With or without Marvin Harrison on Sunday, the Colts will have a number of key matchups against an underwhelming San Diego secondary.
It's true that the San Diego Chargers secondary held the Vikings to a paltry 158 yards passing in Week 9. It's also true that Minnesota was too busy running all over San Diego to throw the ball much. And, there is little doubt that anyone would argue that Brooks Bollinger and Tarvaris Jackson belong in the same conversation with Peyton Manning.
The intriguing aspect of Sunday's game, though, is that the Colts may not need to have Marvin Harrison start in order to have a big day in the passing game.
Where Harrison will play an important role is in whether Reggie Wayne draws Drayton Florence or Quentin Jammer. Jammer lives up to his name and is a big, physical cornerback -- 6-foot tall, 204 pounds, about the same height and at least 15 pounds heavier than Wayne. Florence is the same height as Jammer, but weighs in at 190 pounds. He's more of a technician, though, and not as powerful through the chest and arms.
Regardless of which defender is tasked with the responsibility of covering Wayne, either one could be in for a very long evening if they are unable to keep him from getting a clean release at the line of scrimmage.
Wayne is a much better route-runner and has far superior feet and hips to either Florence or Jammer. While Florence is more of a technician, he is also not necessarily an expert in his trade. Both men take too many chances, jump too many routes prematurely and get caught looking into the backfield as a result of Wade Phillips ingraining into both of them that they need to support in run defense. They are therefore both susceptible to play-action passes, double moves and pump fakes, which are Manning's, Wayne's, and Harrison's expertise.
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Additionally, neither cornerback is liable to get much help if the Colts go over the top since free safety Marlon McCree, who Colts fans will remember from his days with the Jaguars and Texans, and strong safety Clinton Hart do not possess top-end speed, quality coverage skills, or experience playing "hero" in a Cover 2 scheme. And that's most likely what San Diego will need to play to stand a chance in pass defense.
That said, the biggest mismatch on the field is Dallas Clark versus ... anyone, but possibly nickel back Antonio Cromartie. Linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips do not possess the cover skills to stay with Clark one-on-one. McCree was always thought of as the "cover guy" in Jacksonville, but that was primarily because he was being compared to Donovan Darius, a classic "in the box" safety. Hart, likewise, is overmatched, giving up three inches, fifty pounds and a considerable amount of talent to Clark.
It is possible that the Chargers will study the film of the Patriots game and use a similar strategy to the one New England used to hold Clark to two receptions for 15 yards. However, the Patriots generally jammed Clark at the line of scrimmage, then had Rodney Harrison blanket him from the sides. The catch there is that McCree, the "cover guy" of the two safeties in this defense as well, is not as skilled or as savvy as Harrison and would most likely produce disastrous results if asked to man-up on Clark. Additionally, the more the Chargers focus on the tight end, the more of an island they leave Jammer and Florence on, which would end even more disastrously for San Diego.
But, at the risk of breaking their arms patting themselves on the back, Indianapolis must realize that the Chargers are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as where the Colts have them outmanned and outclassed. It is entirely possible that defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell will use his two most potent weapons -- Phillips and Merriman -- to pressure Manning while insulating his biggest weakness, the secondary, by playing zone coverage on the back end.
The fact remains, though, that there is a significant talent gap between the Indianapolis passing attack and the San Diego pass defense. It will be up to Merriman, Phillips, and Cottrell to close that gap through scheme, effort, and tenacity.