The most obvious key to victory on Sunday will be to contain Peyton Manning, who has been in a class by himself for an unprecedented length of time. I know it has been fashionable to lump Tom Brady and, now, Drew Brees (both supremely clutch QBs with an absolute command of their respective offenses) in with Manning, but the things he does to run his offense are truly singular. A superb recent article on a Colts blog outlines in great detail the various reads and calls that Manning executes as he brings his guys to the line--and discusses that ways in which his command has continued to grow, to the point that what he is doing at the line in the past couple of years was "thought to be impossible by the leading minds in the game as recently as 2004." If you are able to sweep aside the Manning hagiography, I think you'll find it a fascinating read.
By now, Paul Pasqualoni and the Cowboys defensive staff have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Manning. What might they do to limit the damage he can do? Interestingly enough, the factors most likely to contribute to their success are things they cannot control. They must rely on the Cowboys offense to help them by playing keep-away - sustaining drives and limiting the number of Colts possessions. Luckily, they have been gifted by the football gods; the Colts offense has suffered an inordinate number of injuries to skill position players. TE Dallas Clark, and WRs Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie aren't going to suit up, which leaves Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon as the remaining legit threats. Also, RB Joseph Addai has been limited by a neck injury. If I'm coach P, I'm breathing a sigh of relief about this news; its possible to scheme against Wayne and Garcon; against the full contingent of Indy's offensive weapons? Not so much...
What might we see on Sunday? Some thoughts about what to expect after the jump...
1. Let the Colts O-line play to their level. When the Colts were at the height of their offensive prowess, their O-line was a real strength. Now, the likes of Tarik Glenn and Jake Scott have been replaced by the likes of Charlie Johnson and Kyle DeVan, a refugee from the Arena II league. Manning's longtime center, the stalwart Jeff Saturday, is still with the team, but is a hollow facsimile of his former self. Consequently, the Indy O-line is has fallen off considerably from its former glory. This summer, the Colts' Super Bowl Nation site, Stampede Blue, featured a post about this steady decline, which highlights the team's struggle to replace Glenn and Scott, particularly the failure of "premium" draft choices like Tony Ugoh (who was placed on IR and then cut) and Mike Pollak (currently an average starter at right guard) to impress.
The larger point here for Cowboys fans is that this iteration of the Colts line, much like Dallas', struggles to get much push in the running game. If the Cowboys, particularly Jay Ratliff, can hold the point and discourage Indy from running, they can do some damage. Why? Because the Colts' O-line also has difficulty protecting Manning, to the degree that it has forced them to alter their gameplans of late. In recent weeks, we've seen the Colts dink and dunk more: passing plays featuring shorter drops have gone up; deeper strikes to Wayne and Co. have become less frequent (as have the plays that would be sure to plague the Cowboys, passes to Dallas Clark down the seams). What Dallas needs to do is to make sure the Colts continue to play this kind of game by getting enough consistent pressure on Manning that Indy's offensive braintrust doesn't feel they have the time to exploit the Cowboys' vulnerable secondary. This would be an excellent week for Anthony Spencer to bust out of his season-long funk.
2. Keep Wayne and Garcon in front. The Cowboys D can add further incentive for the Mannings to move the ball in smaller chunks by keeping their primary receiving threats in front of them. What that means is that the Dallas corners should always have safety help over the top when they are going up against either of these dudes, especially Wayne. I can envision a defensive gameplan much like that we saw against Philadelphia at the end of last season, in which safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Ken Hamlin played a two-deep shell, so Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins always knew they had deep help against the Eagles fleet receivers. One reason this worked last season was that Dallas felt confident they could cover Philly tight end Brent Celek with a middle linebacker. Colts tight end Jacob Tamme has filled in well for Dallas Clark, but the Cowboys have to feel more confident with their linebacker's chances against him than Clark. As a result, they can get away with deploying a two-deep safety shell.
3. Resist the blitz. Given the decrepit state of the Colts offensive line, it might seem at first glance that this is an excellent opportunity to dial up some exotic blitzes to confuse them and get to Manning. Nothing could be further from the truth; he can read the subtlest indications that a blitz is coming and will invariably find the opening the blitz provides. This is the key point: avoiding the blitz significantly decreases the likelihood of him finding such openings, because playing coverage will eliminate them. The Cowboys should force Manning to beat them in much the way that Dallas' opponents were asking Tony Romo to beat them earlier in the season: by stringing together a series of small gainers in a 10-15 play drive. The name of the game should be: make him kill you with a series of paper cuts rather than one fell stroke of his sword.
4. Patience is a virtue. Normally, I'd say that Manning is the QB whose ability to administer fatal paper cuts I'd fear the most. However, because he's working with a relatively inexperienced set of skill position players, a lot of the singular adjustments on the fly that have characterized the Indianapolis offense in the past decade aren't being made with the same precision. Increasingly, Manning and his receivers have not been on the same page. By employing a two-deep shell, the Cowboys defensive staff can help the Cowboys' corners to keep everything in front of them. What this will do is to allow them to see plays develop as they happen--and to take advantage of Colts mistakes as they occur. And they will occur.
Manning and Co. are going to get theirs; they always do. Forcing them to dink and dunk down the field, however, will increase the number of opportunities to exploit a mistake--and make a game-changing play. If the Cowboys defensive players press and try to make plays, they merely increase their chances of being out of position, and Manning will take advantage of that with stunning speed and ruthlessness. To avoid this, they have to stay patient and let the mistakes come to them.
Can they? Should be interesting...