Five to Watch: Chargers at Colts

Greg Talmage points out who you should keep an eye on when the San Diego Chargers visit the Indianapolis Colts in the RCA Dome Sunday for an AFC playoff matchup. See who he picked and why their performance is crucial to a Colts victory.

1a. Tony Ugoh and b. Ryan Lilja: An integral part of the Chargers' defensive gameplan will be to disrupt the comfort and release of Colts QB Peyton Manning. One person who will be a cornerstone in this plan is OLB Shawne Merriman.

In the earlier meeting between these teams, Merriman actually struggled to generate much of a consistent pass-rush and was primarily blocked single-handily by a then fourth-string tackle named Michael Toudouze.

One thing that slowed Merriman and the pass rush for both teams was the elements. A driving rain made it hard to get the proper footing and burst to get after the quarterback. That won't be a factor in the Dome and in fact the fast turf of the field should also help speed up Shawne Merriman.

Besides simply rushing Merriman off the right edge against the left tackle, San Diego will also try to put pressure in Manning's face by stunting Merriman on an inside rush in order to match him up against slower offensive guards.

As Brad Keller mentioned in his article on the Chargers' defense, "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."

Brad also details ways the Chargers love to use Merriman and RE Igor Olshansky to attack the left side of an opponents' line. What they do is start Olshansky on 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 sometimes Shaun Phillips will loop around to the outside, leaving Lilja and/or Ugoh on Olshansky and Merriman or Phillips unblocked.

Ugoh and Lilja must communicate and work well together while being aware of their surroundings at all times.

2. Dallas Clark: We can expect the Colts to use plenty of three-wide receiver, one tight end, single-back alignment or two tight end sets with TE Dallas Clark out in the slot.

By doing this, it forces the Chargers to counter with their nickel or dime sub groupings, which will help Manning read the defense and make adjustments based on amount of defenders in the box. Also, it will limit the Chargers' blitz packages and create certain mismatches on the back end that the Colts will look to exploit in coverage.

When Clark lines up in the slot position, he'll usually line up inside wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Given that Marvin Harrison is expected to return to the lineup this week, the Chargers will be forced to roll coverage to one or both of the Colts' perimeter threats.

Once Manning sees San Diego's safeties widen their splits, he will attack the middle of the field, checking down to Clark, who will be in single coverage against a linebacker. If the play-side safety must walk up and cover Clark, like Rodney Harrison successfully did in Week 8, it will then create favorable coverage for either Wayne or Harrison on the perimeter.

3. Kelvin Hayden: Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson is coming off his best game of the season, scoring his first playoff touchdown and his first career 100-yard game.

Kelvin Hayden celebrates after scoring in 2006
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Jackson did a very nice job getting behind the corner and in front of the safety to find the soft spots in the Titans zone. He had four catches of 20-plus yards and did most of his damage after the Chargers lost tight end Antonio Gates.

If Gates is out, it'll be important that WRs Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson step-up again. They'll need to use their size and speed to attack the middle of the field on quick slants and posts. Both receivers also have good height and can win balls on the boundary against the Colts' shorter corners.

Charger head Coach Norv Turner will also incorporate a lot of shifts and motion to try and dictate the coverage concepts on the backside, which put Jackson or slot receiver Legedu Naane in favorable matchups because the focus Chambers requires.

If the Colts opt to double or roll coverage toward Chambers, who had a team-high 121 receiving yards on six catches last week, then Hayden will find himself in some single coverage matchups with Jackson.

Jackson has had some success against the Colts, averaging more than 17 yards per catch in his two meetings with them. Despite his solid performance in the wild card game, Jackson has been nothing but inconsistent in 2007. The Colts may feel comfortable leaving Hayden on Jackson without help because Hayden matches up extremely well against Jackson.

4. Jeff Saturday: In their wild-card game, the Tennessee Titans had success with the interior running game against the Chargers using two backup linemen and a banged-up LenDale White.

Nose tackle Jamal Williams, still working himself back from an injury, was slow off the ball and did not anchor well on runs toward him. As a result, the Chargers gave up significant rushing yards inside.

Williams' advantage is his 348-pound size and strength, which usually requires teams to double team him on the nose. This does two things.

First off, it makes the oppositions' running game predictable because you know they likely won't test Williams on the interior. Secondly, it prevents one of your guards from getting downfield to block a linebacker because he is busy helping the center with Williams.

The Chargers will need Williams to play better this week. Newly minted All Pro center Jeff Saturday may not have Williams' size, but he plays with good leverage, and his quickness will give him an opportunity to seal off Williams and get running back Joseph Addai through holes.

If Saturday can get under Williams' pads and move him off the line without help, that'll allow the Colts' guards to get downfield and attack the Chargers' two inside linebackers.

Watch the Williams and Saturday trench battle closely on running downs. If the Colts hit the interior watch to see how the Colts are blocking Williams and if the guards are getting up to the second level.

5. Bob Sanders: The Chargers offense will constantly be looking for Sanders. Are the Colts dropping safety Bob Sanders into the tackle box, or is he playing back in a Cover 2 shell or is he lining up over a tight end?

The Colts will likely use Sanders to shadow Charger RB LaDainian Tomlinson, especially if tight end Antonio Gates is out.

The Chargers, though, will try to combat that by using Tomlinson as more of a receiver on swing passes and screen plays, getting him in open field quickly and making the aggressive Sanders tackle in open field, which is a tough thing for any defender to do against Tomlinson.

We've all seen Tomlinson make plenty of safeties miss and turn 7- or 8-yard gains into 25- or 30-yard gains. In the last game of the season, the Titans did a very nice job on their first drive of getting a blocker — usually blocking TE Ben Hartsock — off the line and up to get a body on Sanders. The Chargers might opt to do that with Gates' potential replacement, Brandon Manumaleuna. Manumaleuna is an excellent blocker and may have the speed to locate Sanders and get a hat on him.

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