As with any Rex Ryan defense, the Jets use the 3-4 as their base defense. They were able to deploy their standard personnel against the Chargers last week in the Divisional round and will likely use the same strategy, which plays to their strengths.
Up front, nose tackle Sione Pouha has exceeded expectations and has been a force up the middle for New York in the postseason, both against the power rush attack of the Cincinnati Bengals and the zone blocking, one cut schemes of the San Diego Chargers.
End Shaun Ellis — who was once a nose tackle — fills in the gaps in order to help out and the Jets finished eighth in the league in run defense in 2009. Fellow end Marques Douglas is a talented two-way player and does an excellent job of working the inside-out technique that has given the Colts blockers — Ryan Diem in particular — fits in the past.
The big pass rushing plays are generally made with outside linebackers Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace, who both formerly played defensive end in the 4-3 scheme. If Ryan does decide to go with a 4-2-5 look — and he will surely vary personnel and formations throughout the game — he will probably slide Thomas onto the line with his hand on the ground, since Pace is the more talented pass defender and Scott is a very accomplished blitzer as well.
The key is for Peyton Manning to identify where the fourth — and often fifth, or sixth — rusher is coming from. After struggling against 3-4 defenses for most of his career, Manning has made considerable strides — due partly to the fact that he has had more exposure to the 3-4, as a number of teams have adopted it — and is equally comfortable setting protections with Jeff Saturday against the 3-4 as he is against the 4-3.
Manning has, historically, been tremendously successful against the blitzing schemes of Ryan, but he is facing a different team with different personnel than the Ravens defenses he routinely destroyed in the past.
Charlie Johnson and Diem need to stay on their toes, though, and make sure that the Jets are not able to pull any inside-outside maneuvers. Ryan Lilja and Kyle DeVan need to stay cognizant of the stunts and crosses that the Jets, and Ryan, like to run with their linebackers and defensive tackles. It is a tall order and the Colts offensive line will need to remain vigilant — with a running back kept in the formation — to slow down the ferocious pace that New York brings on defense, as they like to blitz more than any other team in the league.
It is a high-risk, high-reward defense that the Jets deploy, so hopefully Manning has learned enough the past few seasons to identify the oncoming rushers and make them pay for overcommitting.
New York's defense let up in the second half of the fourth quarter against the Chargers, frequently rushing only three defenders and playing almost a prevent defense. Philip Rivers was very successful against this look, so don't expect Ryan to make the same mistake twice.
The Jets will bring the heat, bring it often, and bring it consistently throughout the game, so Manning and Saturday need to be at the top of their respective games in order to prevent this talented New York pass rush from taking over the game.
What this unit lacks in star power — none of the four linebackers for the Jets were named to the Pro Bowl — it makes up for in effectiveness. Inside linebacker David Harris is a tackling machine and fellow inside linebacker Bart Scott is an accomplished pass defender and pass rusher that can play any linebacker position in this defense.
Outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas played defensive end in college and have excellent pass rushing instincts, but have evolved into very capable two-way defenders, just as comfortable backpedaling in coverage as they are with their hand on the ground.
Frequently, Pace and Thomas will line up in a three-point stance as though prepared to come after the quarterback with a safety to their off shoulder also ready to come on an overload blitz, but they will drop into coverage in an attempt to intercept the hot read to that side of the formation. The Jets will overload blitz, they will zone blitz, and they will line Scott up at every linebacker position in an attempt to confuse the opposing quarterback.
At this point in his career, Manning has seen pretty much everything, but Ryan and his staff understand that they are one game away from the Super Bowl and that there is no tomorrow, so they will throw everything that they can at Manning in an attempt to confuse and fluster him.
If they do manage to cross him up, he cannot afford to become flustered in what will be a volatile, high-pressure environment. Doing so would be playing right into the hands of this very aggressive and opportunistic defense.
The key player in this matchup is Dallas Clark. Last week, Antonio Gates was able to gain separation from the New York linebackers and was very effective in the screen passing game. The Colts use Clark in a variety of ways, both in the deep passing game and on screen passes.
They need to line him up wherever he has the most space in which to operate and isolate on him when the Jets overload blitz. But, instead of going to the standard hot read of a slant or in pattern, they need to attack the seam with Clark over the linebackers and in front of the safeties. If this New York defense has a weakness, it is the pass coverage abilities of its linebackers. Indianapolis needs to exploit this weakness if they are to be successful in the passing game.
A lot has been made of the Revis Effect in that Defensive Player of the Year candidate Darelle Revis is an amazingly talented player capable of taking away the opposing team's best receiver in man coverage. A number of highly talented players from Chad Ochocinco to Andre Johnson to Randy Moss found themselves taken out of the game plan and frustrated by Revis.
But, the leading receiver for San Diego in the Divisional round was not Gates, but rather Vincent Jackson, the Chargers number one receiver. Though Revis did not cover Jackson on every play, the fact that he was able to catch seven passes for 111 yards on nine targets shows that Revis is not invincible.
Revis will most likely follow Reggie Wayne wherever he goes, but Revis is less effective covering receivers in the slot, so the Colts should move Wayne around as much as possible in an attempt to limit Revis' ability to take him out of the game. The Indianapolis offense is far more effective and explosive when Wayne is heavily involved, so the Colts should seek to target him early and often in order to get into a rhythm.
They cannot shy away from Wayne simply because Revis is covering him, because that is what most teams that have been ineffective against this Jets defense have done.
On the other side of the field, Pierre Garcon does not draw a cupcake matchup in Lito Sheppard. Sheppard is equally effective pressing receivers and making the tackle in the short game and turning his hips and running with them when the opponent decides to throw deep. Though teams averaged only 4.71 yards per attempt in the short passing game and 3.72 yards per attempt deep against Revis, they didn't fare much better to Sheppard's side of the field, averaging only 5.01 and 4.98 yards per attempt, respectively.
New York finished the regular season as the number one defense in terms of points allowed, passing yards allowed, and total yards allowed and they have built on that success in the postseason. They have achieved that success through efficient play, but a big part of their game is attacking and intimidation.
The only way to overcome a confident, attacking defense is to attack them deep with confidence and that is what the Colts must do. They must throw deep against the blitz and press the seam against a defense that allowed an averaged of 13 yards per attempt to the deep middle.
In a season in which Indianapolis played things close to the vest and did just enough to win, they must come out attacking, come out firing, and never yield.
There is too much fight and too much confidence in this New York defense to play timid and cautious. The Bengals and Chargers employed that strategy and look where that got them. Jim Caldwell and Tom Moore must eschew their calm demeanors and come out swinging.
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