Despite the Colts' slide to a fairly unremarkable defeat on Sunday afternoon, there were a few positives I took from the game. Firstly, the improved showing against Arian Foster - in the first half when the game was closer, at least. Secondly, the Colts running game on offense, where Vick Ballard looks like a legitimate starter able to squeeze out vital yards on the ground. The final facet of the Colts' play that I was happy with was the reaction to the Texans' bootleg play-action game, a perennial thorn in the side for the Colts defense and a real personal annoyance of mine.
The Texans base their entire offense on the zone run, where Matt Schaub is able to drop back in exactly the same fashion to either hand the ball off innocuously or craft a devastating bomb to Andre Johnson - and it was the way the Colts adjusted that gave me the most satisfaction. Of course, in order to adjust, you have to perform badly or incorrectly, so let's get it out of the way..
The Texans line up in a 2WR 2TE 1RB bunch formation, which causes absolute devastation in combination with the off tackle play-action fake. Noone can match up with Andre Johnson adequately off the snap out of the formation, and as a consequence the Colts are on a hiding to nothing.
You can see from this frame the extent to which the entire Colts defensive unit was fooled by the play fake - given that this play was only a few seconds into the game, perhaps that is a reasonable excuse. Another part of me demands better preparation, but i'll drop it for now.
Vontae struggles to recover position, but by this point it's too late. Look at the huge space Schaub has to work with - displaying just how much the Colts prioritise the run. As Schaub and Johnson began to demonstrate their re-invigorated relationship, attention started to shift.
At this point, Vontae remains a good 5 yards behind Andre as Schaub releases. A better throw results in an easy touchdown.
Fortunately for the Colts, either Schaub isn't capable of making the throw on arm strength grounds or it was simply a disappointing release. In any case, Johnson comes back to the ball and makes a great catch for a 55 yard gain or so.
So, a bad start. What matters here though is how you respond, and the Colts impressed me for the rest of the game when it came to the bootleg. Robert Mathis in particular was a live-wire on defense all day from my perspective, refusing to be dictated to in terms of accepting what's in front of him, and generally making a nuisance of himself. The following play was his highlight for the day.
It's now the 2nd Quarter, and the Texans have kept the bootleg in the locker for a few minutes, not having used it toward the latter end of the 1st Quarter. Robert Mathis is lined up at ROLB and hopes to utilise his speed.
Here's the twist - and I'm not sure whether it's due to Robert lining up on the right side or schematic decision-making - Robert goes unblocked. Either way, he refuses to believe that it's a run play and begins to hare after Schaub.
Dwight Freeney gets adequate outside pressure from the LOLB spot, but the unblocked Mathis is the real deal-breaker here. I'm not really sure what Schaub must have thought upon wheeling round, poor guy.
Their heads form a union, the impetus provided by Mathis. What an incredibly satisfying play to watch.
The satisfaction even continued on defense, with the next series from a Texans perspective another opportunity to go straight back to the bootleg.
The Colts have the Texans backed up in their own endzone, and hence are able to limit the playbook to a few alternatives. They know the bootleg is an option, as is the off tackle run and the short pass. Anything that takes longer is a risky proposition, so the Colts can play with a certain freedom.
The play is almost doomed from the start, however. Arian Foster either doesn't line up in the right position or isn't supposed to by design - all this does is convince the Colts it's going to be a pass and help them adjust to the play as it happens.
The Colts adjust their coverage adequately, and it then becomes a point of pressure and forcing Schaub to throw the ball away.
Jerry Hughes does the job, and the Colts do a good job and force the Texans into a (mentally) pressured situation.
So, if there's progress on D in terms of read-and-react time, is there any from the coaching staff, in terms of play-calling? Why yes. Yes, there is. We'll go to the 4th Quarter.
The Colts line up in a fairly typical 3-4 set, with Joe Lefeged (#35 - SS) and Antoine Bethea (#41 - FS) sitting in and around the box. The Colts ILBs are set to zone on the following play, so I expect the back end to have been the same to some extent, but who knows - and in any case, it's irrelevant. Bethea is on a designed blitz and is circled in blue.
Due to the camera angle here, you can also really appreciate the running game of Houston by simply looking at the line. Foster can take the handoff and decide to cut back to myriad different locations, which combined with his elusiveness can cause a team no end of trouble, as we ourselves have experienced.
Upon wheeling around to face the field, Schaub is again faced with an unenviable prospect - a skilled Colts DB (??!?!) coming to knock his block off. That can only mean one man.
Bethea ultimately sacks him, and while I could show that in a frame, I prefer this one. Schaub cowering as Bethea seems to jog up. I call it the headless chicken. On a serious note, I do feel that this play might go some way to illustrate my opinion on Schaub and how he is a limiting factor on the Houston offense, long-term. Imagine the Texans with a threat to compare with Robert Griffin, or even Colin Kaepernick. Schaub certainly lacks elusiveness, and I don't feel that the Texans are poised to take advantage of Gary Kubiak's playcalling until Schaub is gone from Reliant. We'll see, I guess.
From a Colts perspective - yes the defeat was a tad demoralising when one looks at certain areas like the offensive line. Yes, our passing offense was again mixed, with Reggie Wayne taken out of the game to a disturbing extent. Yes, Cassius Vaughn.. ugh. I guess the point is that there are also positives to draw - Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton, Robert Mathis, and the defense of the bootleg. We play the Texans again in two weeks and possibly again after that depending on our playoff luck. I'll be intrigued to see whether we can maintain the same level against Kubiak's design in a fortnight.
'Til next time.
Great analysis, Ben. I liked your choice of stopping the frame on a cowering Schaub. Bravo.
I think this game helps to illustrate the difference between Houston and New England. The "stop the run" mentality on defense did not bite as hard in this game because Houston does rely on Foster to run the ball so much. A better QB absolutely dismantles this defense (something like 59-24). I don't want my CBs biting on play action. I will give up nine yards running the ball in order to keep from seeing 30+ yard completions in the passing game.
I do, however, think that the defensive adjustments were there. I do need to credit them for making those adjustments. I would still like to see the adjustments that work against elite passing offenses. The Colts have only seen two this year and I wouldn't count on a "W" against the current GB team at this point in the season. Yes, the lack of talent on this team still means a beat down is likely. However, the lack of meaningful adjustments in the NE game still bothers me. Until, the Colts go toe to toe with Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers, etc. and somewhat contain them, I will hold back praise for Manusky. Like you guys, I do hope that a talent infusion is a big part of the answer.
I tell you what: I LOVE what Pagano and Manusky have done with our D. We still have holes to fill, sure, but schematically and in terms of playcalling we're getting the most out of our talent on the field. Give us a couple drafts to slot in players and this could seriously be a top unit. I don't think anyone was prepared to say this, but despite the relative rankings I feel like it's our offense that's the limiting factor (and arians is the limiting factor in that respect).
Nice! Yes, many positives. Also, a tribute to the coaching staff for getting so much out of so little. I'm glad you said that about Shaub. IMHO, he's far from an elite tier one QB. He's a serviceable guy with a good line, a great RB, and one of the best WRs in the league. I can see us surpassing them and owning the division again as early as next season.
@Coltsheadben I hope you're right. Maybe I just need more optimism. :)
@smonroe Agree with everything you've said. Schaub will become the topic of discussion in Houston within a year, I'd think.