When the Colts placed Marlin Jackson on injured reserve last week, they essentially committed the rest of the season at right cornerback to rookie Jerraud Powers. Kelvin Hayden has been out of the lineup since Week 4 with a knee injury, paving the way for rookie undrafted free agent Jacob Lacey to step into the lineup, as well.
Hayden is expected to return to the lineup in early December, but he is nursing a knee injury that is similar to the one suffered by Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was supposed to have only missed six weeks after injuring his knee in the season opener against Jacksonville, but keeps suffering setbacks and has not played a down since.
That means that Colts fans need to brace themselves for the very real possibility that Powers and Lacey will be the starting cornerback tandem for the remainder of the season, particularly if Indianapolis has their playoff seeding established by the time Hayden is able to return and they'd rather not risk aggravating the injury in "meaningless" games for the last few weeks of the season.
Now, it's true that Powers and Lacey are rookies. It's true that 32 NFL teams went through seven rounds of this season's draft — including compensatory selections — and that they all decided that Lacey was not worth selecting in the 2009 draft. But, it's also true that the Colts have other options, veteran options, at cornerback, and they have decided to stick with Powers and Lacey.
Tim Jennings, T.J. Rushing, and Anthony Madison have not been inserted into either of the top two starting positions and have only started games in which the Colts opened in a nickel formation with three cornerbacks. Rushing and Madison are primarily special teams players, but Madison has a good deal of in-game experience at the cornerback position and Jennings had, if nothing else, more starting experience than either Lacey or Powers when the decision was made on who to plug in for Jackson and Hayden when they went down.
In Week 2 against Miami, Lacey actually saw more playing time than Powers and, in the first few weeks of the season, it appeared as though Lacey should have been selected in the third round and Powers should have been the street free agent. Since Hayden left the lineup after Week 4, though, Powers has made serious strides and now has a pretty sizeable advantage over Lacey, such that he will most likely stay in the lineup and Lacey will be relegated to a reserve or sub-package role when Hayden is ready to return.
Powers is certainly the better athlete and is far more skilled in man coverage technique than Lacey, but Lacey is more naturally suited to play the cornerback position in the Cover 2 scheme that the Colts deploy. All he needed to do was learn his assignments and stay in the right place and the rest would take care of itself.
As an undrafted player, he couldn't afford to be made an example of in practice, training camp, or the preseason, so he made sure he was always in position and didn't leave the door open to make minor mistakes as he went and learn from those mistakes. Powers was able to make mistakes and learn from them over the course of the offseason and so far in the regular season.
He no doubt learned a great deal from his poor showing against Randy Moss last week. In fact, he learned to make adjustments in game in Week 10, as he was burned on a slant route early in the first quarter, but was able to defend the same route on the opposite side of the field in the end zone in the third quarter. Moss still caught two touchdown passes, but the list of gentlemen that Moss has had a good game against is long and distinguished.
If nothing else, Powers is as capable, if not more so, as Marlin Jackson. Aside from Houston's Andre Johnson, Indianapolis does not face a receiver of Moss' caliber for the rest of the regular season, there is no risk of overexposure of Powers or Lacey until the playoffs start.
Other teams tried to exploit Powers and Lacey before the Patriots did so successfully in Week 10. Other teams tried to throw deep on the Colts in the first nine weeks of the season. Other teams were not as successful because they have neither Tom Brady nor Randy Moss.
If you take out the 375 yards passing that Indianapolis allowed against the Patriots and divide that number by eight, you get 193.8 yards per game. That number is significantly lower than the 214 yards per game they are currently allowing with the Week 10 number factored in and it would also rank seventh in the NFL, as opposed to the current rank of 16th.
The statistics will even out before the close of the season and the Colts will end up with a top-10 pass defense in terms of yards allowed. Powers and Lacey will improve their technique, including implementing some guidance from Alan Williams that will tell them to jam, chuck, or at least get in the way of a receiver to keep their man from getting a completely free release at the snap.
Powers and Lacey are rookies and they are still learning, but having two rookies that are learning on the job and still finishing in the top third of the league in pass defense is still a pretty good place to be.
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