HITTING IT DEEP

Eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning said this week when he watches tape, he has seen opportunities for big pass plays and often, the plays haven't connected. Manning and Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy each said this week that needs to change.

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Deep Ball Must Return to Colts Offense, Manning and Dungy Say
INDIANAPOLIS – As Peyton Manning sees it, explanations aren't necessary.

Manning, the Colts' eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback, said this week when he watches tape, he has seen opunities for big pass plays – momentum-changing plays the Colts have made often in years past – and that often this season, the plays haven't connected.

Hitting such plays is crucial, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said this week – not only for the offense, but for the defense.

Manning said he agreed, and while he said there is no simple reason, he said explanations aren't the issue, anyway.

"The simple fact is, I just have to hit them," Manning said this week as the Colts (2-2), the five-time defending AFC South champions, prepared to play the Baltimore Ravens (2-2) in an AFC game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

"That's what I tell myself, 'You've got to hit them.' It's like I tell these receivers if they slip, 'Don't slip. You can't slip. It's not an option.' I just need to hit them."

The Colts, for much of the past decade, have not only been one of the NFL's most productive offenses, they have been an offense that consistently has hit – or had the threat of – the big, momentum-changing play.

From 1999, Manning's first of eight Pro Bowl seasons, the Colts averaged 9.5 completions per season of 40 yards of more, and 22 completions of 30 yards or more. During that span, they ranked in the Top 10 in total yards offense all nine seasons, and in the top five every season but 2002.

They also ranked in the top four in the NFL in scoring in each of those seasons except 2002.

This season, the Colts have completed one pass of more than 40 yards and three of more than 30 and rank 16th in the NFL in total offense.

"We're missing some deep balls that we normally hit," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said this week. "If all of a sudden you're scoring touchdowns and you're up on people, it's totally different. That's where we haven't been all year like we've normally been in the past.

"If you look back at our games you can remember guys being behind the defense. Reggie (Wayne) caught one Sunday, but they've been few and far between. Gonzo (second-year wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez) caught one at Minnesota, but think of the ones we've missed . . ."

Manning, when speaking about the near-misses in the deep passing game said, "It's hard to summarize every single four games as a whole.

"I've probably missed a few guys," he said. "I've definitely had some guys open. I had (wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison) open a couple of times deep on Sunday against Houston and against Jacksonville. I missed him.

"It's something I'd like to correct. I'd like to hit them. We'd like to be able to get some of those plays down the field. Reggie had a step on the corner against Houston and just came up a little but short on him. I just need to be able to hit them.

"That's just me making better throws and getting them further out there."

Said Dungy, "I've looked at quite a few of them, and it's hard to say. Some of them, we do have time, everything is set up and it's just a little bit off. A couple of them, we have been rushed and a couple, we've had guys open and the protection hasn't been there. We haven't been able to get them off and we've had to dump the ball off. We've had five or six, maybe even more than that, in the first four games that we normally hit and we haven't hit for whatever reason."

Manning, asked if not playing in the preseason while rehabilitating from knee surgery has affected timing with the receivers, said, "You could say that's a possibility," and added, "the nice thing is there are some plays there to be made."

"We still have the guys who can run by the corners," Manning said. "It's my job to get it out there to them."

Wayne, who has caught three passes for more than 30 yards this season – one in each of the last three games, including a 36-yarder against Houston this past week – said the Colts' offense has been so efficient in past seasons that, "I think we spoiled everybody so when everything doesn't go right it's, 'We're off, or whatever the case may be.

"You guys (the media) I guess are spoiled, just seeing balls fall in your laps," Wayne said. "We can't fall into that trap. . . .There are times when either I'm not running fast enough or he's not throwing far enough. There are times we don't connect. . . .

"The only thing we can do is go out there and continue to just play football."

Dungy said the lack of big plays in the passing game has caused defenses to play the Colts differently than years past. Following the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when the Colts hit a total of 25 pass plays over 40 yards and 61 over 30, Dungy said defenses stopped playing defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to take away the big plays.

In 2004, the Colts hit seven plays of 40 or more yards and 14 of more than 30, and over the last two seasons, they hit 18 plays of more than 40 yards and 46 of more than 30.

This season, however, Dungy said teams have played more defenders near the line of scrimmage against Indianapolis' offense, essentially challenging the Colts to complete deep passes.

"People are starting to crowd us, which is unusual for us," Dungy said. "We've gone so many years where people have said they can't give up the deep balls. Now, for whatever reason – whether they think we're not going to have enough time to throw, whether we are a little bit off – they're just saying, 'We're going to let you take your chances with the deep balls.'

"We hit Reggie on one (Sunday). We missed about five that we normally hit. Until we start hitting some of those, I think we're going to see the same thing."

Dungy said the situation influences more than the Colts' offense. He said whereas often in the past the Colts have hit big plays early, thereby taking a lead, this season, the Colts have led by 10 or more points just once – this past week against the Houston Texans, who took a 17-10 lead by halftime.

With Colts opponents playing with a lead, rather than playing from behind, Dungy said they have been able to run more often and control the clock. The Colts currently rank 32nd in the NFL in rushing defense and are 31st in time of possession.

"It does things to the game – all of a sudden you're up and games are played differently," Dungy said. "That's just the story of our life right now, that we aren't hitting them. Somehow, we're going to have to hit them. Otherwise, that's the way everybody's going to play us."

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