With Marcus Stroud suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy and John Henderson admitting that he is underachieving so far this season, it would seem the Colts offensive line has an easy task in front of it on Sunday — especially considering the way they controlled the line of scrimmage in the Monday night contest in Jacksonville earlier this season.
At long last, the Colts may finally have Tony Ugoh back, and Ryan Diem should be recovered from the quadriceps injury that kept him out of the Thanksgiving game against the Falcons. It was, after all, Charlie Johnson that was abused by right end Paul Spicer in the last matchup, not Ugoh.
That's not to mention the fact that the game is being played in Indianapolis, where the smaller, quicker linemen of Indianapolis have an advantage over the larger, slower defensive linemen for the Jaguars.
With the factors that fall in favor of the Colts, this looks like an area where they should be able to take advantage of their superiority and once again control the line of scrimmage.
But a closer look tells a different story. The matchup still favors Indianapolis, but certainly not by as much as one would think.
Stroud's replacements — rookie Derek Landri and eight-year veteran Rob Meier — are both considerably smaller and quicker. Stroud and Henderson would ordinarily plug the middle of the formation, holding the offensive line at the point of attack, but Landri and Meier tend to use their hands and feet as well as a more explosive first step to shoot gaps and penetrate into the backfield.
This creates an issue for patient runners like Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith, and doesn't allow the Colts to fall back on their previous — and very successful — game plan against Jacksonville. Running counters, traps, slants, and stretch plays will not work as well against Stroud's nimble stand-ins, so Indianapolis will be forced to line up against Jacksonville and beat them by running straight at them.
Unless, of course, the Jaguars decide to "go big," substituting mammoth tackle Grady Jackson, whose own mother would probably admit weighs at least 40 pounds more than the 345 at which he is listed. When Jackson enters the game, Peyton Manning should audible to a counter or a stretch play — or a pass, since Jackson is not at all known for his pass-rushing skills — because those types of plays will work best against a larger front four.
However, Diem, Ugoh, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Lilja, and Jake Scott should be able to adjust. Look for the Colts to target Meier and Landri's side of the line with a number of dive plays straight into the line.
Where this new defensive front becomes most dangerous for Indianapolis is in the passing game. Jacksonville was not able to constantly harass J.P. Losman in their Week 12 game against the Bills, but that's primarily because Buffalo kept six or seven men in to block, while the Jaguars, for the most part, rushed only four.
While it's possible to say Spicer's performance in the previous game was the result of him taking advantage of Charlie Johnson's inexperience, it's more accurate to say that Spicer, who leads Jacksonville with six sacks, is an impressive player. Though not blessed with exceptional physical tools, Spicer has a non-stop motor and is deceptively strong, both in collapsing the pocket in the passing game and holding up in support against the running game.
Reggie Hayward, who has also been disappointing this season, is not the player he once was, but he does still have four sacks on the season and is matched up against a possibly ailing Ryan Diem.
Add Landri and Meier to the mix, coupled with the fact that Manning will need more time for his depleted receiving corps to get open, and it could be a long day for the Colts.
Smith played ten games in place of Peterson last season and performed well against the Bills, so it does not appear as though there will be much of a dropoff in production with him in the lineup, especially in the passing game, since he is used to playing in space.
In the running game, though, the Colts should be able to exploit the fact that, as a WLB, he is less accustomed to contact and taking on blocks and will therefore show a tendency to run around blockers in pursuit of the ball carrier. If Indianapolis sees this trend, they should start to run designed cutbacks to Landri's side, where Addai or Keith find the hole created by where Smith was, as opposed to where he should be.
Smith is flanked by a pair of young players — rookie second-round pick Justin Durant and second-year player Clint Ingram. Jacksonville rarely blitzes, but when they do, it's usually Ingram or Durant who comes across the line. Both are smaller, faster players that are more effective in pass coverage then versus the run, but the Jaguars have historically been able to hold their opponents to meager rushing totals with only seven men in the box.
With most of the Colts rushing plays coming between the tackles, not outside of them, they should be able to neutralize Durant and Ingram in the running game by forcing them to fight through traffic to make a play. Where they must be very watchful of Jacksonville's two outside linebackers is when Manning drops back to pass.
The defensive philosophy for the Jaguars seems to be this: Take away everything in the short middle first, then take away everything deep. They don't run a true Cover 2, since their safeties are given far too much latitude to roam the secondary and their cornerbacks tend to play a lot of man coverage, but the linebackers are decidedly playing in Cover 2 formation after the ball is snapped.
The outside linebackers break to the outside at first to take away any quick slants, ins, or skinny posts. They then proceed deeper and deeper into the secondary, making sure that everything is kept in front of them.
While the first point is a caution, the second point is an opportunity. Practically the only success that Buffalo had on offense in Week 12 was with screen passes and check-downs to their running backs. Since Buffalo seems to only throw two types of passes — very deep or very short — they were able to stretch out Jacksonville's defense, driving the linebackers 15 to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in some cases. When that happened, and no one was open deep because the Jaguars made sure to keep everything in front of them, Anthony Thomas and Fred Jackson were given a huge amount of open real estate in which to navigate.
Any open spaces closed quickly, as Jacksonville's defense is very swift in pursuit, but yards were still gained and Addai and Keith are a more talented and explosive duo than Jackson and Thomas.
The Bills experienced mixed results from their screen pass attempts, primarily running them to Reggie Hayward's side of the field as opposed to Spicer's side. Hayward is a less effective pass rusher and isn't as quick or tenacious as Spicer. As a result, he had not yet gotten past the play on his way to the quarterback when the pass was thrown.
Spicer will run past the play, and the Colts need to take advantage of that aggressiveness by running and throwing at Spicer, eventually slowing him down and making him think too much.
Though the possibility exists for the Colts to have a great deal of success with slants, ins, and skinny posts after the catch, they must not attempt them. Jacksonville is simply too good at defending them and too focused on defending them. Besides, there are other weaknesses they can exploit in the secondary.
Jacksonville as a team is conservative and patient, balancing that by being cautiously aggressive. They do occasionally blitz on defense, but prefer to drop seven into coverage and rush four. Their linebackers cover a lot of territory and take away the short area of the field first, then the deep area of the field. Where they are more than cautiously aggressive is in the defensive backfield.
Against the Bills, the Jaguars may actually have been helped by the fact that Rashean Mathis was unable to play. Mathis is a fantastically talented player, but he has a tendency to jump routes, fall for play action, and get caught looking into the backfield. As a result, he can be beaten deep.
As strange as it is to say this, it's Anthony Gonzalez, not Marvin Harrison, that gives the Colts the best chance to burn Mathis when he slips up. Gonzalez is faster, has two healthy knees and can, at this point, make better, sharper cuts. Those sharp cuts and smooth breaks will eventually force Mathis's hand and he'll bite on something that he's not supposed to.
When that happens, Manning needs to be sure that he has single coverage. Although they are not particularly gifted in coverage, both rookie free safety Reggie Nelson and 11th year veteran strong safety Sammy Knight are ferocious hitters that also have a nose for the ball — Nelson has three interceptions and Knight has been known for his takeaway skills for years. If Manning hangs a pass up for too long, he will either be intercepted or hang his receiver out to dry.
This is why it will also be important for the Colts to target their receivers outside the hash marks. Not just in the deep passing game, but in general.
Dallas Clark has generally made a living between the hash marks on posts and slants, so it will be interesting to see if Indianapolis allows Jacksonville to focus on those areas of the field and simply ignore Clark, if they will attempt to split him out wide, or if they will have him run corner and out routes.
Clark has been Manning's security blanket for most of the season, but opposing defenses have recently made it a priority to take him out of the Colts' game plan.
It will be best if Indianapolis uses Clark as a decoy, sucking the defense into the middle of the field between the hash marks, while targeting receivers, especially Reggie Wayne on deep posts, deep slants, fly routes, and go routes. Wayne draws Brian Williams, a fine cornerback who intercepted a Manning pass in the first game. But he's just not up to the level that Wayne is.
Even though the Jaguars secondary is the most impatient, least conservative part of this team, it is still a collection of very talented players with excellent ball skills. With the home crowd behind them and some surprisingly favorable match-ups in the running game, it is Manning and the Colts who must be patient and conservative in this game — particularly early on. When they do take a risk, it must be a calculated one.
This group can only be patient for so long. The more time they spend on the field, the more trigger-happy they will become. It is up to Manning and the Colts receivers to strike with a big play when that occurs.