Sixth-Seeds Survive

If there was ever a more obvious game plan, I have yet to see it.

WildCard Weekend began with a matchup of divisional rivals.  The Colts and Texans were meeting up for the third time this season.  If you knew nothing else about this game, you knew that the Indianapolis game plan would rely heavily on the arm of quarterback Andrew Luck.

In game one (a 37-34 OT win for Houston), Indianapolis had managed only 41 yards rushing.  In the rematch, 10 weeks later, the Colts worked their ground game for only 50 yards in their 24-21 victory. Meanwhile, Luck had found plenty of matchups he liked in the secondary.  He threw 62 times in the first game for 464 yards.  He threw 41 more times in the re-match for 399 yards.

The season numbers seemed to back the game history.  In spite of the fact that Indianapolis had rushed for 158 yards in their season-ending victory against Tennessee, they still ended the season with the NFL’s twentieth ranked rushing attack – averaging just 107.4 yards per game.

Against them was one of the better defensive front sevens, highlighted by stars like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney.  They finished the season third against the run, allowing just 82.7 yards per game.  The 3.4 yards per rushing attempt that opponents averaged against the Texans was the stingiest figure in the NFL.

In a weekend of down-to-the-wire action, the only game not to be decided on the last play (virtually) proved to be the most surprising.  That Indianapolis won may not be so surprising.  The Colts have wins in 10 of their last 11 games.  That it wasn’t a one score game is somewhat surprising.  Given the history of the two teams and the way the rest of the weekend went, you might have expected a last-minute field goal here.  That being said, the 21-7 final isn’t all that far from normal (gamebook) (summary).

The shocker here is how the Colts won.  On the ground.  On the road.  Against one of the three best run defenses in football.

With no apologies and little fanfare, Indianapolis blew Houston off the line of scrimmage to the tune of 200 rushing yards on 35 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.

That, and a large early lead – Indy was up 21-0 at the half – forced Houston to pack away its own running attack (they were ranked eighth in the NFL) and try to win the game on the talented but inexperienced arm and legs of quarterback Deshaun Watson.  As things would play out, his first playoff game was not his finest hour.

First, the Colts Running Game

At the heart of Indy’s rebound from their 1-5 start is their re-invented offensive line.  They won fame this year by keeping Luck upright for 5 straight games.  There hasn’t been much mention made of this group’s ability to block for the run.  That seemed to be an ancillary function.

They were a most important cog in a passing game that saw their quarterback felled only 18 times all season.  They were a foundation upon which Andrew’s 4593-yard, 39-TD pass season was built.  If asked, I suppose most fans of the club would conjecture that these gentlemen could probably block for the run – if that need should ever arise.  But why would they want to?

Last Saturday afternoon, they wanted to.

Their 85 first-half rushing yards nearly equaled their total for the first two games played against these teams.  During the course of that back-breaking first half, the Colts ran the clock for 17:39, out first-downed Houston 20-6, rolled up 277 yards of total offense, went 6-6 on third down, committed just one 5-yard penalty, never punted (of course) and finished 3-4 in the red zone (the first half ran out on their last trip in).  And, of course, allowed no quarterback sacks – this would be yet another game that Andrew would not suffer a sack.

Even though they never scored in the second half, they kept brutalizing the Texan defense, adding 115 more rushing yards on 19 more carries to their total.  Running back Marlon Mack was the main beneficiary.  He ended the day with 148 rushing yards.

Most of that yardage, of course, came behind the blocks of sensational rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.  He set the tone for the night on Indy’s first long run of the game, Mack’s first-quarter, 25-yard sprint around left end.  Nelson pulled to lead, and drove Clowney off the edge and out of the picture.

Nelson has gotten a lot of praise – especially over the last several weeks – and all of it well earned.  But last Saturday the domination was general along the entire line.  This even includes the efforts of blocking tight-end Mo Alie-Cox.  He was also left to block against Clowney several times, and handled the assignment well – if not with the splash of the rookie Nelson.

In particular, I would like to make note of very strong games from the linemen who stand next to Nelson – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

Kelly’s overall strong game was highlighted by key, impressive blocks made on the last series of the game, with Houston fully aware that the Colts would be trying to run out the clock.  With three minutes left, Kelly came quickly off his double-team block of Brandon Dunn to dig linebacker Zach Cunningham out of the middle.  That block sprung Mack for 15 yards.  On the very next play, while Kelly and right guard Mark Glowinski were in the act of crumpling Dunn to the ground, Ryan quickly bounced back up to get enough of the on-rushing Cunningham to help create the crease that led to Mack’s game-icing 26-yard run.

As good as Kelly was, Castonzo may have even been better.  He set the edge on numerous left side runs – including his own impressive take out of Clowney on a 29-yard run by Mack late in the third.

Castonzo was also in the middle of two very important runs by Luck.

On third-and-6, backed up at their own 16 early in the third, Houston flushed Luck out of the pocket with a blitz.  Damage was averted, though, as Castonzo was able to push Mercilus wide and open a running lane.  Luck’s 9-yard run netted a first-down and kept the clock moving.

On their next drive, they faced second-and-15 on their own 18.  The Texans blitzed again, with D.J. Reader bursting immediately up the middle.  Again, Castonzo provided the escape hatch as he wedged Clowney inside and gave Luck the corner.  He ran it for 10 yards.

Neither of these drives went on to produce points, but the Luck runs allowed them field position for the punts that would follow.

Containing Deshaun

When the football wasn’t in the hands of the Colts and their pounding offense, the Colts’ defense was busy putting its own imprint on the game.

As Deshaun Watson belongs to that class of young quarterbacks that is much better outside the pocket than in it, the Colts would challenge him all night to beat them from the pocket.  During the season, the Colts were one of the NFL’s most zone-heavy defenses.  Today they mixed freely, playing more man than usual, and blitzing more frequently than usual.

Even the blitzes, though, were designed to close escape lanes and keep Watson in the pocket.

From there, Deshaun had ample opportunities to damage the Colts, but kept at home, Watson was unable to consistently deliver accurate passes.  I counted at least 8 poorly thrown passes to open receivers from Watson while in the pocket – including the two potential game changers.  At the end of the second quarter, he had Hopkins in the end zone on fourth-and-one, but bounced the throw.  With 5:42 left in the third, he had Ryan Griffin all alone deep up the left sideline.  This pass he overthrew.

There were also times that he ignored other open receivers as he continued to look for DeAndre Hopkins, and other curious lapses of judgement.

Maybe the most curious of all occurred moments after he missed Griffin on the deep throw.  It is third-and-15, Houston on the Colts’ 47-yard line.  The Colts will blitz Kenny Moore off the slot to Watson’s left.

Deshaun looked right at him.  Saw him blitzing free from the slot.  And then casually turned away from him to see if Hopkins was opened.  Surprisingly, he was sacked by Moore on the play.

It was only his first playoff game, and young Mr. Watson is certainly a talented individual.  There is room for improvement in his game.

The Other Sixth Seed Also Survived.

Sunday night in Chicago, the other sixth-seed also advanced when Chicago kicker Cody Parkey (who kicked three field goals on the night) “double-doinked” (to borrow Chris Collingsworth’s phrase) the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have sent Chicago on to the divisional round.  After a season-long issue of hitting the right upright, this time Parkey hit the left.  From there the ball dropped down to the cross bar.  While it could just as easily have bounced over the crossbar, instead the ball bounced harmlessly back to the field.  And the rest was silence.

The statistical footnote on the Bears’ season? They finished the game 0-3 in the red zone.  They committed only three penalties in the entire game – all coming during Philadelphia’s lone touchdown drive.  They accounted for 52 of the 83 yards of that drive.

As I watched the game ending bounce of the field goal that sealed the 16-15 win (gamebook) (summary), I couldn’t help but remember that the Bears could have kept Philly from the playoffs if they had taken the second half of the last game of the season off.

Fodder for thought for the offseason.

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