This week, I'm going to try something a little different with the column. I'm going to focus my attention on particular individual matchups that should present themselves and in what situations and downs those battles should be of most interest.
Colts Coach Jim Caldwell expects Little to be very active on Sunday. "When you watch him on film, he still has that power that can devastate you," Caldwell told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. "He makes plays all over the field. You can tell his leadership in terms of the rest of the guys. He sets a great example for them."
Little is getting it done the same way he always has — with excellent speed and burst off the edge. He gets low around the corner and will use his hands and a shoulder dip to get opposing offensive tackles out of position and off balance.
He's very disruptive, has a good knack for tipping and batting down balls, and always seems to apply pressure, even if he doesn't register a sack, forcing quarterbacks into bad decisions or errant throws.
The line on Diem early in his career was that the guy was a road grader, who would struggle against good outside speed rushers. He just didn't have the lateral mobility to get to the edge and seal the corner off. Now that seems to have flipped. Diem might not be getting the push in the run game like he did in previous seasons, but he's doing an impeccable job against those speed rusher types that used to give him all kinds of trouble.
When shielding Little away from his quarterback, the key for Diem will be hand placement. He wants to force Little inside. That way Diem can limit lateral movement and use his size to latch on and engulf the 260-pound end. If and when Little beats Diem to the outside shoulder, its important Ryan recover quickly, move his feet and use his wingspan to keep Little at bay.
Expect these two to battle one-on-one most of the afternoon. They've both earned that right. But if the cagey veteran starts to have some success against Diem, the Colts won't hesitate to throw a tight end on the right side to help or employ the use of a chipping back.
LG Ryan Lilja vs. RDT Clifton Ryan (all situations):
DT Cliff Ryan is coming off his best performance of the season. "[Ryan] roamed the line of scrimmage with a vengeance, picking up five tackles and a sack," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most believe the 3rd year player out of Michigan State is playing the best football of his professional career right now.
Ryan does a lot of things well on the interior. He holds his ground and reacts well, and he knows how to use his quickness to shed blocks and make the tackle. He'll use his strength and power to generate an inside push and make the quarterback move in the pocket.
He still has some bad tendencies, however, and will get too high too often. This will cause him to be pushed back and off balance, and you can't make tackles or get penetration on the ground.
Lilja, meanwhile, has bounced back very solidly from a knee injury that kept him out of the entire 2008 season. He's reassumed his title as the lines' best run blocker and continues to play with sound technique. "He's [Lilja] a very experienced guy. Not only that, he has a great attitude in terms of his leadership and his understanding of our scheme," Caldwell said of Lilja this summer. "He is a very, very bright individual who does a great job of executing his techniques on the interior."
The Rams want their four down linemen to get pressure. For them it's not about consuming and taking on blocks or keeping linebackers clean, it's about getting penetration and disrupting the play. That's what the Giants did so well when Steve Spagnuolo was their defensive coordinator and the philosophy he's brought with him to St. Louis.
Ryan's pass rusher moves are fairly straightforward, without much variety. The most important aspect of this battle will be technique. While improved in his area, Ryan can get sloppy from time to time. This is when Lilja must seize the opportunity, and wall him off, or put him on his back.
The Colts are glad to have Charlie Johnson back protecting Peyton Manning's blindside. In the game he missed against Tennessee, his replacement, Tony Ugoh, struggled to contain Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch early in the contest. As a result, Vanden Bosch got some decent shots on No. 18.
Johnson has probably been the most pleasant surprise of the season so far. He's been nearly flawless in pass protection, and his side of the offensive line has become the most consistent in the run game.
He'll have a challenge on his hands in that regard this week. While Ram fans are wondering why Chris Long, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, is still without a sack this season, the fact is that the second-year pro leads all defensive linemen in tackles (20) and has developed into a beast against the run, still gives them hope. The thought is that the sacks will eventually come.
Long recently talked about the importance of run defense. "First things first, we have to stop the run and get people to third down," he said. "If we do that, we all get more opportunities."
Long plays with relentless motor. He has the hands and strength to stack and shed at the point. If teams are bouncing runs to the outside of even the opposite side, he has the lateral quickness to chase and pursue.
In terms of pure athleticism, Long has a huge advantage of Johnson. Long's length, arms and lateral speed make him difficult to block when teams run toward him. Still, it's easier to run at Long than outside of Long, where he could use his solid lateral quickness to make the play. This will allow Johnson more of an opportunity to dictate.
It will be important to try and bait him into over committing to a direction and then driving him a away from the play. At times, it almost looks like Long would be more comfortable as a OLB in a 3-4 defense than a pass rushing DE in Steve Spagnuolo's pressure- and penetration-focused line.
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