The big news heading into Super Bowl Sunday is the fact that Dwight Freeney possibly be unavailable to play. He has played through pain before and done well, but the team is preparing as though Raheem Brock will be starting at right defensive end. That's good news for New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod and bad news for Colts fans.
Bushrod is no slouch, having held Jared Allen without a sack in the NFC Championship game and Calais Campbell without a sack in the Divisional round, but there is admittedly a drop-off in pass rush ability between Brock and Freeney. Bushrod needed help against both Campbell and Allen, but he will most likely be manning-up against Brock.
That means that Brock needs to have the game of his life, both defending the run and rushing the passer, since he will be afforded an opportunity that Freeney does not ordinarily enjoy: A one-on-one chance to get a shot at the quarterback.
As a whole, the New Orleans offensive line is surprisingly efficient and athletic and allowed only one sack in the postseason and 20 sacks in the regular season. With Freeney out of the game, Robert Mathis also needs to have a big game working against Jonathan Stinchcomb. Stinchcomb is smaller than most right tackles Mathis has faced this season at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, so it may behoove Mathis to get into Stinchcomb's body and push him up the field before stepping inside.
Drew Brees has an excellent pocket presence, but his footwork is lacking in terms of buying time in the pocket. He has the athleticism to turn around and extend the play or work off a bootleg, but he does not shift well and tends to step up in the pocket if he feels pressure coming from the outside. That means that Mathis will be charging towards Brees when he steps up, so Mathis needs to deliver when he has an opportunity to execute his very effective strip-sack.
Brees is comfortable stepping up in the pocket because of the strength of his interior blockers — both center Jonathan Goodwin and guard Jahri Evans made the Pro Bowl, as well as Stinchcomb — and their footwork and hands allow him to have a great deal of breathing room when he drops back to pass.
Although Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir have done an exceptional job stopping the run and although the Saints finished sixth in the league in rushing, this game should give Eric Foster an opportunity to shine, as he is a smaller player that is better at getting after the quarterback. Brock will be playing at end, so he won't be available to play tackle, but you may also see Keyunta Dawson in the lineup, even on first and second down in order to give the Colts a more effective pass rush.
The Saints haven't been as effective running the ball in the postseason as they were during the regular season, but they are staying after it and are obviously committed to a strong ground game, averaging the fourth-most attempts per game. They have been most effective running behind left guard Carl Nicks, where they are averaging 11.5 yards per attempt, but the Colts surprisingly have the fourth best run defense in the postseason.
New Orleans is a team that runs to move the ball and passes to score, though, so Indianapolis should expect them to come out throwing and keep throwing until the Colts prove they can stop it.
This is a unit that has a number of moving parts at both tight end and receiver. Tight end Jeremy Shockey has receiver-like abilities and can strike for a big play if teams leave him open or the Saints isolate on him and fellow tight end David Thomas is a very capable blocker and receiver that has just enough skill to make him dangerous.
Wide receiver Devery Henderson is considered to be the deep threat, Marques Colston is considered to be the possession and red zone guy, and Robert Meachem is the wild card. But, given the number of different personnel groupings and pre-snap shifting and motion that the New Orleans offense deploys, any receiver may be asked to fill any role at any time and they generally deliver.
Given the versatility of the talent they have on hand and the fertile, creative mind of head coach Sean Payton, the Saints will line up all their weapons at different places at different times. They will pass out of a two tight end set, but will also shift and split Shockey and Thomas out in the slots, then run the ball.
They will run delays, dives, and slants out of three and four wide receiver sets. They will run from a certain formation on one play, then pass out of that same formation — with the same series of motions and shift — later in the game. The good news for the Colts is that all these shifts and all this motion will not change what they do on defense. Indianapolis is a zone defense team and, although they may come out in nickel and dime packages, will stick to their assignments.
The strength of this system, though, is also its weakness. If any one player decides to play the hero — as Jacob Lacey did in the AFC Championship game — the entire system falls apart.
The Colts defenders need to stay on point, stay vigilant, and stay in their zones. If adjustments need to be made or certain players need to step out of their assigned roles, those adjustments need to come from the sideline, not the players on the field. The most dangerous aspect of this New Orleans offense is its flexibility and unpredictability. As Lacey proved, acting in an unexpected fashion can only lead to disaster, so the Indianapolis defense cannot lose focus.
Payton has shown a propensity to call at least one — and usually more — gadget play during the postseason. Sometimes, these plays pay off like the fleaflicker in the Divisional round and sometimes they fall horribly flat like the reverse in the NFC Championship game. Indianapolis can combat this by staying true to the system and being in the right place at the right time when things fall apart.
Seven different players caught 39 or more passes for the Saints this season and two of those players — Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas — are listed at running back. Bush has rare instincts and athletic ability, but has yet to string together consecutive great efforts. He usually gets seven to ten touches per game and the Colts need to make sure that they stay committed to their lanes and exercise sound tackling fundamentals in order to keep Bush from making the most of those touches.
Bush has the speed and agility to cut back against the grain and completely reverse the direction of the play, but he also lacks to ability to judge whether or not that is a good idea, which often gets him into trouble. The more negative plays the Indianapolis defense can create when Bush tries to get creative, the better.
Thomas, on the other hand, is the consummate positive play back. He is a very capable runner with good vision and enough explosiveness to make a defense pay for being out of position or missing a tackle. He does not, however, have the ability to make something out of nothing and will usually put his head down and grind out whatever yardage he can if he doesn't see anything.
Thomas has been most effective on screen passes, which the Colts have shown an ability to defend in recent weeks. Clint Session and Philip Wheeler, as well as Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea need to stick with what has made them successful in defending the screen — wait, wait, anticipate, and attack. The Saints linemen are very active and are able to kick out and get downfield on the screen, so the Indianapolis defenders need to keep their heads on a swivel, lest they get pancaked on their way to the ball carrier.
Marques Colston can kill a defense. Devery Henderson can kill a defense. Reggie Bush can kill a defense. Jeremy Shockey and Robert Meachem, if given the opportunity, can kill a defense. Pierre Thomas cannot kill a defense unless someone screws up.
Again, the Colts defense needs to stay on point and stay focused. If Thomas ends up grinding down Indianapolis for 150 yards rushing and the Saints win 17-14, the Colts offense has not done their job. Assuming that Peyton Manning and company get the job done, the Indianapolis defense has bigger fish to fry than Pierre Thomas.
Drew Brees would be the biggest fish to fry in this game. Brees is the catalyst that makes the Saints offense run at such a high velocity. He is an excellent decision maker and has a strong, accurate arm. He can complete passes at all levels, has complete command of the offense, and does an exceptional job of audibling from pre-snap reads. He has a quick release and knows where he is going with the ball, which is one of the reasons New Orleans doesn't allow a lot of sacks.
He is, however, not unflappable. If a defense is able to pressure him front the outside, force him to step up in the pocket, and bring pressure in his face at that point, he will check down at first, but will ultimately unravel. That's where Foster, Mathis, Dawson, and Gary Brackett will come into play, with Brackett acting as a blitzer on early passing downs.
The Saints like to gain yardage in chunks and if they are forced to methodically march down the field with short passes and checkdowns, they will try for a big play that is not there. They like to throw deep down the seam, gaining their chunks of yardage in the deep middle — and they averaged 16.14 yards per attempt in the deep middle, while the Colts yielded 14.05 yards per attempt — so the safeties need to stay in their Cover 2 lanes and prevent big plays in that area.
If they are not able to strike for big plays in the deep middle, they will start to use gadget plays. Brees will start to press. They will start to throw the ball deep to the sidelines. And all of those eventualities will lead to New Orleans playing to their weaknesses while Indianapolis plays to their strengths.
If the Colts can pressure Brees up the middle, force the Saints to plod their way down the field, and take away the deep middle, New Orleans will eventually crack. In a game that promises to be a back-and-forth contest with lots of scoring, early success by Indianapolis will pay dividends late as the offensive machine of the Saints begins to break down.
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