Throughout this season, there has been a great deal of finger pointing going on in Atlanta. Some blame the loss of Michael Vick or the inconsistent play of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich. Some say Warrick Dunn has lost a step or that the receiving corps are underperforming.
While those observations may be true, it all starts with the five men up front. And they're not getting it done.
From left to right, Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Kynan Forney, and Tyson Clabo have been overwhelmed at the point of attack and lackluster in pass protection. Individually and as a unit, they lack the physical tools to effectively play their positions at the NFL level.
Tampa was able to consistently apply pressure to Leftwich and Harrington in Week 11 despite the fact that they often rushed only four — sometimes only three &mdash defenders and the Falcons kept six men in to block. Dunn is averaging an anemic 3.1 yards per carry. This poor average has more to do with the fact that he is not seeing as much daylight as he used to than the fact that he has slowed with age in his 11th season.
In a game such as this, Dwight Freeney must feel especially jaded for getting placed on injured reserve, since he would have been anxious to pin his ears back and pursue the statuesque Harrington. His replacement, Josh Thomas and possibly newly-signed Simeon Rice should be able to get to the quarterback, even with a running back or possibly a tight end assisting to his side of the field.
The other true pass-rushing threat on the Colts, Robert Mathis, will be able to turn the corner on Clabo, even though he is more likely than Thomas to be chipped by additional blockers.
The biggest challenge for the defensive line and the linebackers will be to maintain their focus. If a play breaks down, if Harrington is forced to improvise in the passing game, or if Dunn and Norwood are able to plant and cut back against pursuit, it could give this struggling offense life and fire that it has seldom experienced this season.
Indianapolis needs to stay disciplined, stay in their rush lanes and zones, and force Atlanta to focus and concentrate, since the only way they are going to come out on top is if they stay perfect.
It isn't a tall order, but it is an important task if the Colts are to shut down this Falcons offense.
Free agent addition Joe Horn has struggled with various injuries and ailments and former first round picks Roddy White and Michael Jenkins have been disappointing — though White seems to be turning the corner. In the end, the most consistent attribute that this unit, including Laurent Robinson, has displayed is inconsistency.
Dropped passes, lackluster route running, and inability or apathy to fight for the ball have marred all these men during their tenure in Atlanta. On top of that, though most of them are of more than adequate size, they are not overly physical.
Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden need to jam White and Jenkins at the line, preventing them from getting a clean release. Eventually, they will wear the underachieving duo down and the Falcons will look for contact, flinching even when none is coming.
It is important to bear in mind that Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea will play key roles in this game because the quarterback's first read in Petrino's offense is always deep to the wide receivers. If Hayden and Jackson are able to slow White and Jenkins at the snap and Bethea and Sanders are able to blanket them over the top, the defensive line will have time to tear through Atlanta's porous offensive line and get to the quarterback.
Provided that Harrington has not checked down to a tailback — Dunn had eight receptions against the Bucs — or tight end Alge Crumpler, it is important that the safeties for Indianapolis maintain their responsibilities deep. They don't want Harrington to shake off a tackle and chuck the ball down the field hoping to make a play. Harrington is not known for shaking tackles or for his arm strength, but it has been a strange NFL season.
Crumpler was Atlanta's most dangerous receiver the past few seasons, but has been slowed by injuries this year. While he will still play, he will be less effective in this game, particularly in attempting to create separation and sprint into the soft spots in the Cover 2 zone.Indianapolis certainly needs to keep an eye on the big tight end, but he definitely does not require as much attention in Thursday's game as he has in previous seasons. If Crumpler is the one that eventually ends up beating the Colts, they should take their hats off to him and shake their heads.
In all likelihood, it will be the running game that poses the biggest threat to an Indianapolis victory on Thanksgiving night.
Dunn has shouldered most of the load this season with 163 carries, but the Jerious Norwood era cannot be far behind, can it? At this point in their respective careers, Norwood is far more explosive and agile than Dunn, but has been unable to unseat the veteran running back.
This is because Norwood does not possess the patience and vision that Dunn does, nor does he come remotely close to the diminutive tailback in the passing game, particularly in the areas of pass protection and receiving skills.
Dunn will be an excellent safety valve for Harrington and should approach or exceed the production he saw in the Tampa game. He will also be kept in to block in known passing situations. Aside from his contributions as a receiver, the Colts have little to fear with Dunn and his 3.1 yards per carry average.
Where they really need to stay on their toes is if Norwood comes into the game.
The other reason that Norwood has not yet surpassed Dunn on the depth chart is because he has been fighting through an ankle injury for most of the season. However unlikely it is that his ailment will be miraculously healed in the four days leading up to Thursday night's game, the defense must be aware of when Norwood takes the field and account for him at all times.
Injured or not, he is still averaging 5.7 yards per carry and is the only home run threat that the Falcons possess.
When he comes into the game, expect a run, since Norwood has very little to offer Atlanta in the passing game. The defensive line needs to maintain gap integrity, avoid becoming overly aggressive, and allow Gary Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, and Tyjuan Hagler or Rocky Boiman to flow to the ball carrier.
In a perfect world, Norwood would lose patience with his ineffective blockers and plow into the line, hoping to gain something positive on the play. The worst case scenario is that Norwood consistently sees daylight to the back side of the play and cuts against the grain for a long run.
However, given the propensity of the Colts defenders to stay in their rush lanes, be cautiously aggressive, and tackle soundly, this remains a remote possibility.
Joey Harrington is not a good quarterback. He holds the ball too long. He lacks quick decision-making skills. He does not have a smooth release and the passes he throws are occasionally difficult to catch. While accurate, he does not possess the arm strength to squeeze the ball into a tight space. He has been associated with losing organizations and has been labeled as an albatross.
After years of endless criticisms regarding everything from his game to his personality to his luck, Harrington is beginning to believe that he is cursed. It is the responsibility of the Colts defense to convince him that this is true.
The most formidable enemy Indianapolis faces on Thursday is hope. Hope that a Falcons team that has been taxed emotionally, physically, and psychologically since before training camp can turn things around. Hope that Warrick Dunn still has something left in the tank. Hope that, however remote, the possibility exists that Harrington will return to his days as an efficient and dangerous quarterback with his eyes on the Heisman Trophy.
If Harrington and the Falcons see light at the end of the tunnel, then there is always hope, a chance that they will be able to overcome a superior opponent at home and win back the hearts of a beleaguered and skeptical fan base.
Each time Harrington faces a ferocious pass rush and Dunn and Norwood see a stacked line of scrimmage, a little bit of Atlanta's hope will die.
Armed with hope and promise, Harrington may remember that he was once the toast of the country, a savior of a franchise, and the third overall selection in the 2002 NFL Draft and he is throwing the ball to two tremendously talented number one draft picks and handing the ball to a man that has gained over 10,000 yards in his career. The purpose of punishing this team, especially in the first half, is to diminish any hope or optimism that may still exist on this team.
Then, Colts can hope that, through their efforts, Harrington will be forced to forget that he has the talent and skill to be effective against their defense.