Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ice Colts

The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the 2005 Indianapolis Colts are just the sixth team since World War II to hold its first three opponents to single digits. My wife loves ridiculous stats like that, but it's nevertheless a hell of an accomplishment -- especially for the Colts, whose "defensive" scheme has traditionally been to put up 20 more points than the other team. How far has the Colts defense come? Indianapolis' opponents have scored a combined 16 points in three games. In the Colts' previous 112 regular season games -- from 1998-2004, the Peyton Manning era -- their opponents scored more than 16 points in a single game 82 times, or 73% of the time. The improvement is stark, and remarkable.

But I ask again, as I have every week: What's up with the offense? I understand that the Colts have faced three tough defenses: the Ravens, the Jaguars and Romeo Crennel's rebuilt Browns. But they've scored only 47 points in three games -- and seven of those points came on an interception return. Teams around the league are finally catching on to what Bill Belichick has been doing for several years. Defenders are bouncing around before the snap, switching looks to confound Manning's audibles. They're jamming Colts receivers repeatedly within the 5-yard contact zone, throwing off their timing. The Colts have responded by going to the run, and Edgerrin James is pounding it out, no doubt. Yet, the team that averaged 33 points a game last year is averaging less than 16 in 2005. The offense has four touchdowns and four field goals. Peyton Manning averaged three passing TDs a game in 2004 but has just two in three games in 2005, none since Week 1.

The 47 points the Colts have scored is their lowest output over a three-game span since the middle of the 2002 season. Here are the bleakest scoring stretches for the Colts since Manning took over as quarterback in 1998:

at NE6-29L
at NYJ6-44L
4620027-9at PIT10-28L
at WSH21-26L
4720051-3at BAL24-7W
4820013-6at NE13-44L

What jumps out here: 1) This is the first time the Colts have been so anemic during a winning streak. That's a credit to the defense. 2) The Manning-led Colts' lowest-scoring stretch of all was the first four games of 1998. Those were also Manning's first four games as a pro. The team finished 3-13 in 1998. (Manning's backup that year was Kelly Holcomb. Suppose the fans in Indy were calling for him? Probably. Memo to J.P. Losman: Holcomb is the most popular guy wherever he doesn't play.) 3) The 48-point stretch in 2001 included two games against the Super Bowl-champions-to-be Patriots. Those were two of the first four games Tom Brady started. Brady may own the Colts, but the Colts made Brady.

The Colts' next four games are against the Titans, 49ers, Rams and Texans. If they can't get the offense back on track against those leaky defenses, there's going to be real trouble when they play New England, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville (again). Of course, they'll also play the Cardinals, Seahawks, Titans (again), Texans (again) and Chargers. So they could stay in the same rut and still go 12-4.

But good Lord, it'd be nice to see some touchdowns.

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