NFC North: Austin Collie

Jumping the Colts' routes

February, 8, 2010
2/08/10
12:08
AM ET
Tracy PorterJed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesTracy Porter celebrates on his way to the end zone after picking off Peyton Manning.
MIAMI -- Of this, there was little doubt: New Orleans brought a smart and fast defense to Miami. Here was the problem as Super Bowl XLIV approached: Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was smarter and faster.

(That’s what a few of us thought, anyway.)

And so it was fascinating to watch Sunday night’s game turn when a 23-year-old Saints cornerback outsmarted Manning late in the fourth quarter. Tracy Porter said he knew “immediately” that the Colts were running one of their “bread and butter” 3rd-down plays with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game. Porter stepped in front of receiver Reggie Wayne, intercepted Manning’s pass and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. The play accounted for the final margin of the Saints’ 31-17 victory.

“I saw it over and over on film the past two weeks,” Porter said. “On third down, the route they ran there was always big for them to convert third downs on. Through numerous amounts of film study we’ve done all week, when the route came, it felt like I was watching it on film. When I saw the ball coming, I knew I was going to be in the end zone.”

The play capped another high-risk, high-reward performance by the Saints defense, one in which they gave up 432 yards but only one score after the first quarter. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams mixed versions of the 4-3 and 3-4 in a calculating way that I’ll detail in a bit

Before examining Williams’ successful game plan, however, let’s take a closer look at the play that won New Orleans its first championship. Remember, Wayne would have had an easy first down at the Saints’ 26-yard line in a one-score game had Porter not made the interception.

If anything, Saints players and coaches seemed surprised at how predictable the Colts were on the crucial play. Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore are known for prescient late-game play calling, but multiple Saints defenders identified the route tree before the snap.

“I can tell now that Tracy pays attention in the film room,” safety Darren Sharper said. “Because he read that play well and trusted his instincts.”

Before the snap, Porter noticed receiver Austin Collie as the outside receiver and Wayne in the slot position. “We knew Collie wasn’t normally a guy they liked in that spot,” Porter said.

In previous instances of that formation, Porter said, Collie had gone into late motion and run the slot position’s route. The slot man, in turn, ran what’s known as a “stick route” -- essentially a 6-yard pattern designed to reach the yardage “stick” and convert a first down.

On cue, Wayne ran that route. He had no chance to make the catch.

“It was just a great play by Porter,” Manning said. “That’s all I can really say about it.”

Indeed, everything about the Saints’ defense on that play suggested a stick route would work. Williams blitzed all three linebackers, leaving open the underneath for what should have been an easy conversion. Who would expect a young cornerback, even one who intercepted Minnesota’s Brett Favre late in the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship Game, to take the risk of jumping a route? Had he missed the ball or guessed wrong, Wayne might have scored.

If you watched the Saints’ defense all year, however, it probably wasn’t a surprise. New Orleans ranked second in the NFL with 39 takeaways, a number you don’t normally achieve if you simply sit back in coverage. Williams, in fact, said he has encouraged his players “to be aggressive, to take chances and to jump routes from the first day I got here.”

Williams added: “If you’re afraid to jump routes, if you’re not willing to play aggressively that way, you’re not going to make it.”

Williams took his own calculated risk Sunday, holding back his trademark blitz packages until the fourth quarter. He employed a 3-4 defense in the first quarter, switched to a 4-3 scheme in the second quarter and then mixed those two fronts with a 3-3 nickel scheme.

“Peyton Manning is too smart to just do the same thing the entire game,” Williams said. “We knew we needed a first half game plan and a second half game plan. And if we could split it between quarters, we would do that too. If you keep doing the same thing against him, he’ll pick you apart.

“But we also said this: If we got to a close game at the end of the Super Bowl, we were going to be who we are. And that’s a pressure defense.”

The blitz didn’t get to Manning on the Porter play. “We had it blocked up fine,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said.

But to me, the triple-linebacker blitz was the reason Manning was so quick to throw in Wayne’s direction -- and play right into Porter’s hands.

“He’s so smart that he’ll figure you out if you stay stagnant as a defense,” Sharper said. “We showed something in the first half and then did something different in the second. That’s what we practiced for the past two weeks. I think by the fourth quarter, we did confuse him a little.”

Ultimately, the Saints did what they had done to Arizona and Minnesota in previous weeks -- limit scoring through turnovers despite giving up massive yardage totals. The Cardinals rolled up 359 yards but only 14 points thanks to a pair of turnovers. The Vikings scored 28 points but committed five turnovers amid their 475-yard effort.

“Everybody wanted to predict and say this and say that,” Sharper said. “But we took it personally that everyone believed Peyton was going to dice us up and that it was going to be a scoring fest. To hold an offense like that to 17 points is a testament to our team.”

And, as much as anything, its intelligence. The Saints outsmarted Peyton Manning. Who would have predicted that?

MIAMI -- Detroit linebacker Larry Foote is planning to hit the free-agent market next month because the Lions have expressed little interest in granting his request for a multiyear contract. John Niyo of the Detroit News has the story here.

Foote started 14 games last season at middle linebacker, but a foot injury opened the door for rookie DeAndre Levy to establish himself as the likely 2010 starter. The Lions don’t have much depth behind Levy, but at this point Foote isn’t likely to agree to return as a backup.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of the Lions’ starting linebackers from 2009 return in 2010. Julian Peterson is due to make $7.5 million in 2010, and Ernie Sims did not appear to be a great fit for the Lions’ new defensive system.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Third and one: Vikings

October, 26, 2009
10/26/09
2:55
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

After Minnesota’s 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. Vikings coaches and players are just a wee bit upset about the fourth-quarter tripping penalty on tight end Jeff Dugan; it wiped out a touchdown reception by Sidney Rice. Coach Brad Childress said Sunday that Dugan executed a legal and textbook cut block, and on Monday, Childress spoke with NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira. Childress’ opinion was unchanged afterward but he said: “I’m satisfied that I was able to tell my side of it and he could see my side of it.” I’ll have more on this play Wednesday in our Dirty Laundry feature, but for now I’ll say I don’t think Dugan intended to trip linebacker James Harrison in the true sense of the rule. But you also have to consider the way the play happened at full speed: Dugan’s feet were in the air when Harrison fell down. Discuss among yourselves and we’ll meet back here Wednesday.
  2. I’m not sure if receiver Bernard Berrian (leg injury) will be ready for Sunday’s game against Green Bay. But it’s pretty clear that quarterback Brett Favre’s favorite receivers at this point are Rice and Percy Harvin. Favre targeted them on 24 of the 31 passes he threw to wide receivers Sunday. Rice caught a career-high 11, while Harvin had three. I’ll be interested to see how Green Bay defends Rice, who has taken huge steps as a physical downfield receiver since the teams’ last meeting. In his past two games, in fact, Rice has caught 17 passes for 312 yards. The Packers have two big, physical corners in Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Perhaps they should let Harris match up with Rice in a test of strength and leverage.
  3. Sunday’s loss was the 1,000th game in both the history of the Vikings and the career of team icon Fred Zamberletti. That’s right. Zamberletti was the team’s first athletic trainer and has worked every game in team history. Zamberletti, 77, retired from the team’s medical staff earlier this decade and is now a consultant/team historian. Speaking with a small group of reporters Sunday morning, Zamberletti emotionally recalled his years with the team and said: “I’m the luckiest man alive.”
And here’s one question I’m still asking:
Who is your rookie of the year? Harvin has to be considered a top candidate at this point. He ranks second among NFL rookies with 23 receptions for 285 yards and two scores, and is leading the entire league in kickoff returns with a 29.8 average and another pair of touchdowns. Indianapolis receiver Austin Collie (24 receptions) and Chicago’s Johnny Knox (four touchdowns) are also in the mix. But Harvin has added a level of playmaking to the Vikings’ offense and special teams that simply wasn’t present before his arrival.

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