SEVEN KEYS FOR THE SAINTS
Get consistent hits on Peyton Manning. The Saints already know this and have admitted as much. Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, like to bring pressure. The Saints knocked around Kurt Warner and Brett Favre as much as I can recall in years. Warner hasn’t been hit like that since he played for the Giants.
The Saints have an “ace in the hole.” Unlike most teams, the Saints have NO FEAR of getting outscored by the Colts in a shootout. This means that even if Manning burns the blitz, the Saints will not feel the added burden of trying to slow down the game for their offense. New Orleans’ capacity to SCORE will impact their willingness to blitz throughout the game. Three teams in the AFC have used this same approach with some success against the Colts: the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers. When teams don’t feel that they can keep up on the scoreboard, they get conservative defensively. New Orleans showed none of that in their all out attack on the Cardinals and Vikings quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning is great, but he’s not immortal. If your defense allows him to throw from a clean pocket, you’re going to lose the game. If you can get in his face, you have a chance.
Force Turnovers. The Saints have forced turnovers all season long. Only the Falcons, Rams and Panthers (Week 17) managed to escape with fewer than 2 turnovers. If the Colts believe those turnovers are a fluke, and not the result of persistent pressure and a method of attacking the ball, they will probably turn the ball over — like the Vikings and Cardinals. New Orleans has scored 76 points and established a +6 turnover margin after two playoff games. If the Saints can get to +2 or better for the game, they’ll stand a better than average chance of winning.
Darren Sharper has to control the back line. Neither the Vikings nor the Cardinals had much success attacking Darren Sharper. If Manning does and emerges unscathed, the Saints are in trouble. Sharper will need to be actively involved in supporting Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer and Randall Gay. The return of Malcolm Jenkins could be a big factor. He was instrumental in covering Wes Welker vs. the Patriots. Will Jenkins get the call against Austin Collie or Dallas Clark?
Stop the Red Zone Running Game of the Colts. The Colts don’t run much, but they did manage 16 rushing touchdowns. That was far better than most teams in the league. (The Vikings, Jaguars and Titans each had 19.) The Colts can and do run the ball in the red zone. They run at the edge and up the middle. If the Saints can stuff the run in the red zone, they may be able to win on 3rd down and force a field goal. In a game like this, one red zone stop may be enough to determine the winner.
Win the “Invisible Yards” Battle. The Saints have a number of dynamic players in the return game. These players need to play within themselves, but still exploit opportunities for big plays on kickoffs and punts. The Colts do an excellent job of covering kicks, but the Saints pose a unique challenge. Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Courtney Roby may all be involved at some point during the game. If any of these players make a momentum play, it could be decisive.
Stay Balanced on Offense. This really doesn’t need to be said. The Saints are as committed to offensive balance as any team in the league. During last week’s game vs. the Vikings, the Saints had a 1:1 run-pass ratio in the 2nd half. During the season, the Saints were 8th in rushing attempts (tied with the Baltimore Ravens), and tied for 2nd with 21 rushing touchdowns. The Saints were 5th in rushing yards per attempt and 4th in rushing first downs. The Saints are not going to ignore their success on the ground — whether they are trailing, leading or tied. If the Colts linebackers don’t have to turn and run with Shockey, or take deeper drops to maintain critical gaps between Shockey and the safeties, Indianapolis will be able to force New Orleans to throw deep down the sidelines or short in the flat. Brees has proven he can make that deep throw into a tight space, but this is a strength of the Colts defense. If Shockey’s out, don’t be surprised to see an interception by Brees if he makes too quick of a read and doesn’t see the corner drop into coverage on a deep out, or if Antoine Bethea jumps a deep dig.
I think it is important for the Saints to run at the Colts defensive ends (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The key, however (as it was last week for the Jets), is to attack the middle of the defense. Even the Saints running backs will not outrun the Colts defense to the sideline consistently. They have to attack the edge, then cut back to the middle. For the Saints, this is a natural approach since their best blocker is right guard Jahri Evans. If you see Evans locking up on Gary Brackett, you’ll know the Saints are getting big yards on the right side.
Attack the Deep Seams. Last week, with Jeremy Shockey injured the Saints were not successful in attacking the deep seam. Saints wide receivers like Marques Colston had a tough time getting behind Vikings LBs Ben Leber and Chad Greenway, while securing space to complete catches in front of the safeties. The Colts former coach wrote the book that Leslie Frazier used last week. If Shockey can’t play, this is going to be a real challenge.
Dave Thomas simply cannot reliably run those routes. I think the Saints will work on this during their game planning for Indianapolis. The Colts defense is tough to beat when teams don’t attack with the tight end. The Steelers rode Heath Miller’s early success in 2005 to a surprising road playoff win. The Chargers have used Antonio Gates in similar fashion for years. The Saints have to replicate what has been done before.
Win the Turnover Battle. The Saints aren’t the only team that hits hard and causes turnovers. The purpose of the Colts defense, whether in a pure Cover-2 or a 1-high safety zone, is to allow the defense to face the defense and watch the play as it materializes. Ronde Barber has carved out a great career by adhering to the principles of this approach. The vulnerability, though, is when an experienced cornerback takes too long to diagnose a play and is beaten over the top (Mark Sanchez to Braylon Edwards). The Saints need to avoid throws into double coverage…and they need to get rid of the ball BEFORE Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis meet at the quarterback.