The bottom line for Sunday's game is that the San Diego offensive line is bigger, stronger, and more physical than the front defensive four for Indianapolis. They are accustomed to winning the battles in the trenches, opening up huge holes for LaDainian Tomlinson, and dominating the line of scrimmage — though more so in the running game than in pass protection.
The key for the Indianapolis defensive line will be to stay hungry and aggressive, but to be mindful of their gap assignments and technique. They'll also need some help from the linebackers in stopping what is still the best running back in the NFL in Tomlinson.
So far this season, the Colts have been highly effective against big, physical lines like San Diego's — they held their own against the Chargers in Week 10, limiting Tomlinson to 76 yards on 21 carries, and fared well against the bruisers of Baltimore and Jacksonville.
They have been able to accomplish this through stellar play by both their tackles, Raheem Brock and Ed Johnson, admirable run support by Robert Mathis, who was widely to considered to be one-tool player, and through well-timed and well executed run blitzes up the gut by Gary Brackett and Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders.
In order to compensate for the tremendous size advantage that the Chargers hold over the Colts — San Diego's offensive line averages 6 feet 5 inches, 315 pounds, while the Indianapolis defensive line averages 6 feet 2 inches, 275 pounds — the defensive line simply needs to hold at the point of attack and allow the back seven to flow to the ball carrier and make the play.
If they can keep from getting consistently pushed off the ball, opening up pursuit lanes for Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, Rocky Boiman, and Sanders, they should be able to prevent the Chargers from controlling the line of scrimmage and therefore the game.
But, with blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in the game to seal off the edge, Mathis and Josh Thomas must be especially cognizant of how the play is developing and whether or not they need to collapse the running lane or continue to stretch the play to the outside. Norv Turner's offense uses a lot of motion, particularly by the tight end and the fullback in order to disguise the flow of the play, so both Thomas and Mathis need to be ready, regardless of where Manumaleuna lines up.
When the Chargers decide to pass, the going does get easier for the Colts' front four, but not by much. The San Diego passing attack likes to push the ball down the field in the vertical passing game and they have the receivers to get deep.
However, this leaves Philip Rivers holding the ball for extended periods of time, which is a recipe for disaster considering that everyone on the Chargers offensive line not named Marcus McNeil struggles somewhat in pass protection — particularly on the interior, where center Nick Hardwick and guards Kris Dielman and Mike Goff are more road graders than technicians.
In addition, starting right tackle Shane Olivea lost his starting job to second year pro and former sixth-round pick Jeromey Clary, so it will be interesting to see if the Colts line Mathis up on the left side in order to take advantage of this matchup in known passing situations.
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Looking at Jackson, it is easy to see how everyone was so enamored with him in the offseason. He has a big frame (6 feet, 5 inches, 241 pounds — actually a little bit bigger than Dallas Clark) and runs very well for a man his size (timed at 4.45 in the 40 at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine).
Given the fact that he has a rare combination of size and speed, one would assume that he was drafted in the early part of the first round. He was not, however, and the Chargers picked him up towards the end of the second round (61st overall) in the 2005 NFL Draft.
The knock on Jackson coming out of Northern Colorado was that he lacked reliable hands and the competitive drive that it takes to be successful at the NFL level.
These faults are still present today and Jackson sorely underperformed in 2007 given the expectations, posting only 41 receptions for 623 yards and three touchdowns. In addition, Kelvin Hayden matches up extremely well against him.
Hayden is a compact, physical cornerback that has the ability to either jam the receiver at the line, or play off of him and work into a soft zone. If Hayden plays close to the line, does not allow Jackson a clean release, and punishes him every time he comes close to the ball, Jackson may fold under the pressure.
It is important to remember, though, that lack of competitive drive and unreliable hands do not shrink Jackson and do not make him any slower. He must be pressed and forced to give up the fight, but never ignored. With Sanders close to the line in an attempt to bottle up LaDanian Tomlinson, and the Colts playing more Cover 1 with Antoine Bethea playing center field, it is important that Hayden stay focused and not allow Jackson to slip behind him.
Chambers is a very quick, nimble player with exceptional hands and an uncanny ability to catch the ball in traffic, catch it deep, and catch it at its highest point.
However, he does appear to be a player that is obsessed with highlight reels and tends to give up on a play if he is not going to end up on the Jumbotron. Marlin Jackson should be physical with Chambers, but only to an extent. While Marlin can count on Bethea for deep help, there is only so much territory Bethea can realistically cover. Most importantly, neither Marlin nor Bethea can allow Chris Chambers to get behind them, as he never misses a chance to end up on "SportsCenter."
If they are able to contain him early, they should be able to contain him late.
All this having been said, both Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers stepped up mightily when Antonio Gates went down with a toe injury against the Titans, each posting over 100 receiving yards and helping Rivers to a 292-yard afternoon.
Tennessee is more well known for their run defense than their pass defense and Indianapolis did finish second overall in passing yards allowed this season, but the fact that Chambers and Jackson are two gifted athletes that seem to suddenly be very motivated is bad news for the Colts.The Chargers will need Gates to motivate their talented wide receiver duo from the sidelines.
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For the most recent example of a successful game plan against Tomlinson, one need simply look at last week's game against the Titans.
Tennessee was able to hold him to 42 yards on 21 carries primarily because of gap discipline by the defensive line, solid tackling, and stellar support from the back seven.
While Indianapolis does not have the talent combination of Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown at defensive tackle, Brock and Johnson are persistent and skilled enough to fulfill their part of the bargain.
Tomlinson is an extremely patient and intelligent runner, with nimble feet and the quickness to cut and explode down the field. The best way to stop him initially is to force him to make a decision as quickly as possible.
In order to achieve this, Brock and Johnson need to attack the line of scrimmage and penetrate into the backfield at all costs. If Tomlinson takes the handoff and sees that the line is crumbling in front of him, he will cut to the outside, where he can be chased down fairly easily by Mathis and Thomas who, as mentioned earlier, need to react to the play in front of them and take the proper angle on the ball carrier.
The only catch is that, by utilizing this strategy, the Colts will give Tomlinson natural running lanes to burst through. He will see the lanes, since he has excellent vision. When he does, the linebackers for Indianapolis need to be ready.
The Colts have been successful this year in run defense by effectively and judiciously using run blitzes to fill gaps and control the line of scrimmage. They will need to be as successful as they have ever been, since a mistimed blitz or an open gap is all that Tomlinson needs to break into the second level and go the distance.
Brackett, Boiman, and Keiaho have made plays in the opposing team's backfield all season because of their ability to time the blitz, shoot the gap, and catch the tailback unaware. And, without the accomplished services of blocking back extraordinaire Lorenzo Neal to clear a path for him by taking on any one of those blitzing linebackers, Tomlinson will be put in an even more vulnerable position. As important as Tomlinson is to this offense, Neal is to Tomlinson and the league's leading rusher misses Neal's steady hand and consistent blocks.
But, in focusing too much on Tomlinson's skills as a runner, defenses tend to lose sight of his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield. With the Chargers receivers running wind sprints in an attempt to push the ball down the field and Manumaleuna most likely attempting to take advantage of the holes in the deep seam in the Tampa 2, the defense will be pushed deeper and deeper into their zones, leaving the flat open for Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, and Andrew Pinnock, Neal's replacement.
Those three men are listed in order of how dangerous they are will the ball in their hands in the open field. This is why, playing more Cover 1 with Sanders in the box, Sanders needs to back up his recent accolades by spying Tomlinson when he does not take the handoff and punishing him when he does.
Without someone to track him and come at him like a heat-seeking missile when he does end up with the ball, Tomlinson very well could take over the game. If he doesn't beat Indianapolis on the ground, he will beat them as a receiver — unless Sanders stays on him from snap to whistle.
The key for the Colts, obviously, would be to stop Tomlinson &mdash or at least slow him down — and force Philip Rivers to beat them. Last season, Rivers was able to open up the running game by playing efficiently in the passing game.
Early on, mixing in the run, the Chargers used the pass to set up the run. Tomlinson had most of his yardage and touchdowns last season late in the second quarter and in the second half, due to the fact that Rivers had already loosened up the defense.
This season, for the most part, as Rivers has struggled, so has Tomlinson and the offense in general. Aside from offensive explosions against the Texans, Broncos, and Lions, the Chargers have lacked the punch that they displayed in 2006, when they lead the league in scoring.
To insure that they are successful on defense Sunday night, the Colts need to get to Rivers early and force Norv Turner into a conservative game plan. By mixing in blitzes from the linebackers and Sanders, Indianapolis should be able to pressure Rivers where it makes him most uncomfortable — up the middle. Sanders and Brackett should be able to shoot the gaps and penetrate the soft middle of San Diego's offensive line.
If the Chargers do not have early success throwing the football, Rivers will begin to lean on Tomlinson, his security blanket. When this happens, it will play directly into Indianapolis' hands, setting them up perfectly to focus on the players they were going to focus on anyway, and allowing them to tee up and punish Rivers every time he drops back to pass, as well as effectively eliminating Tomlinson so long as Sanders does his job.
The only issue here is that Rivers proved last week that, if a defense forces him to win the game, he is certainly capable.
But with all due respect to Tennessee's offense, it is going to take more than 17 points to defeat the Indianapolis Colts. This is why the Chargers need to play a balanced game on offense, mixing the run with the pass, still leaning on Rivers to convert crucial third downs and score in the red zone when the defense stacks the line to stop Tomlinson.
While he will not be able to win the game all on his own — only three of San Diego's wins and all five of their losses have come when Rivers has attempted more than 30 passes — he will also need to be more than just a caretaker or a "game manager."
It will take a team effort from the Chargers to be successful on offense and it will take a team effort from the Colts to be successful on defense.
With all the stars on both sides, it will likely come down to execution and who wants it more. Darren Sproles is unlikely to return two kicks for touchdowns in this game, so Rivers is going to need to shoulder a good deal of the load.