Steve Smith is, in essence, the passing attack for the Panthers. In their offense, the tight end is an afterthought and Smith's fellow receivers -- principally Keary Colbert and Drew Carter -- seem to be unable to escape from his shadow.
The best way to contain Smith -- very few have ever actually stopped him -- is to jam him at the line of scrimmage, cheat the strong side linebacker over to his side (in this case, Tyjuan Hagler), and have the free safety (Antoine Bethea) shadow him in the deep-to-intermediate area of the field. This is, basically, triple coverage. It doesn't deviate too much from the base Cover 2 that the Colts run, but it certainly concentrates an inordinate amount of attention to Smith.
Colbert and Carter are fine players, but they just don't seem to have put it together yet -- and haven't needed to with Smith holding down the fort. They suffer from concentration lapses and dropped passes.
On top of all that, when the Panthers' quarterback needs to make a play, they tend to look in Smith's direction first and second (first short, then deep) before checking down to one of their running backs or looking to either Colbert or Carter.
Stop Steve Smith and you stop Carolina's passing attack. The only trouble is in actually stopping him.
Guard Ryan Khalil was projected as the best center prospect in the 2007 NFL Draft and was taken in the second round by the Panthers. And... subsequently moved to guard after incumbent Justin Hartwig beat him out. Left guard and former Packer Mike Wahle has proven to be an excellent investment for the Panthers, as he has started and played well in 35 games since they signed him prior to the 2005 season.
The interior of Carolina's offensive line is solid, but unspectacular. They hold no true advantage in size or skill over Raheem Brock, Eddie Johnson, Quinn Pitcock, or any other defensive tackle on the Colts roster. With the quickness and speed of their running backs, the Panthers are better suited to run to the outside anyway. Unfortunately for them, it's on the edges where the Colts hold their greatest advantage due to their team speed.
Right tackle Jordan Gross is playing his natural position. But when the Panthers drafted him 8th overall in 2003, they had intended to make him their franchise left tackle. Gross was never able to adjust to playing on the left side and was forced back to right tackle, where he has played well, but not spectacularly over the past few seasons. He has a much lower center of gravity than most tackles and never had great feet. He tends to struggle against smaller, faster ends (like Robert Mathis), because he is unable to turn his hips, move his feet, and get his hands on a undersized pass rushers. Mathis holds a huge advantage over Gross, especially on passing downs, but not quite the most lopsided advantage of the day.
That honor belongs to Dwight Freeney, who will matchup against left tackle Travelle Wharton. Wharton was a project player with a great deal of upside when he was taken in the third round of the 2004 draft, but never quite lived up to his potential and started only one game all of last season. Much like the Buccaneers game, when Donald Penn was assisted by a running back, a tight end, or sometimes both, Carolina will be forced to roll protection over to Wharton's side. The key difference in this game is that neither DeShaun Foster nor DeAngelo Williams is an accomplished pass blocker and Jeff King's skill set is more suited to the running game.
As a result, expect Freeney to play a huge role for the Colts on defense in this game. If he is not able to pressure the quarterback, it is because he is being triple teamed -- which evens the odds if Indianapolis triple teams Steve Smith.
Foster and Williams are very similar in that they're both smaller, shiftier backs that are also injury risks. Both have the speed to get to the edge, a little more power than you would expect (but nothing that would compel you to say that either is a strong inside runner), and the explosiveness to break a big gain at any moment.
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Ask the Arizona Cardinals. They were doing an excellent job of containing Carolina's running game until Williams off the left side for 75 yards which set up the game-icing touchdown, scored by Williams. Foster has more carries on the season (97 to 53) and Williams is more effective as a receiver.
For either of them, though, all it takes is one missed tackle or one blown gap assignment and they could be off to the races. Indianapolis has been successful so far by run blitzing on early downs, especially in the first half. Selling out to stop the run is a risk-versus-reward proposition and the Colts have been fortunate to be mostly rewarded to this point. With two speedy tailbacks carrying the ball for Carolina, the risk is too great to run blitz and take the chance of allowing Williams or Foster to get past that first wave, allowing them to blow through the second level on their way to the end zone.
The central tenet of the Tony Dungy defense is to prevent big plays, keep everything in front of you, and make the opposing teams work for every yard. The Colts will need to bring the same determination and focus they've showed thus far this season to Sunday's game if they are to emerge victorious.
The Colts gain a great advantage in the fact that they'll be facing Vinny Testaverde, not Jake Delhomme. Although neither one is a threat to run, Testaverde has excellent arm strength, but poor decision-making skills and a tendency to hold onto the ball too long.
Rest assured that he will be handing the ball to Foster and Williams, looking for Steve Smith with his first and second read, and doing his best to take care of the football -- even if it means holding it too long and taking a sack.
John Fox is a very conservative coach and is not about to lose this game based upon quarterback play. His strategy against the Colts will be similar to his strategy against the Cardinals: Hang around until the fourth quarter and someone, somewhere will make a play.
John Kasay is an accurate and reliable kicker, but he's no Adam Vinatieri. Either man can make a clutch kick in the fourth quarter and both have been around too long to get rattled or "iced" by an opposing coach calling a timeout.
Rookie kick and punt returner Ryne Robinson set a number of school records while playing at Miami University (OH), but has yet to flash the skills that he showed there at this level.
The Colts have been consistent enough on kickoff and punt coverage that Robinson should not be an issue.
There are a lot of talented players playing against each other in Sunday's game. It will most likely come down to execution, who makes the most big plays -- since both teams have the potential to strike quickly and take control of momentum at any time, given the matchups -- or which Panthers team shows up.
Will the Colts see the team that beat up on the Rams on the road before St. Louis was ravaged by injuries and the one that smoked the Cardinals in their new stadium? Or, will Indianapolis face a team that lost at home to the Texans and Bucs -- teams that the Colts have already defeated this season?
With a big game coming up against the Patriots on November 4th, many Colts fans would tend to think that they can look past this game and the overmatched foe on the schedule. The Colts themselves, however, would be wise not to make the same mistake.