In the last two weeks, the defending AFC champion Colts have lost a tough battle on the road to the Patriots on a Peyton Manning interception after a late rally and were handled by the Chargers at Lucas Oil Stadium, a place that the Colts rarely lose.
The Colts have been playing the entire season trying to survive injuries at key positions with backup players and to their credit have had those players step up and become productive players.
Tight end Jacob Tamme has filled in well for Dallas Clark, as has former Michigan State walk-on Blair White at receiver for Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez. Donald Brown at running back for Joseph Addai, rookie Pat Angerer for middle linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Aaron Francisco for Bob Sanders have all done adequate jobs.
Despite all the injuries, the Colts still have two of the most dynamic players in the NFL in Manning and Dwight Freeney.
In studying the Colts on offense against the Patriots and the Chargers, there were three areas that really stood out to me: the number of pocket hits that Manning was taking, the struggles of the offensive line to get movement in the running game and some missed opportunities by the receivers to bring in accurate passes from Manning.
I will start with the offensive line. The anchor of the group is veteran center Jeff Saturday. Saturday doesn’t play with much power and really is a catch-and-steer blocker. Tackles Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson tend to give ground on their sets and can be taken back into Manning. Where the Colts have struggled the most has been inside at guard with Kyle DeVan and Jeff Linkenbach.
Last week the triangle of Jay Ratliff, Keith Brooking and Bradie James did a solid job against the Saints. Look for the Cowboys to attack the middle of the pocket against the Colts. Manning does have mobility, but in the games I viewed, he had problems with the rush that was in his face. The Patriots and Chargers were able to alter his launch angles when delivering the ball to his receivers.
If the Cowboys can squeeze the pocket from the outside with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, inside pressure from Ratliff and Stephen Bowen could create inaccurate passes from Manning. How well the Cowboys play in their four-man or nickel front will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game.
The one area that Manning has struggled in the past against the 3-4 teams is his understanding of where that fifth rusher was coming from in the scheme. When Manning is at his best, is when he is able to take the entire play clock and break the defense down.
Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni has to be careful committing his defensive look too early and giving Manning a pre snap read. Early in this game, watch the movement of the Cowboys’ front and secondary to see if they try and throw Manning off with disguise. It’s difficult to fool Manning because of his preparation, but you can’t allow him the ability to get a read on your defense pre-snap because he will break you down with his personnel.
The Colts’ offensive line, much like the Cowboys’, has really struggled to run the football. Addai has been out with a neck injury and could be back to action this week. The Colts struggle to get any type of movement or push at the point of attack. When the Colts run the ball it’s a stretch or zone-blocking scheme that they use, but it hasn’t been the least bit effective.
The Cowboys faced this type of scheme when they played the Redskins and Texans earlier in the season. If the Colts can get the running game going, then Manning will use his play-action game to create opportunities down the field. Manning is one of the better ballhandlers in the league and puts serious pressure on the linebackers when he fakes to the backs.
The Dallas secondary has the difficult task of dealing with Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and White, who has stepped in nicely for Collie. The Colts will play in a three-wide package the majority of the time. The will put the Cowboys nickel on the field to match.
These Colts receivers will run routes all over the field. Wayne and White tend to handle the inside and crossing stuff, while Garcon is more to the outside. Manning will find that matchup that works for him.
The safety play for the Cowboys will be huge because of the crossing and vertical routes and the way that the Colts use the tight end in the passing game. The pressure will be on the corners, but there will be more pressure on Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh to help make plays. With Manning and this offense, things happen quickly and any hesitations by the safeties will create a host of problems.
*The Colts’ defense runs a similar scheme to that of the Bears, which the Cowboys faced earlier in the season. It’s a Cover 2 look with a quick, moving front.
The biggest difference of the two teams is that the Colts have two outstanding pressure players in Freeney and Robert Mathis. Where these guys really shine is when they are playing at home and they have a lead, letting them pin their ears back and really come after the passer.
Cowboys offensive tackle Doug Free has played outstanding this season and will once again draw the difficult assignment of Freeney, who is all about getting up the field as fast as he can. He will try to hit you some with a bull or power rush, but he is at his best is when he explodes to the corner and around the edge.
Free needs to be quick out of his stance but do everything in his power to get his hands on Freeney immediately to stop his charge and make him restart his rush. Any momentum that Freeney gets will work against Free.
On the other side, Marc Colombo will have to deal with a similar rusher in Mathis, whose big pass rush move is the spin. I know this is going to sound crazy, but in the game plan, if I was the Cowboys staff, I would try and focus on helping Colombo with the hope that my best offensive lineman is going to handle their best pass rusher one-on-one.
Colombo will need help against Mathis. Colombo doesn’t move anywhere near as well as he once did. He will fight Mathis, but when Mathis really explodes to the edge, Colombo will struggle to move his feet quickly enough to handle his movement. Look for Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, or one of the backs to help to that right side.
The Cowboys have played better on the offensive line since Jason Garrett has taken over as the head coach. He will tailor his game plan to try to control this rush. The way to do that is with a balance of runs and screens.
I really do like Tashard Choice in this game if given the opportunity. He shows better vision than Felix Jones at times, but he can run with the power of Marion Barber. Garrett has to do all he can this week to help his defense not have to play a large number of snaps against Manning.