How do you stop the Colt's offense? That's the question for Dallas this week. So with that in mind, I went back and watched the Bills-Colts game from last weekend. Buffalo held them to 17 points and were in the game the whole way. Here's what I observed.
I've never seen a team play one basic defensive formation for 90% of their plays on the field. No exaggeration. The Bills lined up in the same spots, play after play, using a 4-3-4 or 4-2-5 defense. Coach Parcells discussed how the Colts' formations and packages are very simple, it's true - more on that in a minute - but that allowed the Bills to run the same basic formation and they had no problems with the no-huddle, because they only subbed for one position almost every play.
The Bills lined up with four down linemen, and three linebackers or two linebackers and an extra cornerback, and a basic secondary set. If they thought it was a running down, they had three linebackers on the field, with one of the outside guys covering the TE, about three yards off the ball. The other two would line up in the middle about 5 yards deep. They ran that same formation constantly. When they thought it was a passing down, they subbed in a cornerback for the outside linebacker to cover the TE, usually Dallas Clark. Same formation exactly, only one substitution on defense. The corners were mostly lining up very deep on Harrison and Wayne, only occasionally would they roll-up tight for press coverage. The safeties were sitting back deep in Cover-2.
So they were essentially covering Dallas Clark with a cornerback, they were playing very loose in coverage, and the linebackers were lining up deep with only seven men in the box, and the box covered a lot of ground in this defense. They were begging the Colts to run the ball. If you have your linebackers five yards deep, that's an open invitation to run. So the Colts ran, to the tune of five yards per carry. But this was the key, they never busted off one of those long runs, the 20+ yarders that really change a game.
When the Colts threw the ball, Manning was constantly dumping off to his backs and his TE's underneath, and running screens. His longest pass of the day was only 23 yards, that was the only 20+ yarder that he threw all day, and he only averaged 6 yards a pass. So the effect was a running game that was biting off medium yardage every time, a pass offense that was content to play underneath, and a team that methodically drove the ball.
One more thing, I can count the times the Bills blitzed on one hand. They rushed 4 guys almost exclusively. They didn't sack Manning and they only applied a limited amount of pressure, occasionally making him throw before he wanted to, but Manning had a lot of time to throw the ball.
The Colts on offense are so simple but so deadly effective. They lineup with Marvin Harrison on the right side, Reggie Wayne on the left side, one RB (Addai/Rhodes) and use two TE's, either both on the line or one split-out, that being Dallas Clark. They flip the TE's with Clark lining up in the slot on either side. Occasionally they'll line up with 4-wide. When Manning comes to the line he'll reposition either a TE or the RB, and they're off. There's never any motion, or exotic formations, they're just a well-oiled machine.
So what the Bills did on defense was all designed to not get beat deep, keep everything in front of them, make sure tackles, and hope to turn the ball over a couple of times. The Colts scoring drives took 9 plays twice and 13 plays once. The hope is that by making them run so many plays on their drives, they'll mess up somewhere, and they did fumble the ball twice. It's hard to get a turnover if they're marching 65-yards in four plays for a TD.
Buffalo ran into a problem, though, mainly their offense. They probably did the right thing by sticking with the run, but you have to pass somewhat effectively, and they only did on a couple of drives. It wasn't enough, even with Anthony Thomas - yes, the A-train and former Cowboy - dropping a c-note on the Colts run defense. I mean does the A-train plus Lee Evans and Peerless Price, with J.P. Losman at QB, strike fear into your heart? I didn't think so. But the Cowboys have a much more potent offense, so would a combination of the Bills defensive plan and the Cowboys offense be enough to defeat the undefeated? Maybe we'll find out, it depends on how Parcells plans to attack the Colts.
We ran a similar defensive scheme some of the time on Sunday against the Cardinals. We brought in Aaron Glenn to cover the 3rd receiver and removed an OLB, leaving three down linemen and one OLB lined up close to the line of scrimmage. Essentially we were creating a 4-man line, with 2 linebackers and 5 defensive backs. Aaron Glenn might be assigned to Dallas Clark, or they might move Newman to the slot, though my guess is they keep him outside on Marvin Harrison. I can guarantee you it won't be as easy for the Colts to run on our defense as it was to run on Buffalo's.
So the Bills used the conservative, play loose and deep approach to stopping the Colts. There's another school of thought that says attack the Colts, be very aggressive and get in Manning's face. The Chargers and the Steelers, two 3-4 teams, did that and got good results. My only problem is that both of those team's natural tendency is to play that way every week. Dallas doesn't do that, they use a more conservative 3-4 scheme, and haven't been very successful getting pressure from their blitzes. With a secondary vulnerable to the big play, especially at safety, I'm not sure if the aggressive blitzing approach would work for the Cowboys.
I would suggest they mimic the Bill's blueprint to some extent, except I wouldn't play as deep at linebacker as they were, and I would take a few more chances than they did in the pass rush. But making Manning work for scores using drives with a high play-count gives the Cowboys defense opportunities to get turnovers. It also keeps the clock moving with Indy running the ball and using short passes, possibly giving the Colts one or two fewer shots on offense. If Dallas can run the ball while mixing in some effective passing, then they can really shorten the game. That just may be the ticket to victory.
If we can hold Indy to 17 points, I like our chances.
The Colts still use the stretch play where they loop the guard and/or tackle around the edge, and let the TE and center handle the two down linemen on that side. They also run the middle draw quite a bit.
Peyton Manning will work the middle of the field to death given the opportunity. Bradie James and Akin Ayodele better be ready, and they also need to watch Addai and Rhodes on patterns in the flats and underneath. The Colts will run the screen to RB's and TE's, so the Cowboys need to recognize these plays as they form.
If Bob Sanders plays, the Colts are much tougher against the run. If Brandon Stokely plays, the offense will probably have a few more wrinkles.