Since Lovie Smith is a proponent of the Cover 2 defense, just like Tony Dungy, he also believes in smaller, faster, more athletic defensive linemen that tackle the ball carrier on the way to the quarterback.
The Bears linemen are certainly bigger than the Colts linemen — the ends are both listed at 260 and the tackles average 300 pounds — but the strategy is the same: Attack the line of scrimmage and make it so the big men on the other side are too tired to chase you.
By far the most accomplished pass rusher on this line is right end Adewale Ogunleye, who will be matched up against second year man Tony Ugoh. Ogunleye uses his hands, speed, and leverage much like Dwight Freeney, so it will be important for Ugoh not too get caught off balance and not to allow Ogunleye to get too far into his body.
AP Photo/Morry Gash
Peyton Manning is aware enough to step up in the pocket if Ogunleye or the two-headed monster at left end of Alex Brown and Mark Anderson simply try to outrun their man to the corner, so the pressure is going to need to come from the outside in.
Greg Talmage has already covered the important match-up of rookie Jamie Richard versus defensive tackles Dusty Dvoracek and Anthony Adams — with a focus on Dvoracek, who should see most of the snaps — and what it means to the Colts offense.
Tommie Harris is a very disruptive player in the middle and attacks the line of scrimmage both against the run and the pass, so it will be vitally important for Indianapolis to either double-team him, or have a running back available to support Charlie Johnson or Daniel Federkeil, depending on where Harris lines up.
This is a defensive line and front seven that moves well vertically and laterally. The Colts will not be able to spread this defense thin in the running game or be able to block the defensive line for too long in the passing game, so misdirection when they run and quick, intelligent decision-making when they pass will be the keys.
Even though there are some new faces on this defense, this is a very similar unit and the same system that tested Manning's mental resolve in Super Bowl XLI. Manning eventually won that battle by taking what the defense gave him, making them pay when they overcommitted and were too aggressive, and being more disciplined and focused as an individual than they were as a unit.
His knee issues aside, the most important factor in play on Sunday night will be Manning's fortitude and patience, slowly chipping away until the other side flinches.
Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai will once again be called on to mix a little misdirection into the slants and stretch plays that the Colts like to run. They almost need to turn these plays into counters, moving in one direction, then cutting back against pursuit.
Ultimately, the onus falls upon the offensive line. If they are unable to protect Manning or open up holes in the running game, all the mental fortitude and misdirection in the world will not make this offense effective against a very talented and active front seven.
Which brings us to the linebackers: The players that make the headlines, the tackles, and the Pro Bowls as a direct result of the efforts of the front four. Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Hunter Hillenmeyer are all exceptional athletes and are solid tacklers that are strong in pursuit and coverage. They deserve all the accolades and big contracts that they have received, but they do have their weaknesses: one is system-related, the other is player-related.
Every Cover 2 scheme has a hole in the seam, in the intermediate middle where the tight end and third wide receiver will be open on a post. The Bears linebackers try to cover this hole as best they can, but it is ultimately impossible to completely cover up.
This means that Manning should attack this area in the early going, hitting Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, and Antony Gonzalez on 15-yard ins and posts, over the linebackers and in front of the safeties. This will draw the linebackers out and the safeties in, opening up the passing game underneath and deep.
The safeties and cornerbacks have their own weaknesses (more on that in a moment), but backing the linebackers off the line of scrimmage opens up the running game and makes it much easier to convert a third and five with a checkdown.
In the running game, the player-related weakness is that all three gentlemen try to debunk the theory that they are "run and chase" players that shy away from contact in run support and are, in fact, stout linebackers at the point of attack. This causes them to be overly aggressive in general and allows them to be exploited on draws, delays, and screen passes.
Look for the Colts to take advantage of this aggressive front seven on Sunday night by running some of these plays in order to slow them down and give them pause after the snap.
Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher, and Mike Brown are all very physical, very aggressive players, both in run support and in the passing game. They go after the ball carrier, a tipped ball in play, and the ball fake very ferociously and often operate in a high risk/high reward environment that is foreign to the Cover 2 scheme.
This is to take nothing away from Vasher, Brown, or Tillman, or Brandon McGowan or Danieal Manning for that matter — it is simply pointing out that, in pursuit of the big play, this secondary has been known to give up the big play as well.
For evidence of this mentality, Colts fans need to look no further than Peyton Manning's 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Reggie Wayne in Super Bowl XLI.
On that play, an overly aggressive Vasher pursued where he thought the play was headed instead of sticking to his assignment. And, while the "hero" on this play would have been Brown, he was on injured reserve at the time, but Danieal Manning was playing free safety, so aggressiveness — almost to a fault — is a culture that is very much alive in the Chicago secondary.
In a game where most of the star power for Indianapolis is on the offensive side of the ball and most of the star power for the Bears is on the defensive side of the ball, this will be the culmination of several crucial matchups.
By running the ball and bringing the linebackers in, the Colts can clear the intermediate area for post routes and in routes. But, by attacking the intermediate area early, they can push the linebackers back and bring the safeties in, exposing the secondary to passes over the top to the numerous deep threats on the Indianapolis squad — even Marvin Harrison can still catch a few passes behind the coverage when given the opportunity.
If given a choice, Peyton will always go for the deepest receiver in the formation. Look for him to target the seams early on, then start going for broke, as the only way to properly break this proud Bears defense is to suck it in, then destroy it deep.
Manning proved his mental fortitude in the championship game 18 months ago, but he may not have the support up front to pull it off this time, so he needs to go for the jugular.