Sunday, February 07, 2010

Previewing the Super Bowl, with Ryan Gallivan and Alex Holt

This year’s Super Bowl is more than just a battle between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts; it’s also a clash of styles between the Colts’ pass-heavy offence and the Saints’ balanced attack. New Orleans was sixth in the league in rushing this year, averaging 131.6 yards per regular-season game, and fourth in passing, averaging 272.2 yards per game. The Colts were second in the NFL in passing yards per game, averaging 282.2 yards per game, but dead last in rushing, putting up only 80.9 yards on the ground.

The Colts’ rushing game hasn’t improved by the numbers in the playoffs, as they’re still only averaging 2.9 yards per attempt and 71.5 yards per game. However, those stats are somewhat deceiving. The Colts got nowhere on the ground against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, putting up only 44 yards on 23 carries, but that game was out of hand early and the Colts were often running just to control the clock. Against the notably effective rushing defence of the New York Jets in the conference championship game, a contest that was much closer throughout, the Colts piled up 103 yards on 23 rushing attempts, with featured back Joseph Addai picking up 80 yards on 16 carries. Their rushing defence, which allowed 126.5 yards per game during the regular season (24th in the league), also performed much better against the Jets’ top-ranked ground attack, holding New York to 85 yards on 27 carries. Ryan Gallivan, a Colts’ fan who edits The Gally Blog, said Indianapolis’ recent transformation has overtones of déjà vu.

“This year is eerily reminiscent of 2006-2007 when the Colts beat
the Bears in the Super Bowl,” Gallivan said. “The Colts were merely adequate at
defense that year and slightly above average at running the ball. Come playoff time though, the team transmogrified into a run stopping team that could pound the ball.”

Gallivan thinks Indianapolis is likely to continue this success Sunday. He argues the passing game is performing so well that opposing teams become focused on shutting it down, leaving holes that can be exploited by the run game.

“The Colts’ run game may not win the Super Bowl for them as it did in 2007, but it is going to
continue its playoff trend and not the regular-season trend,” Gallivan said. “The biggest reason is that everyone in the football world is scared of Peyton Manning right now.”

However, that doesn’t mean the Colts have a great rushing offence. Gallivan said both of their primary running backs, Addai and Donald Brown, have significant flaws. He thinks Addai is a better option, though.

“I'm not ready to accept either of these guys right now,” he said. “Though Brown is more explosive, Addai is more sure-handed and as I don't expect the game to be won on the ground, I want Addai getting the touches. Though he lay mostly dormant this year, he showed signs of life against the Patriots and two weeks ago against the Jets. He's not a home-run guy, but if he can get going, he's very good after the first tackle. If we're needing to play ball control, we're going to be looking for him. Plus, Addai is very adept in the pass game both as a blocker and receiver.”

Gallivan figures the Colts will need to run the ball frequently Sunday despite the flaws in their ground game.

“The Colts are always better as a balanced team,” he said. “Sure, this year
they passed a gaudy 62.15 per cent of the time, but it often seemed that it was a necessity. The Saints passed nearly eight per cent less than the Colts did, for example, but the Colts often had to pass as they were trying to come from behind,which they did a record-setting seven times this season. The Colts’ offence requires the play-action pass and the stretch run for it to work most effectively, so if the run/pass ratio is close to 50 per cent, that means their offence is working how they want it to work.”

One of the key subplots leading up to the Super Bowl has been the health of Indianapolis’ star defensive end Dwight Freeney, who’s recovering from a severely torn ligament in his right ankle. Freeney hasn’t practiced all week, but Gallivan thinks he’ll be featured come game time.

“Dwight Freeney is going to play,” he said. “Terrell Owens played in the 2005 Super Bowl coming off a fractured fibula and severely sprained ankle. He healed those injuries in part in much the samemanner as Freeney, with extensive time in a hyperbaric chamber and using the microcurrent system. It's the Super Bowl, so there's no chance he won't get some playing time.”

Even if Freeney isn’t fully healed, Gallivan thinks it will benefit the Colts to have him in the lineup.

“A Dwight Freeney at, say, 60 per cent is still more effective than about 50 per cent of the DEs in the league,” he said. “Freeney and Robert Mathis are the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. If Freeney is in at close to full strength, it means that the Saints will have to keep a TE or RB in to help Jermon Bushrod block, though that doesn't mean that Mathis will be blockable. With the two of them in with emotions this high, it could potentially negate two passing options on every play that they're in. With Freeney out, Mathis moves over to RDE and the versatile but less-proven Raheem Brock steps in at LDE. Brock is no slouch at DE, but he's not Freeney, so the whole pass rush dynamic changes with Freeney out.”

The Saints have an explosive offence of their own, but Gallivan thinks they do have weaknesses.

“I'm going to take a lot of flack for this, but the Saints aren't exactly a power team,”
he said. “They've been successful because they're generally faster than the opposing defences, which causes various matchup problems. They're not faster than the Colts’ defence, which is
built to be small, rangy and fast. Though they blitz more frequently this year under [defensive coordinator Larry] Coyer, they are a trademark Monte Kiffin Tampa-2 defence. Because they struggled mightily against the run earlier in the year, and the two games where they didn't try, they appeared more
vulnerable than they were.

Gallivan’s expecting a shootout Sunday, with both teams going for it early and often.

“I think this has the potential to be an amazing game,” he said. “Don't expect the punters to come out unless it’s something like fourth and 14 at your own 26-yard line. Sean Payton is a risk-taker and knows that this
year, Peyton Manning is a freak and must be put down. He's aware you can't be happy collecting field goals against the Colts and will go for it frequently and often. Don't be surprised when New Orleans
goes for it on fourth and 6 when they have a 48-yard field goal available. The Colts will not be as aggressive, but whoever is actually calling the shots in Indy will be more aggressive than Dungy
was these last few years.”

Gallivan said he expects the Colts’ strengths are enough to give them a close victory.
“ I think it will be a thrilling game, with the Colts pulling ahead in the last few minutes
and holding on to win 35-31,” he said.

The Saints have strengths of their own, though. Alex Holt, who’s written extensively on the NFL for The Rookies and covers Buffalo sports at And The Shot, thinks New Orleans’ balanced approach will give them an advantage Sunday.

“I certainly think having more than one offensive dimension gives the Saints somewhat of an edge,” he said. “I really is hard to win when you're only really good at one offensive aspect of the game. The Saints definitely have a much better chance of winning the game if their defence can force the Colts to rely on their running game. The catch here is that Peyton Manning's such a talented QB that shutting down the Colts' passing game is easier said than done.”

Holt said one of the Colts’ weaknesses comes from Freeney’s injury. If he sits out, they’ll miss his experience and talent, but Holt figures if he plays while hurt, the Saints may be able to take advantage of his lessened explosiveness.

“As long as the Colts actually plan on rushing Dwight Freeney back at less than 100 per cent, that's definitely going to be a matchup the Saints can take advantage of,” he said.

Holt isn’t underrating the Indianapolis defence, as he thinks their talent might pose a few issues for the Saints. It depends on New Orleans’ approach, though.

“ I think they need to keep an eye on Kelvin Hayden at CB and Antoine Bethea at FS,” Holt said. “Drew Brees is arguably the best QB in the NFL in terms of being able to successfully throw deep on a consistent basis so if the Colts' secondary has a good night, that takes away a major aspect of Brees' game and forces them to rely more on the running game, which the Colts certainly wouldn't have as hard a time stopping.”

Both teams showcase very different approaches on defence. The Colts have focused on limiting big plays by the opposing offence all year and finished 18th in the league with 339.2 total yards allowed per game, while the Saints allowed more yards (357.8) but focused on jumping routes to make interceptions and stripping the ball from opposing players instead of just bringing them down. They finished third in the league with 26 interceptions, while the Colts were 15--th with 16. Holt said that aggressive approach has worked well for the Saints in the past, but they may need to tone it down Sunday.

“Most of the time, I think these gambles are worthwhile,” he said. “It worked great with Adrian Peterson and Brett Favre in the NFC Championship. In fact, if the Jets had somehow beaten the Colts two weeks ago, I think the Saints could have had a field day trying to force fumbles and pick-sixes out of Mark Sanchez (after all, even the Bills were able to do that once this season). Unfortunately for the Saints, they're up against Peyton Manning and he's far smarter than Sanchez or Favre so they'll definitely get burned if they try the same approach they used in the championship game. The key to beating the Colts on Sunday is to force them to rely on the running game.”

Holt said he’s hoping the Saints will pull off the upset, but he expects the Colts to prevail in a high-scoring nailbiter.

“I'm rooting for the Saints to win but I know how likely a Colts win is,” he said. “I am going to go so far as to say that this game will be won with a single digit lead and probably in the 30s. It's possible that it will be in the 20s if both defences play out of their minds, or in the 40's if this becomes Cardinals-Packers redux, but 38-31 just sounds right to me. Either way, this should be the anti-Bucs-Raiders of Super Bowls.”

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