Since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian converged in Indianapolis in 1998, the Colts draft and player acquisition blueprint changed to an imbalanced focus on providing the franchise quarterback with all of the pieces he would need to carry the team into the new pass-first NFL. During this time, the Colts have maintained one of the league’s most powerful offenses and given defenses and defensive coordinators fits.
The defense changed to a Dungy, Tampa-2 system which focuses on speed, takes advantage of under-sized talent, and keeps defensive cost down by getting the most out of players who have limited options on the open market due to so few teams running a system that would take advantage of players with the skill set Indianapolis targets. The primary focus of this system is to limit big plays by utilizing the speed and swarming defensive style to keep running backs from breaking long runs and playing a loose zone-based coverage designed to keep plays in front of the defense — allowing the defensive backs to hit receivers shortly after they make a reception.
One thing that seems odd about this defensive philosophy is that it generally allows offenses to put together sustained drives, which takes a lot of time off of the clock and keeps the Colts offense on the sidelines. The intended trade-off is that on a short field the speed of the defense makes the zones smaller and decreases the likelihood that opposing offenses will be able to score touchdowns. The hope is that limiting points will ultimately payoff because the high-powered Manning-led offense will more often than not score on their possessions, and usually those scoring drives will result in touchdowns.
The league’s elite defensive minds have had over a decade to figure out the best ways to approach the Colts and have spent a great deal of time doing just that. The conclusion, for most teams, is that it is in their best interest to keep the Colts offense off of the field by taking advantage of the short running and passing game the defense concedes. Taking advantage of the loose defense makes the risk of third downs smaller than normal and so long as the Colts offense is unable to put together a big lead, keeps the defense’s biggest threat, their pass rushers, from having an impact on the game.
There is no doubt that a weak offensive line makes the Colts job much more difficult, as it allows opponents to drop back an additional defender into coverage, which makes the windows Manning has to throw into smaller, and keeps the Indianapolis running game in check with fewer players. Still, the defensive philosophy puts even more pressure on Manning and the Indy offense to make the most of an ever dwindling number of opportunities, with even less game time to produce results.
It stands to reason that Indianapolis is aware, as are their opponents, that Manning is the most difficult and dangerous player to keep from scoring on most drives. The Colts front office is confident that even with few offensive possessions and limited time, Manning will be able to put up more points than the defense allows. Even in the face of 17-point deficits late in games, Indianapolis is the biggest threat in the NFL of coming back for unlikely wins. Ultimately, the Colts are the most dangerous when the offense is on the field or the defense is playing with a big lead.
The question is, why not become more aggressive on defense, increasing the risk of big plays but also increasing opportunities for the speedy defenders to generate turnovers and get opponents off of the field faster? It seems clear that the biggest threat for a Colts loss has less to do with the current score and more to do with limited offensive opportunities. In short, the longer the defense is on the field, the shorter the offense is on the field, the more likely it is that the Colts will lose the game.
In some ways, the defensive philosophy changes when its back is up against the wall. Over the last two seasons it has been uncharacteristically aggressive and stonewalled opponents when it is playing from behind. Something changes in the defensive intensity, zones tighten, and the offense gets the ball back after numerous three-and-outs or short unsuccessful drives.
While Colts fans are extremely disappointed and frustrated with a defense they believe is incapable of stopping “anyone,” the changes in defensive performance and success in different situations suggest it is something else. Indianapolis does not lack defensive talent — players that are capable of succeeding against NFL offenses — they are lacking an appropriate defensive approach that really takes advantage of their players’ biggest attributes.
Understand that the defensive philosophy should never be, “it doesn’t matter if the opponent scores.” All defenses, no matter how aggressive, desire to limit the number of points they give up. However, prior performance and success suggests that the Colts defense does not have to forfeit its stingy nature, at least not to a meaningful degree, in order to change this systematic and philosophical approach.
Surrendering four or seven additional points a game, while increasing one or two offensive possessions, should work in the Colts favor.
Larry Coyer has attempted to feign defensive aggressiveness by instituting a number of blitz schemes. The problem with this approach is that getting pressure, even with a blitz, will take a little time. If the defensive backs or linebackers are blitzing, the holes in the short zones widen, especially when the remaining pass defenders are playing loose coverage to limit big plays with fewer players to defend. The result is short passes or quarterback scrambles render many of the aggressive blitzes ineffective.
Instead of taking this approach, simply reducing holes in short zones, jamming receivers, and playing more aggressive in the base scheme will be more effective. The defense is already taking risks, but they are taking largely ineffective risks. Generating more turnovers, and making it more difficult to negate the impact of the Colts pass rush by locking down the short zones and pressuring receivers at the line — which will force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer — should be more effective.
This change will have another noticeable and desirable effect on the other side of the ball. Not only will the Colts offense have more possessions and control the ball for a greater portion of the game, opposing defenses will be forced to stay on the field longer as well.
There is no offense in the NFL that is more difficult for opposing defenses to shut down over the course of an entire game than Indy’s offense. The relentless no-huddle, high tempo, design keeps defenders down in their stance longer than they are used to, allows fatigue to set in, and increases the Colts offensive advantage as the game goes on.
More opportunities, more time on the field, serves to benefit the Indianapolis offense late in games, making Peyton Manning even more deadly. The end result is, the defense utilizes its speed to force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer, limits short receptions, generates more turnovers, and increases the effect of the Colts pass rushers. The offense has more opportunities to wear out and dissect opponent defenses, and will become more effective as the game wears on.
It is true, the Colts may give up more big plays as defenders are more susceptible to getting beat deep but it should be clear that almost any NFL expert would give the advantage to Peyton Manning if he has the ball more. The changes play to the team’s strengths, make the most out of the Colts drafting and player acquisition blueprint, and should make it possible for the Colts to more often dominate games.
Don’t give opponents anything. Make them earn yards and points. Make opponents beat Manning straight up. Make opponents be aggressive, force them into making errors. Force their defenders to face the relentless and break-neck paced offense for a longer period of the game. More often than not, this will be a winning proposition, will result in more entertaining Colts football, and play to the team’s biggest strengths.
Please feel free to provide your opinions and perspectives on why these changes are undesirable. Maybe there is a good reason the Colts front office and coaching staff chooses to play this way.