After an uplifting victory against the Packers in Week 5, the Colts travelled to Metlife Stadium in order to take on the Jets, a mediocre football team with some severe injury issues. The outlook from all and sundry was positive - we had started making plays on defense, which combined with the outstanding player we have at the QB position led to knee-jerk reactions with regards to a potential playoff appearance. The performance on Sunday was however horrific, and worse than that, I thought it was soft.
The Chuck Pagano era began on a proclamation of "stop the run and run the football" - and while that may seem fairly backdated in a passing league, I took some small amount of solace from the statement in that we wouldn't have to watch continual five yard carries gut the centre of our defense. While the personnel on D clearly lacked talent and experience, I thought that we could to an extent scheme around our deficiencies with regards to the run, with the defensive backfield and pass defense more of a concern at the start of the year. Unfortunately, we can't seem to do so.
The general thrust of this piece is that a defense is only as good as its weakest component - and I have a particular individual in mind. The unfortunate individual to bear the brunt this week is Tom Zbikowski, our starting SS. I'll prefix any analysis by stating that I think that safety is an incredibly important position on the football field - I place a higher emphasis on the back end than most people.
My rationale is thus - a poor angle or a missed tackle from a safety can turn a small play into a large one with complete ease. This is particularly relevant in the run game, where disciplined pursuit is absolutely required, along with an appreciation and awareness of the play developing a few yards in front. We've had issues at the SS position since the unfortunate demise of Bob Sanders, where we've been treated to Aaron Francisco, Melvin Bullitt and now Zbikowski, with a sprinkling of Lefeged in between. I wasn't a fan of Melvin Bullitt by an stretch, and I had considered Zbikowski to be a potential upgrade from Bullitt and Lefeged entering the year.
I guess that's a lesson in how wrong a man can be.
I'll start with the first Jets touchdown of the game. I could probably break down 50 plays on defense from this game if we're talking about poor play from the Colts, but i'll stick with the most significant ones in my mind. In any case - it's a 3rd and 5 from the IND 6, with 14:19 on the clock in the 2nd Quarter.
I've highlighted the routes run by the Jets receivers, with Stephen Hill (#84 - WR) running the red route at the top of the frame. He's the man to watch on this one. Due to pre-snap motion, Sanchez probably has a good idea as to what he's facing.
It's a fairly simple zone concept designed to take advantage of the cramped space in the endzone. It seems to be easy enough to grasp, with the strength of the defense lying in the congestion directly over the middle - which comes at a cost. Jerry Hughes drops into coverage, leaving only a 3 man rush.
Unfortunately, this gives Sanchez everything he needs in terms of clean space and time in the pocket. Though the Jets line boasting Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson might not be as formidable as in years past, they can still handle their business.
Here's where the lack of pressure and clean pocket really help out. Sanchez can see Cassius Vaughn (#32 - CB) and Tom Zbikowski in that rough area of the endzone. Having scanned the field, he's aware that it's zone coverage, and all he has to do is be patient and wait for Hill's route to develop.
Due to the fact that the All-22 is a bit shaky from this angle and distance, I've shifted to the broadcast. Zbikowski is clearly solely concentrating on the threat of Hill, as is appropriate. Not quite sure about being completely turned to the QB, though i've seen others make it work.
Here's the issue I have with Zbikowski on the play. I can appreciate that it's incredibly difficult to keep a man under wraps in zone when the quarterback isn't being pressured or hurried in any way. However - we likely chose such a play call with the deficiencies of Mark Sanchez in mind, so it's not an impossible task. The lack of recovery speed here is what troubles me, and it was pervasive throughout the entire game.
By the time Zbikowski manages to make contact and raise his hand to try and deflect the ball blindly, Hill has secured the catch. It's not necessarily a terrible play from Zbikowski, but it's a symptom of a wider malaise in his game. If giving up this type of play was his only issue every now and then, I'd let it pass.
The next play I've chosen is the second Jets touchdown of the game, with the game poised at 7-3. It's a 2nd and 1 from the IND 10, with 9:53 on the clock.
The play in question is a fairly simple run design, with Dustin Keller (#81 - TE) stacked to the left side. He's going to try and force a seal block on the edge, while the rest of the offensive line simply tries to wash the majority of the defense out with raw power. All Shonn Greene has to do is cut back and go as hard for the endzone as he possibly can.
Unfortunately for the Colts, the seal block by Keller was absolutely top notch. The rest of the Jets line including Ferguson, Mangold and Slauson all proceed to slide down on the Indy Front-7, doing an excellent job of sealing Greene off.
At this point in time, it effectively becomes Cassius Vaughn and Tom Zbikowski versus Shonn Greene. I certainly think they should be able to make the tackle, though for Zbikowski his poor positioning leads him slightly more central than perhaps he'd like. Irrespective of whether it's man or zone coverage, I don't think we should be accepting the following on the back end of our D.
Zbikowski contacts Greene at about roughly the 6 yard line. He makes fairly significant contact, and Vaughn is there to provide a potential complementary tackler.
Typically, Greene is able to shake him off to an extent, and the effort of Vaughn is pretty pathetic as well, in truth. He's able to pull Zbikowski to the endzone for a pivotal touchdown.
I suppose your opinion on this depends on whether you enjoy watching your strong safety get dragged six yards after contact for a huge touchdown. I'm not a huge fan, personally.
We can now move onto a play which was scarily reminiscent of years past, with a blown tackle in the backfield and terrible angles on the back end - though the play call is admittedly more exotic than we'd have seen previously. It's a 1st and 10 from the NYJ 32, with roughly 2:40 on the clock.
A quick look at the broadcast tape shows the play concept. From what I can observe, it appears to be straight man coverage with a slot blitz, with Antoine Bethea sliding down from S to cover slot duties. Zbikowski is left in a deep centre-field role.
Again the Jets utilise the TE as a blocker in the run game, with Keller this time focusing on what appears to be Dwight Freeney at ROLB. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (#60 - LT) is freed by this utilisation and moves to the second level, where he's targeting Jerell Freeman (#50 - ILB).
Darius Butler (#20 - CB) for the Colts does a great job hitting the hole on the blitz, and he's in a perfect position to smash Greene in the backfield for a loss. You can see Zbikowski lurking at the bottom of the screen watching the play develop.
However, as Butler contacts McKnight, he simply bounces off in a fairly poor effort, though to be fair the Colts defender was injured on the attempt. Zbikowski's observation point becomes fairly redundant temporarily due to the traffic and clutter in front. As a result, he doesn't really know what's coming and he's unable to position himself appropriately to deal with the challenge ahead.
It's at this point that Zbikowski sees McKnight, or at the least in the next split second. His recovery time here is again the big problem for me - he doesn't seem to possess the agility or awareness required to be a top safety.
McKnight breaks free from the traffic and here's where the onus falls on Zbikowski to make a play. He's the last line of defense, this is what he's here for.
Zbikowski's body takes a little moment to catch up with his mind, during which McKnight has moved 6 yards and is proceeding full steam ahead.
One minute McKnight is on the 50..
The next he's on the 5, where the Colts safety is eventually able to use the angle to bring him down. Again, make your own judgements as to whether he should be doing a better job.
The ensuing play for the Jets was an unsuccessful rushing attempt, but not to worry, the Colts didn't show any more defensive fortitude. The following is a 2nd and Goal from the IND 6, with 1:40 left in the 3rd Quarter. It's a 21-6 game, so this would extend the Jets lead to three touchdowns with one 2PT conversion. Fairly crucial.
The playcall on either side doesn't seem to be particularly exotic, with the entire Jets line simply plunging forwards in the hope of moving the pile. From a Colts perspective, everyone is going to be pushing forward apart from Zbikowski - Antoine Bethea is blitzing off the corner, a fine decision for me considering his prowess in open field tacking.
Bethea hits Greene just after he's taken the handoff, and gets excellent contact. Surprisingly, Greene is able to spin out of the tackle attempt and when he regains his senses sees a huge hole in front.
Here's the scenario then - Zbikowski vs Greene, one on one to the outside. Greene has his back to the endzone as this is captured, given the spin move required to elude Bethea.
Unfortunately, he shifts too far away from the cluster of linemen, moving too far into the open field.
He exposes the gap to the inside, and Greene has no hesitation in pressing the advantage.
One soft arm tackle later, and it's curtains.
Zbikowski sinks to the ground in despair, which is probably understandable by this point in the game considering his performance. I didn't write this piece to be intentionally harsh on Zbikowski or to make an unfair judgement on his performance and level of play so far this year. I'm absolutely not suggesting he's the sole reason for the Colts defensive woes, but I am suggesting we look in another direction at the position. NFL.com credits Zbikowski with 17 tackles, 0.0 sacks and 0 INTs so far this year. I don't see where he's making an impact. I'd be looking to run with Joe Lefeged at this point, who looked promising in fits and starts last year - provided it doesn't impact his work on special teams, which has been nothing short of fantastic so far this season.
We've had a few games to observe the defense and the team as a whole, so I feel safe in giving a few thoughts. The radical inconsistency experienced by the team can only be regarded as natural given the changes we've made in personnel terms, along with the schematic shifts which were carried over with such changes. My opinion at this point in time is that the Colts are a 5-11 football team - good enough to win if the opposing team allows us to remain in the game, bad enough in terms of overall talent to be comfortably beaten by an average to good team if the latter has a good day.
At present, we're ranked 29th in yards per game allowed in run defense, while we're surprisingly ranked 3rd in terms of defending the pass. A closer look at the actual numbers however indicates that yards per game is typically deceptive - Sanchez and Gabbert on the schedule no doubt having something to do with it. At the end of the day, we're allowing opposing QBs an average rating of 104.0. Opposing running backs average 5.0YPC. Statistics aside, this unit is a bottom 5 NFL defense to my eyes, though I would welcome any diversity of opinion.
In terms of where we go from here? I think it's fairly clear that the Colts aren't a true playoff calibre team, even in the incredibly weak AFC. My thoughts as a result turn to the holes on our football team and what we can do to address them. I've spoken about the importance of the safety position above, though having seen the perennial durability issues with Robert Mathis flare up again, I don't see much alternative to a pass rusher in the first round. Dwight Freeney will be gone, Jerry Hughes is a question-mark despite his performance this week (for which he deserves credit, given here) and we can't guarantee Mathis' presence on the field.
Perhaps it's a discussion for another day, but I'd be interested in your opinions with regards to where you see the first rounder likely being spent.
Tweet me at @CA_Savage and don't hesitate to leave a comment.
Sunday's performance by the defense leaves me shaking my head at the Packers. What the hell happened to them in the second half of Week 6? Sure it was at Lucas Stadium but Rodgers & Co. were completely shut down by the same bunch that was on the field against the Jets! How do you explain this? Ah, the NFL.
Zbikowski's signing was obviously a colossal mistake by Grigson. His Ravens connection got him this job and it was money badly spent. When you consider that the rest of the personnel on the field last week were essentially the second half lineup for the preseason games, they sorely needed him to be an impact player and he clearly is special teams material at best. And, for God's sake, don't regard Jerry Hughes' performance on Sunday as anything but a blip. He had an impact on only a few plays and the rest of the day he played his usual soft, run-around-the-block technique that leaves us scratching our heads.
Good work again Ben!
@gaiter27 In terms of Hughes, he had a sack, two hits, and a hurry on just 15 pass rushes (many of which were screens and slants). That rate of pressure is actually fantastic, and is similar to the pressure rate he's had all year. Hughes also had five run stops, most on the team.
@gaiter27 We have to be positive on Hughes, it's all we have ;). I'm a bit disappointed that our HC - previously the Baltimore DBs coach then DC - decided to bring him along, knowing him so well. Thanks for the kind comment.
Great film review, as always. Tom Z is not the answer. I'm not sure we have anyone on the roster who can perform better, but like you, I would like to see what Lefeged can do. He has been good on special teams, making big tackles at times. We may have to give him a chance.
As far as the draft goes, we do still have some big holes to fill. I hope Vontae does prove to be a viable starter going forward at corner. I would agree with the "best player available" philosophy. O-line and NT are still two of the biggest issues on the roster but I do believe Dwight will be gone and there are some pretty good DE/OLB in the draft. It's hard to say how to spend that first rounder. Well, let's just stay away from RB, WR, QB and TE. :)
Are you sure you meant to mention Mathis as having "perennial durability issues?" My memory is not great but I seem to remember Dwight as playing with more injuries in the last couple of years than Robert.
@bradicus18 Dwight isn't on the team next year, Robert is. I love the guy and think he's an absolutely fantastic player, but he's getting older (and wiser, yeah), and injuries tend to accumulate. Even Ray Lewis has really suffered in recent years, and he was a complete machine.
As for the draft, I'm enthralled by Jarvis Jones. He looks absolutely fantastic. Other than that, I think NT.
@Ben Savage I can certainly see a question on Mathis' health going forward. That's partially why I would be interested in looking at another DE/OLB in this draft. And while I do not pay so much attention to college players, the early draft boards suggest Jones or Mingo may be worth a look.
I am curious as to how you guys think Drake Nevis has performed this year. Most of the time, he seems invisible but occasionally he manages to get pressure. Is he showing much to hope for within this offense?
I have been assuming that they would go for a NT, CB or SS, but at this point, the team has needs everywhere except QB and ILB, so I would hope they would go with the old Bill Polian best player available. I think we can upgrade DT and OL in free agency - those are positions that don't command a premium on the open market.
How bad does it suck not to have that 2nd rounder now? That trade was a disaster.
@Duster72 well I think we would have been targeting a CB early in the draft, its hard to argue that the prospective pick would have been an upgrade on Davis. He does need to improve alright, but I'm content with Powers and Davis as starting CBs going forward, depth is needed there though and I do expect an upgrade on the position during the offseason.
@ikcl @Duster72 I agree that we probably would have been targeting a CB in one of the two first rounds without Vontae. We just have not seen enough of him to judge that trade. He needs to get back out on the field and display his skills and show improvement from week to week. If he does this, I will feel good about it.
Agreed with everyone else in what we want from the draft - either the next Reed/Sanders/Polamalu or Wilfork/Ngata. I am no college football fan (that's what going to IU will do to you) but I've kept an eye on 2013 mock drafts and it seems like there are consistently two NT's in the top 10 and 1 or 2 more in the first round. Seems like we should have a great shot at getting a game-changing NT. As for safeties, I remember at one time there was a safety projected top 10 but now that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. And although we will have cap space, doesn't seem like there are any especially good free agents.
"We've had issues at the SS position since the unfortunate demise of Bob Sanders..."
Bobzilla died?? :( ;)
Kidding!! Joke!!! Yes, you're right: Sanders managed to play the SS position more than effectively, and that's something that's been missing from the Colts since he broke himself (I wonder if he's still in shape and willing to try to make a comeback?...). Dungy called him "The Eraser" for good reason: He made the mistakes of others on the defense irrelevant. While Colts fans worshipped him for his hitting ability, he got fewer props than he deserved for his instincts and skill in getting into the right spot *before* the opposing offense hit their point of attack. And then he had the speed on top of all that to leverage his excellent positioning. His hard hitting style was merely the endpoint of his otherwise marvelous game: He simply knew where he had to be, and had the physical skill to take advantage of that instinct. The line leaked a runner? Bob was there. The LB missed a gap? Bob was there. The front 7 was suckered into overpursuit? Bob was there (although admittedly, he'd bite on overpursuits too. I think that was simply an artifact of the Dungy/Meeks defense back then). A corner was having trouble containing a route? Well, usually it was *Bethea* who was there for that, but if the guy was still upright when Bob arrived, watch out.
Sanders was simply able to play in a way that helped others. He was worth more than just a single safety on the field; he was a rare sort (like Polamalu) who could add a body to the line, to the linebacking corp, AND to the defensive backfield all at once. That's how good he was.
If Sanders didn't break his body, he would've been a Hall of Famer. That thought makes me sad. :( But in the end, everyone can see where I'm going: Bob Sanders actually helped make an imperfect defense work. He made it so that blown executions and other missteps were irrelevant.
Now, contrast all of that to Tom Z, who can mess up an otherwise perfectly executed defensive play through lack of instincts, slow adjustment times (keep in mind we're talking fractions of a second here; it's the NFL, after all, and "slow" is still lightning fast to us normal humans), and poor positioning. He's out of position before the play develops, nevermind his inability to recover, plus his weakness at tackling.
I don't want to be harsh on Zbikowski either; from what I understand, he's a damn hard worker and an otherwise good-charactered person. That's normally the *exact* person you want on a team. But that doesn't change the fact that he's simply not able to execute on the field.
Anyway, yes, I think we all see where you're going here. Tom Z is simply not sufficient. If Indianapolis had an outstanding line, LB corp, and set of cornerbacks, then he could survive as the weak link cleaning things up. But the Colts don't have that. And that exposes the poor guy. I wish that weren't true, but there it is.
@AJ_ Awesome, awesome stuff AJ. I agree with everything you have to say, and I like your emphasis on not slandering Zib - he does indeed seem to be a hard worker and a good guy. It's just football.
@Ben Savage Yeah. Some perfectly great fellows just simply don't cut it in the pros.
And that makes me sad too, because there are some terrible personages who have so much talent that everyone overlooks things just to see them play. I think everyone here can come up with examples. It's almost like you want to scream "HEY!!! Try and RESPECT where you're at, because some better human beings than you didn't make the cut!" But of course, such a cry wouldn't make any impression...
@AJ_ Bob Sanders was the eraser: he could erase any mistake his teammates make.
Tom Zbikowski is the eraser: he can erase any good his teammates do.
@AJ_ Oh Bob, how I miss you. Thanks AJ - now I'm crying at work.
@matt_has Man, I was crying when we were wathing *Giordano* play those games. I only went down to sniffles when Bullitt was in there, but it still made me sad it wasn't Bobzilla playing. But Zbikowski.... his play just sort of makes me catatonic. There's only so much a guy can take before the thousand yard stare sets in.
And again, I don't wanna rip the guy himself. I want him to find success. I just don't think he's going to find it in the NFL, that's all. :(
I think we need a high impact player in the D, in any position, with the exception of maybe ILB. It seems to me that the nature of this scheme can get your playmakers into good positions. Though a quality NT is key in getting our D to function, maybe Chapman's the answer there.
It would be interesting to see what guys are available in free agency this coming offseason. That will go a long way to dictating our draft choices.
i don't know if this player exists in this year's draft... but, " a shutdown corner, a shutdown corner... my kingdom for a shutdown corner!"
(But a 21 year old Ed Reed clone would also be nice.)
@Kyle Rodriguez If Hughes can progress in the fashion we've seen, I'd possibly be on board. I question the likelihood of it.
@Kyle Rodriguez I'm hesitant to list NT as a need until I see Josh Chapman on the field for at least ONE snap (the amount of time it takes to determine whether or not he's a colossal bust)
@GregC @Kyle Rodriguez Well, even *with* Chapman playing, I wouldn't mind having a capable backup. And better yet, having two legit starting NTs wouldn't hurt; come salary cap crunch, one of them could simply not be re-signed.
But yes, I agree with your point: NT may not be an actual *NEED* if Chapman does end up coming back and living up to expectations. I think too many people are listing that position because it's not manned by the projected starter they drafted and it's badly underperforming, but that's ignoring the fact that Chapman's been on PUP. If he comes back and if he does even adequately, that's one less position of need that the Colts will have to prioritize for.