The key to any effective 3-4 defense is their front seven, starting up front with the defensive line. The most important position in the front three is the nose tackle and the Dolphins have a quality player at that position in Jason Ferguson.
At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, Ferguson is actually a little undersized to play the nose tackle position, but makes up for that by being a very active player, lowering his center of gravity, and using his hands to gain position on the offensive lineman, even when facing a double team.
Miami has very talented inside linebackers, but Ferguson was the primary reason that the Falcons only averaged 2.9 yards per rush up the middle in Week 1.
The Colts can't completely avoid the middle of the defense, but they can neutralize Ferguson by running slant and stretch plays to his outside shoulder. If Jeff Saturday and Ryan Lilja block right, Donald Brown and Joseph Addai need to slant left. If Mike Pollak and Saturday block left, Brown and Addai need to slant right, keeping in mind that they will need to make a move in the hole to avoid the inside linebacker no matter which direction they are heading.
Indianapolis only averaged 2.08 yards running left against the Jaguars and Charlie Johnson is still getting his sea legs at left tackle, so it would make more sense for them to run to the strong side of the formation, where they averaged 3.5 yards per carry and they will be taking on left end Kendall Langford and outside linebacker Jason Taylor, who has improved as a run defender, but is more of a natural pass rusher.
Aside from that, the powerful Atlanta rushing attack had no success running at right end Randy Starks and weakside linebacker Joey Porter, losing three yards on six rushes. Even if the Colts deploy more two tight end sets and Gijon Robinson or Jacob Tamme are on the weak side, it would make more sense for them to go to their strengths and Miami's weaknesses.
In terms of a pass rush, the defensive line offers a nominal threat and Indianapolis should concern themselves with where the fourth rusher — most likely Porter or Taylor — is coming from when they drop back to pass.
Inside linebackers Akin Ayodele and Channing Crowder are rangy, athletic players that are tackling machines. It will be very difficult for Brown or Addai to make these gentlemen miss, but that's exactly what they'll have to do to get to the second level.
There's a reason that Atlanta — and, more to the point, most teams — struggled to run between the tackles. If you get past Ferguson, it is extremely difficult to outmaneuver Crowder or Ayodele. If the Colts are able to get to the second level, they have a chance to do some damage even though the Miami safeties are very capable in run support.
Crowder and Ayodele have some upside as blitzers, but, for the most part, they are responsible for cleaning up the play after Ferguson occupies blockers at the point of attack.
Porter has been named to the Pro Bowl four times and was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, recording 17.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Taylor was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 and has been to six Pro Bowls. Both men are on the wrong side of 30, but have kept their games at an extremely high level through superior conditioning.
On any given play, Taylor or Porter — or both — will come on the blitz and attempt to take advantage of being the mystery fourth rusher that is the hallmark of the 3-4 defense, with the defensive lineman to the blitzing linebacker's side trying to work an inside-outside move, where they fake inside, attempt to draw the tackle in, and allow the linebacker to get wide for a one-on-one matchup with the running back.
Indianapolis will need someone back to block, whether it be Robinson, Addai, or Brown. If the inside-outside ploy does not work or only one linebacker comes after Peyton Manning, the player kept at home must make themselves an outlet for Manning should he need it.
The Colts have historically struggled against the 3-4 defense, but, with more and more teams adopting it as their base formation, Manning, Saturday, Howard Mudd, and the rest of the offensive line have become progressively better at organizing their protections. They will need to be on top of their game on Monday night, as Taylor and Porter are two of the best in the business at what they do.
The silver lining for Indianapolis is that the Dolphins are not very talented in the secondary. Sean Smith, Will Allen, and Vontae Davis are serviceable cornerbacks, but Smith in particular will have trouble keeping up with Reggie Wayne. It's true that most cornerbacks have trouble keeping up with Wayne, but he draws his second consecutive favorable matchup after facing rookie Derek Cox last week.
On the other side of the field, Pierre Garcon will not dominate Allen, but should have some opportunities in the short-to-intermediate area of the field, especially considering that Miami likes to keep its safeties deep. Austin Collie or newcomer Hank Baskett may face Davis, a rookie first round pick, or the Dolphins may choose to put Davis on Dallas Clark.
Whether the Colts line up with two tights or three wide receivers, the conundrum for Miami will be who draws Clark. Davis has the coverage ability to stay with Clark man-to-man, but, even at 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, gives up too much in terms of height and weight to Clark to handle him by himself.
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Most likely, Davis will draw Clark, with help underneath from Crowder and Ayodele and help over the top from safeties Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell, with Bell seeing most of the support work. This gives Clark an opportunity in the seam to box out Davis and catch passes in front of Bell.
The Falcons gained a paltry 22 yards on six attempts in the deep passing game in Week 1, which shows that Miami is adept at closing off the deep area of the field with Bell and Wilson. But, Atlanta also carved up the Dolphins in the short and intermediate areas of the field, which is what Manning and company will need to do in order to move the ball.
This is not defense against which the Colts can gain yardage in chunks. The cornerbacks are not susceptible to double moves or pump fakes, the safeties aren't fooled by play-action, and, as a unit, they have a bend-don't-break philosophy.
This will force Manning to be patient and precise, while trying to avoid on-rushing defenders that will likely come free and pressure him from the edges. But, Manning has proved to be more than capable of keeping his cool and taking what the defense gives him. The Dolphins, given the matchups and personnel in play, will give him from the line of scrimmage and 15 yards beyond. Manning needs to stay on his game and the receivers need to stay vigilant, as Wilson, Bell, Ayodele, and Crowder will be looking to clobber them as soon as the ball comes in their direction.
Crowder and Ayodele are vulnerable to play-action, since they pride themselves on their ability to seek and destroy the ballcarrier. Given that, the best course of action will be to establish the running game — no small task, since Indianapolis did not look sharp against Jacksonville and the Dolphins have a stout run defense — make the linebackers respond to play-action, and work the middle of the field.
With their roots as slot receivers and guys who make the tough catches, Garcon and Collie should be able to gain considerable ground in the middle and Clark owns that area of the field. This will open things up for Wayne on the perimeter, catching 15-yard comebacks and outs against what will likely be a generous cushion from Smith.
Persistence will pay off and the Colts will be able to eventually make serious gains against this defense.
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