After the Colts 27-13 victory in Denver, taking a step away from the game and reviewing the tape was a big help. The Colts dominated the scoreboard from the beginning of the game, but it was not until late in the second half, following Austin Collie’s second touchdown reception, that the Colts took control of the game.
A couple of things stood out in the second viewing that were hard to catch the first time through. These things go a long way to explain the statistical anomalies in the game, why the Colts gave up so many yards through the air, and made an offensive line performance that might have seemed really bad, at least a little better.
No unit received as much blame initially following the game as the Colts secondary. To give up 476 passing yards to Kyle Orton is somewhat embarrassing and extremely uncharacteristic for a defense that prides itself on not giving up big plays. Unfortunately, it is big plays that make the numbers so out of whack.
The good news is, the reasons for these big plays are correctable. The biggest reason the Colts gave up big plays is because the defense was playing extremely aggressive football. Jacob Lacey picked off one of Orton’s passes relatively early in the game and it carried over to other players playing over-aggressive for large portions of the game.
While Jerraud Powers did not have an interception, his play was extremely impressive. At first glance, it is easy to toss blame on Powers for Brandon Lloyd’s long touchdown reception, but that assessment is wrong. Powers had no business covering Lloyd that deep. His help, Melvin Bullitt, bit up and allowed Lloyd to run past him. Powers made an outstanding effort to get back to Lloyd and nearly broke up the pass, but the blame belongs squarely on Bullitt’s shoulders for misreading the play, leaving his responsibility, and leaving Powers out to dry.
Bullitt made other mistakes in coverage, including allowing a long pass to Demaryius Thomas just past the midway point of the second quarter. He did not play the ball well, did not play Thomas as tight as he should have, and if he would have been paying attention to Orton and the ball, could have broken up the pass or had a pick. While Bullitt is a good replacement for Bob Sanders in the run defense, he has rather consistently been disappointing in coverage for the majority of his career (of course there are exceptions).
The second reason the pass defense suffered against Denver is that the Colts pass rush was neutralized. Josh McDaniels kept six and seven guys in to block four Colts defensive linemen for the majority of the game. This left the Colts secondary to cover Broncos receivers for five to seven seconds on a lot of plays. No secondary, no matter how good, will regularly shut down a passing game under such circumstances.
Denver deserves a great deal of credit for shutting down the Colts pass rush. A couple of Colts defenders also deserve a great deal of credit for their impact on the defensive line; defensive tackles Fili Moala and Eric Foster. Neither player generated a sack, or a great deal of regular pressure on Orton. However, they gave the offensive linemen fits blocking, created penetration which made it difficult for Orton to throw over the line, and actively took part in making some plays on short passes and runs. Their statistics do not reflect appropriately the impact they had in this ball game.
The third aspect of the Colts pass defense that had a big role to play in giving up so many yards was cornerback blitzing. The cornerbacks only blitzed on a few occasions but when they did, it hurt badly. Otherwise, the Colts blitz packages were actually effective in rushing Orton to throw passes, normally to empty field with no receiver in the area. Bringing the secondary up to play this role resulted in big pass plays.
The final reason the Colts secondary looked so bad was over-pursuit and poor tackling. Players too often sold out to one side of a receiver or the other, even when they were coming to complete stops, it made it easy for the receiver to choose a direction and dictate where the ball would flow.
The best news about the Colts secondary is that all of these issues are easily correctable. If the Colts get better pressure, if the defensive backs stop trying to make interceptions and get their hands on the ball all of the time, if Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer stops sending members of his secondary in to blitz, and if the players return to the fundamentals of pursuing the ball carrier and making secure tackles, everything will be fine. Most of these issues are unlikely to be habitual for the Colts secondary throughout the remainder of the season.
On the other side of the ball, there was a general impression that the Colts offensive line really regressed from an outstanding performance against the New York Giants. In actuality, that assessment is more wrong than it is right. It is more right in the run blocking side of the game, and very wrong in the pass protection side.
The weakest side of the offensive line throughout the game was the right side. Ryan Diem and Mike Pollak were extremely ineffective opening holes for Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. Anytime the Colts attempted a carry off guard or tackle to that side, Pollak and Diem failed to neutralize their first assignment regularly, and failed to get to the second level at all. This allowed the Broncos linebackers to flow to the ball and hit Colts rushers very early.
On the other side of the line, Jamey Richard did not have a great game but looked better than Pollak. Additionally, undrafted free agent rookie Jeff Linkenbach continues to look very impressive. He missed a run block in the first quarter that could have given Joseph Addai a big running lane, but otherwise was very effective.
The Colts offensive line pass blocked as well as it did against the Giants. Most of the game Manning was able to spend as much time as he wanted in the pocket to find his receivers. Mike Pollak and Ryan Diem both missed a couple of blocks that resulted in pressure, and one a sack, but otherwise the line did an excellent job of keeping Manning clean. *Correction, Manning did not get sacked in the game, although on one play he took a big hit from two defenders and barely got the ball away. Thanks to Cass on pointing this one out.
There are obvious game ball nominees in this game but one guy who deserves a lot of praise is Linkenbach. On a couple of plays there was some pressure from his side from outside speed rushers but upon closer examination, he really did not fail to do his job. Once Manning had no business not stepping up into a very clean pocket, and another time Manning faced pressure more due to Denver’s impressive secondary and less because the offensive line was letting him down.
By the end of the year it is very possible the Colts will have the option to move starting left tackle Charlie Johnson inside to left guard and move Jeff Linkenbach into the starting left tackle role. This would go a long way to strengthen the Colts offensive line before the final push for the playoffs.
Not enough can be said about the amazing performance of Colts second-year receiver Austin Collie. The guy has started the season as Peyton Manning’s most reliable, trusted, and productive receiving option. Opponents focus so much attention on Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark that Collie is lighting it up and making opponents pay on the scoreboard. Through three games, Collie leads the league in receptions, receiving yards, and is tied for the most touchdowns.
Another player who had to step up and play a role in the Colts offense on Sunday was undrafted free agent rookie Blair White. While he did not play a huge role in the Colts offensive plans, when he was called upon and had a chance to get his hands on the ball (without a defender’s hands or body in the way), he made the most of his opportunities. It was abundantly clear that his height made him a red zone option for Manning, which ultimately resulted in the rookie’s first career touchdown catch.
The other way White played an impressive role was through his downfield blocking efforts. On multiple occasions, White pushed down the field, got a body on a defender, and helped Austin Collie or Reggie Wayne get a few extra yards. It was an impressive debut for the rookie and should give him, Manning, and Colts coaches a great deal of confidence moving forward.
A final player who deserves praise is Philip Wheeler. Although Wheeler has been inconsistent to this point in the 2010 season, he played hard-nosed football at Mile High Stadium. He punished ball carriers who came into his area with commanding tackles, made his way into the backfield by splitting through blockers, and outside of an ankle breaking missed tackle after Broncos running back Laurence Maroney made an impressive move, played nearly a perfect game. He was even a big part of the Colts success stopping Maroney on the one-yard line in the first half, which resulted in a turnover on downs.
After review of the Colts game against the Broncos, there is a lot to be excited about and very little was as bad as it seemed. Despite giving up big yards through the air, the secondary is very talented, aggressive, and unlikely to repeat their performance in Denver. Although the Colts ground game was not very good, the offensive line blocked well for Peyton Manning, and rookie left tackle Jeff Linkenbach played well enough to inspire confidence and give the Colts options in the future.
Peyton Manning is having a career year. Austin Collie is showing the league that he may well be one of its best kept secrets. The run defense played fast, hard, and swarmed to the football. Even when the secondary gives up big yards and makes some costly mistakes, the Colts held the Broncos to 13 points. Not the most exciting and convincing win for the Colts, but enough good signs that, with a few corrections, there is reason to believe the team is still on the right track.