Colts Need to Keep Northcutt Jammed Up

Before signing with the Jaguars this offseason, Dennis Northcutt's production was dropping in Cleveland. Now he's back as a noteworthy deep threat and punt returner. Brad Keller takes a look at his career and his likely impact on Monday night's matchup.

After spending seven seasons in relative obscurity with the Cleveland Browns, Dennis Northcutt is now a starting receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars.  But what does he bring to the table in Monday's matchup against the Indianapolis Colts?

Dennis Northcutt was drafted out of the University of Arizona with the first pick in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.  He played in 27 games his first two seasons, starting 15 of them while also contributing on punt returns.  In 2002, though he had no official starts, he led the team with eight touchdowns -- five receiving, two punt returns, one rushing -- as the Browns made their only playoff appearance since their return to the league in 1999.  He led the team with 62 receptions in 2003 and 55 in 2004 despite the fact that he started only 17 of 32 games during the course of those two seasons (though he appeared in 31 of them).  But he tailed off in 2005 with 42 receptions for 441 yards and two touchdowns and 2006 (22 catches for 228 yards) and left Cleveland as a free agent following the 2006 season.

Despite the dropoff in production, he signed a 5-year, $17 million contract with Jacksonville in the offseason and won the starting job opposite Ernest Wilford.  So far this season, he has 19 receptions for 288 yards (15.2 average) and one touchdown along with two rushes for 9 yards.

While he's a little small to play receiver for the Jaguars at 5-foot-11 and 171 pounds, he still possesses tremendous deep speed and runs very crisp routes.  He can be dangerous in the intermediate to deep areas of the field. With his returns experience, he is very dangerous with the ball in his hands in the open field.

He's far from a household name, but most certainly deserves credit for continuing to stay on the roster and being productive when surrounded by scads of first-round talent in the passing game -- Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards in Cleveland, Reggie Williams, Matt   Jones, and Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville.

Not that he's Randy Moss, but the Colts do need to account for him on every play and it is imperative that they are able to contain him in order to be successful.

Barry McBride, our Cleveland Browns team expert at the NFL network, characterized Northcutt as, "a player that was most effectively used as a third receiver, when he could match up against linebackers." 

According to McBride, he had opportunities to work at the No. 2 spot, but the results were not as favorable as when he was lined up in the slot.

"Returning punts was really Northcutt's primary asset," McBride said. "He had a number of touchdowns and long returns that were called back due to penalties.  He has tremendous quickness and his size does not hinder him in the return game."

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"But he's also remembered as being an unreliable receiver -- the fans in Cleveland called him 'Dropcutt' - and he's most often remembered for dropping a critical third down pass against the Steelers in the Browns' only playoff appearance since returning as an expansion team in 1999."

Regardless of the offensive coordinator calling the plays or the quarterback executing them for the Jaguars, they have shown a tendency towards the vertical passing game under Jack Del Rio's stewardship.  Expect that trend to continue on Monday night.

Bob Sanders needs to make sure that he covers his deep half of the field in Tony Dungy's Cover 2 scheme and Kelvin Hayden needs to utilize his size and strength advantage to its fullest potential by jamming Northcutt at the line and not allowing him a clean release. 

It's also entirely possible that the Colts will run-blitz liberally and bring Sanders in the box on running downs.  If that happens, Indianapolis will be in a Cover 1 with little-to-no help over the top.  Antoine Bethea would cover the entire deep area of the field in that situation.  Look for him to cheat over to Northcutt's side in order to gain an advantage, given the receiver's quickness.

In the open field, the Colts must continue the solid tackling that they have displayed so far this season.  A player with a slight build such as Northcutt only needs a little seam or a missed tackle to do some serious damage after the catch.  If they do not hand the ball directly to him, they will also look to get him isolated on the outside with screens and quick slants.

Additionally, Jacksonville has been very effective running the ball the last few weeks after a poor showing to start the season.  They could look to get Northcutt the ball in the running game as well, so the Colts will need to stay on their assignments to prevent big gains off of reverses or end-around plays. Northcutt already has 47 carries for his career and could certainly tack on one or two more as a change of pace on Monday night.

Northcutt is far from an elite receiver, especially at this stage in his career. But it would be a mistake for Indianapolis to put too much of their focus on the run game and lose sight of how Northcutt can hurt them.  Whether on punt returns, running plays, or working the deep routes, there are a number of ways he can hurt the Colts.  But while it isn't something the Colts can count on, one can always be hopeful that "Dropcutt" returns and he is unable to hold onto another critical third down pass, this time against Indianapolis on Monday night.

By sticking to their assignments and zones, continuing to tackle well, and jamming him at the line, they should be able to keep the damage he's capable of inflicting to a minimum.

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