Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dallas Clark's value to the Colts skyrockets

Inside Football Note of the Week:

Dating to the start of the 2008 season, here are the stat lines for the two most important targets on the Indianapolis Colts, including the playoff loss at San Diego in January:

Though Manning has thrown 29 more passes targeted for Wayne than for Clark since the start of last season (169 to Wayne, 140 to Clark), I'm not overly surprised at the parallel place they reside in Manning's quarterback thought process. Even when Marvin Harrison was on his last legs in Indy in the last couple of years, Clark was getting comfortable as Manning's slot receiver, and with Harrison hurt so much, Clark began to share the go-to receiver role with Wayne. Now with Harrison retired and his replacement, Anthony Gonzalez, down for a few weeks with a sprained posterior-cruciate ligament, you can expect to see the same regimen as last year through the next few weeks. Last night in Arizona, as if to echo this note, Manning threw each man nine passes, and each man caught seven, and each man scored one touchdown. Talk about your symmetrical players.

It's likely Clark and Wayne will alternate being Manning's men in the coming weeks, and perhaps even when Gonzalez returns. That's because Manning takes so long to get totally comfortable with new receivers. I've been told that Gonzalez hasn't become the kind of go-to receiver Manning looks for because he's too exact and doesn't yet have the kind of rapport with Manning the veterans do.

"It takes every receiver who comes into this offense a few years to not just be a receiver running routes, but to be a useful target,'' Clark told me. "It took me four years. It's hard to narrow down why, but a good answer is experience. It's my seventh season now, and it's seeing a lot of plays with [Peyton], in the same film room with him, then getting out on the field and feeling it. Same thing with Reggie. I'm sure he didn't have the chemistry in year three he does now."

We saw this last Monday night in Miami, and not just on the opening play of the game, when Manning froze linebacker Akin Ayodele with play-action and looped a throw to Clark, who made an 80-yard catch-and-run TD out of it. The best example of the sonar between Manning and his receivers came on the last play of the first half, with the Colts holding the ball at the 50-yard line with eight seconds left. Manning needed 17 to 20 yards, minimum, to get into Adam Vinatieri's realistic field-goal range, and he needed it quickly, so there'd still be enough time left to go try the kick.

Before the snap, Wayne went to offensive coordinator Tom Moore and told him that two Dolphins were going with him wherever he went; let me run a deep clear-out, Wayne said. Moore told Manning, and Moore called for Wayne to do as he said, and Manning went to the line knowing that if the Dolphins did what Wayne said, he'd clearly have to go to another receiver.

Clark was lined up to the right of the line, and his assignment was to run a corner route across the field. On this play, there's no defined depth to the pattern. "Peyton's got to know, and I've got to know,'' Clark said. "My landmark depends totally on the defenders.''

Clark has to find the midway point between the linebacker in shallow coverage and the safety or safeties downfield. For Clark, on this play, the soft spot was about nine yards downfield, and he cut left and ran diagonally across the field. Manning hit him near the left hash, and Clark sprinted out of bounds. Twenty-yard gain. Two seconds left. Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal ended the half.

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