In Week 1, John Henderson and Terrance Knighton successfully clogged up the middle of the field and the Colts had their least effective day running the ball of the season, averaging only 2.3 yards on 31 carries — yes, they ran the ball 31 times in a game at some point this season even though it wasn't working.
In that contest, Indianapolis tried the middle early, then went after ends Reggie Hayward and Derrick Harvey. They had little to no success running at Hayward, but averaged seven yards a carry running behind right tackle Ryan Diem and right at Harvey.
Since Week 1, Hayward has been placed on injured reserve, Harvey has moved to right end, second year man Quentin Groves has been inserted at left end, and Henderson has missed four games, being replaced by journeyman Atiyyah Ellison. Their run defense has, understandably, declined, but the trouble area seems to be Groves' side of the field. Teams are averaging 6.34 yards per carry on 32 attempts behind right tackle, which is the area that Groves is supposed to defend. Indianapolis averages only 3.56 yards per attempt to Diem's side of the field, though, so this is a case of weakness against weakness.
The truly interesting matchup in this game will be the Colts ability — and willingness — to run up the middle, where they are averaging 4.9 yards a carry and the Jaguars are yielding a surprising five yards per carry. That is a matchup of strength versus weakness, but it is strange to think that Indianapolis is the team that can pound the ball between the tackles against the soft front of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jacksonville has only 14 sacks on the season despite employing speed rushers Hayward, Harvey, and Groves. Groves and Harvey have combined for only two sacks on the season in 18 starts and Henderson — who will probably not play — leads the team in sacks with three. They do not create a lot of pressure with their front four and rarely blitz, as they prefer to play straight up defense. Since Indianapolis effectively has nothing to lose, they should see how dominant Jeff Saturday, Ryan Lilja, and Kyle DeVan can be at the point of attack, working against players that have been pushed around for much of the season.
What this group lacks in name recognition, they make up for in hustle and athletic ability. Clint Ingram, Justin Durant, and Daryl Smith have all had their star power diminished by the fact that they play in a smaller market, and have not been in the league or together for very long.
Durant and Smith lead the team in tackles and have contributed 2.5 sacks — or more than Harvey and Groves — four forced fumbles, seven passes defended, and an interception. Both men are excellent two-way players and Smith would have more interceptions than passes defended if he were a little better at catching the ball. He is always in a position to make a play and usually at least knocks the ball down when it comes in his direction.
The Jaguars run more Cover 2 than anything and have probably a little too vanilla thus far this season in their schemes and execution. But, now that Ingram, Durant, and Smith all have another season under their belts, they have been able to give the opposing offense more exotic looks and have been able to blitz more, as Ingram also has a sack.
Manning and Saturday have to be cognizant of this fact when they are at the line calling protections. One slip up could have disastrous consequences if Peyton Manning gets hit too hard on a play that he shouldn't have been in the game for.
The issue for the Jaguars, though, is that they won't be able to keep all three linebackers on the field very often against Indianapolis, since none of them can cover Dallas Clark one-on-one and running vanilla Cover 2 will not give them the correct personnel to cover three wide receivers — or even Clark and Gijon Robinson, should the Colts deploy a lot of two tight end sets.
Jacksonville will need to have at least five defensive backs on the field for most of the game, deploying something similar to the 4-2-5 defense that Denver utilized effectively in Week 14 against Indianapolis.
That defensive scheme left the Broncos vulnerable to the run in crunch time, though, and the Jaguars do not have the personnel in the secondary to match up with the Indianapolis receivers as well as the Denver defensive backs did.
Even if Clark ends up drawing safety Gerald Alexander, he will still have a considerable size advantage that should help him wall off the ball and prevent the defensive back from making a play. The only player that would be capable of shutting Clark down is free safety Reggie Nelson. Nelson has the size and coverage ability to stay with Clark one-on-one. Clark has proved time and again that assigning a linebacker to cover him is a monumental mistake, so Nelson will probably be following Clark all over the field, much the way Brian Dawkins did in Week 14, at least when the Colts weren't in the red zone.
Rashean Mathis did not play against Miami and will probably not suit up on Thursday night, which would leave rookie Derek Cox to cover Reggie Wayne. Wayne abused Cox in the first meeting between these two teams, but the fact of the matter is that the Jaguars don't have a lot of quality options with Mathis hurt.
The alternative would be Tyron Brackenridge, who has five starts with two teams the last three seasons. Brackenridge is coming up to speed quickly, has started his last four games, and has 30 tackles and two forced fumbles in limited action, but he is no match for Wayne.
Pierre Garcon is starting to find success consistently and passes to to the deep area of his side of the field are averaging 12.92 yards per attempt versus the 13.93 yards per attempt the Jaguars give up to that area.
Most importantly, all the Jacksonville cornerbacks — Brackenridge, Cox, and Brian Witherspoon — are very aggressive and can be taken advantage of with pump fakes and double moves, including the slant-and-go that has served Manning and Garcon so well the past few weeks. If Nelson does need to creep up towards the line of scrimmage, that will leave Alexander to cover the entire deep area of the field, which is certainly not his strong suit.
The X-factor here is Austin Collie. He was a fresh-faced rookie that was pressed into service when Anthony Gonzalez went down with a knee injury in Week 1. He has proven himself to be a valuable contributor to this offense in the games since then and will surely test the cornerback depth of the Jaguars. If he can break a couple of big plays — especially running after the catch — that could break this game open from the 14-12 mistake fest that it was in the opener to a 28-14 beatdown.
Ultimately, though, the outcome of the game depends on whether or not Jim Caldwell stays true to his word and keeps the starters in as though it were just another regular season game that meant something. If Manning takes a shot, Joseph Addai lands uncomfortably at the end of a run, or Wayne or Clark have a violent collision over the middle, expect Caldwell to have a short hook. He's willing to take a risk to keep the players sharp, but it's highly doubtful he's willing to risk the season by putting any of his key guys in harm's way.
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