guard Todd Herremans takes on Booger McFarland one-on-one, and it's a mismatch: Herremans pushes Booger back about three yards. Freeney's wide release and Herreman's block create a big hole for Brian Westbrook to run through with Runyan as an escort.
Gary Brackett is marked as "IL" in the diagram. He does all he can to stop the play, but Runyan crushes him. Westbrook is sprung.
Give Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg some credit with this call: it went against the Eagles' tendencies, and the play was well designed to attack a nickel defense. If Westbook gained four or five yards on the play, it would be a typical example of good offensive execution. But Westbrook picked up 10 yards because no Colts defender was in position to clean up the play after Brackett got pancaked. Hayden found himself wired to Baskett and couldn't shake loose. Deep safety Antoine Bethea took a horrible approach angle. But Cato June made the biggest mistake. Lined up across from Runyan, he saw the pulling action, he saw Westbrook moving left, and he saw the tight end stay in to block. June had no one attacking his gap and no receivers to cover. He should have flowed with the play, or perhaps shot into the hole vacated by Runyan. But instead he just drifted up to the line of scrimmage, then tried to trail the play, making him easy pickings for Eagles center Jamal Jackson on the second level. It's as if his role in the play was to stand there and get blocked.
This play was similar to the shovel pass that we diagrammed earlier, one that occurred later in the same game. If anything, this should have been an easier read for the defense. But they blew it. And it's hard to find anyone on the defense who really took care of his assignment on this play.
How to Fix It
The Colts have a problem. They have several inadequate defenders playing on defense, particularly at linebacker. Gilbert Gardner and Cato June aren't bad run defenders because they are too small. They are bad run defenders because they negate their speed by reacting slowly and allowing blockers into their bodies. Garner and June won't get any better this season. The best thing Dungy and Ron Meeks can do is to play to their strengths by calling some run blitzes. When Colts linebackers attack aggressively, whether from the outside or through the gaps created by Freeney and Mathis, they can blow up some running plays. Dungy and Meeks may decide that they must live with the risks involved with a run blitz if they don't want to give up rushing yardage in 17-yard chunks.
Freeney himself is part of the problem. After writing the first draft of this article, I flipped through The Sporting News and found a blurb stating that opponents have figured Freeney out and were taking advantage of his one-trick pass rush. And there I was, with a computer full of diagrams showing Brian Westbrook and Maurice Jones-Drew running right through holes created by Freeney's outside rush. Dungy and Meeks may call more stunts on neutral downs, allowing Freeney to work inside while gumming up the B and C gaps. Or they may try to force him to use his inside pass rush more. At the very least, they must aggressively protect his gap, because that's the one running backs are exploiting.
Unfortunately, there's only so much scheming you can do when you don't have the right personnel. It's hard to imagine the Colts beating the Chiefs, Ravens, or Chargers unless Peyton Manning has a five-touchdown day. In the off-season, the Colts will have to find a way to upgrade their run-stopping personnel. They need a better option than Gardner. June, despite his high tackle totals, is a nickel safety. There's no true 1-technique nose tackle on the roster, and the 240-pound Mathis is on the field an awful lot.
And Freeney, a free agent, may have to go. That may solve more problems than it causes. In NFL economics, you can acquire a couple of good run defenders for the price of a top pass rusher.