Colts Quarter-Season Review

Peyton Manning looks for communication from the sideline in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars. (Dan Dean | Reuters Photo)

With four games in the books, the team that hails from the state known as “The Crossroads of America” finds itself at a crossroads of its own.  The Colts entered their Week 4 game against the Jaguars at 2-1, seemingly poised to enter another one of their patented runs to another ho-hum 12-win season.  They left the game with a 2-2 record, humbled, and with more questions than answers.

Just who are these Indianapolis Colts?   Are they the team that lost games against Houston and Jacksonville because of defensive breakdowns, mental errors, and uncharacteristic mistakes?  Or are they the team that dominated the New York Giants and won by two scores on the road against a good Denver team?

What exactly is wrong with the defense?  It seemed as though, after solid efforts against the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, the defense had turned the corner and put the collapse against the Texans behind them.  That was clearly not the case, as both Maurice Jones-Drew and David Garrard, two players that struggled through the first three weeks of the season, enjoyed Pro Bowl-caliber days.

Anyone that has watched the Colts and Jaguars play since 2003 (the year that Jack Del Rio took over as head coach) recognized Jacksonville’s game plan on Sunday, as it is the same plan that the Del Rio uses every time these two teams meet: run, run, and more run.  A nice mix of draws, cutbacks, and options — all plays designed to take advantage of undisciplined defenses.  The only people wearing blue and white on Sunday that seemed ill-prepared for the Jaguars’ game plan were those standing on the Colts sideline.

Is this coaching staff capable of righting the ship?   Lost in the rush to praise defensive coordinator Larry Coyer’s new, more aggressive defense, was the fact that the 2009 Colts defense was, by most statistical measurements, worse than the 2008 Colts defense.  The Colts defense in 2008, Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks’ last year, was ranked 11th in conventional stats and 10th in advanced stats (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), while its 2009 counterpart was ranked 18th in conventional stats, and 15th in DVOA.

Stats do not tell the whole story, of course, but it has seemed at times over the past two seasons that the Colts defensive staff is attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole.  This is a defense that was, over many drafts and free agency periods, built to play in cover-2 zone scheme.   They simply lack the personnel needed for Coyer’s attacking, man coverage scheme.

At times, the linebackers and defensive backs, once known for their fast, swarming style, appear to be “swimming” on the field – slow to move and slow to react.  From there, it is a cascade effect – one player is out of position, so another reacts to cover his mistake, and so on, leaving the defense vulnerable to misdirection pays.  As Coach Dungy used to say, “You do your job, and trust the man next to you to do his.”  Whether the defensive problems are due to the players struggling to adjust to a new scheme or simply having mental lapses that lead to a breakdown in gap discipline and coverage responsibilities, it is the coaching staff’s responsibility to get the players ready.

And what of the offense?  While on paper it would appear that the Colts offense is firing on all cylinders (third overall in conventional stats, second overall in DVOA), uncharacteristic miscues from the tight ends and wide receivers, including a red zone fumble and numerous drops in each of their losses, have hindered the Peyton Manning-led offense’s ability to cover up the defensive breakdowns.

While some of their mistakes are forgivable — the Collie fumble, and Eldridge drop that lead to Manning’s only interception of the year, came on exceptionally violent collisions — the numerous drops, along with Reggie Wayne’s fumble-inducing brain freeze, are not.  Indeed, if the Colts score on either of their red zone miscues against the Jaguars (the Eldridge drop/interception or the Wayne fumble), they likely go on to win the game.

Realistically, however, it is unfair to ask the Colts to play perfect on offense.  Despite their mistakes, Manning is off to one of the best statistical starts of his career and the Colts are second in the league in scoring, averaging over 29 points a game, with 24 and 28 points in their losses against the Texans and Jaguars, respectively.  Simply put: the offense, despite its faults, is pulling its weight, the defense is not.

The Colts’ problems appear to be fixable.  Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney have not forgotten how to rush the quarterback.  The linebackers and safeties have not forgotten how to fill their gaps.  The receivers and tight ends still know how to catch.  Peyton Manning is still the best player in the league.

The 2010 Colts are at a “crossroads”.  In one direction is mediocrity – succumbing to their mistakes and failing to realize a goal they set for themselves in February.  In the other direction?  Greatness.  Achieving that greatness will be as much about their mental toughness as it is about their physical talents.