The playmakers in the 3-4 defense are the linebackers, but they are set up by the defensive line and depend upon the three men up front a great deal. One of the reasons the Patriots have been able to maintain their level of excellence on defense is because the trio of Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, and Ty Warren.
DT Vince Wilfork
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
From 2001-2004, New England used first-round picks to draft each of these gentlemen in order to create a solid foundation for the linebackers to stand on. The big men up front shoot gaps, occupy blockers, and keep the rush lanes clear for the linebackers to flow to the ball carrier.
Wilfork will prove to be too much for Jeff Saturday to handle man-to-man, so he will again need help, from Charlie Johnson and Mike Pollak, depending on which direction the running play is headed. Saturday and one of the guards must grapple Wilfork at the snap and guide him away from the play, while the guard that is not busy double-teaming Wilfork must pull into the hold and provide a lead block for the running back.
This maneuver requires quick feet by the men involved, which Pollak, Johnson, and Saturday all possess, but it also requires that the running back in question be able to make intelligent decisions and cut on a dime.
It essentially requires, to maximize the effectiveness of this strategy, that Joseph Addai is healthy and ready to go, something that early reports suggest is likely. If Dominic Rhodes is the tailback on the play, the Colts will need to run it less crisply and wait for Rhodes to cut and follow the lead blocker into the hole, which will give the inside linebackers time to close.
This is not to say that the running game will be an unmitigated disaster if Addai is not able to play, but it does suggest that the faster and more agile Chad Simpson may need to see some time as the lead back in order to gain the critical yards inside.
The interior of the offensive line did a fine job against Albert Haynesworth in Week 8 and they will need to turn in a similar performance this week if they are to be successful. Wilfork is not as sudden or explosive as Haynesworth, but he is very strong and stubborn, so Saturday and his guard-mate need to use Wilfork's inertia against him in much the same way that they used Haynesworth's against him.
In the passing game, the key will be for tackles Tony Ugoh and Ryan Diem to correctly diagnose the fourth pass rusher before the snap and to properly block that pass rusher after the snap, since the Patriots linebackers seem to take full advantage of the "outside-inside" approach that most offensive linemen take in a blitz situation.
Frequently, the outside linebacker — either Mike Vrabel or Adalius Thomas will line up on the weak side and the defensive lineman will start start outside, then swim to the inside at the snap. Often, the tackle will follow the end to the inside, leaving the linebacker a clear path to the quarterback — or possibly with an overmatched running back — in his way.
Indianapolis has historically been susceptible to this 3-4 rush technique and there were a number of scenarios in the game against the Patriots last season where Thomas, Vrabel, and even Rosevelt Colvin were free to tee off on Peyton Manning.
Not known for their athletic ability, this unit's strength is in their flexibility and intelligence. Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas can play any of the four linebacker positions in this defense. Tedy Bruschi can play either inside position — Mack and Buck — and rookie first-round pick Jerod Mayo has quickly stepped into the scheme.
LB Tedy Bruschi
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Bruschi and Vrabel have been in this system since the turn of the century, Thomas has learned a great deal since he was signed as free agent last offseason, and Mayo makes up for his schematic shortcomings with athletic ability.
The biggest advantages the Colts hold over this unit is on the edges and in the passing game.
While all four men are intelligent players and are rarely caught out of position, they lack the straight-line speed and coverage ability to match up against Addai, Simpson, or Dallas Clark in the passing game. Indianapolis discovered this in the 2007 tilt and used Addai as a receiver out of the backfield extensively.
In addition, Clark had a big game against a similarly talented group of linebackers against Tennessee, scoring twice. Look for the Colts to get everyone involved underneath, especially in the early going to get Manning into a rhythm and to get the secondary to creep up on the line of scrimmage.
Addai and Simpson have the speed to get to the edge and the Patriots, thin at cornerback and with flat-footed outside linebackers, should have a great deal of trouble stopping them if they get to the outside. The biggest obstacle here will be getting past ends Warren and Seymour, as they cover a lot of ground and move very well sideline-to-sideline.
In previous matchups, New England came out in light formations, with two linemen and five linebackers, or a 2-4-5 formation that made it difficult to identify who to block and even more difficult to spot who to exploit in the passing game.
But, with the issues surrounding the pass offense, expect Bill Belichick to send his defense out geared to stop the run, daring Manning to beat him.
Given that the Patriots secondary has been beset by injuries in recent weeks, Manning should find himself faced with numerous opportunities at all depths.
From checkdowns and drag routes against the linebackers underneath to Simpson, Clark, and Addai, to post, slant, and in routes in the intermediate area to Anthony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison, to deep routes against inexperienced and overwhelmed cornerbacks and safeties, Manning will not be short on options.
New England could be without starting cornerbacks Ellis Hobbs and Lewis Sanders and already have lost strong safety Rodney Harrison for the season. Journeyman Deltha O'Neal and second year man Mike Richardson could be the starters on Sunday night, as they both logged significant snaps in Week 8 against the Rams.
In transition between injuries, the Patriots proved to be vulnerable to the deep ball, giving up two big plays to St. Louis receiver Donnie Avery, but they settled down towards the end of the game, forcing a late turnover to seal the victory.
Indianapolis does have more talent at the skill positions than the Rams, but they will likely be hard pressed to find much room over-the-top, as the Patriots will try to insulate young safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sander by staying in a two-deep zone in an attempt to keep everything in front of them.
However, as the game progresses and the secondary starts to creep up on the line, look for Manning to attack this suspect back four and try to hit a big play.
Thus far this season, the Patriots defense has tried to win games primarily by not losing them. They have, though, suffered lapses in concentration and, when they have suffered too many, they have been beaten badly. The best shot for the Colts — since they have proven to be ineffective at wearing down the opposing team with precision passes or the running game — will be to take their shots down the field and hope to catch this hodgepodge of defensive backs out of position.
The X-Factor will be whether or not Manning can take advantage of these opportunities when they arise. The timing for the Colts offense is off and it stems from a lack of rhythm with Manning and his receivers. Several times on Monday night, Indianapolis had the chance to hit on some big plays in the passing game, but fell short either because they were a second too early, a second too late, or the coverage on the play was simply too tight.
Manning will get more shots in this game because he will be facing a less talented secondary, but he still needs to make the plays when they are available. As recent history has indicated, missed opportunities, turnovers, bad timing, and lack of execution early in the game have caused the offense — and the team as a whole — to come unraveled late.
At 3-4, facing a four-game deficit in the division and elimination from the Wild Card, the Colts don't have any more second chances and cannot afford any more what ifs.