We’ve already looked at what the Saints need to do. Now, lets look at the favored Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts greatest strength is that they possess most stable offense in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore (a former wide receivers coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers) has been in Indianapolis for more than a decade. When you look around the league, most offensive coordinators have been hired within the last year or two. A handful have been around since 2006. Aside from the Colts, only the Bengals have kept their coordinator around for more than a “New York minute.” It is precisely this aspect of stability and familiarity that allow the Colts to consistently make great in-game and in-drive adjustments to defenses.
The success of this team is predicated, largely (though not entirely), on the capacity of the offense to simply take what is given and squeeze more out of those concessions than most defenses ever think possible. The definitive expression of that tool this season was the Week 2 win at Miami. The Dolphins power run game cranked out over 200 yards and Miami dominated the clock. The Colts had the ball for little more than a quarter, but managed to put together quick scoring drives that produced touchdowns and a victory. Contrast that win with the AFC Championship Game victory over the top-ranked defense of the Jets. The Colts overcame a 17-6 deficit, out rushed the Jets, and still threw for well over 300 yards. The Colts make defenses give ’til it hurts.
1) Remember! The Colts played in this game in 2006. They used an unconventional approach to win that game. They used the surprising and powerful tandem of Dominic Rhodes (113 yards) and Joseph Addai (77 yards and 10 catches) to defeat the Chicago Bears. Peyton Manning was not the star of that game. The Colts were also the beneficiaries of five turnovers and many other errors committed by a quarterback clearly overwhelmed by the moment. That game is not likely to be repeated by a player like Drew Brees. The last MVP to get outfoxed in a Super Bowl was going up against the coach who wrote his playbook. The Colts have to be ready for THIS game — but remember all the little non-football things that worked so well in 2006.
2) Be patient on offense. The Colts are, by design, a very patient team. No one is more patient than Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. In this game, with Dwight Freeney hobbled by a torn ligament in his ankle, the Colts may find themselves in a shootout with the league’s most potent offense. If the Saints get out to a big early lead, the Super Bowl will not unfold like the AFC title game vs. the relatively impotent New York Jets. Patience will be the key to avoiding turnovers, integrating the run into the offense, and keeping the Saints defense off balance. If the Colts have a lead, patience will the key to keeping the powerful Saints offense on the bench.
3) Hands Up!! Without Dwight Freeney at full strength, the Colts may be hard pressed to sack Drew Brees. The Saints QB has a quick release and he is athletic enough to escape pressure. Still, he is only 6’0″ tall (?). The Saints offensive line does a masterful job of creating wide passing lanes for Brees. The Colts will have an opportunity to significantly interrupt the Saints short passing game by using two tactical approaches. First, defenders have to create a “Sea of Hands” effect at the line of scrimmage. If this is done consistently, the linemen will force Brees to change his arm angle and his release point. Second, the Colts can use stunts by DLs, loops by linebackers and delay blitzes into passing lanes to disrupt the passing game. This all requires a high level of coordination, but this style has been a staple of Tony Dungy defenses for years. New Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has been more aggressively in his approach, so don’t be surprised if you see the Colts emphasize batted balls at the line.
4) Keep the Defensive Tackles Fresh. At some point in the Super Bowl, the Saints are going to look to their right guard and ask him to impose his will on the Colts. When this happens, the Saints are going to run right and run right some more. They did it against the Cardinals and Darnell Dockett. They did it against the Vikings and Kevin Williams (for just one drive). The Vikings rotated Pat Williams over and made quick, effective adjustments. The Colts have to anticipate that a team that runs as frequently as the Saints do is going to try to exhaust the defensive line. I think the Saints are going to try this maneuver when game breaks are less likely to be a factor — mid first quarter and early 3rd quarter. Both of these teams like to break the defenses momentum with long drives. Player rotation will be important. If you see #90 Daniel Muir walking around with his hands on his hips, look out.
5) Attack the Weakest Links. After watching the Saints play on a number of occasions (with Jeremy Shockey and without), I’ve come to believe that the best approach is force the Saints to throw to their least reliable receivers. Devery Henderson is that guy. Henderson has explosive speed. He beat the Cardinals over the top for a score in the Divisional Round game. Still, his concentration and ability to catch the ball are not as good as Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore or Reggie Bush. The Dallas Cowboys, playing against the Saints without Shockey and Bush, were able to effectively cover Colston and Meachem with a combination of coverages. Henderson isn’t someone you can ignore, but if you’re looking for a dropped pass on 3rd down, he’s your guy…not Colston.
The second part of this key is to attack the football when Reggie Bush has the ball. Bush is a player maker who is looking to make a name for himself in the league. He has underperformed since being selected out of USC and seems to always be looking for redemption. Bush may be more focused on the end zone than on protecting the ball. If Gary Brackett can get a hit on the ball (remember his hit on Jerome Bettis at the goal line in 2005?), Bush could turn the ball over and give the Colts a boost.
7) Bull Rush Off the Edge. Dwight Freeney can be effective, even with an injured ankle. Freeney’s stock in trade has been the speed rush and the spin move back to the quarterback. In recent years, however, he has added the bull rush to his repertoire. I suppose bull rushing on an injured ankle is a recipe for a torn Achilles tendon, but that risk may be better than the alternative. If Freeney is able to use his full array of rush techniques, the Saints will counter by ensuring that a tight end and/or running back get chips on him before running routes or stay in to block.
8) Finish the Play. The Saints have a lot of strong players on offense. This season, New Orleans has put together what could be a full length feature film consisting entirely of hustle plays. The Saints play through the whistle. There was no better demonstration of this than Robert Meachem’s play against the Washington Redskins. Meachem’s strip of a Redskin defender, and subsequent touchdown return, erased an interception and allowed the Saints to escape by the narrowest of margins.
The Colts know all about this degree of effort. Pierre Garcon’s strip of Ed Reed after the first of two Peyton Manning interceptions (the second was nullified by a penalty) was the most memorable play of the Colts playoff run this season. Garcon’s effort against a Hall of Fame bound defender illustrates what will be required to seal the deal on Sunday. The team that has a “Leon Lett-down” is not likely to emerge victorious.