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LB Morris comes up big for Colts

10/3/2004 - Indianapolis Colts

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Stop the presses. Wake the kids. Yeah, go ahead, rub your eyes a few times and then, for good measure, pinch yourself. And, hey, while you're at it, phone an astronomer and make certain the planet hasn't somehow been nudged off its axis.

Yep, the Indianapolis Colts won another key divisional road game Sunday, and that is becoming the norm. Not surprisingly, the Indianapolis offense mustered up a late-game touchdown, with an impressive 74-yard trek in which the Colts bludgeoned a Jacksonville Jaguars run defense previously thought to be impenetrable. There were, as always, the usual Peyton Manning heroics and touchdowns by the other two-thirds of the "triplets" attack, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and tailback Edgerrin James.

But here's the stunner and, no, folks, it's not a typo: When they handed out the game balls following the Colts' gutsy 24-17 victory over the heretofore undefeated Jags, coach Tony Dungy began with several defensive players.

And you can bet middle linebacker Rob Morris, who authored the game's signature play, combining with weak-side 'backer Cato June to stuff Jacksonville tailback Fred Taylor for no gain on a fourth-and-one from the Indianapolis 45-yard line with two minutes remaining, was at the top of the roll call.

On a day when the NFL's lowest-ranked offense faced its most porous defense, it was, thanks in large part to Morris, the "D" that came up biggest at the end. For Dungy, whose background is on the defensive side of the ball but who, ironically, has the benefit of the league's highest-octane attack, it was an appropriate outcome.

"It's hard for me sometimes," acknowledged Dungy, laughing. "I'd still rather be out there on defense, trying to close the game out, you know? So this was a big game for our (defensive) guys. It was on them at the end and they made the plays you have to make."

None was bigger, of course, than Morris' stop of Taylor. It was, in fact, the second time in the game that Morris starred on a short-yardage play, having knocked backup tailback LaBrandon Toefield sideways on a fourth-and-one in the first quarter that stymied the Jags at the Indianapolis 24 on Jacksonville's initial possession.

For all its shortcomings, and they are many, this is an Indianapolis defense that seems to find a way to get a stop when the outcome is on the line. In the Colts' first victory of the season, at Tennessee, the unit shut down the Titans in the second half and cornerback Nick Harper had a critical interception in the end zone. Last week, when Green Bay was threatening to tie a game that had been more of a track meet all day, rookie corner Jason David forced a fumble, stripping Packers receiver Javon Walker of the ball.

On Sunday, it was the Indianapolis short-yardage defense that secured the victory.

Little-known, but very meaningful statistic, from the first four games: The Colts defense, as maligned as it has been, has now thwarted six third-and-one or fourth-and-one plays this season. Morris, the team's somewhat surprising first-round pick in 2000, has been in on at least four of those stops.

Jacksonville entered Sunday's big AFC South matchup having converted all four of its fourth-down tries in 2004. Then again, the Jaguars, who had the NFL's worst third-down conversion rate through three outings, moved the chains on eight of 15 occasions during this tense game.

When push literally came to shove, however, the Jacksonville offensive line, which finished with both of its starting tackles on the sideline with injuries, couldn't carve out a critical crease against the Colts front seven.

On the first-quarter snap, the Jags tried a lead play off right guard, and Morris teamed up with defensive end Raheem Brock to smother Toefield. On the game-saving play, the run went to the right A gap, with June getting just an arm on Taylor and then Morris stepping into the hole to clean up. The Taylor run was reviewed, called for by the replay official in the booth, but it was fairly obvious he was shy of the 44-yard line.

"Those are plays where, let's face it, no one is trying to fool anybody," said Morris, who finished with six tackles. "I mean, there is zero trick stuff there, right? They're going to line up and do what they do, and we're going to line up and do what we do. It's just kind of a helmet on a helmet and no frills. Those are plays that kind of define a game."

They are plays that, lately at least, have defined Morris, a fifth-year veteran. There have been times when Morris has been knocked by some critics as being too slow, too short-armed, too limited physically. But on Sunday afternoon, the former Brigham Young star, a starter since his rookie season, was simply too tough.

He has a nice knack for scraping off blockers, shedding, getting to the ball. Morris may not pursue as well as some coaches would like, and his athleticism is dubious, but there is no denying his perseverance. Or that of the Colts, who for a second time in three weeks, were lauded by Dungy for their professionalism and maturity.

It was an afternoon when Indianapolis, and especially the defense, needed both qualities in pretty major doses.

While the Colts offense posted 408 yards, Manning wasn't quite as sharp as in recent weeks, and it appeared he tried to be too fine with his passes at times. Indianapolis had touchdown drives of 75, 83 and 74 yards and, particularly early in the contest, Manning exposed the Jaguars' double coverage on wideouts Harrison and Reggie Wayne by going to slot receiver Brandon Stokley (eight catches, 97 yards) between the seams.

But there were some glitches -- two dropped passes, an overthrow, one interception on which Jacksonville rookie weak-side linebacker Daryl Smith made an incredible effort to tip the ball back to himself -- that conspired to foil promising drives. The Colts did mix their formations beautifully in the second half, first coming with a three-wideout set and then going to the two-tight end base formation they have used so often in the past, to create some nifty holes for James, mostly on the trademark stretch play.

The usually-suspect Jacksonville offense, though, and quarterback Byron Leftwich made enough plays to hang close. The Jaguars had just six third-down conversions in 34 tries in their first three games. On Sunday, they were far more proficient in that, and just about every other phase, finishing with a season-best 337 yards.

Of the Jags' 73 snaps, 35 originated on the Indianapolis side of the 50. They had a dozen plays inside the 30 and nine inside the 25. Remarkably, the Jaguars moved into Indianapolis territory on all nine offensive series. But four possessions ended in Josh Scobee field goal tries, with three conversions.

Suffice it to say, Jacksonville's performance in plus territory was a major negative. For the Indianapolis defense, on the other hand, the Jags' ball movement was a challenge that the unit was determined to overcome.

Said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney: "The key is always going to be keeping the other guys out of the end zone and then making the game-winning plays at the end. We did both those things today. People can (criticize) this defense all they want, but we feel like we're going to step up when it's time to step up. When we ran out on the field for that final (series), hey, it was where we all wanted to be, with a chance to shut them down and close this thing out."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.