I think the Colts have become too predictable. In years past, teams would watch as Manning gesticulated all over the place and he would call plays to their exact weaknesses. But recently, in the Super Bowl and against the Jets, we are seeing teams playing a safer approach and it's been working. Why, and how can the Colts stop this?
First, I think teams have figured out how to counter Manning's pre-snap reads and adjustments. Clearly, he is still the best in the league at this. But in the past, Manning has been most effective when teams present him sometime to read. Think about it: the more complex a system is, the more likely a weakness is hiding inside and the more likely there will eventually be a breakdown. Is a car more likely to break down (many moving parts) or a bike? Cars have greater upside, but in many cases, have more weaknesses, from a maintenance perspective. the same with your defense: the more complex look you throw at Manning, the greater chance that there will be a breakdown in coverage.
The reason that this applies specifically to Manning is that often, he knows your defense better than you do. Every week, 18 is the most prepared person on the field. You can't fool him with exotic blitzes and complicated coverages. Proof of that is how Manning started having success with the Patriots defense a few years ago. Belichek's defense is built on subterfuge and confusion: remember, he introduced (at least to these eyes) the no down linemen formation and was an early proponent of the Times Square Defense (the front 7 just walking around before the snap and blitzing from random spots). Manning has learned to read even the most complex defenses and process that information extremely quickly. Then he just finds the weakness and gets the ball there. Think of early in the season when the Giants played extreme coverage and Manning fed them a steady diet of run plays en route to a big win. They tried to do something wacky, and Manning capitalized.
But what the Jets and the Saints have had success in is essentially their base defense. They have realized if you stunt and blitz, Manning will adjust. But when you come out in the base defense with good coverage, Manning has to rely on his receivers to make plays. And this year, when the receivers were injured or dropping balls, that became harder. But that is only part of it. The main reason that base defenses have succeeded is that the Colts offense, even with all their audibles and motions and reads, has become predictable. Things haven't been the same since Tom Moore "retired" and Jim Caldwell took over. When Manning makes an adjustment, now teams know what to expect. And by sitting in the base defense, they reduce the number of plays Manning has at his disposal.
In critical third-and-short situations last week, the Colts ran predictable plays which were picked up and stopped. The Jets did not do anything special on these plays. The played back, knew what was coming, knew that there was nothing going to go over their heads, and picked up their assignments well. Basically, they did were not scared by Manning's gesturing and pointing and talking.
I think that this is the core reason that Manning started taking so many chances with the ball this season. Teams have figured out his plays and his playmakers (Collie, Clark) where not there to simply beat guys. He had to get it into guys in constant coverage, and so made mistakes with the ball. How can they fix this? Well, I think they will be okay. They were hit hard by injuries in the secondary and on offensive skill positions. I know every team has injuries, but Super Bowl winners have luck with injuries. Also, they need to get some run-blocking guards. I know everyone is looking at their dismal pass protection, but really, their good games came when they put wrinkles in the running game. Teams have caught on to how to defend the stretch, and they aren't particularly good at it anyway. I think the team needs to take the Belichek approach and stock up on later draft picks, take a solid core of guys on both lines, develop them next year (all while seeing if they can get healthy), and have them ready to contribute in the 2012 season. This not going to be a quick fix, but it's different than rebuilding. Ultimately, I think this team can compete in 2011, but you have to look at maximizing Manning's prime, which still has 5 good years.