After recording 27 sacks his first two seasons in Oakland, right end Derrick Burgess has appeared to have lost a step this season with only five sacks through 13 games in 2007. Either he has, indeed, lost a step, or left tackles have figured out how to handle his explosive first step and use their hands to neutralize him.
Reserve end Chris Clemons leads the club with six quarterback takedowns, playing mostly on third down and in sub packages in known passing situations. Both Burgess and Clemons are on the field in those instances, with left end Jay Richardson coming out of the game, since he is more of a run-stuffing end than a pure pass rusher.
If LT Tony Ugoh can use his hands to wash Burgess and his explosive first step out, Indianapolis should have no trouble running behind Ugoh, especially to his right shoulder, where there should be a seam, and Peyton Manning should have very little to fear when he drops back to pass.
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Of the two tackles, Warren Sapp has the larger reputation, but neither he nor Gerard Warren are the players they were in their respective primes. One of the primary reasons that the Raiders rank so well against the pass is that Warren and Sapp can be fairly easily overpowered at the point of attack and teams have had success running inside on them, preferring to take the path of least resistance &mdash the Packers normally ineffective running game gained 179 yards against Oakland on the ground in Week 14.
The issue, though, is that the interior linemen for Indianapolis, with the possible exception of Jake Scott, are not known for being particularly powerful or dominant off the ball.
The one thing that this Raiders defense has is speed on the perimeter with its ends and outside linebackers. If Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith try to run slants or counters outside the tackles, they could be in for a long day. However, if Scott, Jeff Saturday, and particularly Ryan Lilja are able to get a good initial push, the Colts should have considerable success against the soft middle of this Oakland defense.
Once Addai and Keith get to the second level, they should have a fairly easy time of it against the Raiders linebackers.
Since Indianapolis will primarily be running between the tackles in this game, one of the keys will be how they are able to confuse and isolate middle linebacker Kirk Morrison. The Colts do not use a lead-blocking fullback whose mission would be to take Morrison on. Morrison is a tackling machine and, both by design and merit of the fact that the Raiders have weak spots in the middle of their defensive line, he is counted on to make the majority of the plays that come his way.
While not in possession of flawless technique, Morrison is a solid tackler and can be counted on to hunt down and eliminate any ball carrier that comes in his direction. It will be critical for Indianapolis to run delayed and handoffs and draws in order to get Morrison to commit to the line of scrimmage. Once he does that, Addai and Keith can burst through the seams created by the interior line and Morrison will get caught up in the garbage at the line of scrimmage.
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Another possibility would be to have Lilja or Scott pull into the hole once the defensive tackle has been pushed out of the way and focus on attacking Morrison. Utilizing both strategies would be optimal, but the key to winning the battle between the tackles will be how effective Indianapolis is at taking Morrison out of the game.
While the underwhelming duo of Thomas Howard and Robert Thomas make it tempting to attack this defense to the outside, we once again get back to the issue of the speed and tenacity the Raiders possess at the defensive end position. Neither Howard nor Thomas can cover Dallas Clark one-on-one.
The Colts know it, Manning knows it, and the Raiders know it.
The easiest way to exploit this deficiency in the defense is to use motion and formation to get Clark matched up on one of Oakland's outside linebackers. It's unlikely that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will allow this to happen, since he'll probably put nickelback Stanford Routt on Clark for most of the game, but when the Colts see that they have this matchup, they need to take full advantage of it.
In addition, having Routt on the field means that it will be easier for Indianapolis to do what Raiders opponents have done all season — run right at them.
Even though teams have been successful this season by running right at Oakland, their gaudy passing statistics on defense — they ranked first overall against the pass last season — do have something to do with their young, talented athletes in the secondary.
Fabian Washington, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Michael Huff are all fantastically talented athletes with tremendous speed, excellent feet, and solid hip rotation. They were able to man up on the Packers and their explosive receiving corps for long stretches in Week 14 and effectively took star Donald Driver out of the game.
Routt can easily cover Clark and, with Marvin Harrison likely to rest his knee once again with a spot in the playoffs assured, there is no more dangerous offensive weapon for him to draw as his primary responsibility.
Stuart Schweigart, while far-and-away the least gifted athlete in this unit, is an intelligent and crafty player that always seems to be in the right place when the ball goes up in the air.
All of these men have great ball skills and good hands. If they have a shot at a Manning pass, they will probably come down with it, especially if it is a tipped ball situation. In Ryan's scheme, they have a great deal of flexibility and can move from man-zone, to man-to-man, to pure Cover 2 on a play-by-play basis.
Manning needs to pick his battles carefully in these situations and it is imperative that he is able to correctly and quickly diagnose the defense at the line of scrimmage. He will no doubt have studied a great deal of film on the back four of Oakland's defense and looked for tendencies and clues that they can give away before the snap.
Once Manning has his plan of attack, he needs to execute it, though not necessarily flawlessly.
What the these men have in athleticism they lack in technique. All of them are average tacklers at best, and with the possible exception of Schweigart, they tend to rely too much on their instincts and not enough on the system that Ryan has implemented. Sometimes, trusting their instincts will result in Washington jumping an out route and returning an interception for a touchdown.
All too often, though, it results in a long touchdown by the offense, as evidenced by the 46- and 80-yard touchdown passes completed by the ailing Brett Favre. Huff especially has not learned the nuances of the position and can often get pulled several yards in the wrong direction.
Given their aggressive natures and poor tackling skills, a team with the skill position players that the Colts have could do some serious damage against this secondary on Sunday. If Manning comes to the line and recognizes man coverage, he should get the ball to his playmakers in the passing game — Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez — as quickly as possible.
These men do play zone well, tend to stay disciplined in the deep area of the field when they play zone, and, for the most part, the success of a zone defense is dependent upon the defense's general tackling ability, which has already been established as suspect.
Ryan really needs to pick his poison and stay with it, though. Does he allow Manning to methodically break his defense down and start pulling his hair out because of missed tackles by halftime by playing zone? Or does he play man and risk a more critical breakdown later in the game over the top?
The Packers have a very similar set of receivers to the Colts. Both corps are smaller, faster, and run crisper routes than the average unit. Both are dangerous after the catch. Both have the moves, intelligence, and ability to get behind the defense and beat them deep.
The difference is that Indianapolis has superior players across the board to Green Bay, as well as a more established and dynamic running game. Expect the Colts to have a similar game plan to what the Packers ran against the Raiders Sunday, with similar results.