Five to Watch: Colts at San Diego

Greg Talmage points out the five key Colts players you should pay particular attention to during Sunday night's matchup in San Diego. See who he picked -- and why their performance is of strategic importance to an Indianapolis win this weekend.

Ryan Lilja

As Brad Keller pointed out in his scouting report on the Chargers defensive line, if the Colts are to run to the weak side of the formation, they will most likely need to give Johnson or Ugoh help. They could either have the left tackle block down on Olshansky, pulling left guard Ryan Lilja and isolating him on Shawne Merriman, or they could line a second tight end up on the left tackle's side of the field. Lilja's ability to pull and get a hat on the very quick Shawne Merriman could very well be the difference between the Colts' stretch play netting one to two yards or seven-plus yards.

Lilja will likely see plenty of Merriman in pass protection also. In recent games against San Diego, the Colts have struggled to locate where the pressure is going to come from and make the right adjustments. Quarterback Peyton Manning has been sacked four times in a game only twice in the last 41 games -- both times were against the Chargers.

The biggest problem for Colts in those games has been their ability to pick up blitzing linebackers in the Chargers' 3-4 formation. Sometimes it's been the guards who have failed to get to the edge to block the blitzing outside linebacker when the offensive tackle stays inside to block the defensive end. And at other times it was the offensive tackles who have failed to move inside to help seal the interior.

With either a rookie (Tony Ugoh) or a backup (Charlie Johnson) starting at left tackle for Indianapolis, expect the Chargers to try and confuse the left side of the Colts offensive line. Brad Keller explained the potential problem and source of the confusion, "RDE Igor 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."

This is where Lilja's ability to read and react is of the utmost importance. It will generally fall on his shoulders to pop out to the edge and block the blitzing outside linebacker that is coming off the edge. Last year in the AFC Championship game, Ryan did a stellar job of doing this against Roosevelt Colvin and the Patriots 3-4 defense.

Robert Mathis

Some in San Diego are beginning to wonder if tight tackle Shane Olivea is the weak link of the Chargers' offensive line. The report on Olivea out of college was that he was better suited to be an NFL guard, not tackle. Olivea's foot quickness in space is average, and as a result he has trouble on the edges versus a speed rusher. He also has short arms that allow defenders to get into his body.

In this matchup, Mathis' explosive first step should give Olivea problems off the edge. Mathis, though, uses speed to set up other moves. For example, he will also use the rip move getting his arm and shoulder underneath the pass blocker and turning the corner once he gets past the edge. This move should be helped by the fact that Olivea's short arms will make it harder for the tackle to get his hands on Mathis and negate his moves.

Tim Jennings

When the Colts insert their nickel defense, corner Tim Jennings takes over at right cornerback while Marlin Jackson moves inside to cover the slot. When that happens this week that means Jennings will be lining up across from Chargers wide receiver Chris Chambers. Chambers has a vertical advantage over the smaller Jennings, so when the Chargers want to try something downfield, expect it to be to Chambers in an attempt to copycat what the Patriots were able to successfully do with Randy Moss against Jennings last Sunday.

Either safety Antoine Bethea or Bob Sanders must be there to help over the top in those situations. The Colts secondary can not let Chambers get behind them.

Gary Brackett

Gary Brackett
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal is a power-blocking fullback and one of the top lead blockers in the NFL. It's his job to both expand the initial hole created by the offensive line and to hit the linebacker waiting at the second level. So when running running back LaDainian Tomlinson attempts to run between the tackles, the Colt who will be in Neal's line of fire is middle linebacker Gary Brackett.

If Brackett is taking on the block of a fullback, then it's of the utmost importance that a safety is there to slow Tomlinson immediately. Brackett will get help from safety Bob Sanders, who will come up into the box. But Sanders will also be keeping an eye on the Chargers' top receiver, tight end Antonio Gates. So fully committing to the run would be a mistake.

Besides having the speed and power to run between the tackles, Tomlinson is also an excellent cutback runner and an outstanding receiver with soft hands. Brackett is a sure tackler in the open field, but Tomlinson's explosiveness allows him to break tackles and his speed is deceptive, which causes tacklers to miss. Brackett will need to use his speed and lateral quickness to track and tackle Tomlinson.

Colts Right Wide Receiver

One very important player for the Colts will be the receiver who lines up on the right side of the Colts offensive formation. In nearly every game since 1996, it has been Marvin Harrison in that spot. But a lingering knee injury has kept Marvin out of his familiar spot in recent weeks. If Marvin is unable to go, wide receiver Aaron Moorehead will get the start there.

When perennial Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison is missing from the lineup, things undoubtedly change for the traditionally high-scoring Colts. "You can't say we're winning or we're losing because of one player," tight end Dallas Clark said Sunday. "But you don't replace a Hall of Fame receiver. You try to fill the hole as best you can. Marvin's a special guy, a special player."

Without Marvin in the game, it changes the entire approach of the opposition's defense. Marvin Harrison is someone you have to respect and double-team throughout a game. That in return opens more single-coverage opportunities for either Reggie Wayne and/or Dallas Clark. Plus, it prevents the opponent from dropping an extra man in the box.

If Moorehead gets the start, San Diego will trust their left cornerback to naturalize him without the help of a safety. That would allow the Chargers to concentrate their two safeties on Wayne and Clark or as an extra defender in the box. Marvin's presence alone does a lot to keep an opposing defense honest.

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