Todd Taylor, Managing Editor, ColtPower.com: In true Tony Dungy fashion, he never panicked as bad as the run defense got. And it was bad. Dungy and his players never seemed overly concerned, which at times drew local media criticism. They cited missed gap assignments and poor tackling. While the Colts have shored up some tackling problems and gap assignments, the biggest factors have been the return of safety Bob Sanders and the insertion of Rob Morris at strongside linebacker – both specialize in stopping the run. Also, Booger McFarland is becoming more and more comfortable in his role by the game.
Finally, the Colts defense got healthy at exactly the right time. The secondary had been badly banged up toward the end of the season and is basically back to full strength now, although cornerback Nick Harper's status for the Super Bowl is uncertain.
JC: The key to Chicago's version of the cover-two defense is the ability to get pressure on the quarterback with the front four and employs very little blitzing. Tell me more about the Indy offensive line and what kind of a challenge they'll pose for three pretty talented defensive ends – Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, and rookie Mark Anderson.
TT: When it comes to pass protection, the Colts' offensive line is about as good as they come. For the past three years, Manning has been the least-sacked quarterback in the NFL. This is also a credit to the Colts' running backs. One of the main reasons Joseph Addai was selected was due to his pass-blocking abilities. However, Manning has been sacked five times and has thrown six interceptions in the postseason, so flustering him is far from impossible. Just as important as the offensive line's blocking is Manning's ability to release the ball quickly. No matter how good a defensive line is, if Manning is hitting hot reads and quick underneath routes, it is difficult to rattle him. Manning has also improved in eluding pressure in the pocket. His ‘happy feet' seem to be a thing of the past.
JC: Marvin Harrison is one of the best wide receivers in the history of the NFL and enjoyed another sensational season, but tell me more about Reggie Wayne and what he brings to the offense. He set career-highs in catches and yards this year, but what makes him so good besides the fact that he lines up opposite Harrison?
TT: Since taking over as the Colts' No. 2 receiver, Reggie Wayne hasn't missed a start, so durability is one of his best qualities. Wayne isn't blessed with freakish size – 6-foot, 198 pounds – but is a physical receiver with superior route-running ability and has developed great chemistry with Manning. Wayne shows consistency outside of the dome, and in fact, posts even better numbers on the road. Over the past three regular seasons, he has 1,667 receiving yards at home and 1,908 on the road.
Wayne has the ability to make the big catch – 24 first-down catches on 3rd down – and has also developed into a big-time deep threat, producing 10 receiving plays of 25 yards or more in 2006.
One of the main challenges the Bears' defensive line faces is dealing with the Colts' no-huddle offense, which wears on you after a while. On sustained drives from the Colts, how the Bears are getting off the ball will be telling. Once Manning and the offensive line get in a rhythm, they are hard to solve.
JC: Rob Morris has long been considered a bust as a first-rounder and hasn't even been a starter at times in his career. He's had a resurgence since being moved to strongside linebacker, but what has been the difference in his play that is drawing such rave reviews?
TT: For a long time, Morris was a media and fan punching bag in Indy. He battled injuries his rookie season in 2000 but served as the Colts' starting middle linebacker from 2001-2004, only missing five starts over that period. He did well looking at the stats, averaging 93.5 tackles a game but never lived up to first-round expectations. Morris re-signed with Indy in 2005 and 2006 for modest pay and spent the majority of his time on special teams until the Jacksonville loss this season, in which the Colts gave up nearly 400 yards rushing. That prompted the team to make a change.
Having never played outside linebacker, Morris was asked to replace Gardner on the strong side and responded well. You usually won't find Morris blowing up runs in the backfield or making bone-jarring hits, but he is tackling soundly and anticipating well – something critics said he didn't do earlier in his career.
JC: In my opinion, Dallas Clark is the most important below-the-radar player the Bears have to worry about because a quality tight end in the middle of the field is a good way to attack the cover-two. What player that no one is really talking about do you feel could have a significant impact in Super Bowl XLI?
TT: When a team is in the Super Bowl, you'd be hard pressed to find a player "below-the-radar," but if I had to choose one it would be Colts' rookie safety Antoine Bethea. Because of Bob Sanders's season-long battle with injuries and Mike Doss's season-ending injury in Week 6, Bethea started 14 games in 2006. He had an interception in the first and second round of the playoffs and is seldom exposed in the Colts secondary, which comes as a big surprise from a sixth-round draft pick from Howard University.
Bethea finished the regular season with 90 tackles and has 13 solo tackles, three passes defended and two interceptions in the postseason. Bethea will have his hands full with talented Bears receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian and tight end Desmond Clark coming at him, but it would not surprise me if the young Bethea holds his own, as he has all season long.
Be on the lookout for Part V of this five-part series as John and Todd will each make their Super Bowl predictions.