Week 9: Colts at Steelers
Bill Polian, in his 11th season as Colts president, has a resume unique in the NFL. One of two men to win NFL Executive of the Year five times, Polian in the 1980s built the Buffalo Bills into a four-time Super Bowl participant. In the mid-1990s, he built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made the NFC Championship Game in its second season, 1996. Since joining Indianapolis in 1998, he built the Colts from a 3-13 team in 1997 and 1998 into one that has made the playoffs eight of the last nine seasons, including an AFC Championship Game appearance after the 2003 and 2006 seasons, AFC South titles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 and a Super Bowl championship following the 2006 season. Each week during the season, in The Polian Corner, Polian and Colts.com will discuss issues pertinent to the Colts and the rest of the NFL.
Question: An 18-15 victory over the New England Patriots Sunday. It was a big victory at Lucas Oil Stadium in some very difficult circumstances . . .
Answer: It certainly was, and it was really a great effort by our team. I have to take my hat off to them (Colts players). I'm very proud of the effort they put forth, especially considering all of the awful luck we have had with injury and all of those kinds of things that have cropped up for us over the course of this season. For them to play as hard as they played and as well as they played under those circumstances really says a lot about their makeup and their character. We're very proud of them.
Q: Cornerback Keiwan Ratliff didn't learn he would start against New England until Friday and still played very well . . .
A: He didn't get here until Thursday, then played against (Patriots wide receivers) Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Co.
Q: That's a pretty good trio of wide receivers for New England – Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, although Gaffney had an important drop in the second half Monday . . .
A: They're very good. That was a play by the way that Moss scored on in last year's game. It's a two-seam route against Cover 2. They miss (running back Laurence) Maroney, I think, a lot. Their running backs did a great job. (Veteran Kevin Faulk) did a terrific job, but I think they miss Maroney's explosiveness. I was really impressed with (quarterback Matt) Cassel. You're always impressed with the way they block on the offensive line and the design of their blocking schemes. They always do a great job with that and it was no different this time around. They're very beaten up in the defensive backfield, as are we, so in many respects it was two similar teams and because of that, the game was a different style than fans are used to seeing when these two teams meet. Nevertheless, it was very entertaining and a lot of good plays.
Q: It was a game in which the game plans for both teams seemed dictated by injuries . . .
A: Absolutely right. We were going to make sure we weren't going to give them an easy score through the air. They were trying to make sure they kept our possessions to a minimum. Someone asked me Monday had they done that before. The answer is, 'Yes, in a playoff game (following the 2004 regular season).' They did a great job of it. You knew midway in the third quarter it was going to come down to who made a mistake. They didn't convert on the big pass (to Gaffney). That sort of opened the door for us. It was a tight, hard-fought game. Both teams are still very much in the mix, in the hunt, and there's a long way to go until January. So, we'll see what happens.
Q: The Colts have started the past three seasons 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0, but this year, they and the Patriots are among a slew of AFC teams with five, four and three victories halfway through the season . . .
A: This is a situation where injuries – and in our case, two defections – have brought us back to the pack. Obviously, the injuries to (quarterback Tom (Brady) and Maroney and some in the secondary have brought the Patriots back to the pack a little bit. So, we – and by 'we' I mean they (the Patriots) and us – are not the teams that are out there sprinting to the front in the early going. Tennessee has done that and done it very well because they (the Titans) have found some players who really make a difference for them – namely (quarterback) Kerry Collins and their (rookie) running back, Chris Johnson. San Diego has had injuries, principally to (linebacker Shawne) Merriman, which have affected them greatly. We always say at the beginning of every year when we talk about, 'What does it look like? What does the future hold?' you always knock on wood and say, 'Please, God, let's stay injury-free' . . . well, the Pats and the Colts have not stayed injury-free, nor have the Chargers, so it's really anybody's race in virtually all of the divisions. I wouldn't concede anything to Tennessee, although I take my hat off to them the way they are playing. As far as the other spots are concerned, I think it's up for grabs. Go for it.
Q: There were some big plays made Sunday night – not necessarily long plays, but critical ones . . . Every play meant something.
A: That was one of those games where it was a grit-your-teeth, every-play-was-going-to-mean-something game. You knew a mistake was likely to decide it. There were a lot of big plays on our part. I think we limited their big plays pretty well. (Wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison's) catch just before the half, which unfortunately was wasted because of a timing error, was a huge play. Marvin's first down in the four-minute drill was a huge play. (Tight end) Dallas (Clark's) play on the second drive was a huge play. (Wide receiver) Reggie (Wayne) had a couple of big ones and, of course, the touchdown throws to (second-year wide receiver Anthony) Gonzo (Gonzalez) – while they didn't cover much ground – were things of beauty. We ran the ball – although not spectacularly – we ran the ball well against a very stout front seven. We ran it well enough to do our other things. That was terribly important and a great credit to (running backs) Joseph Addai and particularly Dominic Rhodes, who came in and really banged it in there very well for us. Our offensive line did a great job for us. It wasn't hold-your-breath, acrobatics, 52-48 or whatever the heck the score has been between us when we have these shootouts, but if you're a football fan you couldn't help but be pleased with the quality of the game and the hard hitting. It was a hard-played, hard-fought football game by both teams. You would expect that, but it really was above and beyond in that regard.
Q: Reggie Wayne caught a key two-point conversion and made a big play to hold the ball . . .
A: Phenomenal. (Patriots safety Brandon) Meriweather really lit him up. But that's what you expect when these two teams get together. Their secondary, coached by Dom Capers – who is a good friend and a heck of a good coach – is as hard-a-hitting secondary as there is in football. I take my hat off to our guys, too. They really stood in there and delivered some blows, too. Our secondary did a heck of a job. (Safeties) Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders . . . it was great to have Bob back, obviously. With Bob back, we had the luxury of being able to move Antoine into the nickel position and he played terrifically. We got a little bit of a break there in terms of health. (Cornerback) Marlin (Jackson) went down, but Bob came back, so we were able to play pretty efficiently. It was just a real hard-hitting football game – a tough one to lose and a great one to win.
Q: Meriweather and Wayne each attended the University of Miami. There's no unwritten rule that Meriweather doesn't lay into Reggie like that?
A: (Laughing) I suspect they've done that before. All those U (Miami) guys stick together, but I think there is more platoon loyalty than school loyalty. They get after each other pretty well.
Q: Has there ever been thought to having the referees wear any sort of protective gear such as a helmet?
A: The idea of official safety has been discussed a lot by the (NFL) Competition Committee. At one point, we actually looked – along with the officiating department – at a hockey-type helmet, the type of helmet that the hockey officials wear. It was so out of character for NFL officials that the officiating department wasn't keen on it, and the officials absolutely did not want it. But I wonder if something like a jockey's helmet – which carries with it a liner and looks like a reasonably attractive cap, if you will – would be appropriate, certainly for the umpire. We talked at great length about moving the umpire into the backfield. The umpire is the man who stands directly opposite the offensive center – sort of where the linebackers are. He is the one who most often is hit from the blindside, clipped, bounced around, rolled-up upon – all of these kinds of things. We talked very long and hard about moving him into the backfield. We actually experimented with it. The members of the Competition Committee felt it was a good thing, that he was going to pick up a lot of holding on the backside that wasn't being picked up and that he was going to be able to do as good a job maintaining control of the game as he could if he were in the other position. The umpires almost to a man felt differently. They were very vociferous about it. They felt they would lose control of the line of scrimmage. Frankly, I don't know what that means, but it was an important thing to them. We didn't mandate that change, and every once in a while an umpire gets run over or somebody gets hurt badly and the issue comes up again. We always revisit it. We haven't had too many injuries to officials on the wings or on the sidelines that I can think of and almost never to the referee. He's so far behind the play that he never really becomes a factor in terms of physical contact, but the umpires are at serious risk. I for one would be happy to see them padded up. I think they need to be.
Q: (Referee) Bill Carollo collided with a Patriots player who was coming on for a play Sunday. That wouldn't be a finable offense, would it?
A: No, no. Bill's one of the referees who really hustles a lot. He's a very active official. Those things will happen from time to time. It's rare a referee gets knocked around. They're usually so far behind it that there's no opportunity for them to get hit, but I'm all for padding them if it's feasible to do, and I think it is.
Q: The Patriots tried the Wildcat Formation with quarterback Matt Cassel lined up wide on Sunday night. Why do teams do this, and does it cause confusion?
A: It does cause some difficulty because you're so used to seeing the quarterback under center or in shotgun. You deploy your defense based upon the strength of the offense and it's usually to the two-receiver side. The strong-side linebacker, the strong safety, will go to the two-receiver side in most cases. In this particularly case you have a running back in the shotgun formation with nobody next to him and Cassel is split out. All of a sudden everybody's saying, 'Whoa. What do we do here?' There's nobody assigned to Cassel normally. If the reverse were true and you took the running back and flanked him out, normally if nothing else a linebacker would go out there with him. The middle linebacker might go out there with him or the strong-side linebacker might go out with him. But who goes out with the quarterback? That becomes an issue you have to deal with it. It's easy to get adjusted once you've seen it, but of course, the plays from the so-called Wildcat Formation are somewhat difficult to adjust to, because you don't know whether or not the guy is going to hand the ball off. Chances are he won't pass it, although if I were running the Wildcat Formation – and this is the way I saw it run by Pitt on Saturday – I surely would have an option pass in there because everybody flows to the ball so quickly, particularly at the collegiate level. But you don't know if he's going to pass it. You don't know if he's going to hand it off on a reverse. It's a little more difficult to handle than you think. It takes some adjusting to. Once you get adjusted and you understand whose responsibility belongs to what player, then you're OK, but when you see it as a surprise, it can be difficult.
Q: Why was Marvin Harrison lined up as a punt returner Sunday?
A: We decided that in a game this big, we really didn't want to put (rookie) Pierre Garcon in a position of having to return punts. (Cornerback Keiwan) Ratliff, who was perfectly capable of doing it, was going to be out there running with Randy Moss and Co. The likelihood of his being winded after a long play was going to be an issue, we thought. Marvin obviously has great hands so we thought, 'Let's give it a try. He has done it before in emergency situations.' I remember him doing it in Jacksonville a couple of years ago. He does it well. You know for sure you're going to secure the ball, which is the most important thing. You know the judgment is going to be flawless and whatever you get in terms of a return is a bonus, really. Once he gets comfortable doing it, he'll be great at returning it, but I'm not sure you want to do it as a steady diet, anyway. You would rather have somebody other than he doing it, but in a big game like that, he's more than capable of doing it. Of course, we really miss our return game, which is on the injured reserve list after T.J. (Rushing) blew his knee out in the preseason. We really haven't replaced that.
Q: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning really spread the ball to different receivers Sunday night. Wayne, Clark, Harrison and Gonzalez all had at least four receptions for at least 50 yards . . .
A: We spread it around well. You have to do that against the Pats, because you never know who they're going to double-cover on a particular play. You never know what coverage you're going to get. You never know what kind of a blitz you're going to get. You have to be prepared to go to everybody and that's exactly what happened.
Q: It seems as if (backup running back) Dominic Rhodes is getting more yards than (starter) Joseph Addai rushing. If that's true, why is Addai getting more carries?
A: On Sunday night, Joseph got 17 carries and Dom got four. That's probably not the ratio you would want under any circumstances. Sometimes the flow of the game dictates that. Peyton has such confidence in both guys and (Offensive Coordinator) Tom (Moore) has such confidence in both guys that he's not going to adjust the play-calling based on who is in the game. Joseph happened to be in the game when those runs were called. Dom didn't get his number called quite as much. You would want that to be much more approaching 60-40 or 50-50 even, and I'm sure that's something we'll work on going forward.
Q: The Colts are ranked first in the NFL in touchdown efficiency offensively and sixth defensively . . .
A: That's a good place to be good. Clearly, the game is about scoring and if you're able to handle that area of it, you have a good chance to win some ball games. Far too much is made of the gross statistics, giving up 'X' amount of yardage against the run, 'X' amount of yardage against the pass. Much of that is tactical in nature, but the red zone is one statistic that really counts, because when you're in there, you cash in or you don't cash in and most times games are won and lost by how efficient you are in that area.
Q: Did you think the play-calling was superior for the Colts against New England than it was against Tennessee the week before?
A: To be truthful, I didn't think there was really any difference from one game to the other. The issue is execution. Against Tennessee, we didn't execute as well as we should have, particularly in some areas of pass protection and we didn't execute quite as crisply in the passing game. On Sunday night, we ran virtually all of the same plays. We just executed them much better than we did against Tennessee. We were much more crisp in terms of delivering the ball. We were much more crisp in our route running. We protected against a very good front four, a front four that's favorably compared to Tennessee by most experts. We picked up their blitzes, which is much more difficult frankly than trying to pick up a straight four-man rush. We did that well and gave Peyton time to throw. He was on target and on fire. When you're clicking, it looks as though your play selection is different. When you're not clicking, it looks as though it's predictable and doubty. In most cases in my experience, it's a matter of execution.
Q: There have been cases around the NFL this season where defenders have pulled back to avoid unnecessary-roughness penalties on receivers who are down. Recently, a defender did this and the receiver got up and ran for a touchdown. What is the rule and what can be done about this sort of instance?
A: With respect to the rule, you have to be down by contact in our league. If your knee simply goes down without any contact from a defender, you're still alive. My feeling is we would never go to the simply knee down rule, because the converse has been so much a staple of our game dating to the founding of the league in the 1920s. The way the rule is enforced is if a player is down and you need to contact him you have to do it in such a way that will not cause injury. Let's use the most common example: A pass catcher lays out to catch a pass, is on the ground and is somewhat winded or stunned because he has hit the ground hard and doesn't make an attempt to get up. A defensive back can't come over and drill him in the back with his helmet or shoulder pads or any part of his body. That would be unnecessary roughness because it's unnecessary. If that same player in that same circumstance is in the process of getting up after having caught the ball and attempting to run, you can hit him as hard you possibly can hit him. Now, not too many weeks ago – maybe four or five – the (NFL) Commissioner (Roger Goodell) sent out a memo saying the officials were going to be a lot tougher on what they consider to be unnecessary roughness. The Commissioner did not go beyond that and we have not had any real definition from the officials or the league office as to what they think is unnecessary, but I see no change in how they officiate the game in that regard, so I think the time-tested method still applies. We tell our defensive players, 'If a guy is in the process of getting up, by all means, knock him down. Tackle him. But don't deliver a gratuitous hit – a, it could be a flag, which you don't want, and b, you could hurt someone, which you never want. And they can fine you after the fact. You're at risk if you commit a personal foul. You're at risk of a fine, so why do it?'
Q: How close are Bob Sanders and Joseph Addai to being in full game condition?
A: Bob, I think, came out really well. He was up-beat and very positive. In our meeting Monday morning, (secondary coach) Alan Williams talked about the fact that he thought the only thing missing with Bob was a little timing in terms of entry into plays and things of that nature. He was good after the ballgame. No problem there. Joseph was fine. I'm not sure he's 100 percent yet in terms of burst. He's probably 94 percent or 95 percent, but not all the way back there. He should get better as the weeks go on. That disparity in carries (between Rhodes and Addai) is probably more a function of the way the game went than anything else. You'd like it to be much more along the 60-40, 50-50 range, but both men are really good backs. Dominic made a terrific run in the four-minute period when we were killing the clock. He took a run that was going to be zero or minus-yardage and knocked it into a three-yard gain. It was a really gutsy run.
Q: Were you surprised how many plays Bob played in his first game back?
A: No, it was really obvious in practice that he was ready to go. We didn't have very many other people to play. I thought we were going to have to suit some guys from the coaching staff up. We needed every live body in the secondary. That's for sure.
Q: The windows were closed at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday. Why?
A: Our kickers came to me before the game and said, 'There's a breeze down there.' Principally, (punter) Hunter Smith said, 'It's a lot more difficult to kick down there.' We'd faced breezy situations in Green Bay and Tennessee the two previous weeks. Hunter said he thought it would be better if we closed the window. I said, 'That's fine. We'll close it.' So, we did.
Q: Adam Vinatieri was as sharp in the warm-ups from 50-yards plus as he has been in a while. Then, he made the game-winner in the fourth quarter from 52 yards.
A: Closing the window doesn't help or hurt either team. It just makes it a much more level playing field. It doesn't allow the wind to be a factor in one end of the stadium. The roof was open, so our feeling was – and (Senior Executive Vice President) Pete Ward and I talked this over and checked with (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim (Irsay) just before the game – that with the roof open we were able to give the fans a comfortable environment on an unseasonably warm night. With the window closed, we were able to give the kickers a very stable environment on both ends of the field in a situation where obviously kicking was going to be an important part of the game, so we felt that was a pretty good tradeoff.
Q: It seemed linebacker Tyjuan Hagler had a very good game. Has he regained his starting job?
A: We never remove a guy from his job because of injury. We try to play the best players all the time, but Tyjuan played awfully well (Sunday) night. I don't know how long Freddy (Keiaho) will be out. I'd be surprised if he's back this week, but Tyjuan played well last week against Tennessee when we used the four-linebacker defense, so our feeling is everybody contributes. It's not a matter of who is a starter or who isn't a starter. Everybody has to contribute. He did greatly on Sunday night. It's great to have him back.
Q: With the running game, is it the blocking or the reads of the running back that is causing the current difficulty?
A: The blocking was quite good Sunday night. New England has a terrific front three in (Vince) Wolfork, (Ty) Warren and (Richard) Seymour. You might say front four because Wilfork takes up the space of two people. They also have terrific linebackers who really are household names – (Tedy) Bruschi, (Mike) Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. They have been joined by a terrific rookie out of Tennessee – Jerod Mayo, who was their first-round draft choice. They are really, really good at playing the run, so when you play against them, what you really want to do is bang the ball in there. If you can get four, get four. If you can get five, get five. If you can get three, get three. Don't hesitate. Bang it up there in the hole. Keep the ball moving forward – matriculating the ball downfield, as (the late Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints Head Coach) Hank Stram used to say. Don't look for big plays, because they're not going to give you many. We had two on Sunday night. In both cases, Joseph had the ball. One was on a draw and the other was a cutback play, where I think if he was 100 percent – if he had his fifth-gear burst, which wasn't quite there yet – he would have broken for big yardage. But that was all that was there for big yardage. The rest of it was hard-earned yards, well-earned by our running backs and well-blocked by our offensive front. No spectacular plays, but more than good enough to win.
Q: Can you address the depth at the cornerback position?
A: The depth is gone is the short answer. Marlin (Jackson) is gone for the season. He has undergone surgery on his knee and will be gone for the season. He will have a long rehabilitative period. Kelvin Hayden had arthroscopic surgery. He came back and in the first practice back injured his hamstring. He's probably out for a little while longer. Michael Coe, who we were counting on very heavily as both a big-time special teams contributor and a very good backup defensive back, tore his knee up in training camp and underwent surgery. He is still rehabilitating and is gone for the year because he is on injured reserve thanks to the 80-man training camp roster, unfortunately. He would be still probably another month away even if we had access to him. Dante Hughes came up with a sore ankle last Wednesday and could not go. He tried it on Thursday and could not go, so he was out Sunday. That's four cornerbacks gone for that ballgame and only the prospect of perhaps Dante Hughes and Kelvin Hayden coming back any time in the foreseeable future, so it's a tough situation. We had Ratliff here during training camp. He didn't make the team in the early going and we brought him back because he has been through training camp and is a veteran player. He knows what's going on. He acquitted himself quite well. I've always said in discussions with various members of the media and even in Competition Committee discussions that when you get past the third player at any position you're really, really in deep trouble. For us to play essentially with our fourth and sixth corners on Sunday night – fourth and sixth corners is the best way to describe it – and play as well as we did is a great tribute both to those players and the coaches who got them ready.
Q: Next up: the Pittsburgh Steelers. A tough opponent, particularly on the road . . .
A: You have the combination of what appears to be not great weather . . . that field is always an issue. I think they have done some things to improve it, but with rain and snow showers, it's probably not very good. There's a black hole for field-goal kickers going down to the river end of the stadium. And not least of the obstacles you face are the guys dressed in black and gold, who are a great defensive team with a very difficult, blitzing, 3-4 defense. It's very difficult to solve and very difficult to handle and very difficult to get people open against. They make it very difficult to protect the passer. They're a very, very dynamic offense, one that will have (wide receiver) Santonio Holmes – who is their home-run hitter – back. Whether (running back) Willie Parker will be back or not remains to be seen. Big Ben Roethlisberger, of course, is a great quarterback. They have a terrific tight end in Heath Evans and a very physical blocking front, so they're 6-2 for a reason – a formidable opponent if we were playing them here as we well know, having lost to them in the playoffs (after the 2005 season) on their Super Bowl run, but they're very, very difficult to play in Pittsburgh.