One of the primary reasons that the Chargers have been so effective in stopping the run the past few seasons is the play of their defensive line. The three men up front practice excellent gap discipline, clog running lanes, and free up the linebackers to flow to the ball and make the play.
Luis Castillo, the key facet of this unit, was injured in the second half against Pittsburgh in Week 11, and the Steelers made sure to run to Castillo's side as often as possible. Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker has similar speed and an ability to take a play to the edge so, if Castillo is absent in Week 12, look for the Colts to test his side of the field, especially since targeting that area goes away from stellar outside linebacker Shaun Phillips and towards Shawne Merriman's replacement, Jyles Tucker.
Compounding issues on running to Phillips' side is that Indianapolis would also be running right at massive end Igor Olshansky, who is one of the best three players at his position in the league.
Nose tackle Jamal Williams has been a stalwart in the middle for the Chargers for a number of seasons and, while he is once again playing at a high level, has lost some of his explosiveness in his 12th season. In particular, he seems to have slowed down in his first two steps after the snap, which are the two most critical steps for a player at his position.
Much like they did with Vince Wilfork in Week 9 and Justin Bannan in Week 5, Jeff Saturday and the guard assisting him — either Mike Pollak or Charlie Johnson — need to get their hands and their bodies on Williams at the snap and guide him in a chosen direction, obviously away from the play.
Williams is tough to move, but he is easy to keep going and, since Saturday will not be overwhelmed by his first couple of steps, he should be able to neutralize Williams enough to get him out of the play.
In the passing game, Jacques Cesaire, Castillo's replacement, is a much better pass rusher than he is a run defender, so the Colts should look to limit him by running right at him.
The Chargers still prefer to bring pressure off the edges and not up the middle, so it is incumbent upon Peyton Manning, Tony Ugoh, and Ryan Diem to identify which four (or more) players are coming on a given play in this 3-4 defense.
Indianapolis has struggled in protection in the past against 3-4 defenses in general and this Chargers defense in particular, but the Colts do have a couple of factors working in their favor.
The primary advantage for Indianapolis is that Merriman was placed on injured reserve before the second game of the season and will not be available.
Without Merriman to pressure the quarterback and draw double teams, the San Diego pass rush has not been effective, posting only 22 sacks in ten games — this equates to 35 sacks over the course of a 16 game season, far off their pace of 61 in 2006 and a half sack per game off their 2007 total of 42.
Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker have combined for only eight sacks in ten, while Phillips and Merriman combined for 50 sacks in the 32 games played in 2006 and 2007.
Since the outside linebackers are the primary source of the pass rush in the 3-4 defense, the significant dropoff in production without Merriman has hindered the defense as a whole and exposed both Phillips and Tucker as only adequate two-way defenders.
Inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm have both developed in to excellent two-way players, though they still are not adept enough at getting to the quarterback to be sent on blitzes very frequently.
They display sound fundamentals in terms of pass coverage, gap discipline, and tackling technique, but neither is an explosive athlete capable of changing a game. Neither is a weak link, though, so the Colts should resist the urge to favor one over the other in the passing game or when targeting Williams' off shoulder.
The outside linebackers also struggled in coverage in Week 11, allowing reserve tight ends Matt Spaeth and Sean McHugh to catch seven passes for 70 yards. Dallas Clark should be lined up on both sides of the formation, attacking this match-up behind the linebacker and in front of the safeties, but never fully committing over the middle into the territory patrolled by Wilhelm and Cooper.
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is entering his second month at the position, as he replaced Ted Cottrell on October 28th.
Rivera coached the Bears defense from 2004 to 2006 and is a Cover 2 man by trade, so it is interesting that he inherits a set of skill position players that is more well-suited to playing in man coverage schemes. Cottrell was fired because his pressure schemes weren't working due to the missing production that Merriman took with him and the secondary was exposed.
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
The team started giving up yards and points in bunches, mostly through the air, and the thinking must be that Rivera can turn things around by installing a zone scheme similar to the one he ran in Chicago.
However, starting cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer and safeties Clinton Hart and Eric Weddle are better man-to-man guys, so something has to give. In Rivera's defense, though the team is still generous in the passing yards it allows, it is succeeding as a bend-don't-break unit and has allowed only 30 points in the past two games.
The Steelers and Chiefs were able to move the ball effectively between the 20s in those games by using a short, controlled passing game with the running game mixed in to keep the defense honest. Though Clark will be a big factor in a similar game plan for the Colts, they must take advantage of the aggressive natures of Cromartie and Jammer and the inability of Hart and Weddle to cover the deep zone.
Peyton Manning was able to target Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez deep repeatedly against the Texans and should have as many opportunities on Sunday night, albeit less favorable ones. Jammer and Cromartie are much better in coverage than anyone on Houston's roster and are still trusted, for the most part, with the task of staying with the receiver, even when he goes over the top.
The Steelers and Chiefs tested the abilities of the talented cornerback duo repeatedly, but were unsuccessful. Those two teams do not, however, have receivers the caliber of Wayne and Gonzalez.
There will be chances to hit it big in the vertical passing game and Indianapolis needs to capitalize on those chances when they arise, lest they have to fight their way into the end zone in goal-to-go situations.
The Red Zone. Kansas City was 1-1 in the red zone in Week 10, but failed to convert on a two point play to decide the game, while Pittsburgh was 0-3 in the red zone and goal-to-go situations in Week 11. San Diego has given up almost 800 yards in two weeks to two teams that are not as talented on offense as the Colts. The difference has been that the defense has held when it mattered most.
When Indianapolis gets inside the 20 — and especially when they get inside the 10-yard line — they need to convert those opportunities into touchdowns.
Addai and Clark will factor heavily into the game plan in this area of the field, but Marvin Harrison has proven throughout the course of the season that this is where he can still get the job done. Whether he's matched up against Jammer, Cromartie, or nickel back Antoine Cason, he still has the moves, hands, tenacity, and discipline to make plays when the Colts get close to the end zone.
Manning needs to find him — or someone — and Indianapolis needs to convert in order to keep pace with a very explosive Chargers offense.
No one needs to be reminded of their failures in the red zone in January and how that was one of the deciding factors in the game.