While many have claimed, especially in Fantasy Football circles, that LaDainian Tomlinson has "struggled" this season, he's still on pace to gain over 1,800 total yards and score 16 touchdowns. So on Sunday, the Colts defense not only needs to be aware of where he is at all times, but where he might be going.
The Chargers still have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL and have done a fine job of opening holes for Tomlinson and providing more than adequate rush lanes for him, even without a real threat from the passing game. Considering that San Diego currently ranks 22nd in passing offense, that makes what he has accomplished this season all the more remarkable.
But, the question remains: How does he do it and how do you stop him?
For the most recent example of a successful gameplan against Tomlinson, one simply needs to look at last week's game against the Vikings. Minnesota was able to hold him to 40 yards on 16 carries primarily because of gap discipline by the defensive line, solid tackling, as well as stellar support and intelligent play from the back seven.
While Indianapolis does not have the talent combination of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams at defensive tackle, Raheem Brock and Ed Johnson are persistent and skilled enough to fulfill their part of the bargain. Tomlinson is an extremely patient and intelligent runner, with nimble feet and the quickness to cut and explode down the field. The best way to stop him initially is to force him to make a decision as quickly as possible. In order to achieve this, Brock and Johnson need to attack the line of scrimmage and penetrate into the backfield at all costs. If Tomlinson takes the handoff and sees that the line is crumbling in front of him, he will cut to the outside, where he can be chased down fairly easily by the speedy combination of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.
Mathis and Freeney need to hold their men at the point of attack. This is no small task, considering that the massive Chargers tackles, especially Marcus McNeil at 6-foot-7, 336 pounds will be looking to blow the Colts ends off the ball and push them into the linebackers. The only aspect working in Freeney's and Mathis' favor in these matchups is that they both have very well developed lower bodies and a lower center of gravity. While they cannot allow themselves to get overwhelmed and knocked the ground, it is in their best interests to get low and make the battle be their legs and shoulders versus the hips and hands of McNeil and right tackle Shane Olivea.
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The only catch is that by using this strategy, the Colts will give Tomlinson natural running lanes to burst through. He will see the lanes, since he has excellent vision. When he does, the linebackers need to be ready. The Colts have been successful this year in run defense by effectively and judiciously using run blitzes to fill gaps and control the line of scrimmage. They will need to be as successful as they have ever been, since a badly-timed blitz or an open gap is all that Tomlinson needs to break into the second level and go the distance. Gary Brackett, Tyjuan Hagler, and Freddy Keiaho have all made plays in the opposing team's backfield because of their ability to time the blitz, shoot the gap, and catch the tailback unaware.
In order to contain Tomlinson, the most important responsibilities will be for the defensive line to maintain their gaps, the linebackers to fill their lanes, and the defensive backs to close on the ball carrier when needed. Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden have both done well this year in run support and that must continue on Sunday night, especially when Tomlinson is able to bounce a play to the perimeter or when the Chargers run a sweep -- though he usually cuts those runs back inside against pursuit.
Bob Sanders will also play a key role as the eighth man in the box and someone who can range back and forth, parallel to the line, basically acting as a spy on Tomlinson. If he is able to stretch a play out, the line does not maintain gap integrity, and a linebacker shoots a gap before its time, he will cut back against pursuit and Sanders will be left as the last defender between Tomlinson and the end zone. Fortunately, Sanders is one of the best tackling defensive backs in football and one of the best tacklers on the roster.
Overall, the key to stopping Tomlinson will not be who is more physical, because the simple fact of the matter is that the Chargers are the more physical team, it will lie in who is more disciplined and focused -- not only at the point of attack, but at all levels of the defense.
Tomlinson is the one weapon in San Diego's arsenal that can destroy the opposition. By focusing on him, committing eight men in the box and forcing someone else to beat them, Indianapolis gives themselves the best chance for victory.