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Bob Sanders tore his bicep last week versus the San Francisco 49ers and is out for the season—the usual. This is without a doubt a blow to the Colts defense, but something the Colts staff probably planned for since Sanders has missed 40 of 87 games in his six year career. The Colts still have pro-bowl Safety Antoine Bethea and a good back up in safety Melvin Bullit. Bullit is in his third year and was named the emerging star in the AFC South at the beginning of the season. What is more worrying for the Colts however is that they are also losing veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden for four weeks and starting cornerback Marlin Jackson for the whole season. Essentially, three of the Colts starting secondary players are back-ups.
The Patriots have Randy Moss.
You have to like Tom Brady and the Patriots offense versus two rookie cornerbacks, especially after Moss burnt the Dolphin’s rookie cornerback Vontae Davis twice– a one-handed catch and a stiff arm to the face included. With the Patriots offense seemingly rolling with a big win at home versus the Dolphins, the 8-0 Indianapolis Colts should have a lot of work to do in order to prepare for the much awaited showdown next Sunday against the rolling Patriots who are now 6-2.
With the way the Colts run their defense, a big part of their scheme is dependent on skill at the safety position. That’s why they have one of the best safeties in the league. Excuse me, HAD one of the best safeties. Unfortunately, Bob Sanders is built out of twigs and gets hurt halfway through every season. Now Bullit will have to step up. He’s typically the Colts nickel and dime defender (which spreads them even thinner, but that’s beside the point). The reason it’s important to have a skilled safety in the cover 2 scheme is because of the way it’s designed. Tony Dungy popularized the Cover 2 scheme with the Bucs when they had a tenacious defense leading them to a Super Bowl Ring in 2003. When he moved to the Colts he built a team around the Cover 2 scheme. With two pro-bowl safeties in Sanders and Bethea and two pro-bowl defensive ends in Mathis and Freeney, the Colts had the tools. And in theory, facing a functioning Cover 2 can be a nightmare for any offense. The cover 2 is a zone defense that puts two safeties deep (hence cover 2) to cover the deep parts of the field. It then places corner backs in zones covering the short field at the sidelines (“the flats”), and typically linebackers in zones covering the middle of the field while four linemen rush. Most defenses in the NFL run a cover 3 sort of scheme, with three secondary defenders deep or a man to man with two safety’s deep. These are the types of attacks that are more conservative and allow offenses to dump the ball underneath, but keep everything in front of it, to prevent being beat deep. With a cover 2 like the Colts run, they essentially depend on two safeties to defend the deep parts of the field—that’s a lot of ground to cover. Safeties like Sanders and Bethea can make it happen. Safeties like Polamalu that can make up a lot ground because of their speed and knowledge are that important in the NFL now. A lot of defenses aren’t able to run this because they don’t have the personnel. With two good defensive ends, the scheme aims to take away quick and short throws from the quarterback, forcing the quarterback to stay in the pocket and wait for a receiver to get open deep.
Basically the defense relies on its safeties to cover a lot of ground deep, and its rushers to either force a bad throw or make it to the quarterback before a receiver opens deep. Without Bob Sanders, Bullitt will have to compensate. It’s up to the coaches if they alter their scheme. Bullitt is a good player, I’m sure he was drafted as the “backup when Sanders gets hurt” because this is a likely story for the Colts star safety. Ultimately, it may come down to Bullitt and how well he plays. Versus the Patriots, a receiver like Moss can easily burn a safety deep, and quickly get above underneath coverage before the rush because of his speed. If Bullitt can’t perform, the Colts defense may have to do less with all of their injuries, which will be a lot easier for opponents to plan and execute against their defenses. With rookie cornerbacks, they’ll probably have to run less confusing schemes and more traditional defenses like man to man since it is safe to assume rookies aren’t always pros when it comes to complicated playbooks. And so you have to like Randy Moss’ odds one-on-one against a rookie cornerback (ex. Vontae Davis). Moss will ultimately draw double coverage, and that’s where Welker’s made his money. I also like Belichick’s offensive schemes versus a thin defensive playbook and Brady versus a predictable defense–with less confusing schemes on defense Brady should dissect the Colts defense like he’s playing Madden.
With a close game versus the Texans, it proves the Colts are beatable. At 8-0, the true tests in their schedule just begin with the Pats, Ravens and Texans at the door. And if you look at their prior schedule, all of the teams they’ve played combine for a record of 17-33.
Obviously, the Colts are the Colts and Peyton Manning isn’t an MVP quarterback for nothing. They’re going to score points so the game will still be a challenge. The Colts offense is nothing shy of dominant, even with injuries to Donald Brown and Anthony Gonzalez. The game should be a shootout. It will ultimately come down to which team’s defense is able to make turnovers and stops, and the Pats defense is young and has faced problems this season. Both offenses have the edge in next Sunday’s game.
With the Randy Moss and Brady seeming to establish a rhythm again, the Pats may be in a better spot. It will be difficult for the Colts defense to handle the Pats, and when you look at the Pats, they certainly have the edge in the secondary and at the linebacker position. If the Pats are able to be successful on offense, it may be that Manning and the Colts are watching their defense more of the game. When a defense can’t force punts, time of possession becomes a big factor. With struggles against the Texans, a lack of depth and a brand new secondary, the Colts will certainly stay at the top of the league, but won’t have the power to compete against teams like the Saints and the what looks like a Pats team that is gaining momentum.
One thing’s for sure, the game between the Pats and the Colts is taking place at a time in the season that favors the Pats.