LaDanian Tomlinson would not be LaDanian Tomlinson without the guys up front.
The bottom line for Sunday's game is that the San Diego offensive line is bigger, stronger and more physical than the front four for the Colts. They are accustomed to winning the battles in the trenches, opening up huge holes for LaDanian Tomlinson, and dominating the line of scrimmage -- but more so in the running game than in pass protection.
The key for the Indianapolis defensive line will be to stay hungry and aggressive, but to be mindful of their gap assignments and technique. They'll also need some help from the linebackers in stopping the best running back in the NFL.
So far this season, the Colts have been effective against the rush, ranking a respectable 15th overall in yards allowed. They have been able to accomplish this through stellar play by both their tackles, Raheem Brock and Ed Johnson, admirable run support by two ends -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- who are widely considered to be one-tool players, and through well-timed and well-executed run blitzes by their linebackers and safeties -- most often Gary Brackett and Bob Sanders.
San Diego's offensive line averages 6-foot-5, 315 pounds while the Indianapolis defensive line averages 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, so in order to compensate for the tremendous size advantage, the defensive line simply needs to hold at the point of attack and allow the back seven to flow to the ball carrier and make the play. If they can keep from getting consistently pushed off the ball, opening up pursuit lanes for Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, Tyjuan Hagler or Rocky Boiman -- depending on which linebackers are healthy enough to play -- and Sanders, they should be able to prevent the Chargers from controlling the line of scrimmage and the game.
Additionally, the defensive line not only needs to be stout and stand up against far larger offensive linemen, they absolutely must maintain gap discipline and not allow cut-back lanes to open up for Tomlinson. He still has the best feet in the business and can go against the grain, then explode up the field in a hurry if given the opportunity.
Tomlinson has not had a great deal of success running the ball this season, at least by his standards. So it's extremely important that the Colts don't allow him to get on track, especially early on. Given the matchup advantages that Indianapolis' offense has over the Chargers defense, a win in the running game may amount to hanging on and keeping Tomlinson in check until the Colts are able to jump out to a sizeable early lead. If that happens, the pendulum swings back in Indianapolis' favor.
Center Nick Hardwick
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Left tackle Marcus McNeil is a massive player with a great deal of athletic ability. He was a top-five talent coming into last year's draft, but concerns about a spinal condition made him drop to the second round. The Chargers grabbed him, inserted him at the offensive line's most important position and he played at a Pro Bowl level. If he has a weakness, though, it's in pass protection. He especially struggles against speed rushers, particularly ones that are as fast and sound in technique as Freeney. San Diego will try to wear Freeney and Mathis down early by running straight at them, attempting to break their wills before a pass is even attempted. The two ends must stay physically and mentally strong, allowing the passing plays to come in their due course. Mathis draws right tackle Shane Olivea in this matchup, who is really more of a road-grader than a pass protection specialist.
Interior linemen Nick Hardwick (center) and Mike Goff (right guard) are the smaller players on this line, but they have quicker feet and the ability to pull and trap. Ed Johnson and Raheem Brock will have enough trouble with these two without considering left guard Kris Dielman, an exceptionally agile and powerful young lineman who signed a very lucrative contract to stay with the Chargers in the offseason. Once these guys start moving around, trapping, pulling, and exploding into the hole, it may be too much for Brock and Johnson to overcome.
Again, this is where gap discipline, lane integrity, and technique come into play. The hope is that the offense forces San Diego to become one-dimensional and that the Colts' defensive linemen are not forced to go toe-to-toe with the massive and nasty front five of the Chargers all day.
In any event, this matchup will require a tremendous amount of willpower and determination from the front four. Whether or not they are up for the challenge could very well determine whether or not the Colts win on Sunday night.