Even though it doesn’t feel like it, the Colts had a successful season. After coming up short in Super Bowl XLIV, they did come back and win the AFC South and battled until the bitter end: a wild card loss to the New York Jets. Peyton Manning masked so many deficiencies that the Colts were convinced they were formidable, yet a closer look reveals a pro football team that needs to be rebuilt. The Colts won 115 games in the decade of the 2000s and the constant low picks have loaded the roster with decent talent, not top shelf talent. Once injuries hit this group, a legitimate chance at returning to the Super Bowl was reduced to that of a puncher’s chance. The Colts held off the rest of the AFC South last year but lets face it the entire division regressed or imploded. Can they stave off the Houston Texans who seem to be the heir apparent in becoming the division’s most dominant team??
Qarterback: The Colts trigger -man going into his 15th season is one of the league’s elder statesmen in Peyton Manning. We forget to think of him in terms of tenure until you realize that in Manning’s rookie season he was handing the ball off to Marshall Faulk before being traded and the Greatest Show on Turf was even in existence. Yet here we are with Faulk retired and elected to the Hall of Fame and Manning is still throwing bombs in Indianapolis. Last year Manning had to institute a short passing game to offset the Colts inability to run consistently and had a good year. Throwing for 450 completions on 679 attempts for 4,700 yards, 33TDs and 17 interceptions was good enough for 10th with a 91.9 rating. His ability to audible and read what a defenses true intentions were have aided the offensive line and he was only sacked 16 times. He led the league in completions and attempts while ranking second behind Drew Brees in completion percentage with 66.3%. All things must come to an end and how long can Manning continue to play at such a high level?
So what is the book on defending Peyton Manning? Many teams have tried and had success in disguising their intentions until under 10 seconds left in the play clock and then sending exotic blitzes at him. Thus robbing the QB of adequate time to audible. Defenders are jumping on the short routes without any Colts burners to throw the ball deep to. The Ravens and Jets have carried on this approach against Manning after the Patriots used it for much of the decade of the 2000s to deny him Super Bowl trips. If you can get some hits on Manning early, he will get happy feet and uncharacteristically will force a throw. He relies on the receivers having the same sight adjustments and occasionally has to take the gamble that his receiver will get there. See the Tracy Porter interception that sealed the Colts fate in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints as evidence of this.
That withstanding, he is a future Hall of Famer and has a couple years left in his prime before he sees his skills diminish any. Right now he is the only serious weapon in the Colts arsenal. Can he play well enough that he can continue to mask the team’s other deficiencies? The window may have closed on that….Still Super Bowl quality at quarterback in Indy.
Offensive Backfield: Remember the perennial 1,000 yard seasons from Edgerrin James (The U) that gave the Colts a formidable rushing attack?? Seems like a distant memory now that for the last several seasons its been a committee carrying the load in Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes, Mike Hart, and Donald Brown out of UConn. This group underperformed in 2010 and thrust the pressure onto the passing game. Colts backs rushed for a total of 1,440 yards on 383 carries for an average of 3.7 yards where league average is 4.0. Not good enough.
This group couldn’t stay on the field and were bitten by the injury bug repeatedly during the season. Starter Joseph Addai may be better served as a change of pace running back. He doesn’t seem to have the heft to take the pounding of an every down back and has missed games during the last few seasons. However he averaged 4.3 yds on his carries gaining 495 yards during the 2010 campaign. If he were spelling another back these would be satisfactory numbers. As a lead back this isn’t enough seeing that others had to carry the load on the other 267 Colt rushing attempts. Going into his 6th season he looks like injuries are slowing him some and this team needs a Grade A running back to do the heavy lifting.
Donald Brown filled in admirably and ran for 471 yards yet ran in a more mechanical fashion. He didn’t run as instinctual as he had back at Connecticut and ran up the backs of his blockers, or arrived too early to where the hole was going to be. He only averaged 3.7 yards on his 126 carries once Addai went down. He seemed to turn a corner late in the season against Jacksonville when he rushed for a season high 129 yards on 14 carries. Javarris James, Edgerrin’s nephew, played well as a 3rd down back and rushed for 6 of the Colts 13 rushing touchdowns usually out of passing formations.
We should see the Colts go for their first marquee running back in this months draft since picking Faulk and James two decades ago. This team needs a true every down back that Addai can compliment, who can run with power between the tackles, pick up the blitz, and catch passes out of the backfield. Everyone has their eyes on Mark Ingram of Alabama but he may not be around in the latter part of the 1st round. However there are several backs in this year’s draft that should do the trick. After all he wouldn’t be keyed on with #18 standing next to him to run play action passes anyway. The very success of the Colts 2011 season will wrest on the move they make here. Need a marquee runner….running back is very below average.
Receiver: On the opposite end of all those throws were Manning’s receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and TEs Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme. Again injuries were the story at this position also that had Tamme see significent time replacing Clark. Blair White and Austin Collie emerged with the loss of Anthony Gonzalez and came through with respectable seasons. White emerged as an up and coming intermediate receiver with 36 catches for 355 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was a first down maker that Manning threw open on many a third down. Austin Collie had 58 receptions for 649 yards and came through with 8 touchdowns. Collie has a tremendous upside and can stretch the middle of the field better than White can. Each are smaller receivers, better suited to the slot where a bigger corner isn’t able to manhandle them and throw off their routes. Collie can get deep but can’t quite stretch the field like Anthony Gonzalez could yet injuries robbed him of the 2010 season.
Pierre Garcon had a solid season in 2010 yet will forever be linked to his dropped slant in Super Bowl XLIV that would have sent him off to the races and broken a 17-17 4th quarter deadlock…yet I digress. He pulled in 67 passes to tie for second on the team with Jacob Tamme and to only outgain the unheralded tight end in yards (784 to 631) and touchdowns (6 to 4) illustrates another receiver who can’t get deep. Manning is passing into a phone booth and its surprising he didn’t throw for more than 20 interceptions. Garcon is a young version of Wayne in the fact that he is a solid receiver with size and decent speed.
However there is Reggie Wayne, the veteran receiver from Miami who’s numbers are starting to reach those of a player who could receive Hall of Fame consideration with a few more productive seasons. The 2010 season wasn’t his most spectacular yet his production was tremendous. With 111 receptions, 1,355 yards and 6 touchdowns, the successor to Marvin Harrison was the portrait of consistency. Entering his 11th season, Wayne isn’t a threat to stretch the field beyond 40 yards yet has the moves to get open on most intermediate routes. Never having blazing speed to begin with he can be caught by younger cornerbacks while the ball is in the air on fly patterns. He needs to really set up a corner with a jab step to get deep on most corners. For his career Wayne has gobbled 787 catches for 10,747 yards and 69 touchdowns. If he duplicates his 2010 season he’ll have 900 catches, 12,000 yards, and will be right on the threshold of joining the likes of Jerry Rice, OSU’s Cris Carter, and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown with over 1000 catches in their careers. A savvy veteran with another 3 prime years left.
Receiver is average in Indy yet they need a speed receiver to make them good again. We don’t know how Anthony Gonzalez is going to recover and if any of his speed will be diminished upon his return. Robert Irsay and the boys may want to think of a bigger receiver with speed also. Too many smallish receivers that can be thrown around as we saw in last year’s playoff loss to New York. Teams like the Jets with athletic, physical corners can take away Manning’s outside threats and allow the safety to help in the running game or squeeze off routes less than 25 yards downfield. They need speed to scare free safeties deep. A Julio Jones of Alabama could do the trick with their second round pick.
Offensive Line: Its amazing how a playoff loss in microcosm showcases a team’s deficiency that has plagued them all year. You’ve read the aforementioned facts that this team allowed just 16 sacks for the season while only averaging 3.7 yards per carry rushing the ball. In that 17-16 loss to the Jets, this line couldn’t sustain the running game for anytime during the game. On 27 carries the Colts gained just 93 yards for an average of 3.4 yards per carry while being thrown for a loss on 4 of them. They only allowed 1 sack in the game yet Manning threw the ball away numerous times before the pressure got to him. Where are we going with this?
Jeff Saturday is an undersized center who made the Pro Bowl and along with fellow lineman LG John Detwiler, LT Charlie Johnson, RG Mike Pollack, and RT Ryan Diem are solid pass blockers who influence block too high to get movement on opposing defenses. Since they are always in a passing stance this team can’t really get down and make a hole when it needs to. This team tied for 16th with only 13 rushing touchdowns while only rushing for 28 1st downs all year. The good new is with a synergy type existence between quarterback and center, the play audibles and blocking audibles have meshed to have Manning sacked the fewest times with 16 and 2nd with being hit with 47.
This line plays too high and depends on influence blocking too much. Its great to have a Hall of Fame passer but get on the 7 man sled and let this team toughen up by coming off the ball. We still don’t know if they were adequate in replacing Tarik Glenn at left tackle from a few years back. His replacement, 5th year pro, Charlie Johnson seems to be holding up. Yet could you imagine where this line would be without Manning’s alert audibles and checks?? Its still a smallish line that could use some size and draft picks right here. Offensive Line is average…
Defensive Line: This unit begins with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the bookend pass rushers who accounted for 20.5 of the team’s 28 sacks. These two on turf are lethal and are really the singular reason this team was able to run the “Tampa 2” for so many years. The pass rush generated by these two allowed the Colts to drop 7 on a majority of the pass plays where they didn’t have to blitz to apply pressure. Last year we saw Mathis outplay Freeney and finish with 10.5 sacks (team lead) and 59 total tackles which was good enough for 4th. Are injuries starting to slow down the former All Pro End from Syracuse? He played through some nicks and bruises and had 10 sacks but his meager 23 tackles weren’t enough. Yet both DEs landed in the Pro Bowl. The Colts may want to put a draft pick here to allow for a situational platoon deployment of Freeney who is undersized anyway.
The DTs Fili Moala and Daniel Muir are going into their 2nd and 4th seasons respectively and need to improve at the point of attack and not allow linemen to get on the smallish Gary Brakckett at MLB. This is the anchor to the defense and yet without a real strong showing here helped the Colts to an overall ranking of 20th and 21st in 1st downs given up per game with 19.6. This has to be attributed to a defensive line that needs a bigger anchor in the middle. Teams have been rushing the football on the Colts for sometime. A couple defensive picks could be used here to bolster the defensive tackle spots or one to spell Freeney and / or Mathis. Defensive Line is average at best.
Linebackers: Colt linebackers could use a few more instinctive players and it starts with MLB Gary Brackett, who missed several games last year, yet finished second on the team with 73 tackles. Rookie Pat Angerer played fairly well and had a tag team rookie partner Kavell Conner manned the other linebacker spot. They were out of position several times yet finished with 72 and47 tackles respectively. These players are young and developing where there is room for improvement, don’t draft here. Yet improvement is necessary here. Linebackers are little below average, right now not very instinctive and this year they’ll see what they have. In reserve is Clint Session and Terrence Hagler, hard hitting special teamers that lead the Colts special teams downfield.
Secondary: Hard to give a grade to a unit when the best member was on the field for only a few games. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who was finally let go, was the fire starter to this defense. Yet we have to cover the players that remain: First there is cornerback Kelvin Hayden who played solidly with 58 tackles and only 2 interceptions. Just two? This is the ball hawk who replaced Nick Harper in Super Bowl XLI and ran an intercpetion for the game clinching touchdown against Chicago and he only had two interceptions? Not enough…although he defensed 8 passes. Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey only recorded 1 interception between the two of them at the other cornerback spot. Once you put in Antoine Bethea’s one interception, you realize that 8 interceptions overall on a defense is pathetic. They have been rushing the passer well enough for an alert secondary to intercept a few more passes than that.
This is where they miss a Sanders who would play the game at 100% full speed and instinctual at supporting the run and adept enough to knock down plays 25 yards downfield. Antoine Bethea did finish with the team lead in tackles with 105. Too many plays are getting beyond Colt linebackers also. This team has been pushed around on defense since that 2005 season. Without the enforcer in Bob Sanders forcing turnovers where do they go from here? Secondary is poor and needs an overhaul now….
Overall: In all seriousness this team should have been overtaken by one of the up and coming teams in the AFC South yet they weren’t. They went as far as they could with a roster that equaled Super Bowl Champion Green Bay with 16 on the Injured Reserve. The Colts needed to be healthy to compete in the playoffs and very few teams are healthy at that time of the year. Yet we’re supposed to be talking of 2011…. Its imperative that they use 2 of their first 3 picks on a speed receiver and an every down back. With Manning there to keep defensive pressure off of a resurgent running game this team could get out to twelve wins again. They cannot throw the football 679 times again in the upcoming season, eventually he will be hit and in his mid 30s can be hurt.
Manning’s situation in 2011 reminds us of San Francisco’s Steve Young’s in 1999. The team had deteriorated through age around him yet as he mastered the craft of quarterbacking, the team won (3-1) and everything seemed fine until a late reaction to an Aneas Williams blitz and ………… We hope that doesn’t happen obviously yet one can only go to the well so many times. A good running back and receiver and this team is 12-4 with a solid performance. If Manning were to get injured this team wouldn’t go 4-12, he’s that valuable to this team. If they stand pat this team should miss the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2001 and their Super Bowl window with Manning will close.