For years, preparing for the Indianapolis Colts defense was schematically simple but physically difficult. The Colts lined up in their traditional 4-3 alignment and sent four pass rushers more than any team in the NFL between 2008-11, relying on bookends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to pressure quarterbacks without using the blitz.
New coach Chuck Pagano has scrapped that approach in favor of a hybrid 3-4 scheme, one that technically converts Freeney and Mathis to outside linebackers. On an otherwise rebuilding team, Freeney and Mathis present the most notable challenge to a Chicago Bears team that is heavily favored to win Sunday at Soldier Field.
You might not need to be reminded of the details, but here you go: As the chart shows, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was under duress more often last season than all but one NFL quarterback. The Bears have overhauled their scheme to provide him better protection in 2012, but it took most of the summer for left tackle J'Marcus Webb to secure his starting spot. And this week, offensive coordinator Mike Tice admitted that right tackle Gabe Carimi is still working his way back from a knee injury that cost him most of last season.
Whether Freeney and Mathis line up as 3-4 linebackers in the base or 4-3 ends in the nickel, their primary obstacles to Cutler will be Webb and Carimi. There is some concern in Indianapolis about the impact of Pagano's scheme on their pass rushers' effectiveness, but it should at least be matched by uncertainty the Bears feel with Webb and Carimi.
Tice told reporters this week that "I don’t feel good about where we're at yet" but added: "I feel good about where we're going." Cutler said he thought the line has been "holding up really well" since the start of the preseason but acknowledged: "We can only do as much as they can handle."
The Bears hold most of the advantages in this matchup. That's why they're favored by 9.5 points and all 14 ESPN experts have picked them to win. But if they're going to run into any trouble Sunday, you would expect it to come on the edges. For what it's worth.
Note: For those interested in the details, the Colts rushed four or fewer pass rushers on 81.3 percent of their snaps over the past four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The next-highest team was the Tennessee Titans (75.8).