A Weekly Conversation with Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy
Each week during the 2008 regular season, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy will discuss topics pertinent to the Colts with Colts.com.
Question: A 33-27 victory over Houston on Sunday has moved the Colts to 6-4 entering the season's final six weeks. Winning creates a good feeling, but the way the team is playing is creating that, too, is it not?
Answer: It is – playing well, eliminating mistakes, cutting down on the turnovers and having our offense every week be a little bit sharper. There were a lot of good things, a lot of good things to build on.
Q: And for all of the analysis and examination – people trying to figure what was wrong before and what's right now – turnovers are a pretty good indication. The Colts have committed no turnovers in the last three games and won them all.
A: There really is no hard formula about it. We have cut down on our turnovers and cut down on our sacks and penalties and stayed out of long yardage. We've been able to possess the ball a little bit better and we've scored when we've gotten close in the red zone. We haven't had turnovers down there. That's what it takes. The plays that we're calling and the defenses we're running aren't that much different.
Q: The offense on Sunday, because of the balance, had a look and feel of Colts offenses from years past. The offense ran effectively, and because of that, it was able to throw effectively – and vice-versa . . .
A: We started out in our two tight-end package, then it looked like we had some better matchups in the three wides. That got them in their nickel defense, then they ran and we brought the deep safety up, then we threw. There was nothing really imaginative about it. It was just that was our offense and we executed it well.
Q: During the two-game losing streak in October, there were observers who wanted changes offensively and who said people are figuring out what the Colts are doing. Solving the issues really went back to tried and true philosophies, didn't it?
A: Really, it was. We didn't get behind in any of the last three games where we had to be one-dimensional. We were able to do that and just run our offense. Pittsburgh made it tough (on November 9). The Steelers are tough to run on, but we got enough runs in where they had to defend the running game. We had a chance to get some deep throws. The Texans really didn't want to give us any deep throws, so when we got our single-safety looks we threw a lot of slants and hooks and outs. It was the same plan of attack and we didn't short-circuit.
Q: In retrospect, it perhaps would have been easy for the Texans game to be a trap game. The Colts had just played three consecutive division leaders, and play San Diego – a division winner from last season – this week. But playoff runs are built on games like Sunday, aren't they? You're playing a team with a sub-.500 record at home and you've got to get that victory . . .
A: You have to go win. They're not easy to win. No games are really easy in the NFL. That's probably the difference between us and Jacksonville right now. Jacksonville had a loss to Cincinnati in there. That's easier said than done, to be able to play against the leaders, then play against a team that you have a better record.
Q: Did you discuss with the players the imance of not allowing that to be a so-called trap?
A: We've lost our margin for error, so that's what we have emphasized – that we can't have a week where you let one slip away because you didn't do everything you could. I think our guys have bought into that and in the last month, we've played well. We're going to have to continue that for another six weeks.
Q: You're in the middle of a streak of seven consecutive games against AFC opponents. Now, with a three-game winning streak it seems the Colts are hot at the right time . . .
A: We said the AFC games would be very, very critical. When you're zeroing in on the wild card that becomes the first tiebreaker in many cases. You have to win those AFC games. We have another one (Sunday) where we have a team that's competing for a playoff spot with us. If we get the head-to-head over them (the Chargers), that's going to put us in great shape because with all of the AFC teams we have played we'll basically have the tiebreakers over them. It was a streak where we needed to play well and fortunately, we have.
Q: The AFC games this season truly have become like division games were the last five years. Now, as was the case at times the last five seasons against AFC South teams, the Colts have a chance late in the season to get a big victory over a team competing for the same goal . . . Does this feel like it felt playing Jacksonville and Tennessee late in past seasons?
A: Exactly. That's where it is. It's another team we're basically competing against – not for the division, but for a playoff spot. (If the Colts win Sunday), they (the Chargers) would have to win four more games than us in the last five, so this would virtually do it for us if we can beat them. That's the way we have to look at it. Every team we play we have to say, 'This is our competition. We have to put them behind us.'
Q: The offensive line has been together as a starting unit for the last month. Rookie Mike Pollak is getting acclimated into the lineup at guard. It's no coincidence that the offense is starting to come together at the same time, is it?
A: That's why it's coming. We've had the same group in there. They've practiced together. They're anticipating things and I'm sure it's a reason we're playing better offensively.
Q: And in recent weeks, in addition to winning games, the Colts have been winning in consistent fashion, playing smart and winning the way it takes to get on a streak . . .
A: You have to build on it. That's what it takes to win these types of games. The giveaway-takeaway margin is huge. We played a team (Sunday) that protected the ball well, so we couldn't afford any giveaways. We didn't have them and that was big. We had penalties in the two-minute drive (at the end of the first half), but other than that, we didn't have an offensive penalties, so we didn't put ourselves in a lot of 2nd-and-longs and 3rd-and-longs. We covered our kicks well other than the one punt we had to rekick, so we were doing the things you have to do to win close games.
Q: A lot of long third downs converted on Sunday, particularly on the final drive of the first half . . .
A: We picked up 3rd-and-10-plus twice on that drive, and that's not easy to do in that situation. It was critical. We didn't give them a chance to get the ball back to expand their lead. We got it to 13-9, rather than being 16-6 or something like that at halftime.
Q: Defensive end Dwight Freeney has had four sacks in the last two games – this, a little more than a year after he sustained a season-ending foot injury at San Diego last November. As he prepares to return to San Diego for the first time since, do you like what you've seen from him lately?
A: It's funny. They told us he probably wouldn't be full speed maybe until a year from the injury. It is very, very close. I think he was probably full speed a little before this, but the last couple of weeks, we have gotten some chances while we were ahead and some chances to rush. He has taken advantage of it.
Q: As you enter the final six games, how do you feel about where the defense is? There were some rough spots Sunday, but overall what's your assessment?
A: We were growing. I thought we played very well the last three weeks and just a little inconsistency reared up this week. The bugaboo for us is giving up the big plays. We had two long runs and a long pass (against Houston) and we really don't want to give those up. We're doing some good things, but we've got to be consistent in not giving up those big plays. We had been, and hopefully, that was just an aberration.
Q: They're underrated as a team that can do that, though . . .
A: They get a lot of yards. They're averaging 371 yards a game. The thing that had bothered them was turnovers. We knew they could move the ball and had big-play players. You kind of expect to give up some passes. You don't expect to give up the long runs.
Q: How dangerous is San Diego right now? They're 4-6, but the Colts know from recent experience this is a good team . . .
A: They were in the same boat last year. They have to make a run. You feel like it's going to take 10 wins to make the playoffs. I'm sure they're looking at it like, 'Hey, we have to run the table.' We'll get their best effort. The game they had against New England (a 30-10 Chargers victory earlier this season) was as impressive as any game I've seen this year, to take them (the Patriots) and really beat them handily. That's what we have to expect – that type of game. We have to be ready and do the same thing we've done the past month.
Q: You're a huge believer in turnover differential as a key stat. San Diego led the NFL in takeaways last season with 48. The Chargers have 10 this season. You don't need to look much further to see the difference in their two seasons . . .
A: That's it, and obviously losing (Pro Bowl linebacker) Shawne Merriman (for the season) makes a big difference. He's a guy who generates pressure and causes the quarterback to throw quicker. He gets the sack/fumbles and those things. But having studied them, that was the difference in the two games we played them last year. We turned the ball over nine or 10 times. We lost both games by two or four points – whatever. So, you have to go in saying, 'Hey, if we protect the ball we have a chance to win.'
Q: You mentioned early that has been a big difference in recent weeks. But you really haven't emphasized it any more, have you?
A: No different. We've just been able to do it. We know what it takes and we know when we don't turn it over, we're hard to beat. But if you put yourself in situations where the other team gets ahead, sometimes you can just have a little bad luck, but if you take care of the ball, you're going to usually have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
Q: It seems like that's something you've been saying since 2002, your first year here: 'If we just protect the ball, a lot of other things will take care of themselves . . .'
A: It's no different. In 1996 and 1997 in Tampa, we had the same message. When you protect the ball, you have more opportunities, so you score more. With the weaponry we have and the players who can make plays – we had 81 plays on Sunday. If you turn it over and you only have 60, you're not going to score as much.
Q: Aside from the three consecutive victories, which creates a good feeling, what do you like more about this team entering the final month and a half than you did a month ago?
A: The sharpness that our offense is playing with, the way we've moved the ball and the fact that we've played some very good defenses and have continued to move the ball. We've played in some tough venues. We've gone to Tennessee and Pittsburgh. The next two weeks (at San Diego and Cleveland) will be in tough venues, but having done it, that helps you.