Five to Watch: Colts at Cardinals

Indianapolis will face its toughest challenge of the season against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday night. After being on the field for more than three quarters against the Dolphins on Monday, along with losing a day of rest, the Colts defense will face one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL.

On paper, the teams match up well, as Indianapolis is known for limiting opposing quarterbacks and the Cardinals are a pass-heavy team. The game could easily turn into a shootout; with offenses led by Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning, two of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league.

The biggest question is which defense best succeeds in shutting down the opposition?

Add to this a budding running back competition in Indianapolis and a defense that has struggled against the run and multiple questions can be answered for the Colts Sunday night, including one with season-long implications.

Freeny and Mathis will need to pressure Warner to slow the Cardinals
Andy Lyons/Getty

1. DE Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis:

Generating pressure on Kurt Warner is the best way to limit the Cardinals passing attack. In Week One, the Cardinals faced a San Francisco defense that harassed Warner; resulting in three sacks, two interceptions, and a Warner fumble.

If Freeney and Mathis find success getting upfield they can rattle Warner, who is not known for his mobility. If Arizona has to force passes, or is limited to only short throws, the secondary's job will be much easier.

Freeney and Mathis kept consistent pressure on David Garrard two weeks ago, allowing Powers and Hayden to aggressively play the passing lanes. This week the pass rushing tandem enters the game battered and bruised. If they fail to put pressure on Warner, he will find his targets and the defense could be in for another long day.

2. CB Jerraud Powers: A week ago, Jerraud Powers was inactive with a groin injury and Tim Jennings had to step into a starting role. After finishing the Miami game on the sidelines, the Colts held Kelvin Hayden out of practice this week due to a tweaked hamstring; he will not play in today's game.

Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston are dangerous targets. Both Fitzgerald and Boldin have more size and strength than Powers will look to utilize that mismatch when Warner needs to get rid of the ball. Breaston will attempt to stretch the middle of the Colts defense from the slot (primarily), using his speed to confuse the Colts secondary.

Powers only regular season experience was against comparatively weak Jacksonville receivers. If matched up against Anquan Boldin or Larry Fitzgerald, he will need to use his speed and discipline to make plays on the ball but he cannot lose sight of the run because Kurt Warner loves to look to his check-downs against teams who sell out to stop the big play.

Whether Marlin Jackson or Tim Jennings takes the field, they will have to keep Fitzgerald from finding soft spots in the zone, not allow him to use his size to dominate in the end zone, nor be fooled by his routes; allowing him to get deep. If they can knock Fitzgerald off of his routes and disrupt his timing with Warner they could force the action elsewhere, which would go a long way in hindering the Cardinals' passing game.

3. LB Freddie Keiaho: Defensive captain Gary Brackett left the field against Miami on the last drive of the game with an undisclosed knee injury and did not make the trip to Arizona for today's game.

Earlier this week the Colts released tight end Tom Santi in order to re-sign former Colts linebacker Jordan Senn; however, all indications suggest that Freddie Keiaho will be Brackett's replacement.

Keiaho started at weak-side linebacker last year but was allowed to enter free agency over the summer. He returned to the roster but failed to beat out Tyjuan Hagler for a starting job. Now he will be asked to start at middle linebacker, a position he played in college but has not played extensively in the NFL, although he did play there a bit last season.

If Keiaho does not tackle well and defend well against the pass, Warner may focus the Cardinals' offense on the middle of the field. If he looks natural in his old position, is disciplined in his gaps, and gets a body on receivers attempting to cross the middle of the field, he could save his career.

Keiaho will have few opportunities to see the field defensively when Brackett is healthy so time is not on his side. He must step up now and regain the confidence of his coaches, or he might top the list of expendable players as the Colts continue to make roster moves in the young season.

Bethea and his secondary mates will be tested tonight
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

4. S Antoine Bethea/Melvin Bullitt: Safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt have played exceptionally well together when Bob Sanders has had to miss time. They are both better against the run, however, and will have to be more active in coverage this week.

If Bethea and Bullitt bite too early to the run, or fail to stay over the top of Arizona's talented receivers, they will give Warner the opportunity to stretch the field and soften the heart of the Colts defense. In a game which will already require the Colts to play sound defensive football, weakening the middle of the field is not a winning option.

They will need to read Warner and the Cardinals offense well to be in positions to make plays. They will also need to be prepared to make more tackles to aid the weakened linebacker corps. Their performance may have a huge impact in the outcome of Sunday night's game.

5. RB Joseph Addai/Donald Brown: When the Colts drafted Donald Brown it was clear that Indianapolis was not satisfied with the team's ability to run the ball a year ago. Entering the season, questions about how much Addai and Brown would share carries dominated much of the discussion.

After two weeks of play, Addai is still shouldering a heavier load. However, it's been Brown taking the snaps at running back in the fourth quarter.

While both Addai and Brown were able to find success running the ball against the Dolphins on only a few opportunities, it was Brown who carried the ball with the game on the line, scoring his first NFL touchdown. Sunday's game will provide another opportunity for the Colts to determine which back should handle most of the carries going forward.

Indianapolis will need its best defensive playmakers to be effective, its young players to perform like veterans, and its backups to play like starters on Sunday if the team hopes to effectively shut down the Cardinals offensive attack. It will take a full team performance for the Colts to defeat the defending NFC champions in Arizona, on a short weak, with a tired and battered defense.

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