Once again spearheaded by a terrific performance from Peyton Manning on Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Colts charge into
In the Week 2 meeting between these AFC South rivals, Manning picked apart the Texan defense for 400 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fellow 2007 Pro Bow wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne both accounted for over 120 yards of receiving and will look to continue that production this week. But unlike in that Week 2 meeting, the Texans now know how much the Colts have struggled in the area of run defense this year giving up a league worst 173 yards per game. Ron Dayne and Wali Lundy could hold the key to the Texans controlling the ball and having a chance in the game, but with the importance of this game to their playoff destiny, the Colts will come out focused and determined to pick up their 12th win of the season.
The offense begins and ends with Manning, the best quarterback in the game today. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore gives Manning free reign to call plays at the line of scrimmage.The Colts have ranked in the top-four of the league in points the past seven seasons and it have gotten to the point where Manning appears to be a machine reading defenses and picking them apart with ease. The seven-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer isn't afraid to spread the ball around to every available receiver and is a master at drawing safeties off his desired receiver with his eyes. Manning has continued his ascent up the NFL career statistical charts this season with 26 touchdowns (has thrown for at least 26 every year in the league) and 3,910 yards.
Manning's favorite target is 11-year veteran wide receiver Marvin Harrison. At the age of 34,
is still one of the best route runners in the league and catches almost everything that comes his way. While he may not have the same speed he had in his youth, his experience and uncanny knack for getting open, still puts him in the elite of the NFL.
's continued success can also be attributed to having the talented Reggie Wayne across the field.
, his outstanding speed and hands make him an attractive option for Manning to attack defenses in the passing game. Often going unrecognized because of Harrison, Wayne had his coming out party in 2004 leading the team in receiving (snapping Harrison five year streak) and catching 10 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in the 2004 playoffs against Denver.
The unique thing about the Colts offense is their use of the tight ends. They like to use two tight end sets to set up their play-action passing game because it gives the illusion they are looking to pound the ball down the opponents' throat with two extra linemen. But right when that thought goes through the head of the opposing defense, Manning attacks them down the seam throwing to either fourth-year man Dallas Clark, Bryan Fletcher or Ben Utecht.
tight ends in just his second year with 35 catches and 363 yards.
The strength of the offensive line lies in the offensive tackles. Left tackle Tarik Glenn engulfs defenders with his 6-5, 332 pound frame and has been Manning's bodyguard during his career, leading to his two Pro Bowl appearances. Right tackle Ryan Diem is one of the more unheralded players in the league, but he gets the dirty work done in the running game to give the Colts some success on the ground. At 6-6, 320, Diem is big enough to detain defensive lineman and has the ability to get to the second level to block on linebackers. Center Jeff Saturday is one of the best at his position in the league and after going unrecognized for the first seven years of his career, has secured consecutive Pro Bowl berths the past two seasons. He always needs to be on the same page as Manning in order to relay the blocking schemes when Manning calls the play at he line of scrimmage. At the guard position, left guard Ryan Lilja and right guard Jake Scott have played well enough to warrant them maintaining their same positions next year.
The big question for the Colts coming into this season was how the running game would go without Edgerrin James, the fixture at tailback for the Colts since 1998. Initial returns were not promising, but rookie Joseph Addai has responded this season to have an impressive rookie year and show that he can take over the position the same way James did in the early stages of his tenure. Addai (6-0, 204), although splitting time with Dominic Rhodes, has accounted for 917 yards on the ground, on 4.8 yards per carry, eight total touchdowns, 33 catches, and has even shown the ability to pick up Manning's line reads and be an effective pass blocker. Dominic Rhodes, after being named the opening day starter, has been supplanted by Addai, but he has made contributions chipping in for 584 yards rushing.
The best way to attack the Colts early in the season was to force them to run the ball, but the Colts have shown, through the improvement of Addai, they are more than capable of a ground game. Blitzing isn't a viable option because with Manning's recognition skills, he will pick a defense apart. Pressure from the front four is a key and a reliance on the linebackers to decipher Manning's play action game are the two essential elements to overcoming the Colts' overwhelming attack
As good as the Colts are on offense, their struggling run defense has been the story of the season and could prevent them from making a deep run in the playoffs. Because their Cover 2 defense relies on smaller, speedier players, opposing teams have taken it to them this season, attacking their front seven with no mercy. A big part of their struggles has been the loss of safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss to injury, both terrific in run support. It's hard to pinpoint one reason the run defense is struggling, but there is no question this area will be looked at in the offseason even if the year does close with a Super Bowl championship. Head Coach Tony Dungy, the architect of the Colts Cover 2, probably can't take many more days when teams gain 375 yards on the ground (Week 14 vs.
The biggest mystery this season has been defensive end Dwight Freeney. In his first four full seasons in the league, Freeney has been selected to three Pro Bowls and has registered 51 sacks. Coming out of
Freeney struggles a little in run defense and will need to improve this area in 2007. Despite his low numbers, Freeney should always be located on the field because you never know when he will revert to the game-changer most football fans and his teammates know.
The leading beneficiary from the attention toward Freeney is fellow defensive end Robert Mathis. In his third year in 2005, Mathis accumulated 11.5 sacks beating his counterpart for the team lead. He leads the team again this season with 9.5 sacks and has also contributed 4.5 tackles for loss. Even smaller in bulk than Freeney, Mathis (6-2, 245) also uses his speed to his advantage although he is sometimes exposed in the running game. At the defensive tackle spots, injuries to Corey Simon and Montae Reagor have eliminated the depth they had coming into the season. These injuries forced the Colts to replenish that depth, but trading for former
McFarland (29 tackles) and Raheem Brock (43 tackles, 3 sacks) have not been able to rotate with other players as much due to injury and their fatigue has severely hurt their performance against the run late in games.
Although one of the smallest units in the league, the Colts' linebacking corps uses its speed to their advantage chasing running backs down from sideline to sideline and limiting gains after catches in the passing game. They have not performed as well as they did last season, because they have struggled to replace the departed David Thornton, but they still have the capability to make plays. The best of the group is weakside linebacker Cato June. A safety in college, June has terrific instincts in the passing game, and while he has not played as well as his 2005 Pro Bowl year, he has still accounted for 126 tackles and two interceptions. Alongside June is middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who has gone from an undrafted free agent out of
is a tremendous athlete, but seems to be more suited for the weakside spot currently occupied by June.
Despite a revolving door of players, the Colts secondary, thanks to some pressure from the front seven, has played surprisingly well this season giving up only 156 yards passing per game and recording 14 interceptions. Injuries in the secondary have robbed the Colts of Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders, the solid Mike Doss, and 2005 first-round pick Marlin Jackson, however that has allowed youngsters Matt Giordano and Antoine Bethea to gain valuable experience. Giordano got his first NFL start Monday night and played solid. Bethea (5-11, 203) has played very well this season recording 71 tackles and an interception. Starting cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David have five of the team's interceptions this season and despite their lack of size, 5-10 and 5-8' respectively, have held their own.
in 2005, Kelvin Hayden has shown that he is also an important part of the team's future.
If a team is going to attack the Colts defense, it is best for that team to be extremely patient. Although there may be some temptation to throw the ball deep, that is only going to cause a turnover and put the ball in the hands of Peyton Manning quicker. The key is to have the quarterback take a short drop to avoid the pass rush, attack the undersized corners on hitches, slants and crossing patterns, utilize the tight ends downfield to attack the weakness of the Cover 2 defense which is the deep middle and mix in a running game that preys on the over pursuance of Freeney and Mathis. Injuries up the middle at defensive tackle and safety should also make it safe for teams to run the ball right at them, but again, patience and being physical with their undersized defense is the key.
After missing a clutch kick in last January's divisional playoff game against
offense and has had a little bit of an off year, his experience at pinning opponents deep will be counted on in the postseason.
Out of the NFL since 2003, the Colts resigned their former kick returned Terrence Wilkins to handle the same duties this season. Also a key receiver in their offense from 1999 to 2001 and member of the 1999 All-Rookie team, Wilkins has revived a Colts' return attack that has struggled in recent years. He has averaged 24.3 yards on kick returns to go with 9.3 yards per return and a touchdown on punt returns.