Before we get into this week, my conscience demands I again make this disclaimer: I don't know that much about this stuff. I did not play football above the 8th-grade level. Everything I know about football comes from watching TV and playing Madden. There are a lot of things going on in these drives that I don't pick up on. Further, I have no doubt that I watch these plays with a certain amount of inescapable bias. I have opinions about teams and players that come from more or less nowhere, and without meaning to, I will see things and try to force them into my current understanding of things rather than change my understanding to fit the new evidence. I try to avoid this pitfall, and I try to see all the nuances of every play, but I want to be upfront about the fact that I know I do not come that close to achieving either goal. That said, there is still value in the words that follow. At least I'm getting some of it, you know?
I think it would be the most fun for everyone to focus on the Patriots and Colts game, specifically the Colts' final two drives.
The Colts open the drive With three wide receivers: Wayne to the far left, Collie in the slot to the left, and Garcon to the right. Dallas Clark is at the tight end spot to the right for a nice, balanced look. Manning is in the shotgun with Addai to his left.
From what I can see on TV, it looks like the Colts run the four verticals play, with four receivers all just running more or less straight down the field. That gets the coverage dropping deep, which opens up room for Addai coming out of the backfield. Specifically, New England is deploying pretty much just one linebacker (Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess are on the field, but they're playing defensive end and exclusively rushing the passer. Some of this is strategy, some is thinness along the line because Ty Warren and Jarvis Green were not available due to injury) with the other coverage men all being defensive backs. This is your average dime package. Based both on looking at this play, and the general trend of all the plays that follow, I think Addai is primarily the responsibility of that one linebacker Jerod Mayo. In this case, Mayo follows Clark going deep, and Addai settles down into the wide open middle of the field.
The defense is basically conceding ten yards underneath, and Addai picks them up. This was certainly not the time a receiver would be open because of attention being paid to other receivers, especially Dallas Clark.
The Colts execute their second play from the same three-wide formation. In fact, the first five plays of this seven-play drive are all from that same formation with basically the same personnel in the same positions (the lone exception is when Austin Collie has several plays in his direction in a row and takes a breather).
I think, both from watching this drive and from getting an impression of the Colts reputation, this is an element of their success: they are very simple. They rarely use motion, everyone stays in the same spot on the field, they keep their formations pretty basic. The key is that everyone is comfortable in their roles and gain a high level of expertise in doing their specific functions. This is, in fact, an even larger theme. The Colts have had the same offensive coordinator for Manning's entire career (though it looked dicey in this offseason), and though I don't have the time to make a full study, I would bet they have one of the fewest rates of turnover on the coaching staff in the league. Focusing back in on the drive, think of the advantages this provides: as Manning is calling the plays as everyone is rushing back to the line, you only have to worry about knowing your route (or blocking assignment), so you can line up faster, take less time between plays and still have more time to read the defense pre-snap. And once the play starts, it's easier for Manning to have chemistry with his receivers. A few years ago, Peter King had a thing about how Manning would throw to receivers whom, because of the position of the defenders, Manning could not see, but he would get big completions anyways because they had run the play enough times in practice that he felt confidence he knew where they would be and led them properly. Having never played quarterback professionally myself, I do not know how common this is, but it sounds damn impressive.
From this formation, Dallas Clark runs straight up the field while Austin Collie who runs more or less a drag route. Collie is always heading right, but at first it has more of an upfield tint to it before he makes a cut and really commits to running across the field. The cut is key because as he does it, he jostles the defensive back a little and creates separation. the Patriots are in man coverage with two deep safeties. When Addai stays in to pass block, Mayo follows him by rushing Manning. Clark has taken his man deep and the safeties are so deep as to not be a factor, so Collie is being defended only by his man, who he is now separated from, and has an easy catch over the middle. With the Patriots playing this sort of defense pretty focused, with the safeties as they are, on preventing anything deep and to the sidelines, this sort of pass is pretty available.
On the next play, most of the action happens down the field in the running of the routes, but the camera doesn't capture it at all, and with the hurry-up tempo, there's no time for replays. Luckily, Chris Collinsowrth is doing color, and he explains things pretty well. According to Collinsworth, Collie looks at first like he is running a "middle-read" route. That's where the receiver reads the coverage to decide between a post route and a square-in (or I guess they could add other choices if they want) with the idea being just to find open space to work in. Once he gets everyone going to the middle, he breaks back outside and makes a catch outside the numbers for 17 yards. The ball is actually underthrown kind of badly, but he's fooled everyone enough on the route that he is able to come back to make the catch.
The ball is underthrown because Manning gets hit as he's throwing. It's the most pressure he sees on the drive. Addai is staying in to block, and he looks first to left tackle Charles Johnson blocking Adalius Thomas, sees Johnson seems to be doing okay, then turns his attention to a matchup on the inside where a defensive tackle is getting penetration and goes to help there. Just after he's turned his attention, Thomas beats Johnson and goes by him to hit Manning. There's been a lot of talk on the station this week about pocket presence, especially as it relates to Aaron Rodgers. I would have been interested to see Rodgers run this play and if he would have had the sense of pass rush Manning displayed on this play. I kind of suspect he wouldn't.
On the next play, Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon run complimentary routes that cross one another. After they cross, Clark turns back to Manning while Garcon keeps going down the field. All the action over there draws the two defenders lined up over them in addition to the middle linebacker Mayo and one of the two safeties on the play, who comes up to defend this area. The other deep safety stays pretty close to Reggie Wayne once it's clear he's going to challenge deep. All that leaves Austin Collie one-on-one. Collie is running deep diagonally down the field towards the opposite sideline. The ball is again a little underthrown and Collie can't necessarily run to get it, he has to slow down, brining him back to the defender. Collinsworth again helps me out here, explaining that Collie made a conscious decision here when he came back to the ball to jump into the defender, which drew a pass interference penalty. It's akin to a basketball player going up with the intention of drawing a foul. If you'll remember, Collinsworth chided Miles Austin last week for not executing this move. Well, Collie executes it perfectly and though it's certainly a little cheap (the defender didn't really do anything wrong on the play. In fact, pretty much the only person making a mistake here is Manning for not leading Collie more), it works and gains 31 yards.
It's on that last play that Collie goes to the sideline to get some Gatorade or something, so Clark goes in the slot with backup tight end Gijon Robinson sliding into Clark's spot. Clark runs diagonally across the play as Collie has been, but once he's in about the middle of the field, he breaks off the route and turns back to Manning. Robinson does roughly the same thing going the other way. Shortly after Robinson crosses Clark, Manning hits Clark with the pass. Normally, this might be kind of dangerous with Robinson's defender there underneath the pass with a possible shot at picking the pass off. In this case, however, the defender on Robinson is very dedicated to jamming him, and his sole focus is still on jostling Robinson. Had he looked up, he may could have been trouble. But Manning sees he's not looking up and completes the pass. Clark is open because he is much bigger than the corner. His route to the inside puts the corner behind him and he just uses his much bigger frame to shield the corner away from the play.
Now only four yards from the end zone, the Colts try a fade pass. It doesn't work, and it's kind of boring, so let's not spend any more time on it.
On both the failed fade and this final play of the drive, the Colts have made slight alterations to their formation: they flip the play, putting the tight end on the left and the slot receiver on the right in addition to putting Manning under center. The Patriots make no alterations to their formation, still playing with their outside linebackers as defensive ends and just one other linebacker to go with six defensive backs. Part of the presence of this personnel can be attributed to the fact the Colts do not huddle after the pass interference call for Collie, giving the Patriots no chance to substitute. To take advantage of this light personnel, the Colts go to a run play to the right. Right tackle Ryan Diem does a superb job blocking Derrick Burgess, handling him by himself and pushing him back to open up a hole. The real key to the play, though, is right guard Kyle DeVan and center Jeff Saturday getting a double-team on Vince Wilfork, standing him up and getting him moving back. All of these efforts create a clean running lane for Addai, and with Wilfork being blocked, Jerod Mayo can't see over him to find Addai. Mayo gets a little lost and by the time he gets a read on Addai, he's running by him and to the end zone.
The second drive again features basically the same formation throughout. There's Wayne on the left and Garcon on the right. Collie is in the slot to the right with Clark at tight end to the left. Manning is in the shotgun for the first play, but is under center for the rest of the drive. On the first play, Reggie Wayne runs a little square-in about 15 yards downfield. Dallas Clark is moving from the right to left and takes any underneath defenders between Manning and Wayne with him. Wayne also runs the route sufficiently in front of the deep safety. At the line, Wayne does a little stutter outside before heading upfield inside of the cornerback. That way, when he breaks inside, he does so without resistance. The cornerback is just trying to catch up.
The route does take a little bit for Wayne to get deep and make his cut, but Manning does a really good job moving in the pocket to keep away from the pressure.
The Patriots have continued to defend the Colts with the same personnel they have all game: lighter, more outside-linebacker-types for defensive ends, one real linebacker, and six defensive backs. The Colts again take advantage of it for one of the few successful running plays of the game (or season). The formula is very similar to their touchdown. Diem again handles Burgess by himself, while Clark takes on Adalius Thomas by himself on the backside of the play. That leaves four offensive linemen to double-team each of the Patriots two legit defensive linemen, Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright (those two tackles average 310 pounds while the ends average 265). The Colts get those two defensive tackles moving backwards with authority, and Addai follows them for 5-6 yards.
The same thing appears to happen again, with the defense unable to see around those defensive tackles. The entire defense is out of place after that, and the only thing that stops it from being a touchdown here is the deep safety being far back enough to read the play and take Addai down after 13 yards.
The Cotls run the ball on the next down, but the execution is not as good, and it gains only one yard. Let's just gloss over it.
The touchdown play is very simple on the Colts' end and very confusing on the Patriots'. The Cotls run your standard slants/flat play. Both outside receivers run a slant. Collie runs to the flat. Wayne again does his stutter to the outside, which could mean a fade, but then runs the slant to the inside. He also uses a nice little push within the allowed limits when making his cut. The point is, he gets inside the corner. The throw is a little high and pretty far in front, and Wayne does a splendid job of bringing the ball in.
The confusing elements of the Patriots' is their defensive alignment. Everyone is crowded right at the line of scrimmage with only one defender out covering the receivers. There is no one any deeper than two yards off the line of scrimmage. The two defenders on the outside, the ones who I would think most likely to get in between Manning and Wayne both devote their efforts to jamming Clark at the line, paying no mind to the pass whizzing by them.
As I think you can see, the focus on Clark opened up a lot of things for other receivers during this game. Clark did finish second the team in catches, but he was fourth in targets. Manning saw the effort New England devoted to jamming and covering Clark and decided to go elsewhere with the ball throughout much of the game. After the first few drives and carrying through until these drives at the end, the Colts used Clark in the slot with Gijon Robinson at tight end. I can see how switching to Collie in the slot and Clark at tight end would allow them to turn things around as they did: Collie is a much better receiving threat than Gijon Robinson, better able to take advantage of the one-on-one coverage created by the focus on Clark. Further, putting Clark on the line gums up the short middle of the field, which, if you have to gum up somewhere, that's probably a fine place when trying to come from behind. Consider also that with Clark covered every down and Wayne covered on some of them, Manning often had to go to Pierre Garcon before Collie entered the mix. Garcon was terrible in this game: of 11 targets, he was only able to make 3 catches. Compare that to Collie who made 6 catches out of his 8 targets. Switching out Collie for Gijon Robinson on the field allowed Manning to move away from Garcon, and that played a big part in turning the momentum. Collie's no star, but he proved able to beat single coverage and make a catch. When you have Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark on the field, Austin Collie is going to see almost exclusively single coverage.
With someone like Peyton Manning, there's a tendency to fall all over one's self complimenting him. It's a safe thing to do. No one will think you're dumb for saying Peyton Manning is good (though they might think you're uncreative). So I might be falling into that trap with this next bit, but I was pretty impressed by how he made the correct read to find the least defended receiver on every play we looked at. I don't know if that's something exceptional or if it's something every quarterback does but I want to call it exceptional because he wears number 18, but we certainly saw last week that Josh Freeman did not find the least covered receiver on every play. In fact, go back and watch the Patriots' already-legendary fourth-down play in this game and watch how open Wes Welker is. It might be an underrated skill, and it's one Manning showed on every play of this drive. Watching him, he makes quarterbacking look so simple. He has had amazing throws in his career, but I don't think we saw too many here (in fact, you've read that many were pretty off-target). What he did here that was even more valuable than showing off his arm is just identifying the receiver most likely to succeed and throwing it in his direction. Just by doing that he was able to win what seems it will end up being the defining game of this regular season.