Between The Lines: What's Wrong With the Colts' Run Defense?

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Every Thursday we'll take a look at the battle at the line of scrimmage in one game. Check back every week for a new edition of Between The Lines.

We've heard all about the Colts' offensive injuries, and how losing center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark has left Indianapolis struggling to get back to the dominance they showed two years ago.

All of that may be true, but as we saw on Sunday, the Colts have a much bigger problem. The run defense, which was always the team's biggest problem, but one that was finally fixed in 2006, has fallen apart again. The Jaguars rushed for 236 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.

That's a whole lot of yards, but the 4.9 yards per carry is right in line with what the Colts have given up this season. It wasn't a case of outsmarting the Colts--there are high school offenses that are more complex than what the Jags did on Sunday, but the Colts had few answers. The Jags used a two-tight end, two-back formation with the lone wide receiver going in motion to eventually line up as an H-back just off the line. When the Jags bunched up in this formation, the Colts would bring 10 men up into the "box." It's a formation many teams use in goal line situations, but the Jaguars were happy to run it on first and 10. If Knute Rockne watched, he'd recognize what he was seeing.Even with Sanders out, this should have been a solid matchup for the Colts defense. Jacksonville was playing three backup offensive linemen because of injuries and field one of the worst group of receivers in the league. The Jaguars were very one-dimensional on Sunday--David Garrad did not complete a pass that traveled more than 10 yards in the air downfield all game, and he didn't complete a pass to a wide receiver until the third quarter. But it didn't matter, as the Jaguars simply ran all over the Colts.

The Jaguars ran on 19 of their 26 offensive plays in the first half. They ran on eight consecutive plays during a first-half drive that resulted in a field goal. Fred Taylor ran for 22 yards and a first down on first and 20. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 18 yards and a first down on second and 17.

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So what happened? From rewatching the game, it was a combination of the Colts' scheme, some outstanding running by the Jaguars tailbacks, and poor play by the Colts' linebackers.

Although the Tampa-2 defense is known as a relatively conservative bend-but-don't-break defense, the Colts' version gambles to stop the run. Against the pass, the preference for a zone defense with two safeties and a middle linebacker in deep coverage ensures that it's very difficult to throw deep on the Colts. With defensive ends like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts have the pass rush to get pressure without blitzing.

But when it comes to stopping the run, the Colts are rolling the dice on most plays. The Colts slant their defensive line on many snaps, with the defensive linemen trying to beat the offensive linemen to an assigned gap. They don't have much choice, as the Colts have a line that size-wise seems straight out of the 1970s.

Defensive tackle LaJuan Ramsey is the only 300-pound defensive linemen on the roster who has recorded a tackle this year. One of the Colts' top defensive tackles, Kenyuta Dawson, weighs only 254 pounds--four pounds lighter than Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. With undersized defensive linemen, the Colts have to try to use their quickness to beat offensive linemen because if they try to hold their ground, they simply get blown off the ball.

When it works, the slants can blow up a play as the defensive linemen fly into the backfield and either makes quick tackles for losses or at least force the running back to dodge the defensive linemen, allowing the linebackers to clean up, but when it doesn't work--say the Colts are slanting to their left while the Jags call a counter run to their left, the offensive linemen simply shove the slanting defensive linemen the way they are trying to go and drive them out of the play.

Now it's not an all-or-nothing approach, if the defensive line doesn't tackle the ball carrier on their way to the quarterback, the Colts are relying on the three linebackers and the strong safety (usually the very talented Bob Sanders) to stuff the running game. And ideally, those linebackers will also play aggressively, slanting into the backfield to blow up plays before they ever get started. But as we saw in the first half of the Jags' game, the current set of linebackers aren't necessarily up to the task.

That was apparent on the Jaguars second drive of the game. On third and three, outside linebacker Clint Session was left unblocked and had a clear shot at Maurice Jones-Drew when Jones-Drew cut back to the outside, but Session feebly dove at Jones-Drew's feet, leaving a massive hole that MJD took advantage of for a 14-yard gain.

The other outside linebacker, Freddie Keiaho, was the culprit on Taylor's 22-yard run later in the same drive. The Jaguars used draw plays all day, partly because the Colts' defensive ends aggressiveness would ensure they rank themselves out of the play--on this play both defensive ends took upfield rushes that left a pair of massive holes for Taylor to choose from.

But the draw was also effective because the Colts' linebackers had difficulty reading run vs. pass. On this, the first draw of the game, middle linebacker Gary Brackett and Session both read it properly, pausing in their drops into zone coverage long enough to make the read, then coming up to stop the run as soon as Garrard handed off to Taylor.

But Keiaho completely blew his read on the play. He was already four yards off the ball at the snap, but he started backpedalling at the same time that Garrard handed the ball to Taylor. By the time Keiaho realized his mistake and started coming up to stop the run, he was a full seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and Taylor was already near the line with a full-head of steam. No one ever laid a hand on Keiaho, but because he was so far back, Taylor was able to simply outrun him to the corner on his way to a long gain. Because the play was run at Keiaho, Brackett and Session were too far away to lend a hand.

Keiaho made the same mistake on another draw play on the Jags' next drive. Once again he was backpedalling into pass coverage after Taylor took the handoff. And once again it meant he was out of position to make the tackle on a play run right at him--this time he did manage to get a hand on Taylor's ankle as he flew by on his way to an 11-yard gain.

Later on that same drive, Session was again left unblocked with a clear shot at Jones-Drew, but he took too long to recognize the play, standing around reading when he needed to be reacting. By the time he realized Jones-Drew had the ball, Jones-Drew was already nearly at full speed. MJD cut upfield and left Session a step behind. Once again Session dove unsuccessfully at Jones-Drew's feet on a 15-yard gain. Brackett and Keiaho were both swallowed up by blockers.

If I was a Colts' coach, watching this would have to be a disheartening experience. The play calling ensured that a linebacker was unblocked with the chance to make the tackle, but it didn't matter because of poor reads and poor angles. But even when the Colts linebackers were in the right spot, their lack of size was apparent. Taylor (228 pounds) and Jones-Drew (208 pounds) consistently moved the pile forward for a yard or two after the initial hit. In the most embarrassing example, Taylor broke four tackles on a 34-yard scamper.

The linebackers did show improvement in the second half. The draw play became less effective as the Colts reaized that the passing game was not a real big concern, and the linebackers, especially middle linebacker Gary Brackett, made quicker reads and also did a better job of picking the right gap to fill, but while Brackett seems up to the job, Session, a first-year starter, and Keiaho, a second-year starter, need to improve their angles, make quicker reads and also show a better ability to get off of blocks if the Colts are going to fix their run-game problems.

The defensive line also has to play a little smarter. While it is a part of the gameplan, the Colts decision to send the defensive ends on looping speed rushes from the outside play after play left them wide open to draw plays. It also doesn't help that Freeney, Mathis and Raheem Brock are small enough that the Jaguars were comfortable having tight end Mercedes Lewis block defensive ends while the offensive tackles blocked down on the defensive tackles. Freeney had one tackle on Sunday--it came 34 yards downfield. He did record three quarterback hurries, but he's pretty one-dimensional--in three games he has four tackles on running plays.

And that brings up another problem--the undersized defensive tackles struggle to not get overpowered. Dawson actually showed himself to be an outstandingly active DT, and he has a spin move that sometimes allowed him to shed his block, but he also was often blown off the ball, which makes sense as he gives up 60+ pounds to most offensive guards.

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