The middle of the Jacksonville defense was once the area to avoid, when massive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud occupied blockers, clearing the way for middle linebacker Mike Peterson to fly to the ball and make plays.
Stroud was traded to Buffalo in the offseason and Peterson was banned from the Jaguars facilities for a period in November. Henderson is still there and is still quite a presence, but can be avoided now that offenses aren't required to pick their poison between him and Stroud.
Nine-year veteran Rob Meier has replaced Stroud in the middle and, while he is a fairly good player with a high motor and very active hands and feet, he cannot create the disruption in the middle of the line that Stroud did teaming with Henderson.
Pollak should be able to handle Meier, but if Meier starts to penetrate into the backfield, the Colts could have a long day running the ball. While that's par for the course these days, it still doesn't make it OK.
End Reggie Hayward plays on the left side and, although he is a very quick player that is looked upon as a pass rush specialist — he has only 4.5 sacks, but his reputation precedes him — but, at this point in his career, plays both the pass and the run equally well.
That is to say that he does neither at a high level. Since Dallas Clark will line up on his side and Ryan Diem may need to help out with Meier, Clark is perfectly capable of sealing the edge and giving Chad Simpson or Joseph Addai room to run. Dominic Rhodes is not fast enough to run outside the tackles at this point in his career, so, if Addai is unable to go, look for Indianapolis to focus their running efforts between the tackles on Thursday night, provided that Simpson is not in the backfield.
Where the Jaguars are truly vulnerable is on the right side of the formation, where the Colts should look to run straight at the double-teamed Henderson and the overmatched rookie first round pick, Derrick Harvey.
At some point this season, Jack Del Rio decided to go with youth on the right side, and Harvey has seven starts, but only 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Three of those tackles and all of those sacks came against the Lions in Week 10, so it goes without saying that Harvey has not been successful thus far this season.
Jacksonville has struggled to get to the quarterback thus far this season, as they have only 26 sacks, and that all starts with the four men up front.
Daryl Smith, Mike Peterson's replacement at middle linebacker, has 14 starts on the season, but has not experienced the kind of production that Peterson enjoyed during his time as the starter — when healthy.
Smith has only 69 tackles, which is the usual total for half a season for Peterson, and there seems to be an attrition of sorts happening through the middle of the defense.
Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Reggie Nelson have combined for 104 tackles and are no doubt cannibalizing from the plays Peterson would normally make in the middle. This means that running backs, tight ends, and receivers are all getting to the third level of the defense, where Nelson and Sensabaugh need to either make the play or watch the man with the ball head into the end zone.
Justin Durant is a good two-way player and Clint Ingram has a nose for the ball, but both players are works in progress and the Jaguars have been unable to replace the void in production left by the absence of Stroud and Peterson.
Indianapolis needs to run into that void and throw underneath routes to Clark and Anthony Gonzalez in that void in the hopes that they will provide the Colts with yards after the catch, until they reach the last line of defense — the safeties.
Their absence is felt the most along the front seven, but there has been a ripple effect that has passed over the entire defense.
Former Pro Bowler Rashean Mathis was recently placed on injured reserve and his injury has left Jacksonville thin at cornerback. With Mathis, Brian Williams, and Drayton Florence at the position, the Jaguars had a Pro Bowl caliber player and two nickel backs. Now, they are left with two nickel backs, and Florence is starting to suck wind at the end of a long, frustrating season.
Jacksonville has already started playing more zone in the back four in an attempt to camouflage their weaknesses, but, through the use of motion and tracking the movement — or lack of movement — by the defense, Peyton Manning will be able to tell where his man-to-man matchups exist.
If the Jaguars play zone, Manning should work the ball underneath to Clark, Gonzalez and Rhodes or Addai. If Manning gets man coverage on Reggie Wayne, he needs to attack down the field and exploit those favorable matchups for all they're worth.
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In addition, Manning can get Sensabaugh and Nelson to creep up on the line of scrimmage by working the ball in front of them, but behind the linebackers. The more Manning dinks and dunks, the better his chance to exploit man coverage over the top.
Sensabaugh and Nelson are both gifted athletes and excellent coverage guys, but, as young and athletic players, they have a tendency to trust their athleticism too much and can get caught out of position.
The Jaguars are hurting, for sure, but they are not going to let this game against a hated rival just slip away. They'll play smart and they'll be active, especially in the back seven. It's up to Manning and company to strike when the opportunity presents itself.
Too frequently this season, the timing with Manning and his receivers has been just a second off. With two games remaining and every game becoming more and more critical in terms of playoff implications, they cannot afford to be off. They must strike while they can.
Third downs. Jacksonville has been surprisingly passive on third down all season, playing a zone that placed several players at the line to gain, rushing three or four linemen, and trusting their ability to tackle and cover the deep part of the field. Against the Packers, that strategy backfired, and Green Bay converted 10 of 16 third down attempts.
Where the Packers were ineffective in the red zone, the Colts should excel, as they've been the best in the league inside the 20 all season, converting 70.5 percent of attempts for touchdowns.
The important factor for Indianapolis is to do well between the 20s, move the ball, and get in a position to score. Once they get to the red zone, they should be successful.
Getting to the red zone has sometimes been an issue this season, so they need to take advantage of Jacksonville's soft approach on third down, convert those attempts, keep drives alive, and move in for the kill, doing what they do best once they get in the red zone.