Yes, the Colts can be beaten; here's how to do it
Dec. 7, 2005
By Clark Judge
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
Tell Clark your opinion!
I watch the Indianapolis Colts destroy another opponent, and I wonder if anyone's playing the same game as these guys. I know, I know, their next three opponents -- Jacksonville, San Diego and Seattle -- are 27-9, and the Jaguars have a history of playing Indy tough.
Marcus Stroud is half the Jaguars' defensive tackle tandem that could give the Colts trouble. (Getty Images)
But my question is: Forget about playing close; does Jacksonville have a legitimate shot at winning. Does anyone?
"Sure they do," said an assistant coach who faced Indianapolis this year. "The Colts can be beaten."
Then he told me how. So did a couple of others Indianapolis vanquished. Now we make the case for you, and Jack del Rio, feel free to take notes. While all those interviewed conceded the Colts are the most complete team out there, they also insisted they're not impregnable.
Here's what you must do:
1. Extend your drives and punctuate them with points or field position.
"It's not enough to keep them off the field," said one defensive assistant. "You have to get points or field position. You can't go three-and-out or five-and-out. You can't get anxious. I don't care if you don't score. Make sure you get something out of your drives." He has a point. Look at Indianapolis' last loss, that 20-3 defeat in the 2004 playoffs. People forget that New England led by only 6-3 at the half, and we had a ballgame. Then the Patriots struck with two enormous second-half drives -- one of 15 plays and 87 yards; the other of 14 plays and 94 yards. They didn't panic. They were patient. And they consumed yards -- and the clock -- with lots of Corey Dillon, who ran for 144 yards, and error-free play. Having a big-time back is essential to completing this job, and Jacksonville has one in Fred Taylor ... if he's healthy. San Diego has one in LaDainian Tomlinson, too. Seattle's Shaun Alexander not only leads the league in rushing, he's on schedule to break Priest Holmes' record of 27 touchdowns in one season. Remember: In the Colts' past three meaningful losses (I discount that season-ender at Denver last year) each opponent had a 100-yard rusher. But let's not forget the second half of this equation -- the idea of gaining field position if you don't gain points. Look at what happened in that January loss to New England. Six of the Patriots' drives ended in Colts territory, and their worst finishing position -- discounting the game-ending kneel-down with four seconds left -- was the New England 43. Now look at the Oct. 31, 2004, loss to Kansas City: 11 of the Chiefs' 13 drives ended on the Colts' end of the field. And the loss to Jacksonville a week earlier? Eight of the Jags' 10 possessions finished in Colts territory, including the last five. I think you get the message.
2. Avoid third-and-long.
The key to the Colts' defense is their two safeties, particularly hard-hitting Bob Sanders. Indianapolis likes to sit back in a two-high setup, and you want to -- no, you must -- force the Colts out of it. "The key to beating them," said an offensive coordinator who played the Colts, "is positive yardage on first and second downs." When Pittsburgh became the Colts' 11th victim a week-and-a-half ago the Steelers produced nothing early. On the first play of their first series, running back Willie Parker was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. On the first play of their second series, he was stuffed for a 3-yard retreat. On the first play of their third series, Jerome Bettis didn't gain an inch. Say good night, folks. The problem with getting into third-and-longs is that now you're forced to protect against the Colts' edge pass rushers, which means keeping everyone in except, oh, maybe three receivers. The Colts, meanwhile, drop seven into coverage, and you don't have to be a math major to figure out who holds the advantage there. The solution: Run early and often at the Colts defensive ends. They're better against the pass than they are defending the run. Make yards against them, and you force the safeties to move forward to support the run. That, in turn, loosens up the secondary and makes it easier to succeed with the pass. Can it be accomplished? Two of the Colts' next three opponents, San Diego and Seattle, are among the league's leaders in first-down production. The Chargers average 6.16 yards a play, second only to Indianapolis; the Seahawks average 6.14 yards, best in the NFC. Yeah, I'd say each has a chance.
3. Take away one of their two explosive threats.
You either contain Edgerrin James or bottle up their receivers. You can't do both. Some of that is up to your offense. The longer it stays on the field, the less your defense sees of Peyton Manning & Co. Most of it is on the defensive coordinator, and few opponents defense the Colts better than Jacksonville. "Because of those two big defensive tackles (John Henderson and Marcus Stroud), they can play the run with their front seven," said one assistant. "They don't need help." That is significant, and, yes, I know James has nine 100-yard games this season and is an MVP candidate. But look at the Colts' last three meaningful losses: James failed to rush for 100 yards in each. In fact, in two of those games he didn't make it past 39, and in seven career starts before this season he never once produced 100 against Jacksonville. Then the Jags threw a changeup at the Colts in September, attacking Manning and daring the impatient Colts to beat them with James. The strategy was effective ... until, that is, the Colts turned James loose in the second half. On the game-winning 17-play drive, Manning handed off 14 times. Nevertheless, the point was made: The Jags demonstrated they could neutralize Indy's pass attack. And they lost by a touchdown.
4. Force red-zone field goals.
We all know you're not going to keep these guys off the board. Manning hasn't been shut out in his career, and the Colts have put up at least 31 points in seven of their past nine starts. The problem with Indianapolis is that it has so many ways to beat you and can score in a hurry. Again, Pittsburgh learned the hard way when cornerback Ike Taylor was burned by an 80-yard touchdown pass on the Colts' first snap in that Nov. 28 loss. "The Colts are characterized as a finesse team," said one defensive assistant, "but that's not right. They can be physical, and they are good up front. They know exactly what you're doing, and they're going to beat you at that game. It doesn't take Peyton long to figure things out." Manning takes few sacks, but Jacksonville did pressure the pocket in September and forced him into hurried, errant throws. When it was over he had a career-low 122 yards passing and no TDs. But he also had a victory. If I'm Jacksonville, here's what gives me hope: In that game, the Colts three times were inside my 25, and only once did they produce a touchdown. If I'm Indianapolis, this is what I look at: The Jags' red-zone defense ranks 11th in the AFC and 26th overall. Now let's look at San Diego: The Chargers are ninth in the AFC in red-zone defense and 21st overall. Then we have Seattle, which is second in the NFC and second overall. In 33 series, the Seahawks defense allowed only 13 touchdowns. We're getting warmer.
5. Stay close.
Sure, the Colts are explosive, but try to keep them within reach. Pittsburgh withstood a furious first-quarter charge last month but imploded when a game-tying field goal went astray. Then the Steelers got stupid, trying to throw late in the second quarter when they should have been satisfied taking a 13-7 deficit to intermission and gambling on an onside kick to open the second half. It not only failed, it led to a game-clinching touchdown. "You can't afford to get down by more than 10 to these guys," said one coordinator, "because then they just turn those ends loose." The results speak for themselves: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have 20 sacks between them, and the Colts outscore opponents 187-71 in the second half. "You can beat these guys," said one assistant, "but an awful lot of things must go right."