Peaks and valleys seems to be the theme this year with the Colts, with an impressive first half showing on Sunday completely rendered obsolete in an awful loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The loss came as a result of some incredibly poor football, whether on offense or defense. The only unit I can assuage of any guilt would be the special teams coverage and return units, who did well to stymie the Jacksonville return game, normally a thorn in the side.
In any case, my objective this season is to keep an eye on the defense. The progress of Luck will be charted by others more inclined, which means I can sit back and curse to my heart's content watching the 'talent' on D. What I saw on Sunday was a familiar sight and yet one that I didn't expect to see as much this year, what with Coach Pagano's stated intent to run the football and stop the run. Maurice Jones-Drew was able to run through tacklers and open gaps at will, making up for the scarcely believable deficiences of Blaine Gabbert. The latter is consistently terrible and it proved to be the case again on Sunday, when he consistently overthrew receivers. While his stat-line may have been salvaged by some terrible play on the back end from the Colts and a nice catch and run from Cecil Shorts, anyone claiming to possess the slightest vestige of objectivity would concede that Gabbert played very poorly.
So, what happened? We knew Gabbert was likely going to be awful. We are well aware of Maurice Jones-Drew's many attributes and skills, and he has a propensity for demolishing our defense. We should have been keyed up to play the run, and I was hoping for a tone-setting performance, and what I watched was simply.. soft. Not a pretty word to use. I'll try and illustrate some of the problems on the crucial plays of the game, though I can't by any means hope to encapsulate the mediocrity that we had to endure in the second half on Sunday.
We may as well get the positivity out of the way. The following play is a 3rd and 3 from the IND 19 in a 0-0 game, with 8:10 on the clock.
The Jags are lined up with 4WR 1RB personnel in bunch formation. Considering the success of Jones-Drew historically, their decision to use such a grouping and actually try and throw represents a philosophical departure from what we're used to. Given that they're relying on Blaine Gabbert to be the lynchpin of this move towards a pass-orientated offense, that's fine with me. I've circled the perennial threat - Robert Mathis - as he lines up at LE with his hand on the ground opposite Guy Whimper. Gabbert has a few different options on the play, and he knows he's likely to face some sort of zone in front, given the personnel alignment. Vontae Davis will largely play man on the go route to the bottom of the frame (red).
Upon closer inspection, Mathis is going to attempt his trademark speed rush, incorporating a breakneck angle as he moves around the tackle.
By this point, Gabbert has dropped 7 yards deep, a fairly large error when one considers the current Colts defense, which possesses pass rush in decent quantity, particularly through speed rushes around the edge. His eyes are locked downfield, and the close proximity of the Colts defenders to his receivers understandably makes him hesitate.
I've got to question the offensive thinking here - both in coaching terms and directly focusing on the quarterback. If Gabbert can understand the protection and comprehend the fact that Guy Whimper is matched up on an island against a hand-down Robert Mathis on 3rd down.. never mind. It's Blaine Gabbert, So Maurice Jones-Drew's pass blocking skill wasn't really utilised on the play, given he was on the other side of the field from the Colts single marquee pass rushing threat.
Gabbert remains locked in, and he's finally seen something to provoke a throw. The problem here is that he's still 6 or 7 yards deep, and he's got the pressing issue of Robert Mathis coming right around the corner. Over the years, a familiar sight for Colts fans when witnessing a defeat was to see the opposing quarterback simply step up into the pocket due to the absence of any interior pressure. Now, Gabbert isn't necessarily going to have such a grounding with that, but there is ample room for him to move up, assist his tackles and step into the throw. Instead, he lingers.
Mathis inevitably sticks out a paw and forces the fumble, though he unfortunately can't complete the traditional process of recovering it on top. Nonetheless, a sack fumble on 3rd down which ended a Jaguars drive, limiting them to 3 points? Let's take it as a positive, considering the rest of the game.
As I said earlier, it's quite difficult to encapsulate consistent mediocrity in one play, though i'll do my best on the following. It's a 2nd and 9 from the Jax 13, with 8:40 or so on the clock in the 2nd quarter. The Colts lead 7-3.
If you'll excuse the clumsy paint arrows which I'm sure you're used to seeing everywhere now, you'll see that it's obvious that if the blocking is sufficient, Maurice Jones-Drew could easily break one here. That means letting the Jags off the hook on a 2nd down from their own 12, in a close game. They may have lined up in the 3WR 2RB set, but that doesn't necessarily mean much, there's a full-back in there. Back to the drawing board. It's Blaine Gabbert. It's the Jags. They're on the 12 and it's second down.
So, looking at the role of a safety, what do I draw? (I'm putting this on the players, because if they were told to execute specifically in this fashion then I don't even want to consider the coaching.) I would draw that despite the personnel in front of me, the Jags are likely to run it. And in that case, standing at least 20 yards from the ball carrier as he receives the handoff might not be wise, particularly as he led the league in rushing last year and kills us every year. Kavell Conner is a second year player. Jerell Freeman is a new guy to the league, having come over from the CFL. Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski are proven veterans. They were seriously willing to let the Jags have a hat on a hat at the line of scrimmage, in this situation?
In any case, it brings me to the linebackers. Jerell Freeman (#50 - ILB) and Kavell Conner (#53 - ILB) are both young, as alluded to earlier. Neither can be classed as having outstanding athletic gifts or block shedding ability. That much is fair, and so you have to adjust expectations. Nonetheless, with the way the play is developing - with the Fullback moving at you to block in Conner's case - I would have liked for either of the two to have shown decisiveness in hitting either of the two potential holes, which I've labelled A and B. They may have zone responsiblity, but the Gabbert/Jones-Drew comparison should help them focus on the run game.
Instead of managing to close a hole, both are swallowed up - Freeman by the Center; Conner by the Fullback - and Jones-Drew can saunter through unimpeded. The safety depth now becomes highly relevant, as a 2nd and 9 from the 13 is now going to result in an inevitable first down. I simply don't think they have to stand that deep given the threat posed.
Once Jones-Drew starts grinding his way through the open space, Zbikowski and Bethea have to be aware to potential blockers and angles when pursuing. In this case, Zbikowski is going to have to elude Justin Blackmon (#14 - WR) of the Jagurs to make the tackle.
He manages to do so, and eventually corrals Jones-Drew for a 19 yard gain.
I chose to devote a fair bit of time to the previous play not because of actual game significance - the Jaguars subsequently punted in any case - but because it just managed to show the different factors which allowed Jones-Drew to grind us down all day long. An extra few yards from the LOS here, a poor tackling angle there, and all of a sudden they've racked up 6 YPC.
Now that we've established a baseline of poor play from which to work, let's look at the two big plays. The first came towards the start of the 3rd Quarter on a 1st and 10 from the JAX 41.
The Colts are again to going to be playing zone, with Jerraud Powers circled in green as a special highlight. Given that it's a run play, he has contain to that side, and it will figure heavily in his decision-making process. The Jaguars are going to employ Greg Jones (#33 - FB) to full effect, while also pulling a guard along from the left side of the line. Justin Blackmon is assigned to block Antoine Bethea and give Jones-Drew running room.
As Powers sees it's a run play, he begins to proactively work on his contain. He moves up closer to the line of scrimmage. On the line itself, Greg Jones has adequately picked up his block, and the pulling guard is coming across to help out. The Colts ILBs aren't acting decisively, which helps the situation further.
You can see Blackmon coming up to block Bethea, but I've circled Kavell Conner and Jerell Freeman to track their development on the play. Conner (#53 - ILB) in particular I feel could do more to stay on top of the lane as it opened, instead of overpursuing. and allowing Jones-Drew clean space.
Powers has continued his mad dash for contain by this point and neglected to notice Blackmon's potential spring out block on Bethea. If it were against a running back of a lower calibre than Jones-Drew, I think we'd have likely gotten away with it.
As previously mentioned, I feel that Conner overpursued and wasn't in control of himself. Freeman, I'm not really sure what he's doing, but it isn't much. You can see already that Jones-Drew's decisive running combined with Powers' positioning is going to result in a big play.
And so it proved. Jones-Drew raced 59 yards for the touchdown, and sparked the Jaguars' revival.
It's now time to move on to the final blow, the straw that broke the camel's back and prevented the Colts from registering a W. 1st and 10 from the JAX 20, with 00:56 on the clock.
The Jaguars are down by a point and need at least 45 yards to consider a reasonable field goal attempt. The fact that the clock registered 00:56 with no Jaguars timeouts meant that the Colts obviously felt a pressing need to defend the sideline. This attitude is exhibited most prominently on the play by Antoine Bethea at the top left of the frame. It's zone coverage all over, though Bethea's depth - more understandable in this case in context - from the slot DB is an issue. In this case, it's the fault of Sergio Brown (#38 - DB) who is to the right of Bethea.
The route of Cecil Shorts coming from outside so happens to perfectly manipulate the zone coverage designed by the Colts. If Bethea had remained more shallow on the play, the throwing window and YAC could have been limited. Sergio Brown is in a shallow zone designated with the other yellow X, and he moves in a lateral fashion rather than covering anything deeper. As a result, a huge gap is available.
By the time Brown realises his error, Shorts has just the slightest amount of separation, enough for Gabbert to fit the ball into a tight window. Bethea is rendered effectively irrelevant by his inclination to defend the sideline (understandable in a sense) and Shorts has clean grass ahead.
Gabbert has a clean pocket to work with throughout, and he eventually spots Shorts' small amount of separation.
The entire line is eventually shifted back, and as Sergio Brown realises his error, Gabbert has already released the ball. He whips his head around and begins to recover his position, but Shorts is keyed in to the excellent pass.
Shorts catches it, and there's not a lot left to say.
He outruns his pursuers, and somewhat unwisely in my opinion continues into the end zone.
I've effectively described a lot of my issues with the defense throughout, so a long summary shouldn't be necessary. Our primary run defenders were irrelevant for most of the day, and pass defense was largely irrelevant because of Blaine Gabbert. When the pass defense was subject to a necessary test, they betrayed their hasty composition.
We need to get healthy, which means getting Pat Angerer and Dwight Freeney back for starters. Hopefully the injuries sustained on Sunday won't be too bad in that respect.
In terms of rankings, the pass defense went from 24th to 15th, while the run defense went from 15th to 24th. I think the latter is about the right level for the moment, and I think the pass defense will likely suffer badly after the bye week.
One further thing worthy of comment - Austin Collie's move to IR should give people time to reflect on the fragility of players' careers. Combined with the Darrelle Revis ACL tear this week, it's easy to see why players get what they can, when they can. On Collie - the similarities to Gonzo have been pointed out by all, but I truly felt confident in Collie's ability to tear up the league in the slot. The way he started the '09 season and the difference in our offense with and without him on the field... ah, I'm reminiscing. Guess we'll have to jig the numbers. Out with #18-#17, in with #12-#13 - hell of a performance from Hilton, all things considered.
That's me for the day. Enjoy the bye week.
Great analysis as usual. Just a couple of comments:
I hope the honeymoon with Jerry Hughes and the 3 - 4 defense can finally be fed into the shredder. He's played in place of Freeney since the first series in the Bears game and he has a garbage sack and exactly 5 tackles. He is the softest DE I've ever seen and his "speed" is totally wasted on his terrible technique. He's not even a competent special teams player.
I think Freeman is a diamond in the rough. He was a beast in the CFL and has played extremely well considering he was thrown into the breach when Angerer went down. I'm prepared to cut him some slack and I think he will be at least the 2nd best LB'er on the team by year's end (if he can stay upright!).
Can some knowledgeable football strategist explain to me how corners and safeties decide how far away to stand at the beginning of a play? It does not make sense to me at all in any situation to stand past the 15 yards away from scrimmage.
Excellent work! It is nice (or not nice) to see the tape on Conner and Freeman. This is certainly evidence that they have room for improvement. As much as I like the way they have played overall for young linebackers, their indecision in these cases can be fatal. Angerer is not perfect but I hope that his return can help this young LB group work better on plugging those holes.
Also, I was certainly worried about Freeney with his lack of effectiveness in the preseason but he is a top tier talent and we could really use him. He demands the offense to plan for him. Hughes, Addison, and everyone else do not.
I feel for Austin. His injury is not due to being "injury prone" as many are calling him. I think it is just bad luck.
Hoping to see the team get healthy and the coaching improve during the bye week. They will need everyone to bring their "A game" against the Packers.