THE Key Matchup: Sanders vs Johnson

It's the matchup that everyone's been talking about all week. Larry Johnson versus the Colts run defense. And with the return of safety Bob Sanders to the lineup, the matchup just got a LOT more interesting. Greg Talmage breaks it down for you...

This year the Colts' rush defense yielded a league-worst average of 173 rushing yards per contest, including nine games when a runner topped 100 yards. The assignment for that defense this week is Larry Johnson, the NFL's second leading overall rusher.

Johnson finished the regular season with 1,789 rushing yards on 416 carries, a league record, and had eleven 100+ yards games. That statistical comparison explains why pundits like Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter are calling this a "nightmare match-up" for the Indianapolis Colts.

But it looks as if the Colts run defense is going to get a nice boost with the expected return of safety Bob Sanders.

"The difference Bob makes is clear," strong-side linebacker Rob Morris said. "He's a good tackler. He's always around the ball. He's a guy who will stop the run with big plays, big hits. If Bob plays, it will be a big boost for us."

"Fully healthy, he's just a very special player," said fellow Iowa Hawkeye and Colts TE Dallas Clark. "You can't coach what he does. It's just instinct and God-given talent. The way he reacts, the way he can hit, the way he can run sideline to sideline, reading plays … It's just natural to him."

Sanders has only played in 4 games all season and just two since Week 2. So just how much rust the guy has to shake off will be an interesting factor. But there's little doubt that it's no coincidence that in three of those four games, there were no 100-yard runners.

Along those same lines, head coach Tony Dungy is also right when he points out that, "One person can't do it, can't be the savior. We can't look at it that way, like, ‘OK, Bob Sanders is coming back.' Everyone has to do their job, and Bob's certainly a big part of it. He's got a lot of speed and he has striking ability, but we have other guys on our defense who do that as well."

Colts safety Bob Sanders takes down Titans WR Drew Bennett (AP Photo/John Russell)
Sanders and Johnson should see a lot of each other on Saturday. Indianapolis will repeatedly drop Sanders into the box and use him as an extra run defender with an eye on Johnson. The Chiefs offense flows through their star running back. In addition to his almost 1,800 yards rushing, Johnson also had 410 receiving yards on the year. The guy accounted for 43% of the Chiefs total offense.

Even an extra defender in the box usually doesn't deter the Chiefs from handing the ball to Johnson. He's faced every conceivable defense designed to contain him and still put together an amazing year. The guy simply excels in any type of running scheme. He is capable of running inside or outside, right or left, and against any defensive formation. Against the Colts' undersized front and given the size advantage of the Chiefs' interior offensive line, fully expect Kansas City to run at the middle of Indianapolis' defense early in the game.

The Chiefs will seek to create a huge running lane down the middle by having center Casey Wiegmann and right guard Shields double-team massive left defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (6'-0, 300 lbs.), while LG Brian Waters uses his massive size advantage to pound right defensive tackle Raheem Brock off the line of scrimmage and get upfield to make an even deeper seem (see my Waters vs. Brock match-up column).

When this happens and DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis react by crashing down on the inside run, Johnson will run the dip, showing what looks to be an inside run and then cutting to the outside for an easy turn around the edge. This is when Bob Sanders and his usually keen reaction skills and knack for being around the ball should become very valuable. Because it might just be on him to prevent a 6-8 yard run from turning into a homerun.

And as Colts President Bill Polian said on his radio show when asked the keys to this week's game, "Limit Larry Johnson's homeruns. He's going to hit some doubles and triples. You can't give him any home runs."

Has anyone had much success slowing Johnson? A quick scan of the game logs shows that Johnson's worst rushing performances of 2006 came early in the season against the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals. Both these teams were successful for the same reasons. They did a nice job shooting gaps quickly and got defenders in the backfield. That's exactly what Indianapolis defense is designed to do, but has not been overly successful in doing it. So the Colts may instead opt to use run blitzes to accomplish that goal and hopefully force Johnson to make his cuts in the backfield.

If Johnson is making his first or second move in the backfield and not 3-5 yards past the line of scrimmage it will go a long way in helping the Colts contain the Chiefs potent running attack. The Colts fully expect Larry Johnson to get his yards, but with Bob Sanders in the mix, you also get the feeling that the Colts genuinely believe their run defense will see marked improvement.

For the sake of a championship, Colt fans hope they're right. It can't get much worse…can it?

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