As the dust settles after Kurt Warner’s retirement, the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl media day the actual Super Bowl game is starting to come into focus. In the last week and a half, Warner, Brett Favre, Tim Tebow and the commissioner’s declaration that the uncapped year is a “virtual certainty”, have dominated the headlines. We’re now four days away from the game and it’s time to get back to business.
There seems to be a prevailing feeling that the Colts should win this game. They are favored with the line at 6 points and most of the experts’ picks that I have seen follow suit. At a quick glance, it’s easy to see why everybody is so high on the Colts. The Colts are riding into the Super Bowl with an impressive pair of postseason wins. The Saints come into the game after an emotionally draining and somewhat controversial overtime win against the Vikings, and a thorough thrashing of the overachieving Cardinals. Peyton Manning delivered one of the best games of his career in the AFC Championship game while Drew Brees struggled with accuracy and played a pedestrian (by his lofty standards) game against the Vikings. Let’s put all of that aside and take a look at what each team needs to do to win.
Offense: The Saints need to accomplish two main goals on offense, limit turnovers and establish the run. The Saints have been prone to turnovers and the Colts take advantage of turnovers better than any team in the league. The Colts offense is too potent to give them additional possessions or a short field. In addition, the Colts rarely turn the ball over so even one turnover by the Saints could be devastating.
Saying a team has to run the ball to win is a huge cliché, but it is very true in this game. Yes, the Dolphins ran the ball all over the Colts earlier this year. They held the ball for 40+ minutes and kept Manning on the sideline and the Colts still won. Time of possession and keeping Manning off the field are byproducts of the running game, but not the most important ones. The Colts defensive front seven are active, but undersized. They excel by getting penetration and swarming to the football in the running game, and having a potent pass rush to get quarterbacks out of their comfort zone. The Colts also play a lot of zone coverage, and when they blitz the secondary has a lot of ground to cover. Nothing tires out a fast defense more than a power running game, as the defense tires they get slower and slower. Once the Colts’ speed is diminished, the Saints can be more aggressive on offense.
Defense: Gregg Williams has stated multiple times over the last two weeks that he wants to get pressure on Manning. The Saints pummeled Kurt Warner and Brett Favre with great success, but they won’t be able to do the same with Manning. The Colts’ offense is predicated on pre-snap reads. Manning gets three plays called in the huddle and then checks to one of the three based on the defense. The Colts also heavily utilize option routes. The receiver reads how the defense is covering him and then runs a predetermined route for that coverage. The Colts offense adjusts to the defense before the play and during the play, which makes it very difficult to blitz them. Manning gets the ball out quickly as well, which limits the defensive lines’ ability to get pressure on him. Lastly, Manning is afraid of getting hit. If he sees that he is going to get sacked he falls down like a possum playing dead. The Saints need to forget about disrupting Manning with the pass rush and instead focus on disrupting the receivers.
The Colts do not have big receivers, and their passing game is more reliant on timing than any other offense in the league. If the Saints get physical with the Colts undersized receivers, they can disrupt the timing, which forces Manning to hold the ball longer. That’s how the Saints get their pass rush.
Offense: The Colts are well aware of the trail of broken quarterbacks the Saints have left in their wake, and I can only imagine they are licking their chops hoping for the same attacking defense. As stated above, the Colts are the best-equipped offense in the league for countering blitzes. If the Saints plan on blitzing Manning all day, the Colts will have huge opportunities to attack the secondary like they did against the Jets in the second half of the AFC Championship game. If the Saints come out blitzing, the Colts should just keep throwing and they will eventually hit some big plays. The real key on offense in that scenario is watching out for the Saints’ ball-hawking defense looking to strip the ball or baiting Manning into a pick. Darren Sharper is one of the best defensive backs in the league at reading an offense; he disguises his coverage and then jumps routes as well as Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Interceptions are the single most devastating play in the playoffs and the Saints finished 3rd in the league in interceptions.
If the Saints attack the Colts offense the way I suggested above, the Colts can counter them with the running game. If the Colts can successfully run the ball, the Saints will have to bring eight men in the box to stop the run. That will limit their ability to play their safeties over the top of the bump and run coverage and force them to play more man coverage.
Defense: The Colts will be without a healthy Dwight Freeney, who will mostly likely play, but be limited by his ankle injury. The importance of this injury cannot be overstated as the Colts defense is built around him. He is a disruptive force as a pass rusher, but his speed and pursuit make him a good run defender too. The Colts will have to compensate by shuffling their line around and using him in obvious passing situations.
The Saints offense poses more challenges to defend because they are so well rounded. The Saints have an explosive passing game, a power running game, and an effective jack-of-all trades player in Reggie Bush. However, the key is Drew Brees. Brees doesn’t appear to be prone to turnovers with only 11 interceptions and six lost fumbles, but they come in bunches. He had a four game stretch where he fumbled five times (losing three) and threw seven interceptions, while getting sacked nine times. Brees tends to struggle when pressure comes up the middle. He is only six feet tall, so he has a hard time seeing his receivers when his throwing lanes are congested. He also has smaller hands, so he has a hard time holding the ball when he gets hit.
And the winner is…
I am taking the New Orleans Saints in the upset. I think Gregg Williams knows the best way to beat Manning because of his years coaching against him in Tennessee. I don’t think Manning’s ego will allow him to play second fiddle to the running game to counter the Saints’ defense and the Saints will force some turnovers. The Saints running game will help them wear down the Colts defense and the big plays will be open in the second half. The Colts have been solid against the run in the playoffs, but they finished 24th in run defense in the regular season and 16th in yards per carry. I‘m going to go with a final score of New Orleans 34 Indianapolis 24.