The Colts made a big change in their defensive schemes in 2012. What had long been a one gap, four down front transitioned a hybrid defensive front featuring a lot of two gap, three down principles.
In other words, they installed a lot of so-called 3-4 defense, and converted their pass rushing defensive ends to stand-up outside linebackers. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were suddenly asked to do a lot more than just pin their ears back and rush the passer. They had to be more versatile, more complete.
While a lot of fans worried about things like whether Freeney and Mathis could play coverage as linebackers, the real question should have been whether either of them could handle the more principled, disciplined responsibilities against the run. Freeney left as a free agent, but Robert Mathis is still one of the premier defensive players on this team. Can he do what the coaches need him to do in order to help improve the run defense?
After the first preseason game of 2013, there are questions. The first two defensive plays yielded 17 and 15 yards, respectively, to the Bills star running back, CJ Spiller. It is easy to get carried away and assume that the Colts still cannot defend the run, but it is probably a better idea to break down why those big gains were surrendered.
And after some analysis, the answer is simple: Robert Mathis did not do his job. It is not because he is not capable.
What follows is a four-shot analysis of Mathis’ play on the second run play. The Bills’ run design on this play closely resembles a read-option run play, which is something the Colts will face this season. The key to defending the read-option, and any run play, is staying patient and disciplined. Take a look and see how easy it is to beat yourself in run defense by abandoning responsibilities.
The Bills have 21 personnel on the field (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), and are in Strong Offset I formation, to the left. Mathis is circled, standing up on the near side. It is unclear whether this play was designed to go to Mathis’ side or not. The offensive linemen all block to the strongside, which is the way the initial action takes the play. However, the fullback immediately blocks the backside of the play, which is the way the running back brings the ball.
It becomes obvious in the following shots, however, that the running back had to bring the ball back, so this is possibly just an improvisation on Spiller’s part, and the fullback might simply have been responsible for blocking the weakside backer to keep him out of the play.
As the ball is snapped, Spiller takes the handoff going to the strongside, while the fullback comes back to block weakside. The right tackle is blocking the left defensive end, so Mathis is unblocked at this point. At that point, he kind of enters no man’s land defensively, because the play looks like it is going away from him, and he is not engaged with a blocker.
This is the similarity with a read-option play. The “read” refers to a defender that is purposely left unblocked, and the quarterback bases his decision whether to hand the ball to the running back or keep it on what that “read” defender does. In this case, Mathis would have been the “read” defender.
The play is still going to the strongside, as far as anyone can tell at this point. The line is all blocking that way, but in this shot and the next, it is evident that the strongside backer — Erik Walden — and the right defensive end have shut that side down. The nose tackle also gets great penetration. At this point, it is up to the inside backers to close in on the ball carrier and keep him from getting in open space on the backside. Backside containment is especially important if this is actually a designed backside cutback/counter play, and that would hold true if this were a read-option play as well.
Mathis has two choices. He has turned completely toward the playside, and intends to chase the play down going straight down the line. Everyone knows Mathis is a great effort, high motor kind of player, so his intent is not surprising. But the fullback is right in his path, and his pursuit will open up the backside for the ball carrier to break containment. What he should do is come up the field vertically, then engage the blocker, that way the play cannot come backside without the ball carrier going backward.
This responsibility is not about power or size, it is about putting himself in the proper place. If he does this, he probably will not be able to make the tackle, but he will be a part of the defensive front that forms a wall to keep the ball carrier from getting vertical and shooting upfield.
Mathis has gone straight down the line, and gets cut blocked by the fullback. He never engaged a blocker, and never had a chance at the ball carrier. Spiller now cuts it back to the weakside, which is completely open, and earns big yardage. It falls to Justin Hickman, who is playing inside backer, to chase Spiller down.
But notice the strongside, at the top of the screen. There is nowhere for Spiller to go without trying to turn the corner on the defensive back. The strongside backer and defensive end set the edge like champs. If Mathis had played with that kind of discipline, he would have positioned himself at the 18 or 19 yard line, right outside the hash, and Spiller would not have a cut back lane. He would have to try to turn the corner outside the numbers, with Justin Hickman and Mathis chasing him down, and with the safety and corner closing in.
If this were a read-option and Mathis had played contain, the quarterback would have handed the ball off to the running back, and the running back would have run into the wall formed on the strongside.
This is all about playing disciplined defense. Mathis is not the biggest outside backer in the league, but it does not take some great hulk of a guy to set the edge. It just takes attention to detail, playing the angles, and minding your respective assignments. The guys responsible for setting the edge and/or containing cannot freelance or roam around the field trying to make a big play. If Mathis has backside contain, he has to remain a part of the defensive front, and form that wall, forcing the ball carrier to stay horizontal for as long as possible, while the rest of the defenders close in.
As it stands, Mathis did not get dominated by a bigger player. He beat himself, and allowed a fullback to cut him down. It is not a question of ability; it is an issue of playing the position the right way.
To answer the question: Can Mathis defend the run? Absolutely. It takes more discipline than he played with on the first two plays against the Bills, however. With film study and attention to detail, the Colts’ defensive front will be stellar, and Mathis’ contributions will be instrumental.