Breaking down Sunday's Indianapolis Colts at Green Bay Packers game (4:15 p.m., Eastern, CBS) ...
1. The Colts' offense is finally clicking. After struggling mightily against three stellar defenses (Chicago, Minnesota and Jacksonville) Indianapolis has finally found its groove. The Colts have scored 52 points in the past 64 minutes and, more importantly, their one-time receiving leader, Marvin Harrison, has reemerged as a versatile threat.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, who lead the NFL in pass defense entering last week, Harrison absolutely owned cornerback Chris McAlister. He flew by the three-time Pro Bowler for a 67-yard first quarter score and snagged another touchdown from the three-yard line on a timing route across the middle, again on McAlister's watch. Three catches, 83 yards and two scores: that's just the type of day the Colts need from Harrison while Anthony Gonzalez continues to develop as a third option and future replacement.
Last week's offensive showing is even more impressive when you consider things like Joseph Addai's absence (he left in the first quarter with a hamstring injury) and the constant state of flux on the offensive line, which was missing Ryan Lilja and Tony Ugoh.
I don't expect either situation to be much of a problem against Green Bay. Addai looked like a no-go late in the week but he has a capable replacement in Dominic Rhodes, the long-time Colts system back who returned in '08 after a year in Oakland. Late in the second quarter against the Ravens he showed the same grit that he had in '06. On second-and-nine from his own 49, Rhodes slipped a near tackle in the backfield and hit the secondary, where he broke through five Ravens defenders and bounced off four Colts blockers before finally going down at the 13. The Colts scored three plays later for a commanding 24-0 lead.
The line was slightly less impressive on Sunday -- they allowed two sacks and on several occasions permitted interior defensive linemen to affect handoffs. But now they get a Packers team that entered the season unsure about its defensive linemen and that has lost a few key players in the six weeks since. After the Colts faced three of the top five run defense in five weeks, the Packers' 27th-ranked unit should be a nice reprieve.
2. And the Colts' defense? The jury is still out on that one. Over the past four years no unit has suffered more ups and downs than the Colts' defense: One week Bob Sanders is blowing people up and fumbles are getting returned for touchdowns; the next week the Colts couldn't stop Betty White if she speed-walked through the middle of the line.
Last week we saw the kind of swarming, helmet-on-the-ball defense that reminded me of the dominant '06 Bears, with Sanders' replacement, Melvin Bullitt, playing the devastating strong safety role. (Keep an eye on this guy; he's got 25 tackles and two interceptions since stepping in Week 3.)
The Colts sent some heavy pressure from a blitzing linebacker on the Ravens' third play, and Joe Flacco's subsequent pass got tipped and picked. I counted four Colts at the spot where the ball would have landed. Two drives later I counted eight -- eight! -- Colts bodies on a tackle eight yards down the field. On the third series Baltimore fumbled, which Indianapolis converted into a field goal four plays later. And before the half Robert Mathis blew around right tackle and swatted the ball out of Flacco's grip. Constant, unrelenting pressure.
Baltimore had this to show for itself at the half: Eight drives that lasted three plays or fewer, three turnovers and 50 net yards. That shutdown defense translated to more opportunities for Indianapolis's offense, which put points on the board during four of its seven possessions.
Of course, that was all against the Ravens, who rank 25th in total offense. The week before the Colts barely contained the Texans by exploiting a glaring weakness: Houston has a league-worst turnover differential of minus-eight. So how will the Colts fare against a Packers offense that brings an infinitely greater long ball threat than Baltimore? I can tell you this much: They won't hold the Packers to three points.
3. The Packers' defensive woes start with their line, which is banged up. Time after time during Green Bay's game against the Falcons two weeks ago, I saw the Packers' down linemen getting barreled off the line of scrimmage, allowing Michael Turner to wind his way through the staggered defenders. That was a very inexperienced Atlanta front five, yet the Falcons rushed 36 times for 176 yards.
The way I interpret this, Green Bay was already putting undersized defensive ends on the interior before injuries sprung up. Now they've got only a few big bodies and those beasts have to be spelled pretty often, which leaves Green Bay undersized far too frequently.
Even worse, the injuries have extended to the secondary, and now they've got reserve nickel and dime backs like Will Blackmon and Pat Lee on the field too often. They were beaten on key receptions, including a touchdown, in the Week 5 loss to Atlanta.
One reserve I do like is cornerback Tramon Williams, who has filled in admirably since Al Harris was benched with a spleen condition. The second-year man out of Louisiana Tech has proven adept at man coverage, averaging an interception per game; and he's eager to come up to the line of scrimmage and drop his shoulder pads, too. I was particularly fond of his pop on Roddy White two weeks ago. Williams has already perfected the art of getting his helmet into that nook under the armpit where the ball should be held. Give him time and this kid could be a fumble-forcing machine.
4. On the upside, there's nothing to suggest Green Bay's offense can't keep up with Indy's. I'll start off by saying this: I'm a lifelong Bears fan who has always admired Brett Favre. Given the Bears bi-annual quarterback carousel, I've probably watched Favre play more than I've watched any other NFL quarterback, so I'm used to his nuances. And I'm having a really hard time differentiating Rodgers from Favre. Blur your eyes a little during a game. Can you tell the difference?
I spent last Saturday afternoon tailgating before the Wisconsin-Penn State game in Madison and I engaged some Packers fans on the subject. They see it, too. It's the little things Favre did -- the things coaches would never teach you; in fact, coaches would probably teach you not to do these things -- that are so eerie. The shovel passes in traffic; the flick of the wrist jump-throws that actually aim downwards; the crazy play fakes. Against Atlanta, Rodgers faked a handoff up the middle, handed off to a receiver coming on a reverse and then mimed just about the silliest fake I've ever seen. It was sort of a jump hook basketball shot that had to have elicited a snicker from any linebacker who saw it. Classic Favre.
Back to my larger point. Rodgers moves the ball up and down the field just as efficiently as Favre ever did. He possesses a lethal deep ball (no other quarterback has completed more passes of 40 or more yards this season) and he moves the chains efficiently, as I well remember Favre doing. (In his most dominant years, Favre, it seemed, was always on the field.) Excluding a poor showing at Tampa Bay, when he was hurt, Rodgers has led 17 drives of 60 yards or more over a span of five games. And like Favre, he finishes strong, too. Of those 17 drives, every one resulted in a score, 11 of them touchdowns.
Rodgers's personnel are doing their best to extend the comparison. In Greg Jennings he has a receiver who can maneuver after the catch unlike most receivers in NFL history. In '08 Jennings has 226 yards after the catch through six games; at that pace he'll finish the year with roughly 603 YAC. Since the stat has been kept (beginning in '92) only seven receivers have ever put up better figures. And right there next to Jennings at No. 7 is Antonio Freeman with 611, circa '98. Surely you remember who was throwing the ball to Freeman, putting him in position to chew up yards.
Every week we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what three assistants from teams that have already encountered Indianapolis in 2008 had to say about game-planning the uncharacteristically so-so Colts this season:
"The main things that is different about the Colts during the beginning of the season was Peyton Manning not getting the same push off his knee to plant and get the torque into his throws that he used to before the surgery. Plus, the timing has been off with pass protection since they've had some injuries up front. With Peyton, you could tell on those long handoffs on the stretch play with Joseph Addai that he wasn't getting out there as fast to get the timing down and get Addai going outside."
"The timing with Manning and the receivers has been off a little bit, too. When we played them it could have been a totally different game if some of those [incomplete] passes had been completed. Some of those passes just weren't where they usually are. For the most part, it was the timing. They just didn't hit the routes that Peyton and Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison are used to hitting.
"Besides Peyton maybe being a little bit rusty, the other guys were running good routes. Addai looked just as tough as [usual]. I don't think they're any less physical than they have been in the past. And they still do a great job of making all their plays look the same with their run game and the play-action game.
"Early in the season, they didn't have center Jeff Saturday so that was a huge loss for them, obviously. He and Peyton had played 100 games together since 2000, so that was going to be a little different not having Peyton's field general out there, the guy who's able to make all the right line calls. One of their other guards, Ryan Lilja, was on PUP early on, too. Anytime you lose linemen it hurts you physically and in cohesiveness.
"What they're doing on the field is the same as what they've always done. It's just a matter of getting the right guys healthy again. Then that offense will click like it's always clicked. Every team that faced them in the first four or five weeks was facing that situation. Now, as they get healthier, you see the Indianapolis Colts. It's just a matter of time before they get their people back on the field and you got your hands full."
All things even, I'd lean towards the Pack playing at home and deeply needing to keep pace in the NFC North. With Green Bay's injuries outweighing Indy's, however, I'll take the Colts scoring last in a shootout, 31-28.