The Colts have deployed the Cover 2 as their base defense since Tony Dungy took over as head coach in 2002. Josh McDaniels was appointed offensive coordinator of the Patriots prior to the 2006 season and brought his offense to Denver when he was named head coach prior to the 2009 season.
McDaniels has a reputation for running a short passing offense that does not produce big plays in the passing game. The Cover 2 defense has a reputation for shutting down the big play in the passing game. At first glance, this would appear to be a matchup made in heaven for Indianapolis.
McDaniels does have that reputation, but the reputation does not hold up against close scrutiny. In 2007, the Patriots had 15 passing plays of 40 yards or longer. That was a season of offensive records and dominance for New England, so that number could be cast aside as an outlier. But, even with an underwhelming receiving corps, the Patriots still completed eight passing plays of 40 yards or longer in 2006. In 2008, with Matt Cassell at quarterback — and Cassell has a reputation for not being able to throw the long ball — they had six such completions.
In 2009, with Kyle Orton at quarterback, the Broncos had nine passing plays of 40 yards or longer. That number is not only the second-highest of McDaniels' play-calling career, it's also one more long passing play than the Colts — who ranked second in the league in passing in 2009 — registered last season. Just because McDaniels does not focus on the deep pass in his offensive scheme does not mean that he doesn't have any fly routes, go routes, or deep posts in his playbook. Orton has proven to be more than capable of making those throws, so Indianapolis needs to be ready to get back on the ball in order to not get beat over the top.
The numbers for the Colts defense from 2006-2008 are impressive. In 2006, they allowed only two long passing plays, with three in 2007 and four in 2008. Last season, there was a spike in that number, but it still only reached six passing plays of 40 yards or more in 2009.
Still, six long completions was more than they allowed in 2006 and 2007 combined. Thus far this season, Indianapolis has allowed one pass play of 40 yards more, that being the long touchdown to Mario Manningham in Week 2 against the Giants.
Since the great run defense collapse of 2006, the Colts have placed a greater focus on stopping the run. That means getting bigger along the defensive line — especially at defensive tackle — but it also means that Indianapolis has had an eighth man in the box more frequently the past few seasons. Once a quarterback sees the safety move up to the line of scrimmage — usually Melvin Bullitt or Bob Sanders — or sees the safety move into the slot to cover a receiver — usually Antoine Bethea — he knows that he will be facing a Cover 1 defense for that play.
The Cover 1 defense leaves one safety to cover the entire deep portion of the field. That safety usually cheats to one side or the other. When the quarterback sees which side the safety is cheating towards, he knows he has single coverage on the opposite side with no safety help over the top. That's what happened on the Manningham touchdown last week and the Bethea example was what happened in 2009 against the Patriots. Randy Moss lined up in the slot, drew Bethea in coverage, and ran a go route. Moss got behind Bethea and the result was a long touchdown for New England.
McDaniels was coaching the Broncos that weekend, so he didn't have a hand in the 2009 Moss play, but he is very familiar the tendencies and weaknesses of the Indianapolis defense. He has no doubt already transferred that information to Orton, so the Colts defenders will need to make sure they keep everything in front of them.
Big plays are hard to gauge or predict, so Indianapolis won't necessarily give up eight long completions this season just because they've given up one through the first two games. The more distressing statistic is that they've already allowed five passing plays of 20 yards or longer this season.
Those types of plays are easier to project. That means they will give up 40 such passing plays in 2010, which would be twice as many as they yielded in all of 2007. That will be another stat to keep track of for the balance of the season in order to determine whether or not they're working on that aspect of their defense and are showing improvement.
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