With all of the negative headlines surrounding the Falcons since the Michael Vick case came to light, one of the bigger stories of Atlanta's season has been swept aside. The Falcons released Grady Jackson midway through the season and replaced him with rookie 6th-round pick Trey Lewis. Lewis was injured in the loss to Tampa in Week 11, but prior to getting hurt, he was unable to fill Jackson's shoes, his uniform, or the sizable portion of the field Jackson clogged simply by lining up.
Fellow defensive tackle Rod Coleman is also out for Thursday's game and possibly longer. The replacement tackles for Coleman and Lewis, Jonathan Babineaux and Montavious Stanley, are not at Jackson's level, and are also poor substitutes for the pass-rushing skills of Coleman and the size and youthful enthusiasm of Lewis.
The two ends for the Falcons, John Abraham and rookie first-rounder Jamaal Anderson are undersized, and running the ball into the teeth of this Atlanta defensive line has gotten progressively easier throughout the course of the season.
This bodes well for the Colts, since they will need to be able to run the ball in order to subdue the relentless pass-rushing duo of Abraham and Anderson. Since this defensive line is more comfortable rushing the passer than clogging running lanes, Indianapolis will need to run a number of draw plays, delays, and counters to utilize Joseph Addai's patience and vision and wait for a natural rush lane to open up.
With no Coleman and with Jackson long gone, Indianapolis should have a great deal of success in the soft middle of this defense, allowing Jake Scott, Jeff Saturday, and Ryan Lilja the opportunity to get to the second level and isolate on middle linebacker Keith Brooking.
If the Colts are also effective through the air, as the Buccaneers were in Atlanta's last game, the task of running the ball becomes that much easier, as the line will become increasingly aggressive in its pursuit of Manning.
The smart money is on Indianapolis continuing to rest Tony Ugoh for this game, given the short week and the 10-day layoff between the Thanksgiving game and the Week 13 matchup against the Jaguars.
Abraham is the most dangerous weapon the Falcons have on the defensive linea and has amassed seven sacks and three forced fumbles on a team that has played from behind for the majority of the season.
Charlie Johnson cannot handle Abraham one-on-one, so he'll need help, most likely from Ben Utecht or Bryan Fletcher, since the Colts have only two running backs on their roster, are thin at wide receiver, and will almost be required to come out in two tight end formations.
Anderson is still trying to figure things out and the game still has not slowed down for him, but he is a tremendously talented and athletically gifted young player. It will be Ryan Diem's responsibility to frustrate him early and often, so that he does not "put it all together" on Thursday and give Indianapolis one more threat to worry about.
The biggest favor that Scott and Saturday can do for their team is to hold Stanley at the point of attack and jam things up. This will make it difficult for Addai to find running room, but it will also make things tough for a linebacking corps that works better when they can avoid contact and flow to the ball carrier.
The good news in all of this is that rookie guard Arron Sears of Tampa was able to easily handle Babineaux all by himself. Lilja should have similar results, allowing the Colts to focus their efforts on Abraham and roll protection to his side of the field. Abraham was able to abuse Bucs' tackle Donald Penn on Sunday, recording a sack despite the fact that he spent the first three quarters with Penn's arm wrapped around his neck.
Now comes the bad news. Even if Indianapolis is able to slow down the front four, they still have to contend with Zimmer's attacking scheme, where at least one, and usually two, linebackers come on a blitz, sometimes accompanied by safety Lawyer Milloy.
Atlanta generally focuses their pressure packages up the middle and on the left side of the defense, trusting that Abraham can wreck a sufficient amount of havoc all on his own on the right side.
The onus is on Diem, Addai (or Kenton Keith), and Saturday. Diem needs to make intelligent decisions when faced with an overloaded rush to his side of the field. He needs to trust the tailback to pick up the free man behind him and he needs to eliminate and frustrate Anderson.
Saturday must quickly and correctly identify the blitz scheme when he comes to the line. This should be fairly easy, especially with Manning's help, since the Falcons tend not to disguise their blitz packages very well and it's usually evident who is coming — the challenge is in actually blocking all the people that come across the line when the quarterback says hike.
Atlanta LB Keith Brooking
Middle linebacker Keith Brooking has been a fixture in Atlanta for a long time and the defense is usually adjusted to best suit his skill set. Brooking has always been a "run and chase" player that is much better when he is able to attack the line of scrimmage cleanly, avoid contact, and roam the field in search of the man with the ball.
The best way to stop him is to make sure that his area is littered with garbage. The defensive line needs to be pushed back into him. The other linebackers on the field need to constantly be in his way. The safeties need to jump in front of him in the hopes that they can make a play. The more litter in the middle of the field, the less effective Brooking will become, especially considering that he's not able to "run and chase" as well as he used to.
Since outside linebackers Demorrio Williams and Michael Boley are faster, undersized players, they are more often used as blitzers, against both the run and the pass. This is also where the patience of Addai — and of the Colts and their coaching staff — will be tested. Running lanes will get clogged. Atlanta will make some big plays. Williams and Boley will shoot the gaps and tackle Addai in the backfield as he is analyzing the blocking scheme and attempting to locate a rush lane.
But with high reward also comes high risk. Addai and Keith need to be prepared to exploit an opportunity when they see one and not allow themselves to become frustrated or desperate when the Falcons see and exploit an opportunity on defense.
For the most part, this is a young, attacking, and aggressive defense. In order to beat a defense like this one, it is more important to possess mental endurance than physical toughness. The front seven can be overpowered, outwitted, and outhustled. There are big plays to be made.
The most important thing for the Colts is to make sure that they're not so enamored with the front seven that they lose sight of the matchups that are tremendously stacked in their favor in the secondary.
It would be foolish to state that cornerbacks D'Angelo Hall and Lewis Sanders are not talented players. But they do have holes in their games, and when paired with rookie nickel back Chris Houston and covered on the back end by Milloy and Chris Crocker, there is a great deal of potential for the Colts to take advantage of these holes in Thursday's game.
Though Atlanta's defense is primarily a blitzing, attacking unit that sends an extra defender on almost every play, it is also a very flexible and malleable group. They have the talent and ability in the secondary to switch from man-blitz to Cover 2 fairly flawlessly and the defensive backs have the kind of quickness, acceleration, and ball skills to frustrate and confound a quarterback.
However, they also rely too heavily on their athletic prowess and not enough on technique. In man coverage, they have a tendency to crowd the line of scrimmage in order to prevent quick routes such as slants and ins, but they are not physical enough to jam the receiver at the snap. As a result, there will be plays to be made underneath early in this game — as long as the Colts are cautious. If Manning tries to force a ball into tight coverage, Hall, Houston, and Sanders will make him pay.
The interesting thing about this matchup is that it would actually work to the Falcons' strengths to play mostly Cover 2, allowing their talented cornerbacks to patrol the back half of the field and their explosive linebackers to punish whoever catches the ball, letting Abraham and Anderson focus on what they do best — pressure the quarterback. Atlanta should be able to do that against an offensive line that has had its share of injuries.
Add in the fact that Marvin Harrison will probably not play, Anthony Gonzalez and Aaron Moorehead will be limited if they do suit up, Dallas Clark could still be seeing stars, and Craphonso Thorpe still has not fully assimilated the offense, and you begin to realize that Reggie Wayne is the only real weapon the Colts have in the passing game.
Should the Falcons simply sit back and make the Colts sustain drives and methodically push their way down the field, they would force Manning to play perfect, which is something that he struggled with against Kansas City and San Diego minus his potent arsenal of offensive firepower.
Fortunately for Indianapolis, that's not how Atlanta's defense is wired. They will only be able to play it safe for so long before they start blitzing Manning, trying to "make something happen." They will be playing at home in front of a shell-shocked fan base and need a convincing upset to win the trust, loyalty, and hearts of their fans back.
If they can piece together an electric game plan with exotic looks and pressure from all angles that can confound Peyton Manning and the Colts, it will be a huge feather in their caps. If they eventually wear down, overpursue pass patterns, and end up getting burned deep in the second half — well, they were playing Manning and the defending Super Bowl champions.
Early on, the short passes will be there. Manning needs to stay on the same page with his receivers and work with Saturday to identify where pressure is coming from and how to defend it.
That sustained success, coupled with an effective running attack, will be enough to bait Zimmer into losing patience with the safe plan of action and he will start to blitz. When Milloy starts to crowd the line in passing situations, that means he's coming on the blitz, along with several other defenders.
It also means that Crocker will be left on an island, responsible for covering the entire deep area of the field. Using double moves and play action — Joey Galloway's 44-yard touchdown reception was a slant-and-go and there were plays to be made in the second half that the Bucs missed on with similar play calls — the Colts should be able to take advantage of the overly aggressive play of Hall and Sanders, isolating Crocker deep. Whatever side he shades to, Manning needs to go the other way for six.
If Indianapolis can stay the course and maintain their mental toughness as they did during last season's playoff run, they will have tremendous success on offense. It's all a matter of who flinches first and who can seize the opportunities when they arise.