“A very sound team, and unpredictable. He will pull some tricks out, so you have to be on your P’s and Q’s.” – Robert Mathis on facing a Jeff Fisher-coached team (brings back memories of a certain 2004 game and a flurry of onside kicks)
Yes, one of Indy’s more respected (former) long-time AFC South nemeses is coming to town on Sunday. The Colts will take on the St. Louis Rams, whom Fisher has been quietly molding into something similar to a few of his better Titans teams, with a reliable running game, a 4-3 defense that has a playmaker at each level, and a good, if not necessarily elite, quarterback.
They were getting closer to where they wanted to be at 3-4 going into Week 7, before starting quarterback Sam Bradford tore an ACL late in a loss to the surprising Carolina Panthers, ending his season.
Two close losses later, the Rams feel as though backup Kellen Clemens is improving. His QBR climbed from 16.5 against a suffocating Seahawks defense to 69.9 versus Tennessee. “Kellen (Clemens) has stepped up and played well enough for us to win the last two games,” Jeff Fisher said yesterday. “Unfortunately, we’re taking shots at the end zone, Monday night, to win on the last play of the game and then last week against the Titans to tie, the last play of the game. But we have to play better as a football team.”
3-6 is 3-6, but the Colts aren’t looking past anyone. When someone asked Chuck Pagano what about the Rams poses the biggest threat, he named almost everything, but he led with their pass rush. “From a defensive standpoint, they’re number one in the league as far as putting pressure on the quarterback and sacking the quarterback,” Pagano said. “They’ve got 29.0, which ranks first. Sacks per pass play. They’ve got really good front four, two edge guys. Robert Quinn has got 10.0 sacks and Chris Long has got 5.5. The rest of the guys, they do a great job off the edge. They get after you.”
Andrew Luck echoed his coach’s respect for the Rams’ defensive front, but sounded like he couldn’t wait to get out there and take them on. “They have two premier defensive ends, the number one sack team in the league I think,” Luck said. “You know they can get to the quarterback. I think they have a bunch of athletes, fast, physical guys. We know it’s going to be a heavyweight fight, every game in this league is. We’re excited for a great challenge.”
Two things stand out here. First, a good passing game, as we know, is not only correlational but also causal for winning in the NFL (understatement alert), which makes both pass rushing and pass protection paramount. Second, with the way the Colts have struggled to protect Luck recently, St. Louis’s pass rushing is a major concern, and it’s good to hear the coaches focusing in on it.
Pagano also talked about the Rams’ press man coverage on the outside. "They can get up in your face and make things tough on your receivers to work to get off the line of scrimmage," he said. "From a defensive standpoint, they kind of smother you. That’s going to be a challenge."
Indy’s streaky, inexperienced receivers will need to fight through some jams, stay on their routes, and show they can get open against the Rams’ physical corners. The good news is St. Louis’s pass defense, despite their talent and their ferocious pass rush, ranks just 23rd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings with a score of 13.4% (zero is average, negative is good for defense, and vice versa for offense).
Late Game Heroics
Last week, the Colts clawed their way to victory after a disastrous first half. Time and time again, when the pressure is on and the game clock is ticking down, this team comes out poised and executes very well, usually leading to a win (often dramatically so).
For such a young group of players, that’s quite an accomplishment. For Andrew Luck, it’s all about repetition. “I think we practice so many late-game situations that it’s drilled into us as a football team,” he said. “You go out there and focus on your technique. You realize you don’t want to do anything different, anything over-the-top in a sense. You go out and play."
Many people feel this is the true definition of “clutch” play, the ability to do things just as well in high pressure situations – that it isn’t about playing better when it’s all on the line, but more about not messing up. Always a professional, Luck credited his coaches for preparing the team for situations like last week. “I think that’s the way Coach Pagano sets everything up,” he said. “It’s the way Pep (Hamilton) and Clyde (Christensen) teach us as quarterbacks. You see it at every other position group. Guys go out there and do their jobs, do what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes it works out.”
While Luck ascribes the team’s close game success to the coaches, Chuck Pagano assigns the credit to veteran leadership in the locker room and on the field. He singled out Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne, Antoine Bethea, and Adam Vinatieri, saying, “Those veteran leaders kind of lead the charge from day one and didn’t waver on what we were going to try to get done, and how we were going to try get it done, and how we were going to accomplish things, and how we were going to go about our business on a daily basis. I credit the players.”
Robert Mathis told a reporter this particular team’s resilient nature may exist simply because they don’t know any other way to be. “We have a young team that’s bought in,” Mathis said. “They’ve completely sold out for the cause. The truth of the matter: we don’t know any better. We just know keep fighting, keep swinging and hopefully you’ll connect and get that knockout punch.”
Whatever it is, here's hoping they keep it up, and maybe win by come more comfortable margins here and there.
Pat Angerer on his partner in crime (not literally) Jerrell Freeman: “Yeah. He’s a hell of a player. Fun guy to play against. Great teammate. He can do so many things. They ask a lot out of him and he delivers all the time. That’s a fun guy to play with.”
Angerer on the excitement of playing in Lucas Oil Stadium again: “Yeah. Last time, it was so much fun. I just look forward to getting back and getting under those lights and getting back with the crowd behind you.”
Pagano on getting Trent Richardson the ball out in some open space: “Absolutely. You saw it on the screen late in the game there. Coming in we knew, 51 catches his first year in Cleveland, we know he’s got that ability. I think as he gets, again, more comfortable with the scheme and terminology and all those types of things and the game, the situation, the score, all those things kind of line up – if the stars all line up we’d love to get him in space more and get the ball in his hands more.”
Pagano on the overturned fumble on the kickoff: “You send in questions every week and then they give you the responses on every penalty, not every penalty, but what we thought should have been called. Some of them they agree to, some of them they don’t, and they give you their observations, their answers to it. That one they said shouldn’t have been overturned.”
Pagano, unedited and unabridged, on what Pep Hamilton does well: I think when he studies our opponent, he’s able to put our guys in the best possible position to be successful. He’s great with setting things up to where we can kind of dictate what we’re going to get and what we want to see in the looks that we want to get our opponent in. Make sure we dictate the tempo and that the defense doesn’t dictate the tempo to us. So I think he does a great job of mixing personnel groups, staying balanced from a formation standpoint, personnel standpoint, down and distance standpoint. If you look at us and you self-scout us, it’s hard to try and get a beat on us from a tendency standpoint. I think he does a great job and again our whole offense does a great job of paying attention to that and making sure that we stay, not only after three, four, five ball games, but during the ball game paying attention to those type of statistics and tendencies and make sure that we’re not falling into something where they’re going to be able to look at it and say, ‘okay, the last three or four possession and 10s to start a series, it’s been all run.’ So he does a great job of that.”
And, last but not least, we have yesterday’s practice report from Colts.com’s Craig Kelley:
PRACTICE REPORT – Did not participate: NT-Josh Chapman (knee), CB-Josh Gordy (groin), S-Delano Howell (neck), LB-Robert Mathis (shoulder), RB-Trent Richardson (ankle), G-Hugh Thornton (calf), CB-Greg Toler (groin); Full Participation: Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring), LB-Cam Johnson (knee).
All quotes are courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts Public Relations Department.