Scouting the Saints: Defense

LB Jonathan Vilma (Chris Graythen/Getty)

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said that he was going to come after Peyton Manning. Will the Colts be able to stave off the attacking New Orleans defense long enough to succeed? Brad Keller takes a look.

Defensive Line:

Although he did not make the Pro Bowl, right end Will Smith is the star of this unit, recording 13 sacks in 2009, which led the team.  End Charles Grant is second on the team with 5.5 sacks, but he is on injured reserve.

New Orleans finished the season with 35 sacks and Smith played the biggest part in that effort, but ten players on the Saints roster finished with at least one sack in the 2009 regular season.  They bring pressure from all areas, not just their defensive line, and Smith was the most athletic beneficiary of the different looks and pressures that New Orleans brought on their opponents in 2009.

Fellow end Bobby McCray is familiar with what the Colts like to do on offense from his days with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but McCray finished with only 1.5 sacks.  Tackles Sedrick Ellis and Remi Ayodele combined for 3.5 sacks, so Charlie Johnson may not necessarily need help against one of the NFL's sack leaders, as Smith obtained many of his sacks as a result of cleaning up a play, or a play that was designed to isolate him on pressuring the quarterback.  Johnson just needs to stick to his man and prevent him from getting to Peyton Manning.

They have recorded only one sack thus far in the postseason, but the pressure that they bring leads to quarterback hurries and quarterback hits, two stats that undoubtedly took their toll on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the playoffs. 

This is a defense that takes a holistic approach to getting to the quarterback, so Manning and Jeff Saturday need to be able to quickly identify where the pressure is coming from when they step up to the line of scrimmage. 

Ryan Diem should be able to handle McCray and Ryan Lilja, Saturday, and Kyle DeVan would be able to take on Ellis and Ayodele if that were the only players they had to worry about.

Ultimately, the success of this pass protection plan will come down to the effectiveness of the supporting players — Joseph Addai or Donald Brown and Dallas Clark or Gijon Robinson picking up blitzers — and their ability to read and react when the ball is snapped, not falling victim to stunts or inside-out moves.

The best way to combat a team that is focused on rushing the passer at all costs is with a strong running game.  Tom Moore and Manning proved to be willing to audible to running plays when opportunities presented themselves in the AFC Championship game.

If the Saints come out with an unbalanced look on defense in a 2-4-5 formation or a 3-3-5 formation, the Colts should be ready to take advantage of that by running the ball.  If New Orleans comes out in a standard formation with standard personnel, it will be up to Manning and Saturday to identify and eliminate potential threats.

Linebackers:

Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was voted to the Pro Bowl for good reason.  Vilma is a tenacious, athletic player with tremendous range that is effective both in run support and pass coverage.  Ayodele and Ellis were able to keep Vilma clean this season, as he led the team in tackles with 110.  He also had two sacks and three interceptions, so he is a very versatile player that the Saints like to use in a variety of ways.

Saturday, Lilja, and DeVan need to be cognizant of where Vilma is at all times, as Williams likes to bring safety Darren Sharper up to the line of scrimmage and stunt the two players, letting them race to the quarterback.  Although Vilma finished with an impressive tackle total, the Saints still allowed an average of 4.33 yards per carry up the middle, so this would be an area where Moore and Manning would want to test the New Orleans defense in the early going, particularly if they're intending to pass blitz and will run right past the ball carrier as he makes his way to an exposed second level.

Teams averaged 5.9 yards per carry running in the direction of Smith and outside linebacker Scott Shanle, so the Colts will want to test that side of the formation as well if the Saints come out guarding against the past — which they should.  On the other side of the formation, Scott Fujita is a capable two-way player but would not be able to cover Dallas Clark one-on-one.

But, Williams has no doubt recognized that covering Clark with a linebacker is an exercise in futility, so he will probably have Fujita jam Clark at the line with safety help from Roman Harper or cornerback help from Randall Gay or Malcolm Jenkins.  Regardless, Indianapolis needs to split Clark out into the slot and allow him to take advantage of any favorable matchups that present themselves.  If the Saints focus too much effort on shutting down Clark, they will fall victim to the same fate that befell the New York Jets in leaving the Colts talented wide receiver corps free to roam the secondary.

Secondary:

Jabari Greer has received considerable attention since the NFC Championship game as a shutdown cornerback, holding Pro Bowl Vikings receiver Sidney Rice to four catches for 43 yards, but he has not faced a receiver of the caliber of Reggie Wayne.  While Tracy Porter may draw Wayne, chances are that Greer will be entrusted with the task of shutting down the Colts most dangerous weapon.

Greer can lock down on a player, but has not, historically, been able to handle a receiver with a full complement of moves at all depth levels.  Wayne is an all-round receiver that will test Greer on bubble screens, slants, deep slants, and go routes.  Greer will play to his strengths by playing close to the line of scrimmage and jamming Wayne, but he will only win for so long.  At some point, Wayne will communicate Greer's tendencies to Manning and Indianapolis will strike, just as they did in Super Bowl XLI.

Pierre Garcon will most likely draw Porter.  Porter is an aggressive player that likes to play tight man coverage and plays it well.  If Manning can get the ball to Garcon on a slant or in route, or he can execute one of their patented slant-and-go routes, Garcon is one misstep or one missed tackle away from pay dirt.  The Manning-to-Garcon connection is a matter of pressure and time.

The x-factor here is Austin Collie.  Collie was able to do great things and accomplish in the AFC Championship game what he could not in the regular season by breaking open behind coverage and gaining yards after the catch.  In the early going — before Wayne and Garcon are able to properly diagnose the tendencies of Greer and Porter — Collie must win his one-on-one match-up with Gay or Jenkins and Clark must take what the defense gives him.

If the Colts are able to stay the course in the early going, they will have success in the second, third, and fourth quarters with all their weapons.  If they cannot, they may not be able to keep pace with a potent Saints offense.

Peyton Manning has proved throughout the course of his career — particularly in the last three seasons — that he is mentally and physically tough and can take whatever a defense has in store for him.  Manning is six full years younger than Favre and will not relent under whatever pressure New Orleans can bring.

This game will prove to be a marathon with a series of sprints and Manning is capable of rising to the occasion to whatever obstacle is presented him, whether it be in the two-minute offense or surviving the relentless pressure and hits of the Saints defense.


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