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. 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.
Joseph Addai was successful — as successful as any Colts back has been so far this season on the second-worst running team in the NFL — running to the edges in Week 12, with 16 carries for 70 yards, with most of that yardage coming when Indianapolis tested the perimeter and did not try to run between the tackles.
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.
Running straight at Williams would be a terrible idea, but running to his off shoulder is still the best way to get Addai and Dominic Rhodes to the second level.
In addition, Chad Simpson has the speed to get to the edge and Lance Ball performed admirably in Week 17. If either of the first two men on the depth chart are not effective, the coaching staff should not hesitate to get Ball or Simpson some work, since getting the running game going will be a priority in setting up the passing game, as well as showing that Indianapolis can, in fact, run the ball if they need to, which is something that they did not prove during the course of the regular season.
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 they allowed only one sack of Peyton Manning in the Week 12 game.
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 28 sacks this season, far off their pace of 61 in 2006 and a half sack per game off their 2007 total of 42.
Phillips and Tucker have combined for only 14 of those sacks, 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. Dallas Clark should be lined up on both sides of the formation, attacking this matchup behind the linebacker and in front of the safeties, but never fully committing over the middle into the territory patrolled by Wilhelm and Cooper.
The first time these two teams met, San Diego ranked dead last against the pass and Manning ended up throwing for 255 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
He needed 44 attempts to get to those 255 yards, which speaks to the strategy that Ron Rivera — who replaced Ted Cottrell as defensive coordinator at the midpoint of the season — has implemented.
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
Even though starters Antonio Cromartie, Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason, Eric Weddle, and Clinton Hart are more accustomed to playing in man coverage, Rivera has successfully switched the scheme from a pressure defense that relies on its secondary to cover the opposing team's receivers man-on-man — which was certainly not working — to more of a Cover 2 scheme, similar to what he ran in Chicago, but still using the 3-4 personnel he has to work with.
The early transition was difficult for the personnel on hand to work through, but they seem to have hit their stride in the last five games of the season. While it's true that they faced passing challenged teams in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Oakland, they also faced Tampa in a must-win situation for the Buccaneers and a talented Broncos passing attack that was essentially playing in garbage time for the entire second half in Week 17.
Manning will still be able to work the ball to Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in the intermediate areas of the field and use Anthony Gonzalez, Marvin Harrison, and his running backs as underneath options.
Much like he did in the first matchup, he needs to take what the defense gives him and not try to do too much. That may lead to another six interception effort, or a game with as many critical turnovers as the Divisional Round game in 2007.
Addai. If they follow their recent trend of backing off the line of scrimmage and guarding against the pass in zone coverage, the Chargers will leave themselves very open to the run. With Hart and Weddle backed off of the line of scrimmage, Manning will have very small windows to operate in and will need to be extremely precise.
If the Colts are able to run the ball early, though, they will force the Chargers to creep up on the line of scrimmage, possibly committing an extra defender to the box, and leaving the deep area of the field vulnerable. It will also open things up in the play action passing game.
The Achilles heel of the Indianapolis offense all season has been their inability to get things going in the running game. In a loser-goes-home format with everything on line like the NFL playoffs, the Chargers will sell out to stop the pass until the Colts prove they can run the ball.
If they can even get a semblance of balance on offense going on Saturday night, they should be able to move the ball on the ground and through the air, keeping San Diego off balance.