With Manning limited, Colts defense thrives

Peyton Manning had one of his worst games since 2008, but the Colts found a way to beat the Chiefs. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS -- After lots of wins, the Colts and their perfectionist quarterback talk about all the room for improvement.

After Indianapolis’ 19-9 win against previously undefeated Kansas City on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, it was more believable than usual.

With a third-string strong safety starting the game and a third-string running back finishing it, a field goal battle felt like it would ultimately hinge on which quarterback would make the bigger play.

It rates as no surprise that Peyton Manning outpointed Matt Cassel in that regard, but it was hardly a sharp afternoon for the four-time MVP.

As defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots from 2001-04, Romeo Crennel helped devise some quality game plans against Manning. In the same capacity for the Chiefs, he revisited some of those successful plans, tweaking them to his personnel and faring pretty well.

En route to 244 passing yards, Manning connected on only 59 percent of his passes with an interception and a sack. He didn’t connect on anything longer than 24 yards and wound up with a 65.0 passer rating. That’s a touch lower than the rating he put up in that throw-away regular-season finale in Buffalo last season. It was his worst in a game the Colts played to win since Nov. 30, 2008, in an ugly 10-6 win at Cleveland against a team coached by… Crennel.

Manning said it was all set up to test the offense’s patience.

Three places Manning usually thrives were cut down by Crennel and K.C., according to ESPN Stats & Information. Manning came into the game with a 112.3 rating out of the shotgun, 116.5 against five defensive backs or more and 113.9 on play-action. Against the Chiefs, those numbers were 59.4, 66.4 and 27.8, respectively.

“We’ve got some guys that can get open, that can get the job done even when Peyton is off,” receiver Reggie Wayne said, kind of repeating my premise about Manning being less than his usual self, not offering it himself. “I felt like he did pretty good with what they were giving us. He hung in there and did what he was supposed to do."

The Chiefs loaded up people in coverage, daring the Colts to run effectively. Joseph Addai got the ball a lot early on, but wound up with just 50 yards on 17 carries. When Addai suffered a shoulder injury that ended his day, Mike Hart took over and got 50 yards of his own on 11 carries.

A 3.1-yard ground average didn’t scare Kansas City and won’t frighten anyone else. Defenses will be thrilled to take it as a trade-off for limiting Manning if they can.

“I think we’re going to have to be patient from here on out until we get our running game going the way it’s supposed to,” said Wayne, who caught six passes for 75 yards. “Everybody is going to be keying on the pass, forcing us to run. We just have to find a way from here on out. It’s going to be tough.”

Ultimately, however, the Colts pulled ahead 12-9 in the field goal battle. In the fourth quarter, the Colts drove 12 plays and 71 yards to the game’s lone touchdown, on an 11-yard run by Hart with 4 minutes, 2 seconds remaining.

Afterward, the guys on offense were thankful for the defensive effort and efficiency.

Wayne said he didn’t think defenders liked an Indianapolis Star story this week. In the print version it was headlined: “What’s wrong with these guys?”

“They should have taken offense to it,” Wayne said. “It was tough. But they did a great job today. We laid it on them a little bit and the touchdown at the end was something that we really needed.”

That defense held the Chiefs to two conversions in 12 third- and fourth-down attempts and kept them out of the end zone.

“The offense had some situations there they couldn’t get things totally taken care of this week,” linebacker Clint Session said. “And we had their back. We took it personal, the way we were talked about.”

A few other things I think are worth contemplating:

Next man up: It’s a cliché that the Colts put into action as well as anyone in the league.

Against the Chiefs it was next man up after that, with Aaron Francisco at strong safety replacing Melvin Bullitt, who replaced Bob Sanders. The same thing happened at running back, with Hart replacing Addai when he was hurt with Donald Brown already out injured.

Francisco was with the Colts last season, but spent camp with Carolina, hadn’t played a game this year and was re-signed by Indianapolis on Tuesday.

“I kind of got myself to forget this defense after I went to Carolina and learned the system down there, but I guess after the first practice everything started coming back to me,” he said. “It’s not really a hard defense to learn. I feel like I did good. I know there will be a lot of things I’ve got to correct. I think I did enough to help us win, though.”

Hart is the smallest of the team’s top three backs. Addai was happy for him.

“Mike got a chance to do what he can do,” Addai said. “You always trust what he can do because he’s a solid player.”

Skidding sideways: Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop's game-opening onside kick took a strong left turn and didn’t travel 10 yards, resulting in a flag and a Colts’ possession starting at the Chiefs’ 37-yard line.

I asked several Colts about it. While the answers varied, none said what hundreds of guys on other teams would have taken from it: “They were afraid they wouldn't be able to hang with us and needed a jump-start right at the beginning.”

The resulting Colts' drive stalled at the Chiefs' 2, and Adam Vinatieri converted the first of his four successful field goals to provide a 3-0 lead.

It was the first onside kick the Colts have faced since the infamous Garrett Hartley kick that started the second half of Super Bowl XLIV and swung momentum heavily in favor of New Orleans.

“I was anticipating someone would do it,” Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said. “… If you show a weakness at any point in time, at some point and time it’s going to come back up. So you better work on it. So that was something we anticipated possibly seeing.”

A free three: As good as the Colts were defensively, they easily could have been 3 points better.

When Addai failed to convert a fourth-and-2 from the K.C. 39, the Chiefs got the ball back with 18 seconds left in the first half.

Kelvin Hayden hit Chris Chambers out of bounds after a 13-yard gain, giving away 15 yards with the unnecessary roughness and helping set up the first of Succop’s three field goals.

It’s an uncharacteristic sort of play for the Colts, who don’t generally give things up so easily.

Had things gone the other way, it would have been near the top of this column instead of at the bottom.