Remember the regular season? Conventional wisdom was pretty simple when playing the Indianapolis Colts. Just run the ball right up the gut of their defense. Drive it right down their throats between the tackles. The stats don't lie and that conventional wisdom was basically fact. During the regular season, teams were averaging nearly 6 yards per carry when running the ball up the middle against the Colts.
But this is not the regular season. The Colts' rush defense has that figure down to 2.9 yards per rush attempt up the middle in the playoffs. That should make for an appealing facet to Sunday's game, because Chicago will definitely test the middle of the Colts rush defense -- you can count on that. The Bears are very good at running the ball up the middle of the field, especially with RB Cedric Benson.
Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson are a solid pair of running backs. In the NFC championship game, they gashed the Saints for a combined 183 yards on the ground. What makes these two so good? It all starts in the middle of their O-line. The interior of the Bears' offensive line deserves a great deal of the credit for their success. Who are these big uglies that will attempt to dominate the Colts defensive tackles?
It all starts in the middle with Center Olin Kreutz. He's a tough, physical, blue-collar player who usually outworks the guy lining up opposite of him play-in and play-out. Kreutz is also arguably the best pivot in the game today. He was just selected to his sixth straight Pro Bowl. So that should tell you something about his abilities.
Left guard Ruben Brown is the veteran of the group and will be participating in his ninth Pro Bowl next week. Even at 34, he's still playing at a very high level. Brown is big and physical and gets good movement at the point of attack.
On the right side, guard Roberto Garza is a short-area mauler. He is not a great technician, but once he gets locked on, he has the upper-body strength to control the defender in-line.
The Bears believe their interior offensive line has the advantage against anyone. So expect them to attack the middle of the Colts' defense relentlessly. The Bears have faith that if Brown/Kreutz/Garza can come off the ball hard, put their hats on defenders and stay locked on, Jones and Benson should have plenty of room to run to daylight.
Colts defensive tackles Anthony McFarland and Raheem Brock know they are going to be challenged. They've heard the criticism all year long. People and pundits saying that they're too undersized, can't stop any running back—even Ron Dayne, can be worn down, blown off the ball and that they were the main reason why the Colts could not go deep into the playoffs.
And while the unit has stepped up big time so far in the playoffs, it must prove its worth one more time. So why has the Colts ability to stop the run improved so much, especially upfront? Why is a unit that was giving up over 170 rushing yards per game in the regular season now just giving a little over 70 yards in the playoffs?
The Colts are effectively shooting their gaps quickly and getting defenders in the backfield. What this is doing is causing running backs to make their first or second move in the backfield and not 3-5 yards past the line of scrimmage. If they can keep that up on Sunday, it will go a long way in helping the Colts contain the Bears running attack.
It'll be important to watch this matchup right off the snap. If the Colts' interior defenders are having trouble holding up at the point of attack then it's going to be a long day. But if they are showing signs of free motion and shedding that initial contact, disrupting gaps and getting in the backfield, then good things should follow.
On paper this match-up looks like a real potential area of concern for Indianapolis. But so did this exact same match-up against the Chiefs and we all remember how that turned out.
Key Matchup: Interior Line Battle
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