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When it comes to defensive success, big plays tell the tale

  • By Elliot Harrison Special to NFL.com
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Darron Cummings / Associated Press
The Colts limited the Giants to just two plays of 20-plus yards in their Week 2 victory.


On Sunday night, Mario Manningham caught a beautifully arced pass at the 22-yard line, spun out of a desperate tackle attempt and put the Giants on the board with their first touchdown. It was Colts 24, Giants 7. Yippee for the G-Men.

That was the only big play the Giants could muster until garbage time. The Colts prevented the quarterback that connected on the most deep passes last season (Eli Manning) from doing the same in their house.

The NFL's manner of categorizing "big plays" is to keep track of gains of 20-plus yards. Indy allowed the Manningham catch (54 yards) and an inconsequential late touchdown to Hakeem Nicks (31 yards), and that was it.

So with that kind of lead up, 10 guesses as to what team's defense led the NFL in fewest big plays allowed last year ...

Darron Cummings / Associated Press
The Colts might not be known for defense, but the unit is stingy when it comes to giving up big plays.
Plays allowed of 20-plus yards last season
2009 rank Big plays Record
1. Colts 36 14-2, lost in SB XLIV
2. Jets 41 9-7, lost in AFC title game
3. Chargers 43 13-3, lost in div. round
4. Bengals 46 10-6, lost in wild card

The Colts.

Yes, Peyton Manning is good. Yes, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are loved more than Steve Alford and Keith Smart in Indiana. Yes, the Tecmo Bowl-like offense propelled the team to its second Super Bowl berth in four years last season.

But defensive coordinator Larry Coyer's unit should also be recognized. The Colts gave up just 36 big plays (those that gained 20-plus yards) all last season. That was better than the Ravens, Cowboys and even Rex Ryan's Jets, who gave up 41.

It's surprising that Ryan's defense gave up more big plays than the little-engine-that-could Colts. What's not surprising is that it wasn't just those two teams that benefited from keeping a lid on plays of 20-plus yards. You'll notice that the third- and fourth-ranked teams in this quirky defensive category did pretty well too ... that is, if you think 13-3 and 10-6 are good.

When defenses perform adequately but have a propensity to give up the big play at inopportune times, they lose. It's just like peanut butter sandwiches. You put too big a chunk of peanut butter on the knife, and it won't spread evenly. The bread tears, your sandwich is ruined, and the day is shot.

We saw the Colts' day get shot in Week 1 at Houston. The defense got knifed for five plays of 20-plus yards in a loss to the Texans, and that's not counting a pass interference call on cornerback Kelvin Hayden that resulted in a 53-yard penalty.

By contrast, in 2009, the Colts didn't give up their fifth play of 20-plus yards until late in Week 3.

Why were they so good at that last year, as well as Sunday night? It's because Coyer's philosophy is an extension of former Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meek's style, which was an extension of Tony Dungy's Tampa 2: Schemes that bend, but don't break.

This is not to say Coyer's defense doesn't play aggressively. They just don't always have to send the kitchen sink to get pressure (SEE: Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney). The secondary is excellent at taking away the deep ball and keeping the yards after the catch down with sure-tackling. Playing Cover 2 with safeties splitting the field and defensive backs keeping everything in front of them is often called a "bubble" defense, and limits the gambling coaches can do.

"It's interesting to see how the bubble defenses like the Colts did in allowing big plays as opposed to those really aggressive teams," NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said. "A lot of times, the attacking defenses end up not doing too well in that (category.)"

Exhibit A of Mooch's point is last year's Super Bowl Champs. New Orleans gave up 59 plays of 20-plus yards a year ago, which was tied for 20th in the league. That said, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is as aggressive as they come, and how many times did you see Darren Sharper and Co. create points after gambling in coverage or running blitz?

If teams aren't as successful as the Saints at taking risks, they better at least mimic what the Colts do so effectively.

Worst defenses at plays allowed of 20-plus yards
2009 rank Big plays Record
29. Titans 69 8-8
30. Lions 72 2-14
31. Browns 73 5-11
32. Raiders 75 5-11

The Lions, Browns, and Raiders obviously could have been a lot better had they not given up huge chunks of yards at one time and forced offenses to drive methodically. Ditto the Rams and Jaguars, who both lost in Week 2 and have already given up 13 plays of 20-plus yards this season.

The Colts forced the Giants to put together drives, which Eli Manning and Big Blue couldn't do. If the Colts continue to be stingy at giving up big plays, and Peyton Manning performs like he can, we'll see them again playing in early February.

Statistically speaking

» The 2000 Ravens, who won the Super Bowl, were a stingy defense. Believe it or not, those guys allowed 36 plays of 20-plus yards that season -- the same as the 2009 Colts.

» Week 1's highest rated passer was Vince Young, with an astronomical 142.8. Young's rating in the loss to the Steelers was 48.3. Too bad he can't play the Raiders every week.

» Andre Johnson in two career games against the Redskins: 23 receptions for 310 yards and a touchdown. And he played hurt Sunday, even left the game for a while.

Feeling Minnesota

» Sidney Rice and his healthy hip can't get on the field fast enough. Of Brett Favre's completions through two games, 24 have gone to tight ends and running backs and 12 to wide receivers.

» Shades of Super Bowl VIII, the Vikings played from behind on Saunday, and the Dolphins only threw when necessary. Hall of Famer Bob Griese attempted only seven passes in Miami's domination of Minnesota in that Super Bowl. Chad Henne only attempted 15 passes on Sunday, completing nine of them in the Dolphins' win.

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