That’s why we turned to Brett Mock from Coltzilla, and we discussed Manning, rookie Jerry Hughes and the Colts’ long list of injuries.
NESN: Considering the injuries to the Colts’ offense, is it possible Peyton Manning is having a better season than last, or is the book still out on that?
Brett Mock: It’s fair to say that Manning has faced a far more difficult challenge to this point in 2010 (and will the rest of the way) than he did in 2009. In some ways, that puts him in a rather unfair world, since last year he took a fourth-round rookie and a late-round second-year former Division III player to the Super Bowl. Still, Pierre Garcon, in many respects, has regressed, injuries have forced Manning to rely on undrafted rookies Blair White and Brandon James to play key roles in at least two wins this season, and the loss of Dallas Clark and his two best running backs (for stretches) have made his job much more difficult.
For years, the Colts have been able to get by without placing a great deal of emphasis on offensive linemen, partially due to legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd making a lot out of a little, and now that is being tested because the great equalizer to the pass rush is having so many offensive weapons on the field that the risk of really attacking that line is too great. His last few games have not been up to the “Manning standard,” but injuries have made practicing difficult and his timing and communication with his receivers has suffered as a result.
A 6-3 record after nine games, near the top of the league in most passing categories, and on top of the AFC South? That is pretty impressive for the team, and no one doubts that Manning is a big part of that. That said, the book is still out (to a degree) because timing and communication will have to improve with whoever is able to take the field for the Colts’ offense to produce the way it is capable, and since Manning lost Collie/Gonzalez/Clark/Addai/Hart, we have not seen it yet.
NESN: How has Jacob Tamme filled in for Dallas Clark?
B.M.: Jacob Tamme has produced spectacularly since Clark’s season ended. He was drafted specifically to be Clark’s insurance policy and potentially his heir, so it is not that great of a surprise. However, since Tamme joined the team, Clark has done nothing but stay healthy and increase his production each year. This left Tamme to watch on the sideline and focus primarily on special teams. His work paid off as he became the best, and most well-rounded, special teams player on the team. Now getting his chance with the offense, there’s every reason to believe that over time his hands will come back to him (in college, he was primarily a receiving tight end), and his timing with Manning will only get better. Tamme should not be overlooked. The Colts’ previous opponents have done so, and Manning-to-Tamme has hurt them almost as much as Manning-to-Clark did.
NESN: How have the Colts used Jerry Hughes to this point, and how effective has he been?
B.M.: The Colts have had the luxury to bring Jerry Hughes along slowly. Some Colts fans have been upset with Hughes’ lack of production and involvement on the field to this point in the season, but many of those folks compare his early impact and production to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis when they joined the team. The problem with those complaints is that Freeney and Mathis did not enter the NFL behind two Pro Bowl defensive ends.
In the last three games, his role has started to pick up, as the team has started to protect the health and longevity of Mathis, particularly after his minor knee scare a couple of games back. Each week, he looks faster and more comfortable as an edge rusher, and if he continues to develop at this rate, there is reason to believe he can be a legitimate third cog in the Colts’ pass-rushing defensive-end rotation in January for a potential playoff run. There is also some chance, and has been some discussion that he could be used in a joker role, standing up as a third defensive end with his hand off the ground as an extra linebacker, but he has not yet filled that role with enough regularity for it to be a threat at this point.
NESN: Manning has already been sacked more times this season than all of 2009. What have you seen there?
B.M.: As discussed prior, much of the extra pressure on Manning has to do with losing so many of the guys around him that defensive coordinators are able to add one or two guys to their pass-rush formations and schemes. This change, in part, is what has allowed Tamme to be so effective. Before, any team not wanting to give up better than 100 yards and a touchdown or two to Dallas Clark would put an extra defender on him. Joseph Addai was enough of a pass-catching threat out of the backfield that spying on him was also necessary. Without Clark, Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Addai, the weaknesses along the line have been exposed.
I think it is also fair to say that this year’s offensive line is the worst the Colts have had in some time. Veteran left guard Ryan Lilja was released, Jeff Saturday is not getting any younger, Mike Pollak has underperformed in relation to his second-round draft position, and injuries or underperformance has not allowed the line to have any real continuity. When the weapons come back, the line will look better, and getting attempts to blitz Manning will be as risky and probably as detrimental as they were in the past.
NESN: It’s a long list to choose from, but is there one Colts injury that hurts them the most?
B.M.: Ha! Well, you are certainly right that picking one is difficult with the rash of injuries the team has suffered. With the defense playing as well as it has, despite its own injury issues, over the past few weeks, the player has to be on the offensive side of the ball. As well as Jacob Tamme has played, even though he is not yet at Dallas Clark’s level, it is probably difficult to say Clark is the guy.
The choice, for me, is between Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, and Austin Collie. If I had to pick one, I will go with Austin Collie. As has been mentioned throughout, timing and communication in this offense is key. Every team in the league knows that Manning operates a precision offense that makes him seem almost inhuman. Collie has stepped up his game in 2010 to really claim the No. 2 receiving role. Take away his sure hands, precise routes and the timing and security he has developed with Manning, and it really hurts. If Collie comes back this week, he will be very dangerous to a Patriots passing defense that has struggled to this point in the season. His return will also make Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme, and whoever starts at running back, a more difficult assignment as well.