Scouting the Chargers: Defense

The first time these two teams met this season, Chargers defenders picked off six Peyton Manning passes. While a repeat of that performance is unlikely in Sunday's rematch, San Diego's defense still presents a huge challenge for the Colts offense.

Defensive Line:

As with any 3-4 defense, the linebackers make the plays and appear on the highlight reels, but the defensive linemen set everything up by shooting their gaps and occupying blockers at the point of attack.

There is perhaps no better space-eater in the league than massive nose tackle Jamal Williams. Although Williams has fought through injuries all season, he appears to be as close to 100 percent as he has been so far in 2007, but probably won't be completely healed until the offseason.


Jamal Williams
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

He has cleared a path to the ball carrier for inside linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper all season and will attempt to continue to do so on Sunday.

Even though the Chargers defense calls for their three down linemen to sacrifice statistics for scheme, ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire recorded two of the three sacks registered by San Diego against the Titans.

Cesaire began the season as a backup, but flashed some ability when called upon to substitute for Castillo and has since worked his way into the lineup as a pass rushing specialist on third downs and in nickel situations.  He replaces starting end Igor Olshansky in those situations, because Olshansky is more comfortable maintaining gap integrity and holding up offensive linemen than he is pursuing the quarterback.

Charlie Johnson was unable to handle Olshansky in Week 10, but Tony Ugoh should fare much better and be able to handle the massive (6 foot 6 inches, 305 pounds) end at the line, clearing the way for Joseph Addai to run behind him.

With Williams and the talented run-stopping duo of Wilhelm and Cooper clogging up the middle, it will be best for Indianapolis to test the edges, where outside linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips are much more adept at rushing the quarterback than they are at filling in for run support.

If this run defense has a weakness, it is when teams are able to successfully run counters and sweeps on it, taking advantage of the lack of lateral pursuit by their bulky linemen and flat-footed interior linebackers.  Adrian Peterson burned San Diego for over 290 yards in Week 9 using similar tactics.

However, since the Colts were down so quickly in the team's first game, they were unable to establish the run and consistently attempt to gouge the soft outside of the Chargers defense. Instead, Peyton Manning was forced to attempt 56 passes as part of a failed comeback attempt.

Provided that Manning does not throw six interceptions in the coming game and Darren Sproles does not return two kicks for touchdowns, Indianapolis should be able to execute their game plan, not abandon the running game entirely, and set up the potent play-action passing attack that Manning likes to run.  This would make stopping the dangerous pass rushing duo of Phillips and Merriman priority number one for the Colts.

Linebackers:

Phillips and Merriman both played defensive line in college and both are more comfortable with their hand on the ground, rushing the quarterback instead of filling in in the running game, or covering a running back or tight end in the passing game.

However, defensive coordinators learned long ago that the best way to lose their jobs was to overload the line of scrimmage and rush six or seven defenders at once against Peyton Manning.

He's simply too intelligent, gets rid of the ball too quickly, and is too decisive of a decision maker for a game plan of big blitzing to result in anything other than disaster for the opposing team.

The key to creating pressure in any 3-4 defense is to disguise where the extra defender is coming from, confusing the offensive line into changing their protection to block someone that is not rushing the quarterback while allowing another defender a free path.  Manning and the offensive line have struggled with 3-4 defenses in the past — specifically these Chargers, the Patriots, and Steelers — because they were unable to correctly identify the fourth, or fifth, pass rusher.

San Diego will most likely try to the weak side, switching Merriman and Phillips up and isolating them on Ugoh.

Olshansky is a far cry from Dwight Freeney, but he is familiar enough with the system to enable the Chargers to accomplish what they are looking to do on defense.

Olshansky will start to the outside, then attempt to shoot the gap between the left tackle and guard Ryan Lilja.  The left tackle will follow standard operating procedure and block the outside man first.

But when Olshansky cuts to the inside, Merriman or Phillips will loop around to the outside, leaving Lilja and/or Ugoh on Olshansky and Merriman or Phillips unblocked.

In order to prevent this from happening, Ugoh needs to be aware of his surroundings at all times. Failing that, Olshansky is a far less accomplished pass rusher than any of the linebackers on the Chargers roster.

If the left tackle has a choice between blocking the right end to the outside and letting the play develop, they should wait and see what happens.  Merriman and Phillips can do a lot more damage in two seconds than can Olshansky.

Although a lot has been made of the fact that Manning was working with receivers that were unfamiliar to him in the first matchup, which resulted in at least three of those six interceptions, every linebacker on San Diego's roster has significantly improved against the pass over the course of the last two seasons.

Phillips and Wilhelm each had an interception in Week 10, the defensive line got their hands up, the linebackers occupied the open spaces in the zone left by their blitzing counterparts, and all of these men have good ball skills.


Anonio Cromartie
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

Secondary:

With the return of Marvin Harrison, the Colts passing attack becomes a much more formidable unit than the one that faced off against the Chargers in the regular season. Due to a number of injuries to various players, Manning was working with a skeleton crew and Reggie Wayne the first time around.

But this is also a different secondary. The emergence of Antonio Cromartie and the improvement of Quentin Jammer has solidified this unit and they have been playing efficient, effective football since their Sunday night outburst against the Colts. And with the pass rush that they are capable of producing, efficient and effective is more than sufficient.

The key in the early going will be to get Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez matched-up either against nickel back Drayton Florence or safeties Clinton Hart and Marlon McCree.

Hart also had an interception of a Manning pass in Week 10 and has five picks for the season and McCree has intercepted three passes as well, but both will be overmatched against players of Gonzalez's and Clark's caliber.  They will also be the hot reads for Manning and must correctly read the defense, reacting to it and finding the soft spot to keep the chains moving.

While Cromartie and Jammer are both talented players, they also have a tendency to be overly aggressive and physical at the line of scrimmage. If Wayne and Harrison can get a clean release, they will be open on slants and in routes.

Manning will need to hit them in stride, since they will have a great deal of open field in front of them.  Hopefully, enough throwing lanes are open early — Wilhelm, Phillips, and Cooper did an excellent job of covering these underneath patterns in the first game — and Indianapolis can take full advantage of San Diego's aggression.

If the Colts have that early success, it will pay off late in the game as the Chargers cornerbacks start to take too many chances and the linebackers begin to play sloppy with their zone recognition.

This is a defense that can make a lot of big plays, but they can also give up a lot of big plays.

On Sunday, it looks as though Indianapolis, now fully healthy on offense, will win the big play battle more often than they lose it.


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