INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning has masked many deficiencies since he arrived in Indianapolis 11 years ago -- first a secondary that couldn't cover, then a front-seven that couldn't tackle, then a receiving corps made up mostly of rookies and now a couple of tailbacks who look like they're on treadmills, forever running in place.
Indianapolis rushed 25 times for 42 yards last week against Baltimore, and even though tailback Joseph Addai said the problems were "fixable," the performance was actually very indicative of what the Colts have done for the past two years. They ranked last in the NFL in rushing this season and second-to-last in 2008, winning a combined 27 games almost exclusively through the air.
This week the Jets have to worry about Manning in the pocket, Reggie Wayne down the sideline, Dallas Clark over the middle, Dwight Freeney off one edge and Robert Mathis off the other. What they do not have to worry about is Addai, who averages a meager 3.8 yards per carry, and understudy Donald Brown, with a miniscule 2.6.
Because the Jets do not need to respect the run, they can concentrate on rushing the quarterback, which is what they do best anyway, with the top pass defense in the NFL. If they spring the upset, it will be because the Colts offense was one-dimensional from the outset and the Jets were able to pressure Manning into mistakes. Of course, banking on Manning's mistakes is like betting against the sunrise, which is the why the Jets are such long-shots in the first place.
Even though Manning guided the Colts to the AFC championship without much semblance of a running game -- one of many reasons he collected his fourth MVP award -- to win the Super Bowl he may need more help. Manning was Super Bowl MVP when the Colts beat the Bears in '07, though the award could have easily been shared by Dominic Rhodes and Addai, who combined for 190 yards rushing and carried the Colts through a near-monsoon in Miami. If the Colts get back to South Florida next month, they had better pray for clear skies.
Despite their dearth of a running game, the Colts still rely heavily on the play-action pass, and oddly enough it still works. The play is another testament to Manning, whose fake handoffs are so convincing that defenses buy them even without a legitimate threat of the run. Before the Jets played the Colts late in the regular season, head coach Rex Ryan implored his defense not to worry about the fakes, to essentially guess pass every time. That's when Addai burned them for a 21-yard touchdown run. "They keep you honest," Ryan said. "That's part of their success." But one touchdown will not change Ryan's message. Asked what he would tell his defense about play-action this week, he said: "Don't even bother with it."
While the Colts finished 32nd in the league in rushing this season, the team that finished 31st was the Chargers, the Jets' most recent victim. Not only did the Jets hold the Chargers to 61 rushing yards, but also Ryan was able to unleash his blitzers on quarterback Philip Rivers, who was flustered into two interceptions. The Colts are a more willful team than the Chargers and Manning is a more experienced quarterback than Rivers. But the Jets have a formula that already worked once against an opponent that couldn't run.
"We definitely have to be better than we've been, regardless of who we're playing against," Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson said. "We know we need to be more effective."
Like Addai, Johnson said the problems with the running game are self-inflicted, correctable at any time. But the Colts have been saying that for two years, and up until now, they haven't really needed to make the repairs.