After an uplifting victory against the Packers in Week 5, the Colts travelled to Metlife Stadium in order to take on the Jets, a mediocre football team with some severe injury issues. The outlook from all and sundry was positive - we had started making plays on defense, which combined with the outstanding player we have at the QB position led to knee-jerk reactions with regards to a potential playoff appearance. The performance on Sunday was however horrific, and worse than that, I thought it was soft.
The Chuck Pagano era began on a proclamation of "stop the run and run the football" - and while that may seem fairly backdated in a passing league, I took some small amount of solace from the statement in that we wouldn't have to watch continual five yard carries gut the centre of our defense. While the personnel on D clearly lacked talent and experience, I thought that we could to an extent scheme around our deficiencies with regards to the run, with the defensive backfield and pass defense more of a concern at the start of the year. Unfortunately, we can't seem to do so.
The general thrust of this piece is that a defense is only as good as its weakest component - and I have a particular individual in mind. The unfortunate individual to bear the brunt this week is Tom Zbikowski, our starting SS. I'll prefix any analysis by stating that I think that safety is an incredibly important position on the football field - I place a higher emphasis on the back end than most people.
My rationale is thus - a poor angle or a missed tackle from a safety can turn a small play into a large one with complete ease. This is particularly relevant in the run game, where disciplined pursuit is absolutely required, along with an appreciation and awareness of the play developing a few yards in front. We've had issues at the SS position since the unfortunate demise of Bob Sanders, where we've been treated to Aaron Francisco, Melvin Bullitt and now Zbikowski, with a sprinkling of Lefeged in between. I wasn't a fan of Melvin Bullitt by an stretch, and I had considered Zbikowski to be a potential upgrade from Bullitt and Lefeged entering the year.
I guess that's a lesson in how wrong a man can be.
I'll start with the first Jets touchdown of the game. I could probably break down 50 plays on defense from this game if we're talking about poor play from the Colts, but i'll stick with the most significant ones in my mind. In any case - it's a 3rd and 5 from the IND 6, with 14:19 on the clock in the 2nd Quarter.
I've highlighted the routes run by the Jets receivers, with Stephen Hill (#84 - WR) running the red route at the top of the frame. He's the man to watch on this one. Due to pre-snap motion, Sanchez probably has a good idea as to what he's facing.
It's a fairly simple zone concept designed to take advantage of the cramped space in the endzone. It seems to be easy enough to grasp, with the strength of the defense lying in the congestion directly over the middle - which comes at a cost. Jerry Hughes drops into coverage, leaving only a 3 man rush.
Unfortunately, this gives Sanchez everything he needs in terms of clean space and time in the pocket. Though the Jets line boasting Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson might not be as formidable as in years past, they can still handle their business.
Here's where the lack of pressure and clean pocket really help out. Sanchez can see Cassius Vaughn (#32 - CB) and Tom Zbikowski in that rough area of the endzone. Having scanned the field, he's aware that it's zone coverage, and all he has to do is be patient and wait for Hill's route to develop.
Due to the fact that the All-22 is a bit shaky from this angle and distance, I've shifted to the broadcast. Zbikowski is clearly solely concentrating on the threat of Hill, as is appropriate. Not quite sure about being completely turned to the QB, though i've seen others make it work.
Here's the issue I have with Zbikowski on the play. I can appreciate that it's incredibly difficult to keep a man under wraps in zone when the quarterback isn't being pressured or hurried in any way. However - we likely chose such a play call with the deficiencies of Mark Sanchez in mind, so it's not an impossible task. The lack of recovery speed here is what troubles me, and it was pervasive throughout the entire game.
By the time Zbikowski manages to make contact and raise his hand to try and deflect the ball blindly, Hill has secured the catch. It's not necessarily a terrible play from Zbikowski, but it's a symptom of a wider malaise in his game. If giving up this type of play was his only issue every now and then, I'd let it pass.
The next play I've chosen is the second Jets touchdown of the game, with the game poised at 7-3. It's a 2nd and 1 from the IND 10, with 9:53 on the clock.
The play in question is a fairly simple run design, with Dustin Keller (#81 - TE) stacked to the left side. He's going to try and force a seal block on the edge, while the rest of the offensive line simply tries to wash the majority of the defense out with raw power. All Shonn Greene has to do is cut back and go as hard for the endzone as he possibly can.
Unfortunately for the Colts, the seal block by Keller was absolutely top notch. The rest of the Jets line including Ferguson, Mangold and Slauson all proceed to slide down on the Indy Front-7, doing an excellent job of sealing Greene off.
At this point in time, it effectively becomes Cassius Vaughn and Tom Zbikowski versus Shonn Greene. I certainly think they should be able to make the tackle, though for Zbikowski his poor positioning leads him slightly more central than perhaps he'd like. Irrespective of whether it's man or zone coverage, I don't think we should be accepting the following on the back end of our D.
Zbikowski contacts Greene at about roughly the 6 yard line. He makes fairly significant contact, and Vaughn is there to provide a potential complementary tackler.
Typically, Greene is able to shake him off to an extent, and the effort of Vaughn is pretty pathetic as well, in truth. He's able to pull Zbikowski to the endzone for a pivotal touchdown.
I suppose your opinion on this depends on whether you enjoy watching your strong safety get dragged six yards after contact for a huge touchdown. I'm not a huge fan, personally.
We can now move onto a play which was scarily reminiscent of years past, with a blown tackle in the backfield and terrible angles on the back end - though the play call is admittedly more exotic than we'd have seen previously. It's a 1st and 10 from the NYJ 32, with roughly 2:40 on the clock.
A quick look at the broadcast tape shows the play concept. From what I can observe, it appears to be straight man coverage with a slot blitz, with Antoine Bethea sliding down from S to cover slot duties. Zbikowski is left in a deep centre-field role.
Again the Jets utilise the TE as a blocker in the run game, with Keller this time focusing on what appears to be Dwight Freeney at ROLB. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (#60 - LT) is freed by this utilisation and moves to the second level, where he's targeting Jerell Freeman (#50 - ILB).
Darius Butler (#20 - CB) for the Colts does a great job hitting the hole on the blitz, and he's in a perfect position to smash Greene in the backfield for a loss. You can see Zbikowski lurking at the bottom of the screen watching the play develop.
However, as Butler contacts McKnight, he simply bounces off in a fairly poor effort, though to be fair the Colts defender was injured on the attempt. Zbikowski's observation point becomes fairly redundant temporarily due to the traffic and clutter in front. As a result, he doesn't really know what's coming and he's unable to position himself appropriately to deal with the challenge ahead.
It's at this point that Zbikowski sees McKnight, or at the least in the next split second. His recovery time here is again the big problem for me - he doesn't seem to possess the agility or awareness required to be a top safety.
McKnight breaks free from the traffic and here's where the onus falls on Zbikowski to make a play. He's the last line of defense, this is what he's here for.
Zbikowski's body takes a little moment to catch up with his mind, during which McKnight has moved 6 yards and is proceeding full steam ahead.
One minute McKnight is on the 50..
The next he's on the 5, where the Colts safety is eventually able to use the angle to bring him down. Again, make your own judgements as to whether he should be doing a better job.
The ensuing play for the Jets was an unsuccessful rushing attempt, but not to worry, the Colts didn't show any more defensive fortitude. The following is a 2nd and Goal from the IND 6, with 1:40 left in the 3rd Quarter. It's a 21-6 game, so this would extend the Jets lead to three touchdowns with one 2PT conversion. Fairly crucial.
The playcall on either side doesn't seem to be particularly exotic, with the entire Jets line simply plunging forwards in the hope of moving the pile. From a Colts perspective, everyone is going to be pushing forward apart from Zbikowski - Antoine Bethea is blitzing off the corner, a fine decision for me considering his prowess in open field tacking.
Bethea hits Greene just after he's taken the handoff, and gets excellent contact. Surprisingly, Greene is able to spin out of the tackle attempt and when he regains his senses sees a huge hole in front.
Here's the scenario then - Zbikowski vs Greene, one on one to the outside. Greene has his back to the endzone as this is captured, given the spin move required to elude Bethea.
Unfortunately, he shifts too far away from the cluster of linemen, moving too far into the open field.
He exposes the gap to the inside, and Greene has no hesitation in pressing the advantage.
One soft arm tackle later, and it's curtains.
Zbikowski sinks to the ground in despair, which is probably understandable by this point in the game considering his performance. I didn't write this piece to be intentionally harsh on Zbikowski or to make an unfair judgement on his performance and level of play so far this year. I'm absolutely not suggesting he's the sole reason for the Colts defensive woes, but I am suggesting we look in another direction at the position. NFL.com credits Zbikowski with 17 tackles, 0.0 sacks and 0 INTs so far this year. I don't see where he's making an impact. I'd be looking to run with Joe Lefeged at this point, who looked promising in fits and starts last year - provided it doesn't impact his work on special teams, which has been nothing short of fantastic so far this season.
We've had a few games to observe the defense and the team as a whole, so I feel safe in giving a few thoughts. The radical inconsistency experienced by the team can only be regarded as natural given the changes we've made in personnel terms, along with the schematic shifts which were carried over with such changes. My opinion at this point in time is that the Colts are a 5-11 football team - good enough to win if the opposing team allows us to remain in the game, bad enough in terms of overall talent to be comfortably beaten by an average to good team if the latter has a good day.
At present, we're ranked 29th in yards per game allowed in run defense, while we're surprisingly ranked 3rd in terms of defending the pass. A closer look at the actual numbers however indicates that yards per game is typically deceptive - Sanchez and Gabbert on the schedule no doubt having something to do with it. At the end of the day, we're allowing opposing QBs an average rating of 104.0. Opposing running backs average 5.0YPC. Statistics aside, this unit is a bottom 5 NFL defense to my eyes, though I would welcome any diversity of opinion.
In terms of where we go from here? I think it's fairly clear that the Colts aren't a true playoff calibre team, even in the incredibly weak AFC. My thoughts as a result turn to the holes on our football team and what we can do to address them. I've spoken about the importance of the safety position above, though having seen the perennial durability issues with Robert Mathis flare up again, I don't see much alternative to a pass rusher in the first round. Dwight Freeney will be gone, Jerry Hughes is a question-mark despite his performance this week (for which he deserves credit, given here) and we can't guarantee Mathis' presence on the field.
Perhaps it's a discussion for another day, but I'd be interested in your opinions with regards to where you see the first rounder likely being spent.
Tweet me at @CA_Savage and don't hesitate to leave a comment.