Falcons at Colts – Week 9 Game Preview

The Indianapolis Colts (0-8) return to Lucas Oil Stadium after a three-week road trip that saw the team hit rock bottom. Their opponent on Sunday will be an Atlanta Falcons (4-3) team coming off of the BYE and in the hunt for a division title. Will the Colts homecoming bring the first real chance for their fans to cheer in the 2011 season, or will fans be looking forward to the end of the season as much as the exits?

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Falcons measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.

 

Indianapolis Colts

Atlanta Falcons

Offense Defense Offense Defense
Passing 27th (27th) 22nd (32nd) 18th (14th) 23rd (9th)
Rushing 22nd (10th) 31st (28th) 17th (21st) 7th (5th)
Total 30th (24th) 31st (32nd) 17th (13th) 19th (6th)

 

 

When the Colts have the ball

 

 

Indianapolis Colts Offense Atlanta Falcons Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 93 DE R. Edwards
44 TE D. Clark 95 DT J. Babineaux
74 LT A. Castonzo 91 DT C. Peters
73 LG S. Olsen 55 DE J. Abraham
63 C J. Saturday 56 SLB S. Weatherspoon
71 RG R. Diem 50 MLB C. Lofton
72 RT J. Linkenbach 54 WLB S. Nicholas
17 WR A. Collie 23 CB D. Robinson
85 WR P. Garcon 25 SS W. Moore
7 QB C. Painter 28 FS  T. DeCoud
29 RB J. Addai 20 CB B. Grimes

The Indianapolis Colts offense, much like their fans, seem to be struggling with the reality that QB Peyton Manning is not walking through the door anytime soon. The Colts insist on running a pass-heavy offense with QB Curtis Painter – who, while improved, is not the kind of dynamic play-making quarterback that you build your offense around – despite being in close, competitive games in six of their eight match ups.

How bad has it been? When correcting for quarterback runs on pass plays and quarterback kneels, the Colts have attempted 121 more passes than runs (15.13 attempts per game more). Why is this a mistake? The Colts are 9th in the league in rushing yards per attempt at 4.5ypa, but their rushing offense is only 22nd in the league by raw numbers because they are only 22nd in the league in rushing attempts per game.

Just to be sure that the Colts rushing attack is as good as the conventional stats indicate, a quick glance at www.footballoutsiders.com DVOA shows us that the Colts have, by their metrics, the 10th best running offense in the league. For those that would make the argument that the Colts running attack is taking advantage of soft pass coverages at the end of games, DVOA takes game context into account. If you need hard evidence that the Colts running attack has been successful early here is a small piece: they rushed for 5.3 ypc on 10 attempts in the first half against the Titans, but again, were only given limited opportunities, as Painter attempted 19 first half passes.

On the passing side of the ball, the Colts are 8th in the league in passing attempts (271 for the year, 33.9 per game) despite being only 28th in the league in yards per passing attempt and 27th in pass yards per game. Advanced stats do not help the Colts here, either, as DVOA has them ranked 27th in the league in passing offense.

If the Colts can find a proper balance, if they can use their successful running game to tighten up the defense and make them susceptible to the play-fake, the Colts will have the opportunity to take shots down field against one-on-one coverage in the secondary. If they continue to be a pass heavy team that focuses on passes less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, it will allow the defense to play a very simple zone defense that will limit the Colts chances for big plays and force Painter into mistakes as he tries to mount long scoring drives.

Tony Dungy used to preach that it was as important to “practice yourself” as it was to practice for an opponent. Clearly, the Colts need some “getting to know themselves” time, if they hope to make the offense effective enough to win.

When the Falcons have the ball

 

Indianapolis Colts Defense Atlanta Falcons Offense
93 DE D. Freeney 11 WR J. Jones
99 DT A. Johnson 88 TE T. Gonzalez
95 DT F. Moala 72 LT S. Baker
98 DE R. Mathis 63 LG J. Blalock
53 WLB K. Conner 62 C T. McClure
51 MLB P. Angerer 75 RG G. Reynolds
50 SLB P. Wheeler 77 RT T. Clabo
25 CB J. Powers 84 WR R. White
30 SS D. Caldwell 2 QB M. Ryan
41 FS A. Bethea 42 FB M. Cox
21 CB K. Thomas 33 RB M. Turner

The Colts defense has had spurts of success this year against teams that featured imbalanced offenses at the time: the Browns, Steelers, Chiefs, Bengals, and Buccaneers were all struggling in at least one phase of their offense when they entered their match-up with the Colts. This week, the Colts get the Falcons, who feature an offense more like the Saints and Texans – the two teams that have given the Colts defense the most trouble this year: a balanced attack featuring a smart, accurate quarterback and a running game that can be used to effectively pound opposing defenses.

Since 2008, the year QB Matt Ryan was drafted, the key to slowing down the Falcons offense was stopping RB Michael Turner.  That has changed this year as the gradual growth of Ryan, who had 16 passes per game in 2008, has culminated in a near-50/50 split of offensive touches between Ryan (22) and Turner (19). Ryan has at his disposal one of the most talented starting groups of receivers: WR Roddy White, WR Julio Jones, and TE Tony Gonzalez.

White and Jones are dynamic players that can be used in a variety of routes: they could be used to attack the short zones one play and catch a seam route for a big gain on the next play. As for Gonzalez, while age may be catching up to him, he still has great hands and is able to think the game at such a high level that he is still a threat on 3rd downs and in the red zone.

To deal with such a dynamic group of weapons, the Colts defense should get back to the basics and stick to the Cover-2 scheme originally installed by former HC Tony Dungy. Doing so will put the players who were drafted specifically for that kind of zone scheme back in the best position to succeed, allow them to keep the play in front of them, and finally limit the big play that has hurt them so often this season.

The potential return of rookie DT Drake Nevis should help their cause in this regard. The defense has severely missed his ability to penetrate and create havoc in the offensive backfield. Perhaps no one has missed Nevis as much as DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have both seen their production decline sharply in Nevis’ absence. Nevis is so quick off the ball and so successful against a single blocker that it forces opposing offenses to double-team him, affording one of Freeney and Mathis the kinds of one-on-one situations they thrive on.

As for the running game, though the stats would tell you otherwise, the Colts have had success against opposing running backs. The problem for the Colts is not really on a “per play basis”, but the attempts: opposing offenses have run the ball 35 times per game against the Colts. By the time the fourth quarter comes, the Colts defenders are simply worn out, a situation that has only been made worse by the myriad of injuries they’ve suffered this season.

The one thing that would help the Colts defense the most against the Falcons is an offense that sustained drives and scored points. If they can get a little help from their friends and get back to their cover-2 roots, the Colts have a chance to pull off the big upset.  If the coaching staff continues to coach like it’s 2009, they may suffer their first blowout loss at home this year.

Five key match ups

1. RB Michael Turner vs. Indianapolis Colts linebackers – The Colts defense did a good job holding up against the Titans rushing attack in week 7, limiting the Titans to just 3.2 yards-per-carry on 30 attempts. They will have to build on that performance if they hope to keep a Falcons rushing attack led by RB Michael Turner in check. While Atlanta’s rushing attack is only middle of the road (Tennessee’s was near the bottom of the league), the Falcons have no trouble sticking with the running game – Turner averages slightly more than 20 carries per game and the Falcons as a team average 26 rushes per game.

With the Colts recent inability to wear down against the run late in games the Falcons will likely go above their average in hopes of tiring out an already thin defense. If the Colts can’t hold up for four quarters, if they cannot draw on the crowd in their first home game in three weeks, they will find themselves staring at an 0-9 record.

2. Atlanta Falcons wide receivers and tight ends vs. Indianapolis Colts secondary – The Colts secondary has thrived at turning ordinary, average receivers into reception machines. This week they play an offense that decided against the ordinary, average receiver and instead acquired dynamic, star-quality receivers including WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones and a resurgent TE Tony Gonzalez. Will the Colts secondary be able to keep the play in front of them, limit the big play, and force QB Matt Ryan to lead slow, methodical drives? Or will White and Jones abuse a secondary that has been out of position, out-manned, and out-coached for much of the season? The Colts have been routed twice this season, both on the road, but that could all change on Sunday if the Colts secondary cannot put it all together against the Falcons.

3. Colts offense vs. Balance – The key for the Colts continues to be a running game that has performed better than expected, even after injuries ravaged the tackle and guard positions. Despite the success in the running game and being in close games for four quarters, the Colts have continued to look to pass far more often than they have looked to run. At some point the coaching staff must realize where their strengths are, and find a better run-pass balance.

If that paragraph looks familiar to you – thanks! I copy and pasted it from a previous game preview. I could have copy and pasted it from a number of game previous. The Colts continue to run the offense as if QB Peyton Manning – and not Curtis Painter – is under center. Part of film study is about preparing for your opponent. The other part? Knowing yourself. The Colts clearly haven’t learned what they are. Here’s what they aren’t: an aerial team that should be throwing the ball 10+ more times than they are running it.

4. Ray Rychleski vs. Comcast Cable – Comcast offers 281 channels for the Indianapolis area, so you can imagine how hard it will be for the Colts special teams coordinator to focus on the miserable performance of his unit on the field. Will Rychleski be able to avoid the latest offering of channel 108: National Geographic WILD? Will he be able to get his blocking units in position to prevent another blocked punt? Will he teach Joe Lefeged (or whoever winds up returning on Sunday) how to take a knee? Or will he find out just how the snakes jaw unhinges as it enjoys a Cadbury Cream Egg™?

Perhaps the Colts lack the depth and talent to have a dynamic special teams unit, but most certainly have the talent to have an average unit. The coaching is failing the players and should be held accountable.

5. Fox Announcers vs. CBS Announcers – Solomon Wilcots mentioned on Sunday that while the Colts may have struggled with their recent first round draft picks, recent second round picks Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders helped offset those poor picks. Dallas Clark was selected in the 1st round of the 2003 draft. Bob Sanders was selected in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft.  Seven years ago doesn’t really qualify as “recent” for me. The first round, in Clark’s case, doesn’t really qualify as the second round. And Bob Sanders hasn’t helped the Colts overcome anything in about four years.

Aside from that, Wilcots has referred to Austin Collie as “Pierre Garcon”. He has described a bear hug as “good coverage”. He said that the Colts would consider drafting QB Andrew Luck so that “they would have a solid backup behind Peyton Manning”. To make a long, painful, tedious, ear-numbing story short:  Wilcots performance in the booth has matched the Colts performance on the field. Seven weeks ago I was declaring that the silver lining to the Colts bad season would be getting out of the Dan Dierdorf announcing zone. Be careful what you wish for.

This week your announcers will be Ron Pitts and Jim Mora, Jr. I just hope they get Jim Harbaugh’s name right as he kicks the Colts token field goal at the end of the game.

The Injury Reports


Indianapolis Colts

 

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
Peyton Manning NECK (OUT)
Joe Reitz KNEE (OUT)
Kavell Conner KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Dwight Freeney KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Jeff Saturday KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Blair White KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Drake Nevis BACK (QUESTIONABLE)
Brody Eldridge KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Terrence Johnson ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
Joseph Addai HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)
Mike Pollak HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)
Anthony Gonzalez COACHES HATE HIM (WHO KNOWS)
Quinn Ojinnaka KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
Pat Angerer KNEE (PROBABLE)
Ryan Diem HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)
Anthony Castonzo ANKLE (PROBABLE)

 
Atlanta Falcons

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
DE John Abraham NOT INJURY RELATED (PROBABLE)
T Sam Backer BACK (BUT NOT BACK – OUT)
TE Tony Gonzalez BACK (Happens at that age – QUESTIONABLE)
C Todd McClure NOT INJURY RELATED (PROBABLE)
CB Chris Owens CONCUSSION (QUESTIONABLE)

 


 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually):  FOX
Who(Visually): Ron Pitts and Jim Mora, Jr.
Where(Audio):   1070 AM The Fan WFNI and  97.1 HANK FM
Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford
How(Will Pitts and Mora live up to Wilcots’ genius?):  I’m not sure what they’ll say, but I have faith in Jim Mora, Jr. to say it.
Is the Game on in your area?  Good question.  The people at The506 will be able to tell you.

Series notes

  • The Colts are 13-1-0 All-Time against the Atlanta Falcons, including a 6-0-0 record at home.
  • QB Curtis Painter has never faced the Atlanta Falcons which has disappointed the Falcons defense. That disappointment ends this week.
  • RB Joseph Addai has faced the Falcons once and has rushed 10 times for 44 yards (4.4 YPC) and 1 TD. He also caught 2 passes for 14 yards.
  • WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Falcons three times and has hauled in 17 passes for 201 yards and 2 TDs.
  • TE Dallas Clark has 5 receptions for 49 yards and a score in 1 career game against Atlanta.
  • DE Dwight Freeney has never faced the Falcons, while DE Robert Mathis has played the Falcons once, where he recorded 1 sack.
  • QB Matt Ryan has never faced the Indianapolis Colts.
  • RB Michael Turner has faced the Colts 3 times. He has carried the ball 8 times for 113 yards (14.13 YPC) and 1 TD in those 3 games.
  • WR Roddy White caught 6 passes for 104 yards and 1 TD in his only game against the Colts.
  • TE Tony Gonzalez has played the Colts 6 times and has hauled in 20 catches for 284 yards and 1 touchdown in those 6 match ups.
  • DE John Abraham has faced the Colts twice, registering 2 sacks in those games.

Prediction

Falcons – 28, Colts – 20

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