While the big offseason acquisition for the Vikings was obviously Jared Allen, Minnesota already had a very formidable front four — and front seven, for that matter — before Allen came along.
Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the two mammoth defensive tackles on the inside are equal parts space-eaters and disrupters, as they have the strength and size to anchor against the run and tie up blockers at the line of scrimmage and the short area quickness to get into the back field and disrupt the play.
DT Kevin Williams
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With a rookie center, a guard in Charlie Johnson with only a handful of starts at the position, and Daniel Federkeil, a natural tackle, filling in for Ryan Lilja at left guard, this is a considerable mismatch up the middle.
The good news for the Colts is that Allen is much better at pass rushing than he is at run support — though he is not a bad two-way defender — and left end Ray Edwards will be outmatched by Ryan Diem. Their success on the ground depends on upon the health of Joseph Addai, since he has the most speed and the best feet among the available tailbacks for the Colts.
They need to run a number of delays, draws, slants, and counters in order to keep the interior defensive linemen off balance, to take advantage of the natural tendency of both ends — Allen in particular — to rush upfield and create a natural lane for Addai to counter into, and to allow Addai to pick his spots and use his vision to the best of his ability.
Addai is no Adrian Peterson, but he is far more explosive than Dominic Rhodes, Mike Hart, or the recently added Justin Forsett — although Forsett, it would seem, was brought on to return kicks. The Colts also need to get their running backs in space on the back seven of this defense.
Although the linebacking corps and secondary for the Vikings is not littered with poor athletes and bad players, the skill position guys match-up against them considerably better than do the offensive linemen against the defensive linemen.
The best possible matchup for the Colts would be to run as many slants, delays, and counters to the strong side behind Gijon Robinson — the best blocking tight end on the roster. That put put Diem and Robinson up against Edwards and linebacker Ben Leber, which is the most favorable combination for Indianapolis.
In the passing game, screens and draws will slow this defense down, but the most effective way to make sure the defensive linemen aren't able to pin their ears back will be to run the ball effectively.
The Vikings will try to shut down the running game with only seven men in the box, so passing the ball will not be easy in the early going. If the Colts can run the ball well early with Rhodes, Addai, and Hart, slow down pursuit by the defensive line, and force the secondary to start creeping up towards the line of scrimmage, Peyton Manning will be able to get rid of the ball quickly enough and to the correct receiver that the speed of the pass rush should not be a factor.
The key, overall, will be taking advantage of opportunities when they are presented — something that the Colts were not able to accomplish in Week 1.
Though Leber is definitely the weakest link in the run defense for the front seven, he is certainly not a weak link when it comes to coverage, as we plays well in space and in man-to-man.
When the Vikings go to the nickel package, Leber and fellow outside linebacker Chad Greenway will stay on the field and middle linebacker EJ Henderson will come off. Henderson is basically a two-down player and, while he is not a huge liability in coverage, he is the least accomplished of the three linebackers — Greenway is certainly the best all-around player of the starting three.
The best matchup for the Colts will be if they can get their no-huddle offense rolling and force Henderson to stay on the field for third down. This will make it easier for them to attack the middle of the field, particularly if they are able to line Anthony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison on opposite sides of the field, and definitely if Dallas Clark is available. The left side of the defense is the weak spot against the run and the seam is the vulnerable area against the pass.
In essence, the Colts need to take a page out of the Vikings playbook and isolate Addai against Leber. For the most part, Addai will win that battle and leave cornerback Antoine Winfield to make the tackle. Winfield is one of the best cornerbacks in the league in terms of run support and tackling ability and would be more than willing to step up and make the tackle, which is a win for the Vikings.
However, that also slowly takes him out of position to cover his man in the passing game, since he'll be so eager to take on Addai in the running game, which will be a win for the Colts.
Winfield is not just a great run defender, he is also a good coverage defender, though he has proven to be more effective in man coverage than zone.
DB Antoine Winfield
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Third-year man Cedric Griffin is still coming into his own at the position and is also much better in run support than in coverage, as evidenced by his 92 tackles last season, a staggering number for a cornerback.
Safety Madieu Williams was this unit's big free agent signing in the offseason and, while he experienced success with the Bengals, is not the kind of player that will suddenly turn the pass defense around.
That man could possibly be Allen by applying pressure to the quarterback and complementing the rest of the talent on the defensive line, but, they still have two run-oriented cornerbacks, Williams, and the venerable Darren Sharper defending in the secondary.
The bottom line is that the Vikings have a below-average pass defense and an exceptional run defense. If the Colts can get them to tighten up at the line of scrimmage by running effectively against a seven man front — or Minnesota does them a favor by coming out with eight men in the box — then there will be numerous opportunities for Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Gonzalez, and Jacob Tamme, if not Clark himself.
In Week 1, the Bears needed to commit more players to stopping the run than the Vikings will have to, but the strategy for defending the Colts will be the same in Week 2 — the opposing team will make Peyton Manning beat them. Until Manning proves that he can, this will be the strategy.
Manning has his best chance to get his sea legs back against a suspect pass defense, but he needs to take full advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.
Harrison proves that he is still one of the best route runners in the business and that he can consistently get open at any level in the passing game. Reggie Wayne showed little, if any drop-off. Gonzalez and Clark were their usual, dependable selves. The X-factor is Manning.
The opportunities will be there to make the Vikings pay for being overly aggressive against the run and for focusing too much cap space on the front seven. The question on Sunday will be whether or not Manning can seize those opportunities.