The Colts surrendered a league-high 173 rushing yards per game during the regular season--27.6 more than the next worst team. While on paper that doesn't bode well against Chicago's strong two-back attack of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, Indy's run D has been reborn in the playoffs. Kansas City, Baltimore and New England were held to only 220 rushing yards total, thanks in large part to run support from safety Bob Sanders, who'd missed 12 games with a knee injury. End Dwight Freeney has been particularly stout in the postseason, as has strongside linebacker Rob Morris, subbing for the lighter Gilbert Gardner. "They're playing with more of an edge, more life," says former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. Sanders, who has 19 tackles in the playoffs, often moves up as a linebacker on first down, providing Indy with an eighth run defender. Cornerback Marlin Jackson, who helped make K.C. running back Larry Johnson's life miserable, and safety Antoine Bethea will also rotate into the box.
In practice last week Indianapolis's scout-team defense was grabbing, punching and stripping the ball more than usual from the Colts' skill players, trying to simulate the Bears' aggressive defense, the best in the NFL at forcing fumbles. "We always do that anyway, but preparing for this game it's times two," said Colts wideout Reggie Wayne. Chicago recovered a league-high 20 opponents' fumbles in the regular season and stripped the ball four times in the NFC title game rout of New Orleans. Everyone gets in on the action, from linemen like Adewale Ogunleye, (whose sack and forced fumble on Drew Brees set up a critical late TD against the Saints) to the linebackers and secondary. The secret to the Bears' success is that they don't blindly whack away at the ball; they attack the point of the ball, creating enough force to jar it loose. That's how linebacker Brian Urlacher turned the tide against the Cardinals in October, igniting a comeback by making Edgerrin James cough up the ball.
February 5, 2007
PRESSURE UP THE GUT
"One of the keys for us will be handling [Chicago's] linebackers," says Colts center Jeff Saturday, "because they play with a freedom most teams don't give their linebackers." Case in point: Though Urlacher is labeled the Bears' middle linebacker, there will be plays in which Lance Briggs is in the middle, edging in against the line and showing blitz, hoping to fool the Indy offensive front into changing a blocker's assignment to combat the perceived up-the-middle rush. That's how much respect the Colts have for Urlacher and Briggs, both of whom can bull rush and speed rush with skill. Don't be surprised, though, if a lesser light such as defensive tackle Israel Idonije (who had a key sack against the Saints) or Ogunleye sprints through a gap left by a guard moving over to help stop one of the linebackers. This places a huge blocking burden on running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Late in the year Addai proved adept at blitz pickup and was outstanding in the playoff win at Baltimore.
GAME OF NO RETURN
"Top secret," Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri said when asked about Indy's plans to neutralize Bears return man Devin Hester, who was second in the league in punt-return average (12.8 yards) and fifth in kick returns (26.4), with six special teams touchdowns. While Hester was no factor in Chicago's two playoff wins--mainly because Soldier Field was a mud pit--the natural-grass track in Dolphin Stadium should be fast, barring game-day rain. Colts punter Hunter Smith won't be worrying about his average on Sunday; he'll be more focused on booming the ball high or out-of-bounds so Hester never has an open field. And look for Vinatieri, a superb directional kicker, to corner Hester with boots to one or the other pylon. The Colts could also choose to kick pop flies, so when Hester catches the ball, say, at his 20, he'll already be in traffic. "I guarantee I'll have dreams about Hester--or nightmares, probably--before the game," Vinatieri says. "This is a game where special teams definitely could win it or lose it."
ERRATIC REX OR SUPER REX?
Rex Grossman is advised to not read the papers or listen to talk radio this week--and it might be a good idea to have a sports psychologist on standby on Saturday night. The whole world believes the biggest quarterback disparity in recent Super Bowl history is between Hall of Fame--bound Peyton Manning and the error-prone Grossman. "Rex will be playing on his biggest stage ever, and I don't know if he can handle the pressure," says Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. But Grossman didn't turn the ball over once in the NFC title game, and when he needed to make plays down the stretch against the Saints, he threw four perfect passes for a combined 78 yards, the last a 33-yard rainbow TD to Bernard Berrian. It wasn't just that Grossman made the completions--it's how he made them: strong-armed, decisive, right on the money, all with the game on the line. "That showed me something," says Cowher. "That game wasn't too big for Rex. He needed that stretch of throws going into this game."