Colts defenseless against Jaguars

If the Colts can't fix their defense, and fast, it's going to be another early playoff exit for Peyton Manning and company, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: December 12, 2006, 5:17 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- So maybe this is just how the career résumé of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is destined to read when the game's best player retires in another eight seasons or so.

Lots of victories, every passing mark in the record book, multiple most valuable player awards, a tenure mostly spent playing for a terrific head coach, acclaim as the greatest pure passer in history, and a shiny, bronze bust perched in a corner of the Hall of Fame.

But, like former Miami Dolphins star Dan Marino, the man whose career the brilliant Manning unfortunately appears to be mirroring, not a single Super Bowl ring stashed away in a safe-deposit box. No diamond-encrusted trinket that carries the title "champion," no memories of title game glory, not many bobbles along the way, but no Super Bowl bauble, either.

Fred Taylor
AP Photo/Phil CoaleFred Taylor ran for 131 yards on just nine carries.
Certainly, after Sunday afternoon's 44-17 thrashing at the hands of the more physical and clearly more inspired Jacksonville Jaguars, it's difficult to conjure up any visions of the Colts advancing to Super Bowl XLI. If anything, in fact, the smackdown administered by the Jaguars suggested the playoffs could again be a one-and-done proposition for an Indianapolis team that has dropped three of its past four outings and features a defense that is nearly historically inept against the run.

"Those guys ran right through [our defense]," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, stating the obvious, after the Jaguars pounded out a mind-blowing 375 rushing yards on 42 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per attempt. "It started from the first play and went all the way through the game. ... We'll see what we're made of from here. We're going to have our hands full."

The Indianapolis defenders' hands weren't full of much, obviously not any Jacksonville ball carriers, in the most lopsided regular-season defeat of the Dungy Era with the Colts.

Ever seen one of those Road Runner cartoons when eternal foil Wile E. Coyote inevitably is flattened into pancake status by the bulldozer he has purchased from the Acme Novelty Co.? On Sunday, the Colts fielded an entire unit of Wile E. Coyote defenders. And they all played as if they were trying out their best Venus de Milo poses.

You know, no arms.

Jacksonville entered the game ranked No. 3 in the league in rushing offense, so success on the ground isn't all that surprising. But going for 375 yards against any team, including a junior high outfit, is a stunning amount of real estate.

The Jaguars established a franchise record for rushing yards. And that was by halftime, at which point Jacksonville already had rung up 251 yards and was averaging 14.8 yards per carry, with tailbacks Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew both over the 100-yard mark. The 375 rushing yards for the game were the most surrendered by a Colts defense, topping the previous worst of 354 yards, against Dallas in 1981. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 375 rushing yards tied for the second-most ever by a team since the 1970 merger and were the most since Cincinnati ran for 407 yards against Denver on Oct. 22, 2000.

"We wanted to get 400 [rushing yards]," Jones-Drew said. "But 375 isn't bad."

It was for the Colts, whose only consolation was that they entered the game already ranked last in the NFL against the run and can't sink lower.

"If this isn't rock bottom," said Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Cato June, "I don't want to see what is."

The Jaguars had 19 rushes of 5 yards or more, 13 of 11 yards or more and eight of 17 yards or more. Starting tailback Taylor ran for 131 yards on just nine carries before retiring with a hamstring injury, the strain apparently suffered from running through space with so little resistance. Rookie Jones-Drew, the Jaguars' splendid second-round draft choice, carried 15 times for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Jones-Drew also opened the second half with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and his 303 all-purpose yards established a franchise record in that category.

"The game's over," Colts cornerback Jason David said, "and the way things were going, that little dude might still be running."

On a second-quarter drive that began at the Jacksonville 19-yard line, quarterback David Garrard began the possession with a 7-yard completion to wide receiver Reggie Williams, then morphed into a human tee thereafter, just holding the ball out for his backs to come by and grab. Drew ripped off consecutive runs of 17 yards each, then Taylor rumbled 19 yards before blasting hard over right guard, all but untouched, on a 21-yard touchdown jaunt.

"I don't know if we broke their spirit or not," Jacksonville right offensive tackle Maurice Williams said. "I mean, that's a strong statement to make about any NFL team, you know? But you could see the frustration building in their defense. For them, it was like, 'What else can we try?' For us, it was just a matter of doing what we were doing, and then doing it some more. It was a lot of fun. ... They're going to have to play better defense than that to get to where they want to be."

Even though Dungy and many of his charges insisted that the Colts' season-long problems versus the rush are still "fixable" (a favorite term in the Indianapolis locker room after the carnage), there are only so many things the Colts can try to rectify their porous run defense.

No one in the visitors locker room appeared ready to step into the role of Mr. Fix-It for a defense that is so dreadful against the run that it might be beyond repair.

Said middle linebacker Gary Brackett: "It's not like we can go to the store and buy some kind of [remedy]. It's on us, the guys in this room, and we've got to play better. I hate to say it rattles us, but, I mean, it's no secret what teams are going to do. Everyone comes out and run the ball at us. It happened last week [in a loss at Tennessee], and it's just going to keep happening until we stop it. Unfortunately, what happened out there today isn't out of the ordinary anymore."

Even by the Colts' previously shoddy standards, though, the tackling at every level of their defense was extraordinarily poor Sunday afternoon.

Once again, Indianapolis played without Pro Bowl free safety Bob Sanders, whose inability to tolerate the pain associated with his early-season arthroscopic knee surgery has become a source of frustration for Colts officials. The other starting safety, Antoine Bethea, exited early with an injury, as did key backup Marlin Jackson. That left Matt Giordano and Dexter Reid, a pair of special-teams players, lined up at safety and pegged as easy marks by a Jacksonville offense that kept running draw plays at them.

"We've got three weeks to get it fixed. If we don't, well, we could be in deep [trouble] because we've seen in the past what can happen in the playoffs. I mean, there are losses and there are losses, you know? It doesn't take a genius to figure out which one this was, right?"
Dwight Freeney, Colts defensive end

But the safety position, although arguably the most glaring area of deficiency for the Indianapolis defense, was hardly the lone lax spot.

As is their wont, the Colts played their ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, in a wide "nine technique" look, which creates a natural void in the tackle hole. The Jaguars took advantage of that space, Jacksonville's Williams said. There was little penetration from the quick but undersized Colts defensive line, and the linebackers didn't step up and close off many holes. In the first meeting of the season, on Sept. 24 at the RCA Dome, the Jaguars gashed the Colts with draw plays and delays, and they dusted off a similar game plan for this matchup.

"You get a guy like [Jones-Drew] out in space," said Taylor, who didn't touch the ball at all in the second half, "and he's going to make you miss tackles."

True enough. But when the Indianapolis defense wasn't plagued by missed tackles, it had several problems with miscommunication. Take the Jaguars' opening snap: Somehow, half the defense didn't hear the front that was called out by Brackett and was in the wrong alignment. Taylor burst through a huge hole over the left side, avoided a tackle attempt by Bethea and sped 76 yards to the Indianapolis 18-yard line. A play that should have netted perhaps 10 yards, had Bethea made the stop, instead set up an 18-yard touchdown run over the right side by Jones-Drew on the next snap.

"They definitely set the tone early," Freeney said.

Actually, it was the Colts' first snap on offense that augured it might be a long afternoon. On a nifty pump-and-go double move, Indianapolis wide receiver Marvin Harrison ran right past free safety Deon Grant and was well behind the Jacksonville secondary. But Manning's pass hung up, Harrison had to wait on it, and instead of an 80-yard touchdown, the Colts settled for a 42-yard gain. Three snaps later, on a third-and-16 play, slot receiver Brandon Stokley dropped a would-be 44-yard touchdown pass. The Colts, who squandered two chances to jump up 7-0 in the game's first two minutes, punted instead.

And the rout was on.

Perhaps the league's most patient and even-mannered coach, Dungy did not read his team the riot act. He told them to remain focused and not lose confidence, but acknowledged that big improvement is needed. Dungy is not a guy who overreacts, but there were some suspicions, as Colts players sat searching for answers, that the coach might now be forced to take a more active role in defensive game planning.

Not even that might help, though, because Dungy keeps preaching a gospel of patience, refusing to accept the notion that the Indianapolis defense might be flawed from personnel and schematic standpoints.

"There's nothing wrong with the structure of the defense," Dungy said. "I'm sure that [our confidence] is shaken a bit. But whatever we do to improve, it's not going to be something spectacular. It's a case of doing our jobs better."

Because the Colts need only one more victory or a Jacksonville defeat to secure the AFC South title, it's preposterous to believe Indianapolis won't be in the playoffs. But the two-game skid marks just the fourth time in five seasons that the Colts have dropped consecutive outings. And the three losses in four games represent the worst stretch for Indianapolis since October 2002. Sunday's loss was the second week in a row in which the Colts failed to clinch the division title, and it drops them behind San Diego in the overall AFC standings.

But the thumping absorbed Sunday was much worse than any of that and appeared to affect the Colts deeply. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of doubt, characteristically unseen from this bunch, in a somber locker room.

"We've got three weeks to get it fixed," Freeney said. "If we don't, well, we could be in deep [trouble] because we've seen in the past what can happen in the playoffs. I mean, there are losses and there are losses, you know? It doesn't take a genius to figure out which one this was, right?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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