Ever since All-Pro NT Kris Jenkins went down with a season-ending injury in mid October, DT Sione Pouha has quietly done an excellent job filling in at the nose. If and when Pouha is able to win his battle against an opposition's interior linemen and control the middle of the line, it allows the Jets' linebackers to run free to the ball or open lanes for them on their way to the quarterback.
Last week, for example, Pouha's ability to occupy both the center and a guard allowed head coach Rex Ryan the freedom to send extra interior blitzers. They will look for Pouha to create more of the same this week.
One interesting statistic is the fact the Jets run defense has actually improved against the run since Kris Jenkins went down.
"Through the first six games with Jenkins, they allowed 115.7 rushing yards per game, 21st in the league," the New Jersey Star-Ledger notes. "They finished the season ranked eighth in the league in run defense, giving up 98.6 yards on the ground per game. Another impressive stat is that in the final 10 games of the season, the Jets held their opponent under 100 yards rushing six times, including the final four weeks."
Pouha uses his strength to hold up the point and control blocks. He has decent lateral movement and shows solid pop and explosion off the snap. Dealing with impressive, massive nose tackles in 3-4 defenses is nothing new for Colts center Jeff Saturday, as the AFC has been full of them over the years. Players like Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, Jamal Williams, Kelly Gregg are all some elite nose tackles that Jeff Saturday has went toe-to-toe with and fortunately for Indianapolis has more than held his own against each.
Besides dealing with whoever is lining up over top of him, Saturday also has the responsibility of making line calls and working with quarterback Peyton Manning to locate potential blitzers and assign the proper blocking scheme. In the regard, Saturday is expecting controlled chaos from New York on Sunday.
"That's kind of been [Jets Coach Rex Ryan]'s deal ever since he's been a coordinator, Saturday said this week. "He likes to create chaos and kind of leave guys open where you don't know if you're blocking a guy or not blocking a guy. He plays a number of different guys in different positions. So I think going into the week, you have to be really solid on knowing who you're gonna pick up and what moves you're gonna pick each guy up and knowing that some of them are gonna be throwaways. You're not gonna be able to block them every time, every play. These guys are top in the league for a reason."
Against any 3-4 defense, a main question will always be can the offense control the nose tackle without multiple blockers. That's been easier said than done with Pouha in these playoffs. He's been a space-eating man-child in both of their wins. New York wants Pouha to occupy the blocks of both the center and weak side guard Ryan Lilja.
If Saturday can control the assignment without much help from Lilja it does two things. It allows Lilja to get into the second level and create deeper running lanes in the run game and in pass pro it allows Lilja to focus on the DE or blitzing interior linebackers.
Now Saturday is not a consistent overpowering type of run blocker, who easily drives big, powerful nose tackles off the line of scrimmage. So the key to winning this battle is the same as it has always been. Jeff needs to use sound technique, smarts, efficiency, and his motor to maintain his ground.
Pouha will not be the only Jet to line up at the nose on Sunday. Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine will also rotate in DTs Howard Green and Mike DeVito. This helps keep all three fresh. Since the Jets will be playing their fourth road game in their last five contests and are coming off a cross country trip to and from San Diego, we should expect plenty of rotating linemen.
Blocking and Picking Up the Blitz:
Blitz Peyton Manning or not? That is the million-dollar question. But is it really? The New York Jets got here with their blitz happy defense, so there is no need to expect that to change no matter how impressive Manning's stats are when blitzed. In fact, I expect Rex Ryan to use every defensive blitz package that exists in his defensive playbook.
This season opposing quarterbacks had a league-low 53.8 passer rating against the Jets' blitz. "It's as good a blitz package and scheme as we've faced this year," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. Coming into last week's game Rivers had a 103.7 passer rating when blitzed this season, third-highest among those blitzed more than 150 times. We all know how that turned out.
Last week, Rivers had all kinds of trouble recognizing where the pressure was coming from, especially in the second half. Because of that, a quarterback who had thrown just nine interceptions in the regular season threw two during the third quarter of the divisional playoff game.
This season NFL teams have blitzed Colts quarterback Peyton Manning 149 times. When blitzed, Manning has completed 101 passes, 10 for touchdowns, and was only sacked five times. Interestingly, Manning's completion percentage on blitzes was only one point lower than his overall completion percentage.
In their earlier Week 16 meeting, Manning seemingly figured out the Jets' blitzes. New York blitzed Manning 14 times in that game and when seeing the extra pressure Manning completed nine passes for 103 yards without a sack or an interception.
Ryan loves a few blitzes in particular. One is focused on getting pressure up the middle by firing inside linebackers up through the A-gaps. They want to try to collapse the pocket and make the quarterback move laterally. This is another key element of the Saturday v. Pouha matchup. If Pouha is consuming multiple interior blockers, it opens gap space for inside linebackers to fire through untouched.
The also love the overload blitz. "They bring a lot of guys to one little area, to get one guy free to get to the quarterback," Hall of Fame QB Phil Simms noted. "If you can hit him, it's a victory — sacking him is almost impossible."
Ryan is fond of blitzing his defensive backs. Here, they will blitz a safety or a corner or both. These types of blitzes require perfect timing, unabated speed and the element of surprise, but are extremely risky because it allows for openings down field as fewer defensive backs are positioned to defend the pass. One safety blitz that sticks out is last week when safety Kerry Rhodes came in so quickly off the edge that Rivers never saw him coming and lost the football on the sack.
"There are some blitzes that Ryan has that can't be picked up," says Greg Cosell of NFL Films. So with all these various blitzers coming from odd points and places, what are the Indianapolis Colts to do? Who's responsible for whom?
One huge key for Indianapolis will be the ability of running backs and whoever else lines up in the backfield with Manning to pick up the blitz. That ability to give Manning that extra second to find the mismatch is extremely important. This has been a strength of Joseph Addai all season and something he'll need to excel at again on Sunday.
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