For the second consecutive week, Indianapolis goes on the road to play in prime time. For the second consecutive week, they play a team that deploys the 3-4 as their base defense.
Since it all starts up front and the nose tackle is the most important player on the front three, Bryan Robinson is the first player to focus on. Center Jeff Saturday and guards Mike Pollak and Ryan Lilja actually did a good job of combo blocking Jason Ferguson in Week 2 and were usually able to guide him in one direction or the other, always away from the play. Since Indianapolis didn't have the ball much and didn't run many plays, they didn't have the opportunity to take advantage of their strong work against Ferguson.
If the Colts are able to establish the running game early, it will be up the middle, as Robinson is very similar in stature and technique to Ferguson. Since the interior of the offensive line has already dealt with a player like Robinson in a scheme similar to the one that Arizona runs, they should be able to make some space for Joseph Addai and Donald Brown up the middle.
As it turns out, running straight up the gut will probably be the only area of the formation where they'll be successful, as ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are excellent run defenders. Opponents have averaged 3.36 yards per rushing attempt up the middle against the Cardinals, but only 1.88 yards per attempt to Dockett's side and 1.17 yards per attempt running to Campbell's side.
They finished 16th in the NFL in run defense in 2008, but started to turn things around in the postseason and have built on that momentum so far this year, currently ranking fifth after facing two run-oriented offenses in Jacksonville and San Francisco the first two weeks.
When the offensive line focuses on pass protection, things don't get any easier, as Arizona is second in the league in sacks, with eight. Just like the Dolphins, the danger of the 3-4 defense for the Colts protection schemes is in trying to identify where the fourth or fifth pass rusher is coming from.
The Indianapolis line was very adept at identifying that mystery rusher correctly and only occasionally were linemen left blocking air after having fallen for the inside-outside technique common to the 3-4.
Since Arizona tends to blitz more than Miami, Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem will need to remain vigilant, not fall for any scheme-related trickery, and be sure to get into their backpedal and kick out at the snap. Outside linebackers Clark Haggans and Chike Okeafor have been in this system for quite some time and are very familiar with how it works.
Hopefully, Peyton Manning and Saturday can continue to diagnose the defensive formation at the line and continue to guess right this week. Manning did an outstanding job on Monday night in this capacity and it is evident that he has done his homework on the 3-4 defense the past two offseasons.
Haggans and Okeafor are solid two-way defenders, as evidenced by the stellar numbers the run defense has put up on the edges and the sack numbers and pressure they have been able to apply to the quarterback.
But, in the passing game, they are not skilled in coverage. Haggans has been a rush linebacker that learned to defend the run for his entire career and Okeafor played defensive end until Ken Whisenhunt took over as head coach in 2007. Brown and Addai should be able to execute a wheel route like the one Brown ran against the Dolphins and they should have success as outlet options in the flat.
Middle linebackers Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes have tremendous range sideline-to-sideline and are exceptional athletes. They fill in hard in run support, but Dansby in particular has difficulty disengaging from blocks, which is the primary reason that the Cardinals run defense numbers are not as impressive up the middle as they are on the edges.
If Adrian Wilson was not this defense, Dansby would be the unit's best athlete and he has excellent recognition skills on plays that occur in front of him. Given all these high motor pursuit players, Indianapolis would be best served not trying to run screens to any player.
But, if they make the same fatal mistake that Miami made and decide to stay in their base defense the entire game, covering Dallas Clark with Dansby or especially Hayes, Manning and the Colts will destroy them. Watch this possible matchup, because the Colts certainly will be. If Clark gets matched up one-on-one with a linebacker, Manning will be sure to exploit it.
The Cardinals have seen the film, too, though, so it is unlikely that they will make the same schematic mistakes that the Dolphins did.
Regardless of whether or not a linebacker draws Clark, the one area of the field in the short zone where Arizona is vulnerable is over the middle. They have allowed an average of 7.89 yards per pass attempt in this area, so look for Manning and company to attack this part of the field with passes to Clark and slants to Austin Collie or Pierre Garcon in the slot, even with drag routes to Reggie Wayne.
Like many 3-4 teams, the Cardinals have a talented front seven, but their back four is lacking talent-wise. They allowed 36 passing touchdowns in 2008, 40 plays of 20 yards or longer, and ten plays of 40 yards or longer.
By way comparison, the numbers for the Colts in 2008 were six, 33, and three. Thus far this season, they have not been quite as generous, allowing only three touchdown passes, but they are vulnerable.
The bad news for Arizona is that Wayne will be matched up against Bryant McFadden. His side of the field has allowed 11.83 yards per pass attempt on deep passes. In the short area, he has been very effective, since he is a sure tackler, allowing only 4.68 yards per attempt on short passes.
But, as Indianapolis is aware of the stats and the matchups, look for them to attack McFadden deep, particularly on go routes and double moves. Wilson patrols the deep area on that side of the field, but often roams the formation and is usually the eighth defender in the box.
Considering that the Colts have not been effective running the ball, the Cardinals will probably not put Wilson in the box unless they have to. They will have to if Indianapolis is successful running up the middle, so they will need to establish that early in order to take advantage of McFadden over the top.
Second year man Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie learned on the job last season, starting putting things together in the postseason, and has continued to build on that momentum thus far in 2009, allowing only 6.8 yards per deep pass and 5.92 yards per short pass to his area. Rodgers-Cromartie is still a young player, though, and can be susceptible to play action, pump fakes, and misses the occasional tackle.
In order to properly attack his side of the field, the Colts need to keep attacking and count on him to lose focus at some point. Free safety Antrel Rolle is a converted cornerback and is skilled in coverage, both man and zone. He was moved, though, because he suffers from inconsistency and lapses in concentration. By continuing to attack that side of the field with quick passes, out routes, and deep passes to Garcon, Indianapolis will eventually reap what they sow, as they did against Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell on Monday night.
Collie draws Ralph Brown, who has contributed to the struggles of the Arizona pass defense in the middle of the field. Collie should see all the action that Clark doesn't see working on the opposite side in the slot. He needs to be ready and he needs to take advantage of a favorable matchup in what should be a hard fought, high scoring game.
Arizona has a solid defense, but they do have holes. Manning needs to pick his spots and be aggressive downfield, but not get greedy. The Cardinals have a number of playmakers on defense and, if Manning tries to bite off more than he can chew, they will make him pay.
The Colts have proven time and time again that they can be efficient with the possessions they are given. Against an Arizona squad that has a talented, opportunistic defense and an explosive offense, they cannot afford to have any wasted opportunities.
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