Given their recent struggles running the ball, the Colts should thank their lucky stars that the Jaguars traded Marcus Stroud to the Bills in the offseason, but they would also do well to remember that John Henderson is still a very disruptive force in the middle and Rob Meier uses his hands very well and is an underrated defensive tackle.
The injury that could tear this offensive line asunder, though, is the injury to Tony Ugoh. If that is serious enough that he must miss the game, then that presses Steve Justice into service and means that Charlie Johnson would need to start for Ugoh on the left side, with the as-of-yet-underwhelming Ryan Diem at right tackle.
Reggie Hayward (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
However, the fact that the Colts face the daunting task of containing Henderson and Meier up the middle is not the matchup that is most weighted in the Jaguars favor. In the Monday night game between these two teams in 2007, Johnson was positively abused by Paul Spicer, defeated in numerous one-on-one match-ups, and ended up surrendering several big plays.
Ugoh stepped up in the second game last year, but may not be available for this contest. In addition, pass-rushing specialist Reggie Hayward is back in the line-up after missing almost all of last season. And, this is all not to mention that rookies Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey will rotated into the game in passing situations to do exactly what Jacksonville drafted them to do — find Peyton Manning and punish him.
Even if Dallas Clark suits up for this game, the Colts will need to go to either two tight end sets that feature Clark and Gijon Robinson — their best blocking tight end — or sets that feature three wide receivers, Clark, and Robinson as an H-Back.
Robinson's blocking expertise will be needed in this game to cover for the inadequacies the Colts have along the offensive line, as much or possibly more so than it was needed last week against the Vikings.
The other key here is in the running game, as Joseph Addai needs to be able to take advantage of the natural seam that will be created as the ends charge up the field in an attempt to get to Manning. He needs to be patient, he needs to pick his spots, and he needs to attack those seams at full speed when they are presented to him.
Daylight has been sparse for Addai thus far this season, but he has been tentative when he has seen it. The opportunities against this very strong run defense will be few and far between, so Addai cannot miss on one — or even hesitate — when it is presented to him.
The downside to trying to exploit overly aggressive ends by running draws, screens, and delayed handoffs against this defense is that the linebackers pursue the ball exceptionally well and are very adept at filling gaps wherever they appear.
Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is well known for his sideline-to-sideline speed and rightfully so, but outside linebackers Daryl Smith and second-year man Justin Durant are just as skilled, if not more skilled.
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Peterson is well protected by two stout defensive tackles and is usually allowed to flow to the ball unobstructed, whereas Durant and Smith need to read the play, then react, then fight their way through the garbage to the ball carrier.
Although Addai will fare better in space against Durant and Smith — Durant in particular, as he is young and still has a tendency to overcommit — he will find it difficult to maneuver and space to be at a premium, especially early in the game.
To combat this, the Colts need to get the linebackers backpedaling and off the line of scrimmage by throwing on early downs and using the pass to set up the run. Even though Manning turned in a tremendous effort to pull off a comeback win on the road against the Vikings in Week 2, the jury is still out on whether or not he's officially back to his old self, or simply working on a great deal of adrenaline for 20 minutes of football.
Until Manning can be consistently effective and show that he is fully recovered, teams will continue to put eight men in the box and force him to beat them. As long as that is the strategy, Addai will continue to struggle.
The Manning-led Colts have never been a team that could have sustained success running the ball against eight man fronts — their success in the running game has always come as a direct result of the fact that defenses are backed off in order to properly defend against Manning.
The more they creep up early, the more Manning needs to make them pay deep. The more he makes them pay, the more daylight Addai will see in the running game.
Overall, the Jacksonville secondary is a very gifted unit, with homegrown talents such as Rashean Mathis and Reggie Nelson and free agent signings such as Drayton Florence and Brian Williams. Williams, the strong safety, used to be a cornerback, so he has the speed and coverage skills to stay with a third wide receiver in the slot. Nelson, the free safety, was drafted in the first round last year because of his closing speed and man-to-man coverage abilities as well.
Florence is the least gifted coverage man in the back four, but that is more a compliment to the other three men in the secondary than a negative comment on his abilities. All of them are at least solid in man-to-man.
AP Photo/Phil Coale
As talented as they are, though, the Colts should isolate Reggie Wayne on Florence or Williams by moving him around and placing him in the slot. Florence is also not as fast or sudden as Anthony Gonzalez, so if Indianapolis places him at flanker, he should be able to outmaneuver and outrun Florence to the ball.
Marvin Harrison has enough guile and agility to outflank Mathis and get open, especially if Mathis bites on a double move or a head fake by Harrison, since his biggest weakness is his tendency to go for the big play and be overly aggressive.Williams will cover a fair amount of those mistakes, but not if he is preoccupied with Wayne — or Dallas Clark, which once again points to how important he is to this offense.
With an eighth man in the box — the smart money is on Nelson, who is a tenacious hitter — there will be opportunities over-the-top. That is, provided of course, that the offensive line can contain the pass rush long enough for Manning to get his receivers the ball.Against the Vikings, Manning was able to turn things around by accounting for and anticipating the pass rush, insulating his inexperienced offensive line by giving them easier protections to run, and making fast decisions in the passing game. He got back to basics and that's what the offense needs this week as well.
This is a cornered Jacksonville team that came into the season with lofty expectations and now finds themselves at home, against a hated division rival, staring down the barrel of an 0-3 start.
The Jaguars are going to come out flying and inspired, especially on defense, where emotion plays a much larger factor. They will be active. They will make solid contact with the ball carrier. And they will be tight.
It will be up to Manning, getting the ball to his receivers, making smart decisions, and not allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the wave of momentum that the Jaguars will be trying to build, particularly against an undermanned offensive line and potentially gimpy quarterback. The windows of opportunity will be small in the early going and every yard won will be hard fought.
But, the cracks made in this very tough defense in the first quarter will start to expand as the game goes on, eventually opening up huge holes in both the running game and the passing game. The Colts just can't permit themselves to get bulldozed before that happens.