New season, same old problems.
Entering the game with the Raiders on Sunday as clear favourites, the Colts were expected to deliver a convincing performance. Each and every Colts fan wanted to see a continued improvement from Andrew Luck, while the defense was expected to prove itself as a suitable complement to the dynamic offense we now appear to possess. While the former desire was clearly satisfied, the latter certainly was not.
The Colts D showed themselves to be incapable when dealing with a dual threat at QB, with miscommunications and poor contain evident throughout the game.
I've picked out a few plays to illustrate my opinion, so without further ado..
The first play I've selected comes from the 1st Quarter with 2:04 remaining on the clock. It's a 2nd and 5 from the OAK 23, with the score showing 7-0 Colts.
The Raiders line up in a 2WR 1TE 2RB set, and the Colts oppose it with a typical base 3-4 formation with no nickel corner on the field. The Raiders' formation is unbalanced, with both receivers positioned to the left of Pryor. The receiver to watch here is Tommy Streeter in the slot – at this point opposed by LaRon Landry, who's giving him a fairly adequate cushion. I've also circled Jerell Freeman in red as a point of interest.
As the Raiders fullback motions from the backfield to occupy a blocking stance on the outside shoulder of the TE, the Colts' safeties communicate and switch their depth relative to the field. Bethea moves forward to forestall a run to the heavy side of the formation, while Landry takes a deeper role as the last line of defense. You can see the ILB's simultaneously communicating at this point, with Jerell Freeman seemingly instructing Kelvin Sheppard to forestall the run threat to that side, which in this case means moving closer to the sideline.
As the ball is snapped, Landry is a full 13 yards downfield from Streeter. Due to the Freeman/Sheppard adjustment, the Freeman is already stretched in the center of the field were it to be targeted. Essentially, there isn't a man within 10 yards of Streeter and Pryor can see this as clearly as anyone.
Streater darts inside, seeing the space afforded him by Landry and Freeman. There's a full 15 yards between Landry and Freeman at this point, and it absolutely has to be a miscommunication. I can't envisage Landry thinking he can cover Streeter with 15 yards of cushion, so he must be expecting some initial assistance at least to forestall the quick pass over the middle.
Freeman isn't aware of what's happening behind him, and is geared up to deal with the potential run threat. Considering the context – deep in Oakland territory, with Pryor making his first start – it perhaps isn't unreasonable for an ILB to be more inclined to prepare for the run. In any case, Pryor sees the obvious and within a flash dumps it off to Streeter.
Belatedly, Freeman realises that Pryor's quick reaction means there must be a huge hole behind him. Landry is still far too distant to make an impact.
Streeter stretches to make the grab with no Colt defender inside 5 yards.
Landry eventually manages to tackle Streeter – not the most elusive of receivers – at the 41 yard line for a gain of 18.
While it's Week 1 and there's obviously adaptation to me made on defense, I don't think there's an excuse for surrending this sort of play. Pryor is essentially a rookie QB making his first start, and he's not known for being a prominent passer. To give a free 18 yards on the drive subsequent to Pryor's horrendous first interception is baffling to me – the removal of pressure and the injection of confidence for Pryor at this early stage being crucial.
I like the fact that our safeties and ILBs can adjust their positioning before the play, but it can't compromise the integrity of the defense in such an obvious way.
The second play I've chosen is similarly emblematic for the Colts defensive performance on the day, with shoddy tackling at fault in this case.
It's a 1st and 10 from the OAK 46 with 1:04 left in the 2nd quarter, with the score showing 14-7 in favour of the Colts.
There's nothing elaborate to see on the following play, it's simply atrocious tackling from the Colts. The route to watch is the vivid yellow, with the Raiders TE Rivera running a simple out route given the context with 1:04 left in the half.
Rivera is covered by Jerell Freeman, and the latter struggles somewhat in coverage to correctly set himself to cover Rivera's route.
You can see given the distance between the two that Freeman is fairly flat-footed initially, allowing Rivera a slight gap and room for Pryor to make the completion.
While I certainly don't have an issue with the completion being made – Freeman isn't the strongest in coverage, and it's a good enough throw – he should be brought down immediately, in-bounds, to ensure the clock continues.
Freeman somehow manages to whiff on the tackle despite being draped all over Rivera, while Greg Toler – noted in preseason and in Arizona for his tackling ability – decides to throw his shoulder in and not wrap up.
Not exactly a form tackle.
Toler falls flat on his face, while Freeman is left grabbing thin air as Rivera lumbers downfield.
Inevitably, Antoine Bethea is there to clean up the mess.
Nothing ultimately came from this drive – Janikowski missing a 48 yarder as time expired in the half. That doesn't excuse the play on the field – it's absolutely appalling football to let a 6 yard gain with a tackle in-bounds turn into a 19 yard gain with a stoppage of the clock. Unfortunately, it was symptomatic of the defensive performance all day.
The next play i've selected comes from the 3rd quarter and features a fan favourite, Erik Walden. It's 14-7 Colts with roughly 8:20 remaining in the quarter, with the play in question a 3rd and 1 from the OAK 34.
The Raiders line up with a heavy set: 1WR 2TE 2RB. Pryor is ultimately going to fake the handoff to the weak side before running himself for the first down. I've circled Erik Walden on the play, as I'm completely bemused as to what he's trying to achieve.
The aforementioned fake transpires before Pryor wheels back to start his run. Walden has a clear potential view of Pryor to his left, but instead seems to be convinced by the PA. The Raiders' two TEs to the right of the formation perform different roles, with the outside TE running a clearout to remove Antoine Bethea (yellow) from the equation. Thus, Walden's effort at contain – which given Pryor's performance up to this point was a clear necessity – is puzzling.
You can see the schematic ingenuity which puts Antoine Bethea between a rock and a hard place – attempt to tackle Pryor and he'll dink the ball to the TE for a colossal gain. As a result he simply has to trust that Erik Walden has some semblance of contain. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
By the time Walden is able to reset himself, turn around and pursue Pryor, he's accompanied by two of the Colts interior linemen, which I find fairly shocking.
Walden doesn't ultimately possess the speed to catch Pryor, and as a result it's left to LaRon Landry – coming from the entire opposite side of the field – to force Pryor out of bounds for a 26 yard gain.
What irks me most about this is the fact that Walden is completely unblocked from start to finish. It looks to be a targeted play from the Raiders aimed at Walden's deficiencies in awareness, without even getting into block shedding and tackling.
As you can see, no attempt to block Walden.
It strikes me as a schemed play as a mentioned earlier, designed to take advantage of Walden.
The core of the issue is this – Terelle Pryor is a run-first quarterback. While it's short yardage which may well be the catalyst for a run up the gut, players have to be aware of who they're facing and their tendencies. For Walden to render himself so completely obsolete on the play is unforgivable in the context.
The last play I've annotated comes from later in the same drive.
There's 6:14 remaining in the 3rd Quarter with the score 14-7 Colts. It's a crucial 3rd and 6 from the IND 25.
The Colts line up in an intruiging DB-heavy formation – only two down linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs on the field. I've circled LaRon Landry who's playing across the middle.
In front of Landry, Cory Redding does an admirable job of taking up two blockers during the initial part of the play. Fortunately for the Raiders, the RT notices Landry blitzing and is able to shift for pickup.
At this point in time, thing's aren't looking too bad for the Colts. While there isn't a huge amount of pressure on Pryor, the receivers are covered well downfield and Pryor isn't particularly composed in the pocket. Landry is able to see Pryor in his peripheral vision and ensure contain.
Here's the kick in the teeth – as expected, Landry can't shed the block of an offensive lineman. He decides to wheel round to separate himself from the block, and for an instant turns his back on Terelle Pryor. Unfortunately for Landry, his turn coincides with the exact moment Pryor makes his initial cut.
Had prior managed to maintain some element of contain on his side of the field, I consider this a sack fumble opportunity. Robert Mathis is in prime position to deliver a backbreaking hit, provided Pryor can't fully accelerate away. Landry's positioning makes the latter possibility into reality.
By the time Landry is able to catch himself, Pryor is in full flow and striding downfield for the marker. To Landry's credit, his athletic abilities are clear. He's able to accelerate and quickly get into full stride himself to narrow the gap.
And that's one thing to be thankful for – Landry's raw speed. In other years, this play might've been a complete catstrophe with Zbikowski/Bullitt on the back end.
The Colts defender makes a diving effort to stop Pryor, who's engaged in a swan dive of his own in order to reach the marker.
In this case, the Colts benefited from a favourable spot and the Raiders were left with a 4th and 1, from which they kicked a FG – narrowing the lead to 4 points.
The defensive play on Sunday lacked discipline and awareness on the field, and all of the previous examples indicate in that direction. While an element of adjustment is natural when acclimating to new teammates and new concepts on defense, the entire defensive effort felt disjointed and toothless. Particularly worrisome was the centre of the field, with Jerell Freeman and Kelvin Sheppard both enduring horrible showings. The LB unit and it's deficiencies in coverage were highlighted before the season, and unfortunately we don't seem to have progressed much in that regard.
The lack of pressure up front is definitely a concern moving forward, particularly given the state of the Raiders OL. Games against Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick – with the dominant 49ers OL – will prove a far sterner test, and from this inauspicious beginning I can't imagine many Colts fans who retain any confidence there.
Positives, you ask?
– Antoine Bethea looked somewhat liberated and back to his old self. Whether this was an isolated showing or a reflection of his confidence in his new partner (Landry) is yet to be seen, though I give him a pass for his showing on the day. While Landry had some questionable plays, the difference he makes on the back end was fairly evident from my perspective.
– Robert Mathis proved himself a fairly consistent nuisance, and his lithe athletic frame allows him to pursue and match athletic QBs when he has to. He also receives a pass.
– Two interceptions from the defense to start and seal the game. If you can ignore everything in between, then the future looks bright.
Moving forward, I'd sincerely hope that Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner are able to return to action soon, as much for the competition element as the improved play on the field. Jerell Freeman is clearly a capable player, but there needs to be another option when he's having a poor game, as with Sheppard.
It may well be early, but we can't afford to let Andrew Luck carry this football team. Taking advantage of Peyton Manning's unique talents is what kept us competitive for a decade without ever seeing the ludicrous success we knew was possible. While it's undoubtedly a relaxing thought for any coach or player to know that the quarterback will likely more than make up for your errors, we can't let that complacency infect the organisation. It's time for everyone else to step up, starting with Miami on Sunday.