Week 8: Patriots at Colts
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: A 31-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday. When you watched the tape Tuesday, what did you see?
Answer: I harken back to a sports analogy. Many years ago, I think in the late 1930s or early 1940s, there was a heavyweight from Pittsburgh named Billy Conn, who was substantially smaller than most of the other heavyweights at the time. He fought Joe Louis in Yankee Stadium. For 13 rounds, he had outpointed Joe Louis. All he had to do according to people who were at the fight was hang on for two more rounds and he might have won on points. He was convinced he had to knock Joe Louis out. He went out in the 14th round, I believe it was, and tried to knock him out. Joe Louis knocked him out. He was an exceptionally game fighter, a guy who went on to great fame and regard because of his gameness and his toughness, but he didn't get the job done because he went for the knockout punch. That's sort of the way we played Monday night. On the 4th-and-1 (late in the third quarter), we went for the knockout punch and didn't land it. The momentum changed dramatically. We didn't get the job done. A great effort by our players – a tremendous effort – went for naught, which is a shame, but there's a long way to go and we just have to bounce back and be in a position where we play another great opponent this coming week. That's what happens in the National Football League. You have to go ahead and play the best you can and work like the devil to get better. We got better (on Sunday). We played much better against the run, held them to 80 yards. The last one (a touchdown run by rookie Chris Johnson) was 16 (yards), so 64 yards at that point in time. We really did a terrific job defensively against the run and had a good plan and executed very well. We ran the ball very well and outrushed them, actually. That's a real plus. We protected very well. That's a real plus against a team that by all measures is the best team in the National Football League at this stage. That's all positive. We just have to build on that and keep working at it and understand that it's in our hands to do what we think is best and not worry about what anybody else thinks. We have to concentrate on improving ourselves and putting ourselves in position to make plays and go out and do it.
Q: You have a short week to prepare for the New England Patriots. How do you bounce back?
A: It's not easy. It's very difficult. We had some delays on the ground at the airport, so we didn't get home until nearly 4 a.m. (Tuesday) All of us were back in here bright and early trying to get ready for next week and the players have only one day to rest and recuperate from a very tough, physical game. We have our work cut out for us, but that's the National Football League and when you have the kind of schedule we have that's what happens. We just have to keep on keeping on. Fortunately, I think we'll get a lot of our injured players back and that will be a plus.
Q: With the 4th-and-1, hindsight is great. But at the time, you're thinking, 'If we can just get the first down . . .'
A: What happened was they penetrated. They knocked our puller off and so the hole wasn't there. We had made two 3rd-and-1s prior to that. All of our running backs ran terrifically well. Chad Simpson came in and ran very well, as did Dominic (Rhodes), so we felt good that we were OK there. We felt like we had the opportunity to make the play and didn't. The momentum swung. You can argue 50-50 either way, whether we should have punted the ball and played defense – hey, that's just the way it goes. That's over and done with. We can't get it back, so we have to continue to build on the positive things we did, which were many.
Q: You were up 14-6 in the third quarter and had them facing 3rd-and-6 around the 35. There was an incomplete pass and you think, 'OK, we held them,' then there's an illegal contact penalty on the defense . . . The penalties hurt a lot.
A: They did, but as I told (Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer) Jim Irsay and Tony (Dungy) earlier Monday, 'I'll lose my card in the general manager's union here, but I'll defend the official in this case.' Much more grievous sins have been missed by officials, including if you saw the Pittsburgh-Giants game on Sunday, a gross grab of a jersey in a zone-blitz situation where any kind of impediment of the receiver is going to cause an incompletion, which it did – no call. In this particular case, (Colts cornerback) Marlin Jackson got locked up with the tight end. They sort of bumped a little bit, but it looked awkward, because Marlin's not a very smooth cover guy. He's a terrific zone player and a terrific player of the ball. He's terrific tackler, but he doesn't look smooth when he's covering. It was an awkward-looking collision about nine yards down the field. I could see why the official would make the call. Has much worse been ignored? Yes, but you always applaud the official for making a call when it's there. It looked very awkward. I can't fault him for calling it.
Q: Dominic Rhodes in the last couple of games has really stepped up when he was needed . . .
A: And as the game went on, he ran much more authoritatively. Dominic's not a runner who can be a pitter-pat, pick-along, patient guy. Dominic's a guy who when he sees daylight, goes. He did that late in the game. He's as good a finisher as there is in the National Football League. He did a great job finishing runs. He always does. He energizes you with that kind of performance. As the game went on, he got better that way. (Reserve running back) Chad (Simpson) has great speed and acceleration in the hole. He did a terrific job, too, when he got in there. He, too, is finishing well because he's watching Dominic and learning to do that. That was a real, real positive thing. I wish we had been able to knock that 4th-and-1 in, because we were really playing our best at that point in time, but more power to them for having made the play.
Q: Why didn't the Colts challenge on the play when Titans running back Chris Johnson fumbled and was called down by contact? It appeared he fumbled and the Colts recovered.
A: He (Titans tight end Alge Crumpler) recovered the ball. It was not visible on TV or from the press box, but when you look at the tape, he recovered the ball. It clearly was a fumble. We would have thrown the (challenge) flag had we recovered, but if you throw the flag, there's nothing you can do about it. They won't award you the ball. You have to have recovered it. We saw it on the tape. He recovered it.
Q: Has there been any thought given to bringing in a quarterback to compete with Jim Sorgi for the backup quarterback position?
A: We'd like to bring in competition at every position. We've had some players in here that we thought might have a chance to be developmental quarterbacks, most notably this year. But it didn't work out. Jim was the better player. That's who we stayed with. We always try to pick the best player. We like competition at every position and I'm sure we'll have that situation again next year, although when Jim gets an opportunity to play – whether it's in the preseason or in the regular season – with the first group of guys, he always has done pretty well. No complaints there, but we like competition at every position. We just haven't been able to create the real top-flight competition that you'd probably like to see, mainly because players of Jim Sorgi's caliber are hard to come by.
Q: What's the PUP situation this week? You have Ryan Lilja still on the Physically Unable to Perform list and his so-called "window" of eligibility is closing, correct?
A: The clock must begin by November 4. We either have to start the clock on him and allow him to begin practicing by November 4 or he returns to reserve/injured for the season. My anticipation is we will start the clock on the third or fourth (of November) and we then have three weeks from there to make a decision as to whether or not to activate him or he reverts to reserve/injured at that point. We would anticipate, unless there's some sort of setback, that he would be pretty much ready to begin practicing then.
Q: Ball State wide receiver Dante Love sustained a career-ending injury earlier this season. Has there been thought to bringing him in in a coaching capacity?
A: It is something that we've talked about in very broad, general terms. I don't know what his career aspirations are, but it's something we certainly would consider if that's something he's interested in. We're certainly hopeful that whatever he does, he does well.
Q: It seems whenever the Colts cover man-to-man, they play well off the ball or tend to not do as well as when they play zone coverage . . .
A: It's not every time, but that's a good approximation of what occurs. We are a team that traditionally has been a backed-off, zone kind of football team. We don't press as a general rule. That is because we value corners who can tackle and who have ball skills and because the basis of our defense is keeping everything in front of you and playing the ball from deep to short. So, we don't play with the kinds of corners like Corltand Finnegan for example from Tennessee who is an outstanding press corner. On the few occasions we do press it's almost always because we have help behind us with safeties in Cover 2. We are not and have not been a good man-to-man team. When we're in man-to-man coverage, we do leave some people open. Now, part of that is because we've had injuries, particularly to (cornerback) Kelvin Hayden, but part of that is also because we are constructed to be a zone football team and it's much harder for us to play man-to-man and harder for us to develop those techniques. It's not a strong suit of ours, so you get the impression – particularly when we're in man-to-man – that people get open. That has been true far more often than not this year. A lot of sound and fury has been spent discussing our inability to stop the run, but we are certainly in the lower third of the league in stopping third-down passing. That perception is in the ballpark.
Q: Has there been any thought given to trying to change things up offensively and fool the defense. It seems the Colts run basically the same offense all the time . . .
A: We certainly work by trying to change things up. I don't think you ever win by tricking people. You have to win by execution, but we do change things up. On Sunday night in particular, we did not execute particularly well in the passing game. We had some balls that were underthrown. We had a couple of balls that were dropped. We had a couple of routes that were run short of where they should have been run. You end up in a situation where the long and short of it is that you don't perform very well. We ran the ball, I thought, particularly well, but it's really more a function of execution than anything else. No one really tricks anybody in the National Football League. More often than not, you win because the other team made mistakes rather than you overwhelming the other team. I think that was the case on Monday Night. We made far too many mistakes in the third-down situations so I think we weren't able in the second half particularly, to shut them down.
Q: The Colts are currently 29th in the NFL in third-down defense.
A: You're not going to win many games down there. We're at 44 percent. The Giants are leading the league right at 33 percent. Everybody hollers about run and stop the run, but the bottom line is third down is where it counts.
Q: On 4th-and-1, was there any consideration given to having quarterback Peyton Manning run a bootleg?
A: For one thing, he is not the most agile or fastest guy. We've done some good things with respect to bootlegs in the past. As a general rule, we're constructed to be a team that is a speed team, an athletic team and I really think we're in a position where if we take advantage of that in short-yardage that we will be probably a little more successful than trying to be a power-running team. The point is well-taken and it's something we have to think about. You need to make those third- and fourth-down situations, and the power running is sometimes difficult to do.
Q: Hall of Fame Quarterback Steve Young mentioned on the ESPN broadcast Monday that Manning is still playing with a knee injury. Any comment?
A: I know Steve Young mentioned that on the broadcast or in the post-game show on Monday night. I just want to put an end to that speculation. There's no one in the game I respect more than Steve Young. I understand observation is a good thing, but people can be right and wrong in observation. I can assure you Peyton is not hurt. He has no injuries to speak of. There's nothing wrong with his arm. There's nothing wrong with his knee. To put those kind of conjecture to rest, he has not appeared on any injury list and won't, because he doesn't have an injury. We made some throws on Monday night that we'd rather have back, I'm sure, but it had nothing to do with injury.
Q: When it comes to going for a first down on 4th-and-1, who makes that decision?
A: The answer on the 4th-and-1 call is that's Tony's call. That's the head coach's call. The play call is dialed up by (Offensive Coordinator) Tom Moore and (Offensive Line Coach) Howard Mudd and it's practiced during the week obviously. You don't pull a play out of the grab bag in that situation, but Tony makes the call whether or not to go for it. It's 50-50. (Former Buffalo Bills and Hall of Fame Head Coach) Marv Levy used to say, 'If you don't make it, you should have done the other thing,' and that's very true. In this particular case, had we made it, it would have been great. You can make a very strong argument for the case that we were punting the ball very well and playing defense very well. You pin them back there and make them go 80 yards. There is good logic and merit on both sides of the argument. It ultimately comes down to execution and we didn't execute in that particular case.
Q: Defensive tackle seems to have been a problem area for the Colts dating to Steve Emtman. Do you think the position is cursed?
A: We've had some difficulty with the position over the years. I can't go all the way back to Emtman. I think that was bad luck more than anything else. He had some knee injuries. In terms of (Corey) Simon, he played awfully well for us (in 2005) when he was healthy, but then he went through a year of terrible health where he couldn't do anything. He tried to make a comeback and couldn't do it after we released him. That was just an unfortunate circumstance. Then, we traded for (Anthony) "Booger" McFarland (in 2006) and he worked out just fine. We won a Super Bowl with him. Then, the first day of training camp the following year down he goes with a very serious knee injury and he has not come back from it. We thought we'd hit the jackpot by drafting Quinn Pitcock in the third round (in 2007) and getting Ed Johnson as a free agent from Penn State albeit one with a checkered past. We thought that given the fact that (Penn State Head Coach) Joe Paterno vouched for him – which we put great stock in – and the fact that he recognized that he was going to get an opportunity to really be a very fine pro football player and make a good living for himself that he would stay on the straight and narrow. But he didn't. And Quinn inexplicably decided to hang it up. Is it bad luck? Yeah. I don't believe in curses. I don't believe in positions that are cursed or stuff like that. It's just awfully bad luck and a string of it, but we'll fight our way through it and get the position better. The unfortunate part of it is you can't do it in a quantum leap during the regular season. The one move we tried to make – which would not have been of the same import as Booger or Simon – was to get John McCargo (in a trade with Buffalo). Unfortunately, he was not able to pass our physical because he had a bulging disk in his back. You just run into bad luck and the way to beat bad luck is to keep fighting. That's what we'll do at the position and any others where we feel it needs to be shorn up.
Q: Melvin Bullitt has played well at safety in place of injured Bob Sanders. Is there a way to keep him on the field when Sanders returns?
A: We have to figure out a way to make sure Melvin Bullitt stays on the field when Bob comes back, and that should be this weekend. That's something that the defensive staff has to devise and has to work with. He is a playmaker and we have to get him on the field. He's a fearless guy and a guy who shows up around the football all the time.
Q: Can you comment on the play of safety Antoine Bethea? He made the Pro Bowl last season. Have you seen a dropoff this season?
A: To be very truthful with you, I have not seen any dropoff at all in his play. Keep in mind that because of our lack of bulk at defensive tackle and even lack of numbers at the position, you're getting many more large holes on the line of scrimmage. Now, that did not occur on Monday Night until the last running play of the game. When a safety enters the play, he's entering with a huge area to cover. That's a great mismatch many times against a great running back. We have not had the kind of impactful play by either Antoine or Melvin that we had last year largely because we're not getting the kind of push upfront that we got last year. The same is true of pass rush. We've not had a very successful pass rush, particularly up the middle, virtually all year. Therefore, we have not had as many deflections and overthrows where we can get interceptions as we have had in the past. That leads to a perception that he's not playing as well. I really think he has. He's the same player he always has been.
Q: Is there any way to get bigger on the defensive front?
A: Getting bigger is a function of acquiring new players. Certainly, in terms of defensive tackles, we need to get tackles of the equivalent both talentwise and size of Ed Johnson and Quinn Pitcock. Now, that doesn't mean 350 pounds, but it certainly means 290-295 – in that area. That will make a huge difference. Can we do that now? Probably not. Is it an offseason project? Certainly. Relative to time of possession and staying on the field, we can do two things. We can continue to run the ball the way we have, which is quite successfully. Monday night was a prime example of that. Secondly, we can hit the check-down pass to the running backs and the wide receivers. When people play you to stop the deep pass, when people double the outside receivers, when people double the tight end down over the middle, what you're going to get is the check down. That keeps the chains moving. It takes time off the clock. It's not the big-strike play, but sometimes it's the best strike. You're in a position where you keep the chains moving and you give the defense a little bit of a rest. You end up scoring points. It's not one of those hold-your-breath type plays, but it does move the chains. (Titans quarterback) Kerry Collins was great at that Monday night, by the way.
Q: Why have the Colts used so much two tight-end formation this season? Has there been any thought given to using more three-wide receiver sets?
A: Lots of times we'll go with the two tight-end formation because it does two things for you. It allows you to max protect if you want to. It allows you to flex (tight end) Dallas (Clark) into the slot if you want to, and that sometimes can create a mismatch, and it gives you a real good blocker in Gijon Robinson on the field and that really helps the running game. When you go to the three wide receivers you take Gijon off the field and put (wide receiver Anthony) Gonzo (Gonzalez) in and we just have not been in that three-wide situation perhaps as much as we were in years past when we had (current Broncos wide receiver Brandon) Stokley. That could change over time and a lot of it depends on the kind of defense you're facing, too.
Q: What happened to the pass defense on Monday night? It entered the game fourth in the NFL.
A: The fourth in the league was really a misnomer. The Bears ran the ball almost exclusively. Jacksonville ran the ball almost exclusively. Baltimore tried to run almost exclusively. So those statistics get skewed. The statistic I quoted earlier, where we were 29th in the league in third-down conversions on defense, is the troublesome one that relates as much to pass defense as it does to having manageable third downs, some of which come from running the ball. Basically, we've not been a good covering team all year and that, to me, has been a bigger problem than the run. The run looks more damaging, but in the end, it's the third-down conversions and the inability to get off the field that has been troubling. Hopefully, that will change with Kelvin and Bob back and we'll be a little bit better. We'll have to be against a very good passing New England Patriot team.
Q: You mentioned the Patriots. Talk about them a little bit. They're without Tom Brady at quarterback, but they're still 5-2 . . .
A: They still have that great defense. They've done a pretty good job at moving the football through the air. (Quarterback) Matt Cassel has done a nice job there. They still have (wide receiver Wes) Welker. They still have (wide receiver) Randy Moss. They still have very good tight ends. They have a very well-coached offensive line, the area that has been hurt in addition to Brady has been the running game, where (Laurence) Maroney went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and Sammy Morris has been dinged up a little bit. We won't probably know until game time whether Sammy can play or not. That leaves Faulk and BenJarvis Green-Ellis, who's a very hard running rookie out of Mississippi to carry the running load. (Kevin) Faulk is a very good draw, screen, third-down catching back and a very explosive guy who has hurt us in the past. It's a formidable offense still with lots of weapons and a really strong defense that remains healthy despite the fact that they're a little long in the tooth at some positions. They did lose (safety Rodney) Harrison, which is a big loss for them, but safety (Brandon) Meriweather will step in and do a great job there. (Jerod) Mayo, the rookie linebacker from Tennessee, has been doing a fine job, so it's as formidable a defense as ever with (defensive tackle) Vince Wilfork and (defensive end Richard) Seymour. We know them well and they've tormented us for a long time. Offensively, while it's not Tom Brady, it's still a stellar cast and one of the best-coached teams every year. They'll concede nothing and be prepared for everything, so it's a very tough matchup.
Q: And they never seem to make critical mistakes . . .
A: They never beat themselves. They don't commit penalties. They don't turn the ball over. They don't make mental errors. That's a credit to their coaching staff and Bill Belichick. They're well-prepared and they play as well and as efficiently no matter who's in there as any team in the National Football League.