After watching the Colts crumble to an appalling defeat a week earlier, the performance on Sunday against the Vikings was uplifting. Hope flickers where negativity and pessimism once stood, and that can only be a good thing. While there were positives to take from both sides of the ball, I'm going to focus primarily this year on our defense, leaving offensive questions to those more capable and better suited.
Sunday's defensive performance included the traditional - Antoine Bethea making form tackles, Robert Mathis harrying opposing tackles - and the new, with younger contributors and free agent veterans doing their part to ensure a victory. I hope to exhibit both positives and negatives throughout the year in a similar style to my '5 Plays' pieces, which you may have seen either here or elsewhere previously. What can you expect? Game-tape breakdowns of plays that I deem significant, with a natural inclination towards splash plays and turnovers.
We begin on the first defensive series of the game, where the aforementioned veterans of the Colts defense stepped up and managed to set the tone for the day.
The Vikings line up in a weak running formation, with both RBs assigned to block the backside rusher. Robert Mathis is positioned at ROLB, matched up against Matt Kalil, the 4th overall pick of the 2012 Draft on a 1st and 10 from the MIN 39. Kalil has to kick out an extra distance given Mathis' position on the outside shoulder of the TE (9-technique) and predilection in favour of wide speed rushes.
Kalil is left completely alone to deal with Mathis, and Kalil does a reasonable job. He manages to screen Mathis from the pocket while the rest of the OL does its job and holds up the other rushers.
Mathis manages to maintain momentum , even if his usual pocket penetration eludes him. At this point, Ponder makes the decision to tuck-and-run, displaying an overconfidence in his running ability at this level, something which was evident throughout the game.
While the Minnesota QB manages to elude the interior pressure, he then strides out into the open field in the hopes of gaining a few yards. This is a cardinal sin against a defense which possesses pass rushers the calibre of Freeney and Mathis. If you don't possess incredibly rare physical tools, then you shouldn't be trying to elude Freeney and Mathis. I found the play very reminiscent of previous Matt Schaub sacks, where he would try and elude our pass rushers in similar fashion. Just don't do it.
Ponder is inevitably brought down to reality, and Robert Mathis collects another sack for the 2012 season. Having collected 2.0 on Cutler and 1.0 on Sunday, I don't think the transition to the 3-4 is much to be worried about where Robert is concerned.
Another player I'm not concerned about in the slightest is Antoine Bethea. The most productive tackling DB in the league - 340 over the last three seasons - Bethea has remained a steady presence, even when everything around him resembled a poor comedy act. He cleans up the mistakes of others, he conducts himself in the right way, and he makes plays like this. What's not to like?
The play in question is a 2nd and 4 from the IND 43. Bethea is circled in red, with Percy Harvin's swing route highlighted in purple. I've indicated the motion and routes of the receivers to that side, though I must say that I think they hold little relevance. It seems as if Ponder was determined to go to Harvin on this play regardless of what was in front of him, and so Harvin is the one you want to watch.
Upon taking the snap, Ponder immediately looks to his two receivers in order to decipher the coverage he is facing. Ponder can clearly see that Bethea isn't fussed by either receiver, and is making his way through the gap between the two in order to deal with any Harvin threat.
Irrespective of this element, Ponder decides to throw it to Harvin anyway. Perhaps it's a reflection of Ponder's confidence in Harvin, but to me it seems like a poor choice of matchup, particularly when Ponder seemed to decide pre-snap where he wanted to put the football. As he throws the ball, Bethea starts to accelerate and close.
The way Ponder contorts his body indicates the likely recipient of the throw. Ponder's viewing direction is clearly towards Bethea and the right sideline.
By the time Harvin actually catches the ball, Bethea is roughly 5 yards away from him and closing fast. Cast your votes on Harvin - broken tackle hero or crumpled floor debris?
If you voted for floor debris, congratulations. While the play clearly shows Antoine Bethea's prowess in the tackle, I think it also highlights flawed offense from the Vikings. Matchup football against the Colts is what I'd recommend, and to their credit the Vikings did adjust later in the game. But to throw a swing pass against the most proficient tackling FS in the league is asking for trouble in my book, and on the play in question Harvin lost 7 yards, resulting in a 3rd and 11. Bad call.
With Bethea and Mathis setting the tone early on in the game, the focus now shifts to new components and new strategy from the Colts defense. The following play showcases the best of both.
It's a 3rd and 8 from the IND 42 in a 7-6 game. The Colts defense initially looks like it is confused and disorientated to begin the play, with lines of communication still open between position groups.
As Ponder takes the snap, both Moise Fokou (#58 - ILB) and Jerell Freeman (#50 - ILB) blitz the interior of the offensive line. This looked to me like an improvisation at the time, though the excellent flat coverage from both OLBs indicates to me that the defensive call was correctly executed.
Another aspect of the play worth highlighting is the matchup between Cory Redding (#90, DE/T) and ex-Colt Charlie Johnson (#74, LG). While I don't pretend to be an expert on offensive line play, I doubt that Johnson's 'rhino' style of block will end up catching on around the league. What he's trying to do I can't quite fathom. As a result, Redding breaks free and has a path to the QB. In the centre of the line, Fokou's blitz allows Freeman to proceed unhindered.
Freeman is able to skirt around John Sullivan (#65, C) and join the party. Ponder notices Redding in his peripheral vision, but at this point he either has to be in his motion or evacuating the pocket at high speed. Unfortunately for him, he's still reading coverage.
A quick look at the coverage shows both checkdowns are covered, and with a 2 Man Under look down the field, Ponder can't really throw the ball with any confidence. He could however seek to ground the ball in a legitimate fashion, by throwing at a receiver's feet, instead of keeping the ball for a certain negative play.
Instead, he's absolutely crushed by Jerell Freeman and in turn surrenders the ball. Cory Redding gratefully accepts the gift, and the Colts come away with an absolutely crucial turnover, which indirectly paves the way for two drives and 10 points before the half. With hindsight, it may well be the most important play of the game.
The pass rush from the Colts was much improved from the Week 1 showing against the Bears, and what I most enjoyed about Sunday's effort was the diversity of the rush from our linebackers - a few different players registered sacks and pressures, from Moise Fokou to Jerell Freeman to Robert Mathis.. the list continues. The following play helps to further highlight this.
The play in question is a 2nd and 16 from the MIN 39. You'll likely know who #92 (circled in red) of the Colts is if you're reading this. It's the much-maligned Jerry Hughes. He's matched up with Kalil, the victim of Mathis' speed from earlier in the game.
Hughes minimises his profile and stands upright before his rush, allowing him to choose an inside or outside move depending on what he sees. Kalil is again left by himself to deal with the threat, which with his quality and pedigree should not be a surprise.
Hughes opts for the inside move - wisely, when one takes Kalil's athleticism into account. After making his move to the inside, he begins to have his way with the OT.
Hughes pushes Kalil back with ease and forces his way towards Ponder, who decides to again scramble his way out of trouble.
Throwing the ball out of bounds presents itself as an option as soon as he is outside the tackle box. Unfortunately for the Vikings, he again has confidence in his own speed over that of the defender.
As a result, he's sacked by Hughes as he attempts to slide, and he loses two yards. Not only is that a bad play in terms of field management, it's a bad play from an injury perspective. Someone as fragile as Ponder should start throwing the ball away, because he won't last if he continues to do this.
I'm conscious of the fact that I've only picked positive plays so far, and we conceded 20 points. It only seems fair to show something I'm concerned about - and while I'm not overly worried about the run defense at this point in time, the pass defense is a completely different matter, particularly when it comes to the ILBs.
The Vikings line up in a 3WR 1TE 1RB package on a 3rd and 9 from the IND 31, with little more than 1:30 left on the clock in the 4th Quarter. Adrian Peterson is lined up in a slotback role on the strong side of the formation, and is going to run a fairly simple angle route to take advantage of soft coverage from the Colts ILBs. From what I can see, the Colts appear to be playing straight man coverage on the play, with Jerell Freeman (#50 - ILB) assigned to Adrian Peterson.
The All-22 doesn't do a great job on this play, so we'll revert to broadcast. You can see Freeman - circled in black - is convinced by Peterson's initial route to the outside.
By the time Peterson cuts back for the angle, Freeman's momentum is carrying him to the outside, away from Peterson's route.
Peterson is able to make the reception and is unbothered from Freeman on his right shoulder. His superior burst allows for him to naturally accelerate away from Freeman, and this is where Moise Fokou's (credit to GoHorse88 on Twitter for correcting me) coverage instincts come into play.
Unfortunately, he's unable to react in time, and Peterson is able continue his run upfield. As it turns out, his angle of pursuit completely cuts off Jerell Freeman, and neither of the two can tackle Peterson before the marker.
Peterson is eventually brought down for a 20 yard gain on a crucial 3rd and 9 in a 20-13 game. I have big issues here with the personnel on the field, without even getting into the play call. If the Vikings are running the 3-1-1 and are inevitably going to be passing, I don't think we should have both Freeman and Fokou on the field - instead we should be favouring lighter sets in order to get more speed and coverage skill on the field. Removing Fokou from the game and adding Joe Lefeged would have made clear sense. You can't afford to surrender 20 yards at the end of a game simply because of a personnel mismatch.
How do I feel about the Colts defense, now that I've had a couple of games to digest the tape? The answer is cautiously optimistic. Tom Zbikowski is a fairly sizeable upgrade at SS if his angles in this game are anything to go by (hopefully more on that next week), and I feel happy with our base secondary at the least - even if Justin King is a terrible guy to have at nickel corner.
As referenced, I do have big concerns about our linebackers in pass coverage, and I think we'll continue to haemorrhage yards throughout the year as a result, with the most likely recipients opposing RBs and TEs. If the ILBs and LBs as a wider group don't manage to reach a passable level in coverage - and I have real doubts - it will affect the rest of the defense in every phase. If Antoine Bethea has to keep an eye on his backers, it prevents him from being elsewhere and even prevents him from developing his game week to week in other areas. I don't think his pass defense at this point in time is particularly awe-inspiring, but it's hard to pick off passes and improve your coverage when you're making 340 tackles in three seasons.
Despite the good day had by most, it's also hard to have any confidence in the DL outside of Cory Redding. Most of the players on the DL are either square pegs in round holes or simply poor at their job. While I don't want us to be hunting 5-techniques in the first round next April, I think it might have to be a free agency remedy.
The Colts defense ranks 21st in the league at this point in time, and considering the defensive performances we've had so far, that seems fair if a touch on the high side. I expect that ranking to be artificially preserved by Blaine Gabbert and the Jags next week, though the Packers and Lions loom large after the bye week.
Until next week. Tweet me at @CA_Savage.
Excellent work, although I still prefer to refer to our secondary as Antoine Bethea and teh Wacky Waving Flailing Arm Inflatable Tube Men. FROM WEEKAPAUG!!
We have two data points, with two weeks behind us. A third will indicate the trend perhaps. I'm feeling pretty good about the Jax game this weekend. Let's hope they don't go conservative in the game and keep Luck hitting strikes down the field the whole game.
Excellent work, Ben. If you continue to do this sort of piece throughout the year, you can bet that I will read them.
Great review! I love this stuff! I'm feeling better about the defense with each passing game. Holes still remain but the defense still has solid starting talent and the linebackers display a lot of potential. If the secondary continues to improve, the defense may prove to be more stout than I had imagined. If that's the case, the focus of the first round in the 2013 draft may end up being the offensive line.
I'm pleasantly surprised with how Redding and Freeman are playing. Also, it would seem that Mathis, Hughes, and Powers are transitioning well to the new schemes. I'm not surprised that Bethea is still a stud. Hope for the future!
As usual, you guys continue to put out great pieces focusing on football and not drama. Thank you!
Outstanding work, Ben. Your "5 plays" series was always an eye-opener, and this looks like it will take the same path. You chose great plays too, so this was definitely a very good read.
@bradicus18 Agree with everything you've posted, with the possible exception of OL in the 1st. Not going to throw the 'look at SB winning LTs in the last few years' line of argument out there in its totality, but it is a reasonable point. Glad you enjoyed it.
@Goéland I was trying to move away from the strict confines of 'Five Plays', and I ended up doing five plays. Curses.
@Ben Savage Yeah, I would rather not spend what should be a fairly high(ish) first round on the OL either. I'm sure that OL will not be our only concern once the season is over so there will probably be a better way to use the pick. We have fourteen games to watch in order to evaluate that situation! Thanks again!