No matter where you look, there is a healthy fascination with the Colts when it comes to Texans media coverage. In fact, AOL Fanhouse recently noted that it was a topic covered to an "unusual extent" during training camp. Part of this is an actual on-the-field fact that the Texans are 1-15 against the Colts in their franchise's short history, the Colts have been a dominant team ever since the Texans existed, and the short-term angle that the Colts are the Texans' opening opponent at home. Another is the scenario: David vs. Goliath, the underdog coming to fruition, and countless other metaphors for new versus old. Finally, you have the gut-wrenching factors of past play: Coming back from down 13-0 to take the lead and then watching it slip away in Indianapolis as Kris Brown inched his kick just left, taking a 17-0 lead in Houston only to watch it evaporate before our eyes as Matt Schaub hit Clint Sessions for a game-changing pick six. I won't even elaborate on the horror that was The Rosencopter in 2008.
So naturally, I came across a question that has been asked for awhile: How does a defense stop Peyton Manning? With the emphasis on cleaning up the passing game last year, I don't think anyone ever really can. Oh, they can fluster him, but no matter what you think of his playoff maladies, he's usually going to get his.
Of course, an article about why you can't really stop Peyton Manning would've been a terrible idea for this site. First of all, it's not a Colts website. Secondly, I'm pretty sure MDC would see me hanged for treason.
I decided to instead focus on how Frank Bush attempted to stop Peyton Manning. I promise, I don't spend the next couple of minutes of your time demonizing Bush again. This is just an Xs and Os breakdown. I want to tackle four things--scheme vs. scheme, Dallas Clark, blitzing, and the public perception of the games. There will be pictures, but you'll have to provide your own popcorn. Also, there is a massive 56K warning, if you really need to give one on the internet in 2010.
SCHEME VS. SCHEME - Why the Colts got so much done underneath
The Texans operated almost exclusively out of the nickel against the Colts. If you don't follow football schemes, what that means is that essentially, the Texans sat Zac Diles for almost the entirety of both games and instead used Jacques Reeves, giving them an extra defensive back (plus the four in a standard football formation equals five, thus the term "nickel"; don't ask me why six defensive backs is referred to as a "dime" instead of "sixpence") to match up against the Colts.
The Colts, who have been running the same system for God knows how long, base out of the three wide receiver formation. What this means is that they'll have Manning, a lone running back (usually Joseph Addai), and then their three wide receivers and Clark. Because most teams use three wide receiver sets a lot less often than the Colts do, it's rare for a team to have to use its nickel defense as often as the Texans did against the Colts. Basically, they counter the extra wide receiver with an extra cornerback, and the resulting math gives the Texans five defensive backs against four receiving threats. Thus ends the beginner course. Now for what actually happened...
One move the Texans consistently made on the field was giving safety help over the top in the Reggie Wayne vs. Dunta Robinson matchup. We can debate all day whether this was because Bush was scared of Wayne (plausible) or scared of Robinson (probable), but it happened. This was a key reason that Wayne notched only 83 yards receiving between the two Colts games. The Texans schemed him out of winning deep. Most of his catches came on sideline routes or against a zone.
Because of this decision, the Texans were essentially left with 3 defensive backs (Glover Quin, Bernard Pollard, and Reeves) and 2 linebackers (Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans) against 3 receivers (Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie) and their back (usually Addai). Once you take the threat of most safety help away (between blitzes, zones, and covering Addai) it becomes extremely important to not get beat deep. Indeed, the Colts only attempted 15 passes that went beyond 15 yards in the air over the two games, and if that sounds like a lot, keep in mind the Colts attempted 86 passes, were sacked 4 times, and had some of those plays called back for penalties. That's around 15% of all passing plays that ended with a throw going deep, and most of those were incomplete.
The result of all this was that the Texans were going to give up short routes. A lot of them. For what it's worth, I think five defensive backs was the way to go here. You certainly can't have Diles or Cushing covering a wideout every play. I'd love to have seen more creativity out of Bush formation-wise (and personnel-wise too, if we're staying in the nickel), but between Manning spanking the Texans in the no-huddle (tons of penalties when they went to it, and the Dunta preening play) and the desire to not get beat deep with poor coverage safeties, I can see why he essentially stuck with this.
DALLAS CLARK AND JAMMING - A delicate balance
So of course, Dallas Clark simply steamrolled the Texans in the first matchup, catching 14 balls for 119 yards. Where was the jam? It's become sort of a running joke around here.
In layman's terms, "jamming" a receiver essentially means you get your hands on him early and try to knock him off his route. Compare where Cushing starts off on this play below to the play above, and you'll confirm with your own eyes that it's easier to knock someone off a route when you stand next to him.
Well, the thing is...jamming Clark killed the Texans' run defense. When Cushing and Ryans essentially set up camp in the middle of the field in the first game, the Colts managed 4.0 yards per carry on 18 attempts. When Cushing was dispatched more often to go bump Clark, that meant he had to pick a side of the field. All of the sudden, the Colts had a three-on-three with their offensive linemen against the two defensive linemen on the non-Cushing side and Ryans. Plays like this happened:
The Texans allowed 5.0 yards per carry on 23 attempts in the second game.
Now of course, I'm not saying that the Texans shouldn't have bumped Clark. It just comes with it's own downside: There are going to be more open running lanes. Personally, I'd rather have Addai try to beat me than Manning.
I think Game Two showed a decent mix of the two styles. The key with Manning is to not let him feel comfortable, so that means you have to keep changing it up. Sometimes you bump Clark, sometimes you don't. Either way, just watching the tape made me think about how people were crucifying Bush for not bumping and I thought I'd show you the method to his (possible) madness .
BLITZING - DeMecNo
I went ahead and charted every blitz the Texans ran over the two games again. I was looking for mistakes, and also trying to find blitzes that ran into run plays (something FO normally doesn't count). The Texans blitzed 18 times in the first game, and just nine in the second. If I had to put my finger on the culprit for that downturn, the first suspect would be the insertion of John Busing into the lineup in the second game. The Texans were noticeably more conservative in an effort to make sure that his name wasn't ever mentioned on air after the starting lineups.
However, another problem is that the blitzes just didn't do much. Of the eighteen blitzes, only five of them yielded what I'd call a "positive" result for the Texans. One of those was negated by a defensive offsides, one of them negated by offensive holding, two times the Texans blitzed the run in the right gaps, and one time they got lucky when the blitz brought no additional pressure but Manning threw an interception to Pollard. In fact, all four sacks that they actually recorded came off four-man rushes.
Part of that is Manning, who read the blitz a few times and audibled out to a wide receiver screen, but another very real part of it is that DeMeco Ryans, for all his plusses as a player, isn't really a good pass-rusher. For example:
Another problem the Texans had was their love of the stunt. For the uninitiated, a stunt is supposed to confuse a quarterback and the offensive linemen by having one defensive player go around another defensive player and then make his move. Against Manning, all this seems to give him is too much time to operate:
Long story short: If the Texans are running most of their plays out of the nickel again this season, they absolutely have to bring on the third-down line from the beginning, whether that is Connor Barwin/Antonio Smith/Mario Williams, and Amobi Okoye/Earl Mitchell or some variation with Aaron Schobel. Getting increased pressure from the front four is the only way the Texans can hope to swing games defensively against the Colts without giving up something on another level. Williams and Smith did their part, as Williams had two of the sacks and Smith got in quick enough to hit Manning's arm on one play, which made the ball wobble and wound up as an easy interception for Cushing. The other two spots need help.
With the blitzes--and I still think a good unexpected blitz is a big weapon against Manning--the Texans need to cut down on the time it takes for the rushers to get there. Don't waste time with stunts. Bring guys from advanced positions and take straight lines. I'd love to see a good nickel back blitz added in for a play, even if that means breaking the code of doubling Wayne. Again, it's hard to be overly critical of a coach for not stopping Manning, but based on what I've looked at I think things like this would help. I know Bush is a big advocate of keeping it simple, but it makes sense to be a little more elaborate when you're facing Manning. He's figured out simple at this point in his career.
PERCEPTION VS. REALITY - These scores were lower than you thought they'd be, but why?
Because of Sessions' INT return for a touchdown, the Texans defense allowed just 20 points in the first game and 28 in the second game. After a long franchise history of asskickings in the 30s and 40s, I can understand the perception that the Texans defense didn't "lose" them the games against the Colts. They were better, and they created a game plan to try and slow the Colts so they'd have more plays to make a mistake.
However, just as the fact that the offense scored 44 points doesn't absolve Schaub's turnovers, the Texans defense isn't absolved solely because they were better than they have been. Another thing is, I think the Colts offense and the referees helped create that perception a little more than you'd think:
- The Colts dropped four wide-open passes in the first game.
- Matt Stover missed a gimme field goal of his own in the second game.
- The games had a pair of "runs" and the defense held its own for a certain period of time before bowing out. If the game had been back-and-forth, with the defense giving up leads, the perception would change.
- The Texans gave up a LOT of defensive penalties, especially in the first game. While this might not seem like a big deal to you, it's a lot easier to think "we aren't too far away from these guys" when you have a 15 yard pass-interference penalty then it is when you have someone get beat deep on a bomb.
- Speaking of penalties, that incomprehensible 43 yard pass interference play on Reeves and a few others of questionable intent made it easy to come out of the game thinking the referees had "screwed" the Texans.
- The Reggie Wayne interception in the third quarter of the first game is on par with some of the worst coaching decisions of the Texans season. Only they won the game.
- There were multiple interceptions in both games. We went over the Wayne thing, but that's still three from Peyton. Out of his 16 on the season, that's about 20% of them coming in two games. 16 was the highest total he's had in seven seasons. I wouldn't expect quite so many gifts this year.
In a nutshell, I think the Colts left points on the board in both games that they probably could've taken. They'd have 31 points if Stover's gimme field goal went in during the second game, and I think that's probably a fair number. In the first game, they had just about everything short of their goal line offense go wrong, and they still scored 20.
If you give me an over/under for points they'll score per game against the Texans next year, I'd say 27 is a good number. Particularly considering how the Texans will be without Cushing for one of those games. I'll say right now that if the random luck distribution that had the Colts scoring 20 points happens again, I think the Texans take that game. But I'm not betting on it.
NEXT SEASON'S PLAN
Bush, in his heart of hearts, knows that the Texans defense can't really keep up with the Colts offense. That is expressed to me in both his choice of schemes and the choice he made double-covering Wayne and allowing the Colts receivers to have their underneath routes. The scheme isn't going to stop the Colts, but it should slow them down and make them inch the ball up one step at a time. By doing so, the hope is that the Colts either make a mistake or that the defensive line can get some pressure on Manning. That way, the Texans either get a turnover or put the Colts in an unfavorable down/distance scenario before they can reach the end zone.
This season should see the game plan stay much the same. Kareem Jackson will sub in for Robinson, and the Texans defense should be better at rushing the passer, but the secondary is still pretty weak and they still don't have a real ballhawking safety. I would be stunned if the game plan changed at all, with the exception of getting rid of things like stunts that didn't really work in the first game. The onus will be on the front four to cause pressure and turn a greater frequency of them into sacks. There were 10 pressures and 5 sacks (counting plays nullified by penalty) in 102 dropbacks.
Those numbers need to double for the Texans to succeed, and I think the best chance they have is rolling the third down line out as a part of their base package. A few creative blitz schemes would help too, but it's so far against Bush's mantra that I doubt it's even worth praying for.
The Texans may have gotten a break when it was revealed yesterday that Colts C Jeff Saturday is in danger of missing the opener, as he is a great pass blocker. As far as this sort of thing goes, I'd definitely rather face a team like the Colts, while their offensive line is in relative disarray (Saturday isn't the only one hurting). Whether that will make enough difference to really expose Manning is a debate for closer to the season, but if the Texans can turn the pressure up a little bit, they'll have more than a puncher's chance.