Colts' fast, young defense starting to keep pace with potent offense
Posted: Monday November 29, 2004 10:30AM; Updated: Monday November 29, 2004 4:32PM
MINNEAPOLIS -- So this is what we learned from Week 12: We may have been a little too quick to flush Indianapolis and Minnesota down the playoff toilet for playing rotten defense. Indy especially. We now have a legitimate fourth team in the league -- the Colts.
If you're like I was this weekend, you're still shaking your head in wonder over that Indy offense. I went back and crunched a few numbers, and this was the most impressive: During the Colts' four wins in 18 days in November, Peyton Manning was at the helm of the offense for 36 drives; 19 of those possessions ended in touchdown passes. In the Packers' first 10 games this year, Brett Favre has led the Green Bay offense for 106 drives; 19 ended in touchdown passes.
Dan Marino averaged 3.0 touchdown passes a game in 1984 in setting the NFL record.
Manning is averaging 3.7 touchdown passes a game this season.
We're all wondering how much the Colts' four wins mean. Indy's offense, of course, is ridiculous. Its margin of victory (25.3 points) in November is ridiculous. The temptation is to say: The last four teams they've faced -- Vikes, Texans, Bears, Lions -- are in the bottom 10 in the NFL in total defense entering this weekend, so the four Manning's shreddings should not be cause for Coltdom to print Super Bowl tickets. In the last five weeks of the season, Indianapolis will face four teams in the league's defensive top 12: Baltimore (third), Denver (sixth), Tennessee (10th) and San Diego (11th). After that, we'll have a really good grasp on how good the Colts are, and whether they'll be a legitimate threat to win, likely at Pittsburgh or New England, in the AFC semifinals Jan. 15 or 16.
But I'm now more of a believer in Indy's defense. It's becoming a swarming, fast one, with two very important additions -- pass-rushing defensive end RobertMathis and roving rookie safety Bob Sanders. Mathis, especially, has been a vital cog in this defense. A shocking addition, if you ask me. And a great example of how TonyDungy's philosophy that by gathering as much speed on defense as he can find his unit can overcome some significant shortcomings. Mathis weighs 232 pounds. He's not simply a light outside linebacker. No, he's a defensive end and special-teams banshee. Plays about 25 snaps a game in the regular defense, all on passing downs, and another 20 on special teams. Dungy told me this past weekend why the Colts drafted Mathis. The Colts loved Mathis, a defensive end/special-teamer from Alabama A&M in 2003, and feared he'd be gone when their pick late in the fifth round came up. So they dealt their fourth-round pick in 2004 for the Texans' high fifth-rounder in 2003.
"All that for a 235-pound guy?" I asked.
"When we were looking at him in the draft," Dungy told me, "he had a highlight tape of maybe 15 special-teams plays that, in our mind, would have been good enough to get him drafted. But then you see the potential as a pass-rusher. Dwight Freeney was only about 260 when we drafted him, and he's been able to get to the quarterback. I know Robert was light, but you could just see it on tape: He made plays. Last year in practice he'd make some great moves. Those are the kinds of plays you're seeing in the games this year. What we saw in him before the draft is the kind of playmaking ability we're seeing in him right now."
Indianapolis plays Mathis at rush end opposite Freeney, and he's tied for the league lead with 10 sacks in 11 games. In the last four games, his production has peaked: five sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries. Just as the Colts' offense will benefit from playing the next four games in ideal weather (three indoors, one at retractable-roof Houston), the Indy defense will also benefit from sure surfaces that let speed-rushers get a better, less-slippery grip on the field.
"I felt back in September that we probably wouldn't play our best defense until December, and I still feel that way," Dungy said. "We're a growing team. We're still making lots of little mistakes, but our guys are maturing and I think we'll play well as a defense during that stretch."
The Colts will close against Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson and ReubenDroughns, quality backs the likes of whom they haven't seen in the last month. That should be a great indicator whether in late January they'll be able to handle Corey Dillon or Jerome Bettis in the postseason. Or both.
As for Minnesota, I was at the Metrodome and saw the Vikes' defense bend but not break. Mike Tice frets, rightfully, that they're plagued by way too many missed tackles. But they've allowed one touchdown in the last seven quarters. "We're a better defense than we were at the beginning of the year, and that's because we've got so many young players learning a new system (TedCottrell's) and so many young players playing at this level for the first time," safety Corey Chavous said. "I don't know what everybody else would call it. I'd call it progress."
I don't think the Vikes are as far along defensively as Indianapolis, but the last couple of weeks have show than neither is hopeless.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
Sign of the AFC-dominating times: 11 of finest 15 are from the AFC.
1. Pittsburgh (10-1). First half in Pittsburgh: Clinton Portis, four carries, six yards. And we thought the Steelers' run-defense goose was cooked with the loss of nose man Casey Hampton.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
2. New England (10-1). Not enough to vault the Pats over the Men of Steel, but every team remaining on Pittsbugh's schedule has at least five wins. New England plays one-win (San Francisco), two-win (Miami) and three-win (Cleveland) teams down the stretch, along with the Jets and Bengals. Pittsburgh finishes at Buffalo. New England hosts the Niners in the finale.
3. Philadelphia (10-1). Teams shouldn't be clinching divisions three days after Thanksgiving, when there's still fresh turkey soup, the best leftover in history, in my refrigerator. There are 35 days till the end of the regular season, and the Iggles have clinched the NFC East. Get out your bag of motivational tricks, Andy Reid. You'll need 'em.
4. Indianapolis (8-3). Geez. Peyton Manning's even good on TV. Could he be bad at something? Gardening, maybe? Rotisserie baseball?
5. San Diego (8-3). "I think this is the third-best team in football," Merril Hoge said on EA Sports NFL Matchup. Drew Brees threw for 378 in Kansas City. Another step on the road to goodness.
6. Atlanta (9-2). I feel bad about moving San Diego ahead of the Falcons. But as you can see, not too bad. It's that the Chargers have risen, not that the Falcons have fallen.
7. Green Bay (6-4). Najeh Davenport practiced hard the other day. What a godsend it would be to have him at 88 percent tonight.
8. Denver (7-4). Probably playing for their playoff lives this week at San Diego.
9. Minnesota (7-4). I ran into Daunte Culpepper after the win versus Jacksonville. "Nice to see you, Mr. King," he said.
10. New York Jets (8-3). In their last 34 offensive drives, the Jets have two touchdowns and 22 punts.
11. Baltimore (7-4). More uneven Bollerball.
12. Jacksonville (6-5). It would be hard to overstate how impressed I was with Byron Leftwich against the Vikes. What presence, especially in the shotgun. Spread 19 completions among three tight ends, two backs and four wideouts. I don't remember which seatmate in the press box -- Jarrett Bell of USA Today or Ed Werder of ESPN -- said this to me at one point yesterday, but what a point it was: "The Cowboys drafted Terence Newman over this guy."
13. Buffalo (5-6). I'm going to say something ridiculous right now. The Bills have a really nice chance to finish 9-7. Last five: at Miami, Cleveland, at Cincinnati, at San Francisco, Pittsburgh.
14. Cincinnati (5-6). Lone November loss was a five-pointer to the Steelers.
15. Houston (5-6). Let's be honest. The Fine Fifteen ends at 14 this week. I just like how the Texans rallied against Tennessee.
THE AWARDS SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
(tie) Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning, for his six toudchdowns against the Lions on Thanksgiving. Come on. I'm going to retire the award. Do you realize that if he continues throwing 3.7 touchdown passes a game, he'll finish the season with 59 1/2 touchdown passes? That means he could be the only player ever to throw a fraction of a touchdown.
Cincinnati RB Rudi Johnson, for his 202-yard day against the Browns. In the span of four quarters, he jumped from 11th in the league in rushing to fourth, with 1,049 yards.
Defensive Player of the Week
Washington LB Marcus Washington. Every week, the Redskins are ridiculously good on defense, but it's forgotten because they're losing so much. Washington's eight tackles and two sacks helped the 'Skins hold Pittsburgh to 207 yards and Ben Roethlisberger to nine completions.
Special-Teams Player of the Week
Oakland T Langston Walker. The Raiders were fixing to lose another game as only they could lose it -- on a Jason Elam 43-yard field goal after a Denver snowstorm left the field covered. Walker, the 6-foot-8, 330ish-pound backup tackle, got some elevation right in the middle of the line and batted the field goal away. Sometimes, a fingertip or two is the difference between winning and losing in the NFL.
Coach of the Week
New England defensive backs coach Eric Mangini. Never met the man. Don't know much about his philosophy or his hands-on teaching. All I know is BillBelichick and Romeo Crennel let their position coaches coach, and that the Patriots went 4-0 in November, surrendering 12.5 points per game, with a wide receiver (Troy Brown) and three former practice-squadders (Randall Gay, Omare Lowe, Earthwind Moreland) playing major minutes at cornerback.
Goat of the Week
Tampa Bay K Martin Gramatica. You've got to be really, really bad to beat the Cleveland defense in this category. But Gramatica, by missing all three of his field-goal tries Sunday-- from 39, 26 and 37 yards -- single-handedly cost his team a game that would have tied them for the final playoff spot in the weak NFC. I'd be stunned if Jon Gruden didn't fire Gramatica today.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"At least I quit before all the fantasy drafts. Let's face it: If I'd quit after the drafts, the fans would all hate me." -- Ricky Williams, talking to SI.com's Mike Silver.
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Next to the scoreboard in the end zone at the Metrodome is an advertising panel for Spam. It's evidently a new way to market Spam, one of the great meats of my 59-cent-dinner-off-campus Ohio University experience. The ad: "At home or away. The new one-slice pouch." Spam in a pouch. Now there's a snack we can all believe in.
AGGRAVATING/ENJOYABLE TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
I stayed across from the Target Center in the relatively new and way-too-hip-for-me Le Meridien Minneapolis Hotel, which gives me something in common with LatrellSprewell. I hear he lives here, a skywalk from practice and games for the Timberwolves.
The best thing about the Le Meridien, for those of you with TV sports on the brain: the insanely large (I'm guessing 48-inch) HD TVs that are very nearly as wide as the king beds. RonJaworski's got a big head, but it appeared to be the size of three great pumpkins as I watched the NFL Matchup show in my room.
One other note from the road: Last night, at the Minneapolis airport, a traveler named Stanford Trumpeter was paged in the F concourse.
Harvard Clarinetist, however, was not called.
STAT OF THE WEEK
In fewer than seven seasons, Peyton Manning has thrown 55 more touchdown passes than Roger Staubach did in his Hall-of-Fame 11-year career.