While my scouting report on the defensive line focused primarily on the running game, this report will focus on the passing game -- and in particular, how to stop the two-headed terror that is Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.
Last season, Merriman recorded 17 sacks and four forced fumbles in only twelve games. For his part -- and partly because offenses were paying so much attention to Merriman -- Phillips contributed 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. They were, hands down, the most effective and electric pair of outside linebackers in the NFL in 2006.
At the halfway point this season, they each have 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. That's behind the obscene pace that they established last season, but still nothing to sneeze at.
Phillips and Merriman both played defensive line in college and both are more comfortable with their hand on the ground, rushing the quarterback instead of filling in in the running game, or covering a running back or tight end in the passing game. However, defensive coordinators learned long ago that the best way to lose their jobs was to overload the line of scrimmage and rush six or seven defenders against Peyton Manning. He's simply too intelligent, gets rid of the ball too quickly and is too decisive of a decision-maker for a game plan of frequent blitzing to result in anything other than disaster for the opposing team.
On the other side of things, Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell has been under fire in recent weeks for calling defenses that were too plain, too vanilla and not aggressive enough given the talented pass rushers on his roster. Look for San Diego's game plan to be far more aggressive on Sunday night and certainly look for Merriman and Phillips to be heavily involved.
The key to creating pressure in any 3-4 defense is to disguise where the extra defender is coming from, essentially confusing the offensive line into changing their protection to block someone that is not rushing the quarterback while allowing another defender a free path. Manning and the offensive line has struggled with 3-4 defenses at times in the past -- specifically these Chargers, the Patriots, and Steelers -- because they were unable to correctly identify the fourth (or fifth) pass rusher.
They have improved over the years and were very effective in the first half of last week's game against New England. But they were eventually fooled, particularly left tackle Charlie Johnson. He never gave linebacker Rosevelt Colvin a free pass, but appeared to be one or two steps late in the second half -- and on the game's deciding play when Colvin stripped Manning of the ball with just over two minutes to play.
Even if Tony Ugoh is available, San Diego will most likely try to exploit the matchup on that side of the field, switching Merriman and Phillips up and isolating them on whoever ends up playing left tackle -- especially considering that their best pass rushing defensive lineman, Luis Castillo, will be out. Right end Igor Olshansky is a far cry from Dwight Freeney, but he is familiar enough with the system to do the types of things the Patriots were successful at in the second half of last Sunday's game -- and what made the Chargers defense so effective last season.
Shaun Phillips forces a fumble.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Olshansky will start to the outside, then attempt to shoot the gap between the left tackle and guard Ryan Lilja. The left tackle will follow standard operating procedure and block the outside man first. But, when Olshansky cuts to the inside, Merriman or Phillips will loop around to the outside, leaving Lilja and Johnson (or Ugoh) on Olshansky and Merriman or Phillips unblocked. In order to prevent this from happening, Johnson/Ugoh need to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Failing that, Olshansky is a far less accomplished pass rusher than any of the linebackers on the Chargers roster. If the left tackle has a choice between blocking the right end to the outside and letting the play develop, they should wait and see what happens. Merriman and Phillips can do a lot more damage in two seconds than Olshansky.
Of course, there is always the simple fact that Phillips and Merriman did not amass almost 29 sacks last year just by fooling inexperienced tackles with outside-inside techniques. They are both exceptionally talented players and may very well get to Manning even if Johnson/Ugoh read the pressure perfectly. In order to maximize protection and take advantage of the severely lopsided matchups that the Colts receivers (with or without Marvin Harrison) have over San Diego's secondary, Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith should be kept in the formation to block on all passing plays. If it turns out that they are not needed in pass protection, they can always turn around and make themselves receivers -- an overlooked part of Addai's game that was brought to center stage in Week 9.
Inside linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper have had respectable seasons, but neither one possesses the type of ability or responsibility in this scheme to have too much of an effect on the outcome of the game. They are not big-play threats, are mostly tasked for cleaning up after Jamal Williams in the running game and usually come out of the game in known passing situations. If Williams does not suit up for Sunday's game -- he's listed as day-to-day with a foot injury -- then the Colts will be able to exploit Wilhelm and Cooper in the running game between the tackles.
As it stands, though, they have far too many advantages in other areas to concern themselves with San Diego's underwhelming inside linebackers.
Where the Colts will find the most success is in the intermediate-to-deep passing game, especially on the perimeter with Reggie Wayne and in the intermediate middle with Dallas Clark and Aaron Moorehead or Marvin Harrison. None of the linebackers on the Chargers roster can cover Clark one-on-one, and it remains to be seen whether or not any safety on San Diego's roster can.
With those advantages in the passing game, it is of the utmost importance that Peyton Manning has the time necessary to survey the field and hit the open receiver. Making sure that happens begins and ends with stopping Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.