Colts get physical; Jags abandon winning formula
The Colts ditched their finesse approach on Monday night and outmuscled a Jacksonville team that prides itself on toughness, writes Len Pasquarelli.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a game where the final margin is 22 points, as was the case here Monday night, it's generally pretty difficult to identify one play that defined the difference between the two teams.
Not so, however, in the Indianapolis Colts' 29-7 beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a victory that left the defending Super Bowl champions at 6-0 for a third season in a row and once again in control of the AFC South.
Trailing 14-0 with 2:55 remaining in the second quarter, and facing a fourth-down situation in which they needed roughly two feet to convert, the Jaguars ran a play in which tailback Maurice Jones-Drew aligned in the right slot and essentially ran an end-around to the left.
Free safety Bob Sanders, who once again demonstrated that he might be the NFL's best defender pound-for-pound, stuffed Jones-Drew for a 1-yard loss.
"We expect that kind of play from Bob," said Colts coach Tony Dungy.
For whatever reason, it seems, the confused and confusing Jaguars didn't.
Still, it wasn't so much the result of the play as it was the message it sent that captured the essence of what transpired throughout the lopsided contest. The Jaguars, who have always privately chided Indianapolis for being a finesse team, didn't muscle up and run the ball off-tackle.
Instead, the team that pounded Indianapolis for 375 yards rushing here in a 44-17 win last Dec. 10 inexplicably resorted to gimmickry. In the statement moment of a statement game, Jacksonville delivered a telling concession that it didn't think it was good enough to win by adhering to its usual pound-the-ball strategy.
The Colts won because they heeded Dungy's mantra to "do what we do." And the Jaguars lost because they did a lot of things on offense that they normally don't. In venturing outside their comfort zone, the Jags failed to establish any kind of offensive rhythm. They also failed to understand that this Indianapolis defense is far more physical than the one on which the Jacksonville ground attack left tread marks 10 months ago.
"I think they came in thinking, like, 'Oh, well, just like last year. It's the Colts.' And we came in knowing that we're a lot better than a year ago," said Indianapolis defensive tackle Raheem Brock. "That 375 [yards], we didn't dwell on it, but we talked about it. We came here with a chip on our shoulder. We've made it a point to try to be more physical. Not just quicker, because everyone knows we're fast, but more physical. And here they are, the so-called physical team, and they ran that play on fourth down?
The whole finesse thing that people have with us, it's a great myth, really. But if people want to keep having that perception, hey, let them. It's good for us. Because we know the reality.
--Colts MLB Gary Brackett
"Well, we proved tonight we can be just as physical as anyone."
Indeed, it was the Indianapolis defense that delivered the black-and-blue welts worn by some Jaguars players.
"The whole finesse thing that people have with us, it's a great myth, really," insisted Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett. "But if people want to keep having that perception, hey, let them. It's good for us. Because we know the reality."
Afterward, some Jaguars players noted that they came up short in what coach Jack Del Rio had labeled a "must-win" game because they lost starting quarterback David Garrard to a second-quarter ankle sprain.
Truth is, the Jags lost their identity, and that was significantly more critical to the outcome.
Jacksonville threw on 13 of their first 19 offensive snaps, including an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 34-yard line in the first quarter of a scoreless game. In all, the Jaguars went for it on six fourth-down plays and converted only two. And even when their vaunted power-running game displayed signs of getting into gear, the Jags' offensive coaches didn't stick with it long enough.
When Garrard went down with a high ankle sprain that could sideline him for a few weeks, and the Jaguars were forced to turn to little-used backup Quinn Gray, the coaches refused to play their game. Instead of allowing Gray to get his feet on the ground with a few running plays, the coaches called for passes. His first attempt was a completion for a loss of two yards. His second was intercepted by the omnipresent Sanders.
In a reversal of mindsets, it was the Indianapolis offense that opted to grind things out for much of the night, and the Colts finished with 141 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. Starting tailback Joseph Addai, whose snaps were closely monitored because of a shoulder injury and who at times was used only on third down, ran for 85 yards. His backup, former CFL star Kenton Keith, added 56 yards, most of them on tough, inside runs.
" Against these guys, you have to be balanced," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who completed 23 of 37 passes for 259 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception. "And you have to be patient."
But mostly, you have to be physical to hang in against the Jaguars, whose defense had allowed only 11.6 points per game entering the contest.
In the 10 previous meetings since the 2002 realignment married the two franchises in the AFC South, the Jaguars had averaged 159.1 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry. On Monday night, with Sanders filling inside holes, Jacksonville netted 117 rushing yards and averaged 4.3 yards.
"New year, new season, new guys," said Sanders, who finished with five tackles, one interception and two passes defensed. "And a new attitude. This is a different team from a year ago, and people are finding that out."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.