TWO KEYS TO TURNAROUND, COLTS KEEP PLUGGING PLAYERS IN AND MARK SANCHEZ'S DEVELOPMENT
TURNING IT AROUNDWhen Indianapolis' record stood at 6-6 heading into the last quarter of its season, Head Coach Jim Caldwell's steady hand helped guide the Colts to a 4-0 finish that culminated with a 23-20 win over Tennessee on Sunday and the team's ninth consecutive post-season berth.
But what message did Coach Caldwell deliver to his team?
The answer may be simpler than most think.
"Really just to do things that we've been doing, but doing them a little bit better, nothing more than that," Caldwell said Monday afternoon. "Just tried to focus in on the things that we were having difficulties with at that particular point in time. When we hit that lull we had turned the ball over quite a bit, we had been a team that had the fewest penalties in the league or in the Top 5 in the league in fewest penalties, we had a few more penalties than we would have liked and we weren't doing the basic things.
"We weren't running the ball nearly as well as we had liked and we were not stopping the run. So that was kind of our challenge to see if we could get things turned around and the guys I think did a good job in that regard."
The Colts certainly stepped up to all of those challenges, the last two in particular.
Over the final four games, Indianapolis' defense allowed a rushing average of 79.75 yards per contest to three potent ground attacks, two of which were ranked in the top three in the NFL. In the last three games, they held Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew to 46 yards, Oakland's Darren McFadden to 45 yards and Tennessee's Chris Johnson to 39 yards.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Colts rushing attack finished with three consecutive games where they gained over 100 yards after producing three games over 100 yards rushing in the first 13 contests of the season.
The trio of Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown has given the Colts multiple options at running back, and Caldwell said he intends to utilize all three to find which one provides Indianapolis the best chance on a particular day.
"They all get a little action and we see who gets hot along the way," Caldwell said. "We spread it around. We've got three good backs that can play. Obviously, we've got more than that with Mike (Hart), whenever he gets back. Javarris (James) runs the ball well, so we are fortunate at this point to have some healthy guys at that position."
And according to Caldwell, those two aspects of the game, along with others, prove vital when heading into the playoffs.
"One of the things you find out particularly once you get to this stage is there are probably going to be very few teams that do not have a very strong running game and very few teams that do not have the ability to stop the run," Caldwell said. "That's what playoff teams look like. They also see that they do not turn the ball over much just in terms of the turnover margin.
"So those are the things that you better make certain that you have a real sound grasp of because that is what you are going to face, teams that do it better than anyone else down this stretch. So that's key to us in terms of getting into position to play a little bit more consistently well in those areas, and I think it helped us notch a few victories along the way."
'A VERY DETERMINED GROUP'
Leaning on the 'Next Man Up' theory for most of the season at various positions, the latest position to live up to that philosophy has been at cornerback.
The Colts' depth at cornerback suffered with injuries to starters Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers in the span of seven days between Weeks 13 and 14. And with Powers on injured reserve and Hayden's return still questionable, others are being called upon to fill the void.
Cornerbacks Justin Tryon, Jacob Lacey and Cornelius Brown have performed admirably in their absence, helping the Colts to a 4-0 record during that time span.
And while their names may not stand out when compared to the well-known New York Jets' corners of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson, Caldwell likes what he has seen.
"One of the things I can tell you is they are a very determined group," Caldwell said. "They are not household names like the guys we are going to face obviously, who are very well known and have great reputations that are well deserved because they can play.
"But I think you will find our guys are scrappy. They are going to fight hard. They are going to play tough and they are going to do whatever it takes to win. From week to week that is our real challenge. Sometimes we have had different guys playing different spots, and Tryon and Lacey and Cornelius have done a nice job of playing the defense in a way in which we want it played."
SANCHEZ: THEN AND NOW
Mark Sanchez is in his second season as the starting quarterback for the New York Jets, and Caldwell said he has seen Sanchez mature from Year One to Year Two.
"You can see that he is much more familiar with the opposition," Caldwell said. "You can tell that he's not nearly in a hurry to do things. He does them with a lot more confidence."
Sanchez's statistics have improved along with that confidence. Sanchez has completed 278-of-507 passes for 3,291 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, all improved from his 2009 totals. Also up are his passer rating and completion percentage, while he threw just 13 interceptions in 2010 compared to 20 as a rookie.
But for Caldwell, it is not about the numbers. It is about the confidence he displays and the increased role of Sanchez within the Jets offense. And it is about Sanchez's ability to move around in the pocket, avoid pressure and find an open receiver.
"He always has been a very, very talented guy. You could see that when he came out of college, but now he's putting it all together and has got his team in position to do some things. He's got a lot of confidence and his team believes in him.
"They have a quarterback that is mobile and (has) a lot of weapons to throw to," Caldwell said. "He's doing a great job getting the ball to (Braylon) Edwards. They spread it around. I think there are about four different guys that have between 52 and 55 catches. So that tells you that he's spreading the ball around quite a bit."