Stopping the Run

The big question on everyone's mind heading into the bye week is how the Colts will address the problems with the run defense. But have you thought beyond the absence of Corey Simon while trying to figure out the answer? Ed Thompson did, and here's his analysis along with a simple solution that could provide some relief for the defense.

"Our plan going in was to run the football...we felt like we could run the football, needed to run the football, for four quarters."

Titans head coach Jeff Fisher made that statement to the media following the team's one-point loss to the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. The irony in Fisher's gameplan was that he packed up his team and headed for the RCA Dome fully intending to run the football as his primary offensive weapon even though his offense was only averaging 70 yards per game over the first four weeks.

How ridiculous is that? Wouldn't you expect more from an experienced head coach like Fisher?

But the Titans head coach saw on film and in the stats what other teams are increasingly noticing about the Colts run defense this year. And while the Colts have been criticized in the past at times for not being stout enough defensively, they haven't struggled nearly as much against the run as they have so far this year. Indianapolis is allowing an average of 166.8 yards per game on the ground, a major dip compared to the 110.1 per game they allowed last season. Even during the 2004 campaign when Peyton Manning threw 49 TD passes and the defense spent a lot of time out on the field due to the team's quick-strike offensive power, the defense allowed 127.3 yards per game on the ground. At this point, everyone involved would likely be breathing a bit easier if their performance even got back to that level. 

So what's different this year that is encouraging opposing coaches to run, run, and run some more against the Colts? 

Well, the Colts have had more changes on the defensive side of the ball this season than most people realize. Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders had arthroscopic knee surgery after Week 2 and has missed the last three games. Raheem Brock is working at defensive tackle full-time after a couple of seasons during which he usually moved inside only for obvious passing downs. Robert Mathis, a pass-rushing specialist, has been converted to an every-down defensive end, putting him into more rushing situations than he's defended in the past. Corey Simon, who had a knack for disrupting the flow of runs up the middle didn't play a down because of a knee injury and an illness reported to be polyarthritis -- that has ended his season after the team put him on the non-football illness reserve list. The Colts also lost strongside linebacker David Thornton to Tennessee through free agency. And they've added a rookie safety into the starting mix, sixth-rounder Antoine Bethea

Think about it. All three units -- defensive line, linebackers, and the secondary, have had substantial changes to adjust to compared to last year. The least problematic has been in the secondary, where Bethea has played extremely well. And while some have been quick to criticize the new guy amongst the starting linebackers -- Gilbert Gardner -- as a contributor to the poor run defense, perhaps they should check the stats before they throw him to the wolves. Gardner has averaged 5.6 tackles per game compared to Thornton's average of 5.3 stops per game over the past two seasons. The only curve ball that Gardner has thrown into the linebacker corps' performance is the same one that anyone plugged into Thornton's old spot would have dished up -- he's the newest of the trio and not only has to learn the tendencies of his fellow backers during live action, they also have to get used to his. It's a chemistry issue that should strengthen a unit the longer they play together.

The Biggest Challenge

The area of the defense that has seen the most change is the defensive line, and it clearly shows after the first five games. For the most shallow analysis, you can simply point to the loss of Simon -- which has been significant -- but not simply because he's strong against the run. Another factor in the loss of Simon is that he and Reagor paired up nicely in the middle on running downs, complementing each others' talents well. Now Reagor is trying to get used to a new player by his side on those rushing downs -- Raheem Brock, who split his time between defensive end and defensive tackle for the last couple of years. For Brock, he's a full-time defensive tackle for the first time in his pro career. That's not an easy adjustment when you're used to primarily moving inside only on passing downs. 

And how's this for a kicker to really throw off the experience level and chemistry in the interior line? The guy rotating in to take reps at defensive tackle is Darrell Reid, who was a defensive end on last year's depth chart. Even though Reid is a talented player, he's still in his first-year at the position and didn't have experience working in tandem inside with Reagor or Brock until this summer's training camp.

Don't underestimate this change either. Pass rush specialist Robert Mathis is playing every down at left defensive end as a pro for the first time. Sure, he's sporadically seen running plays come his way when he's been out there on passing downs previously, but not a steady diet of it and the wide variety of runs that he's seeing this year. He's facing a lot more situations where offensive linemen are charging at him rather than retreating from him, and he's learning how to deal with that in live action as each week progresses. 

And don't overlook the impact of rotating Josh Thomas -- at times, when he's been healthy -- and Bo Schobel, who has only known his teammates and this scheme for about 6 weeks in at defensive end.

Last, but not least, have you noticed how much more often it seems that the Colts are flopping their defensive ends around? Mathis occasionally lines up at right defensive end, Freeney at times as the left defensive end. And while we're talking about swapping, Reagor is primarily at left defensive tackle after taking most of his snaps at right defensive tackle last year. That means both Freeney and Mathis have new partners at defensive tackle compared to who they were used to working next to last season. 

The only guy on the Colts defense who is currently playing at his same position with the same guy lined up next to him is Cato June. Everyone else has been working with new partners to one side, the other, or both sides. Even Jason David at right cornerback has had to adjust to which safety is covering his back on his side since Sanders' injury. Left cornerback Nick Harper's missed some time, forcing Marlin Jackson into action -- until he got hurt. Then it was Kelvin Hayden's turn to enter the mix. And that has impacted who plays the nickel back role, and the dime back role from week to week.

Anyone else seeing a bit of chaos here? I am.

So is it any wonder then that the team has allowed some huge rushing yardage in the first half of some of these games and then seem to find a way to adjust at halftime? Some of these guys are facing these runs for a full game for the first time at their playing position or from a new vantage point at their existing position (right side versus left side). That makes it a lot more likely that they're going to miss a couple of gap assignments, overrun their pursuit, or simply get taken out of a play by their opponent on the other side of the line. And in this defense, any of those factors can lead to some big plays.

This week I'll be doing some more detailed analysis on where the breakdowns have occurred, but one thing's for certain. This defense will benefit as each week goes by simply because many of them are learning on the job, especially the defensive line.

Hey, Little Help?

Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said, "(Indianapolis) isn't equipped to stop the run for four quarters. That's the way they're built. They score points and they rush the passer, and there's no one in the league better at that. If you can make a play here and there and keep them from scoring points and stay with the run game, you can have some success with them.

"They are built to protect leads and rush the passer and play great pass defense with the speed on defense."

The key phrase in Fisher's quote is "they (the Colts defense) are built to protect leads".  And he's right.  The Colts defense is at its best in passing situations where they can release the hounds, harassing the quarterback, sacking him, forcing him to fumble or forcing him to rush an ill-advised pass that results in a turnover. Well, other than during the Texans game in Week 2, the Colts offense isn't building up those big leads that force the opponent to abandon their game plan of running, running, and running some more. Ignore the Texans game, and their biggest lead of the season by halftime was just nine points over the Giants in the season opener. Again, ignoring the Texans game, their biggest lead of the season period was 14 points against the Jaguars with about 8 minutes left in the game. And guess what? Not surprisingly, the Jaguars only ran once out of their next 14 plays.

The Colts offense can drastically improve the rush defense by opening things up a bit like they did back in 2004 when Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdowns to take some pressure off the defense. The quickest way to fix the rush defense is to have the offense attack more early in the game and get more points production out of their terrific third-down conversion rate. But they've got to do it in the first half, not during their final possessions with the game hanging in the balance.  How many times this year have you heard a phrase along the lines of "we're taking what the defense is giving us" after a game where the Colts offense just didn't seem to be in sync or as consistent? It begs the question of when the decision was made to limit the star-studded offense -- that in 2004 dictated to opponents how the game would be played -- to accept the role of taking what they're being given.

Because despite their 5-0 record, it's not working. If it was, the Colts wouldn't have won four out of their five games by an average of just four points. That's right, take out the Texans lopsided win and that's the average margin of victory. 

So while some people may be thinking that the answer to improving the Colts run defense is through changes to the depth chart or bringing in new talent, the Colts may simply just need to recognize that this group of defenders -- who are in a bit of a chaotic spot with the numerous changes they've undergone, and who truly aren't built to be stout against the run -- needs more time and experience -- and some help -- if they're going to be better against the run. And that help should come from the offense.

Jeff Fisher was able to see it. He forced the Colts to play his game and accept what he and his 0-4 team was willing to give them. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio was able to see it when he unveiled the powerful running of Maurice Jones-Drew repeatedly until the Colts got ahead by 14.  Even new Jets head coach Eric Mangini saw it and turned his lackluster running-attack-by-committee into a weapon for a single week.

And so will all the other head coaches on the schedule -- unless the Colts offense starts dictating to them how the games will be played ... and force them to chase them for 60 minutes.

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