The Colts offensive struggles have doomed the team the past two weeks — as poor decisions and poor timing stifled a last minute come from behind victory against New England, and handed the Chargers 20 points. While the team won’t make excuses, fans should realize that Manning’s limited options at wide receiver, running back, and tight end have ruined Indy’s offensive cohesion. Add poor performances from both offensive tackles, and the situation gets even worse.
While there were numerous things for fans to complain about, there were also enough positive signs to make one hopeful. The biggest was the fact that despite common perception, Jeff Linkenbach has actually been an improvement over Mike Pollak at right guard (albeit a modest one). Receivers Blair White and Jacob Tamme are becoming very stable for Manning, showing both good timing and hands. The Colts also found a use for Donald Brown. He may not function as a pass blocker, or have the vision to effectively run through a gap, but he showed an edge on quick slant routes that gives him a tangible positive.
Let’s move on to the stats.
*Note: S = Superior, G = Good, A = Assist, F = Failed, M = Missed, T = Turned
Notes on Offense
* Manning kept targets rather short, primarily due to poor blocking, which showed in his average yards per attempt. He completed a respectable 64.6% of his throws. It’s not the 70% he regularly put up to start the year, but it is consistent with what fans should expect from Manning. Even though he threw four picks, two were due to getting hit as he threw and another was due to a no call on a blatant pass interference — NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell confirmed that the play was officiated poorly and that a penalty should have been called.
* The Linkenbach experiment is not a complete failure. Although the struggled, he was able to outperform nearly every Mike Pollak performance, with Week Two as the only exception. This does not make Linkenbach the answer at right guard, but does imply that a positive change has been made. Kyle DeVan continues to be rock solid, posting nearly identical numbers week after week. Like him or not, he is stable.
* Jeff Saturday continues to play in a kind of slump. While he did not perform as bad as he has in recent weeks, Saturday was out of position on many blocking plays. He has focused more on assisting the left guard, after having to babysit Pollak on the right for weeks, but the need for him to actively assist one of the guards is decreasing, which left him not blocking anyone on more occasions — and reduced his good blocking percentage. Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem had horrible games. While Johnson had a respectable rate of good blocks, he had nearly 30% bad blocks, and was beaten around the corner more frequently than in earlier weeks. Ryan Diem was essentially himself — with just above 50% good blocks, but nearly one out of every three blocks failed. Diem continues to be the biggest weakness on the offensive line.
* Another reason the offensive line blocked so poorly was due to the lack of support from tight ends. Tight ends typically block more than 35 snaps a game, against San Diego the number was down to 10. This means that neither Diem nor Johnson had the benefit of any help. With Eldridge returning against the Cowboys, this number, and the offensive line’s performance, will likely improve.
* Reggie Wayne had a bad game. Admittedly, three of his passes were not entirely on him (two breakups from hits, and a no-call on passing interference), but when push came to shove he was uncharacteristically unreliable. Wayne had four drops on passes that were accurately thrown to him. Many of these passes came on crucial third downs. This performance was out of character so it is unlikely to occur again soon.
* Running back Donald Brown proved that he can catch out of the backfield and pick up yards along the sideline. This role could allow him to perform at a level expected from a first round draft pick. Also, Blair White is quickly maturing with Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez out. White is developing timing with Manning, and not struggling with the coverage problems that made him look like a rookie earlier in the year. With Collie likely to sit for another week, White’s continued involvement and growing relationship with Manning will help solidify his place on the team, and bolster the offense’s performance. This is also true of Jacob Tamme, as he continues to step up and mature in Dallas Clark’s absence.
* Pierre Garcon had a good game. His 71.4% completion percentage was a welcome improvement over previous weeks — particularly in light of Wayne’s struggles.
* The Colts continued to rely on Donald Brown as the primary running back. Offensive line struggles aside, Brown missed three key blitz pickups that resulted in Manning getting hit or pressured, and was stuffed on 5 of his 11 runs — many occurred because he ran straight into unmoving offensive linemen. Brown has displayed an astounding lack of vision, particularly for a player who scouts praised for this skill entering the draft. He has shown a complete inability to run through a hole, unless it is a paved six lane highway with big neon arrows pointing him to it, and a truck stop along the way in case he gets tired and wants to stop for some chicken wings at the local Chili’s or Hooters. The Chargers game was no exception.
Notes on Defense
* Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have not had as big of an impact on quarterbacks, as both are increasingly double teamed and chip blocked. Their role is further limited opponents going with offensive game plans featuring quick passes. The defensive tackles have started playing a larger role though. Foster recorded his fourth sack in five games, while Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala, and Daniel Muir have consistently recorded a small number of pressures and hits in recent weeks. As a unit, the defense is pressuring, hitting, and sacking opposing quarterbacks at a rate similar to early in the season.
* Linebackers Philip Wheeler and Pat Angerer were both very involved in the game. Even Kavell Conner recorded a lot of tackles, though he continues to miss some due positioning and execution. Angerer has been picked on a bit as he has led the defense against very good quarterbacks with potent offenses. As a result, Bill Polian has indicated that he will return to a backup role when Brackett returns, suggesting that Wheeler will remain at strong side linebacker.
* The cornerbacks had low tackle totals, though much of that can be attributed to San Diego’s offensive strategy. Safeties Antoine Bethea and Aaron Francisco each had over half a dozen tackles and were very active in run support. Interestingly, Mike Newton played for Francisco on a number of snaps. One of the more exciting defensive alignments featured the whole secondary — Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Cornelius Brown came out in a nickel formation. Angerer was replaced by Newton, who joined Bethea and Francisco, to have seven defensive backs on the field for a crucial third down — which the defense succeeded in properly defending. The formation was on the field only once but this new look spiced things up just enough to keep things interesting.