The defense of the 2010 Indianapolis Colts has run the gamut of breakdowns in their first three regular-season games. Against the Houston Texans in Week One, they allowed over 250 yards rushing due to a breakdown in gap-discipline. In Week Two, the Colts gave up two long touchdown passes against the New York Giants, due to poor technique from the cornerbacks. Finally, this past Sunday, overly aggressive play from the Colts’ defensive backs consistently turned short completions into long plays. The consistent breakdowns have some Colts fans wondering: Will the defense prevent this team from winning a Super Bowl?
After the jump we’ll look at the three defensive performances, tell you what went wrong, and if the Colts can fix it.
The scene in Houston was not unfamiliar to Colts fans: over pursuit by Colts defenders, defensive tackles getting pushed around at the point of attack, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis speeding up field as opposing running backs slashed through the space left behind. These are all occurrences that have sporadically plagued the Colts defense since Tony Dungy took over the team in 2002. Fans will fondly remember the 2006 regular season when those breakdowns were the rule, not the exception. And just like 2006, there was a common catchphrase used after week one’s loss to the Texans: gap discipline.
So what is a gap? And why are the Colts gaps always so darned undisciplined? Gaps are basically holes on either side of the offensive linemen. The A-gap, for example, is the hole between the guards and center. There are a total of six gaps (three on each side of the offensive line) and there is a Colts defender responsible for each of those gaps. So what do the Colts mean when they say they have to maintain gap discipline? Gap discipline refers to the defender maintaining his responsibility to his assigned gap.
Over pursuit is the most common form of a gap discipline breakdown. A linebacker sees the flow of the play heading right, he has a responsibility for, say, the backside C-gap, but abandons his responsibility to his gap to instead chase after the ball carrier and make a tackle. The running back, seeing no holes in front of him (because all of the play-side defenders are maintaining their gaps) cuts back against the grain. If the linebacker in this example had maintained his backside responsibility, he would have wrapped the ball carrier up and no harm would be done, but because our linebacker did not maintain his gap-discipline, the running back has room to run.
That scene occurs a lot, for example, when the Colts play the Jaguars. Maurice Jones-Drew is an excellent one-cut-and-go back, and is very good at getting a play to flow in one direct and then cut back in the opposite direction. This is also what Arian Foster and the Texans were able to do in Week One; use the Colts speed and aggressiveness against them to pick up big chunks of yardage. The Texans running game was so effective that they were able to eschew the passing game almost entirely in the second half.
In Week Two, the Colts delivered a dominating performance against the New York Giants. The run defense improved, the pass rush was fierce, and the pass defense was, for the most part, good. I say “for the most part” because the two blemishes for the defense in that game came courtesy of two breakdowns in man coverage that led to long touchdowns.
The first of these breakdowns came on a third-down play that saw the Colts bring a blitz against Eli Manning that came milliseconds from ending the play in a sack. Instead, Manning stood tall in the pocket and delivered a beautiful pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham, who did the rest by breaking a Jacob Lacey tackle to score a 54-yard touchdown. So what led to the Manningham touchdown?
As mentioned, the Colts were blitzing on the play, meaning they were in man-coverage. Further, Jacob Lacey, the corner covering Manningham, had no deep safety help as Antoine Bethea was involved in the blitz and Melvin Bullitt was in man-coverage on Giants slot receiver Steve Smith. Because of the man-coverage with no deep help, Lacey was alone on an island in his coverage. Despite this, Lacey made a fatal mistake during the play when he bit on a double move by the receiver. Lacey has to understand the situation and realize that he must keep the play in front of him; the play call was not one that afforded him the opportunity to be overly aggressive. Lacey compounded his mistake by using poor form when trying to bring down Manningham from behind.
The second breakdown in the Giants game was similar. Late in the game, following a Devin Moore fumble, Eli Manning found Hakeem Nicks in the end zone on a fly pattern. The guilty party on that play was Kelvin Hayden, who was peering in the backfield and allowed Nicks to run past him. The Hayden breakdown was especially troubling given that Hayden has had consistent struggles on deep routes over the past 12 months.
Finally, last Sunday saw the final type of breakdown as the Colts defensive backs combined miss tackles and over-aggressive route jumping to allow the Broncos receivers to turn short plays into long gains. The errors were spread around the defensive backfield. Hayden and Bullitt were the guilty culprits on missed tackles, taking poor angles and over-pursuing on multiple plays.
The route jumping, on the other hand, was provided by a trio of Colts players: Lacey, Powers, and the previously mentioned Bullitt, who had a particularly tough game. Lacey’s aggressiveness offered mixed returns as he was able to intercept a Kyle Orton pass early in the game and return it deep into Broncos territory. After that, however, both he and Powers were guilty of going for the ball instead of playing the receiver, allowing the Broncos player to not only make the catch, but convert multiple third downs. Bullitt’s coverage mishap was the most costly. Bullitt was in a deep zone coverage, but bit on an underneath route, which allowed wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to slip behind the Indianapolis defense and catch a beautiful throw from Orton.
The laundry list is long and seems rather damning. The underlying theme, however, is that all of these mistakes are embedded in technique and scheme. Indeed, since the week of singing from the gap discipline chorus, the Colts run defense has been better than average, keeping a good Giants running game in check and completely shutting down the Broncos rushing attack.
Similarly, the mistakes in the Giants and Broncos game are also technique based. There is a proper way for a corner to play man coverage when the defense is blitzing. Sometimes making the sure tackles on third down is more important than going for the interception. These mistakes seem more out of place to Colts fans, since in years past the Indianapolis secondary has not been given the opportunity to be this aggressive. They’ll take these mistakes and learn from them. The coaches will help on their techniques, and they’ll start to understand when a play calls for a gamble, and when it calls for the safe option.
Instead of concentration on the mistakes, fans should concentrate on the positives from the past two weeks. Philip Wheeler has been a very good player since having a miserable Week One. The play of the defensive tackles has been promising, even featuring some inside push that has been sorely lacking in years past. Antoine Bethea is a superstar, even if the rest of the country cannot pronounce his name. And if you’re still worried, wrap yourself in this blanket: the Colts are short-handed. They will get a great linebacker back in Clint Session. And, if you believe in unicorns and fairies, you may also believe in the myth of Bob Sanders, who, like that groundhogs shadow, may make an appearance later this season.
The Colts have had some defensive breakdowns recently, but much like the 2006 season, they are correctable. They are not because of a lack of talent or skill. They will continue to improve, and they’ll have a great opportunity to showcase that improvement this Sunday against a Jaguars team that features a running back, Maurice Jones-Drew, that loves to cutback against them. Of course, if he rushes for 359 yards, forget I ever wrote this.