Saturday, February 6, 2010

Super Bowl preview

By Rick Morris

^ Here are some notable links: the official Super Bowl page, New Orleans and Indianapolis depth charts, the picks of USA Today’s football experts and those from ESPN, the USA Today “tale of the tape,” the annual Scripps Super Bowl celebrity predictions, the CBS Sports preview and the Madden NFL ’10 simulator results.

The media “hooks” for this game have been fairly obvious: Archie Manning’s old team against his son’s team, more recycled Katrina coverage almost 4 ½ years after the hurricane, two first-time Super Bowl head coaches in offensive genius Sean Payton and one of the best rookies of all time in Jim Caldwell, the Dwight Freeney injury for the Colts being piled on top of the previous losses of Bob Sanders, Anthony Gonzalez and some cornerbacks, Pierre vs. Pierre/Reggie vs. Reggie/Peyton vs. Payton, the first matchup of conference #1 seeds in the Super Bowl in 16 years and teams that can plausibly lay claim to being the two biggest offensive powerhouses in the game right now (with the underlying Peyton Manning/Drew Brees comparisons being made regularly). Much is also made of how the Saints survived two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Kurt Warner and Brett Favre en route to the big game, while the Colts toughed it out against two of the game’s best and most physical defenses in the Ravens and Jets.

Notwithstanding the surface similarities between the two high-powered offenses, they have some real differences: namely, in terms of the run. The Colts became, strangely enough, the second consecutive team after the Cardinals to make the Super Bowl while finishing last in the league in rushing yards per game (or maybe it’s not so much a coincidence as it is a statement about the primacy of passing in today’s game – an interesting point of discussion for another day). The Saints finished sixth in the same category, keyed in part by excellent guard play. However, both teams saw different patterns emerge during the playoffs. New Orleans received a big-game performance from Reggie Bush against Arizona that rivaled any of his epic performances in college – and in the biggest shock of all, Bush actually ran strong and powerfully inside, not just in space. Indianapolis, in the face of strong run defenses in Baltimore and New York, maintained a patient commitment to the run. They pounded the ball repeatedly with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown, rarely attaining more than a few cursory yards per carry, but successfully keeping their offense from being too one-dimensional and providing their defense (which was facing a similar commitment to the run with much better firepower behind it) the rest it needed to compete. Their line, with the notable exception of the great Jeff Saturday at center, doesn’t provide much help. The Colts and Saints do have much in common in the passing game, with triggermen Manning and Brees showing the capacity to spread the football to multiple options.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints take great pride in their opportunistic defense, which generates massive turnovers (the team ranked third in the league in turnover differential). However, I noted correctly during last year’s playoffs that Baltimore and Arizona could both expect problems against Pittsburgh because of their overreliance on that part of the game. Racking up interceptions and fumble recoveries is nice; mixing in timely stops – that’s very nice as well. And the Saints don’t do very much of that, frankly. They ranked 21st in yardage against the run and 26th against the pass. Pinning your hopes on winning based on takeaways when you are facing the ruthless shredding machine known as Peyton Manning is a fool’s wager: just ask the significantly better Jets defense how that goes. New Orleans has star power in a few positions and they are basically decent elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Colts come into the game with the league’s 18th-rated defense, but their edge goes beyond that statistic. It’s almost incomprehensible how well Indy has been able to play defensively sans All-World safety Bob Sanders (who was actually, probably, the most indispensible player when the team won it all three years ago) and much of that owes to their change in scheme from the Cover-2 to a much more aggressive series of packages (that area is the main point of similarity with the Saints – they both love to blitz). However, they remain on the small side, albeit very fast.

Let’s take a look at the biggest “X-Factor” players in this Super Bowl:

1 Reggie Bush: We make the point all the time at FDH that the most lethal teams are the ones that can establish a dangerous running and passing game simultaneously. Such a capacity keeps the defense on its heels and unable to play aggressively lest they leave a sliver of the field open to be exploited. The epic 42-39 Ohio State/Michigan game of 2006 is one of the great all-time examples of this, with both teams driving up and down the field due to establishing tremendous run and pass capabilities. If the Reggie Bush who dominated against Arizona (and at USC) returns in Miami (a big if, as FDH Senior Editor Jason Jones points out), then Drew Brees will be able to pick apart the Indianapolis defense to his heart’s content.

2 Darren Sharper: One of the greatest “interception machines” ever to suit up at safety has to play up to his most opportunistic level, just as he did all year long, against Manning – who rarely makes those mistakes in games at this level, at least in the last few years. Anything less and the defense predicated on turnovers will not be able to hold up its end of the bargain in Miami.

3 Will Smith: If Gregg Williams is to receive the pressure on Manning from his D that he knows he needs, it will have to emerge from the team’s best pass rusher. Collapsing the pocket won’t be easy, but the team was able to make it happen in the earlier playoff games. Blitzing Manning is usually a fool’s errand.

4 Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis: The Colts must try to get pressure of their own on Brees, especially because they don’t generate many turnovers. Like the Saints, the Colts will not want to blitz an opposing QB who has picked apart defenses for the past several years.

5 Joseph Addai/Donald Brown: Indianapolis cruised through the regular season despite their poor running game. Now, they face the easiest run defense they have encountered in the playoffs. The Colts cannot hope for the type of top-end run/pass combo that the Saints will have if Bush gets really untracked; however, if Addai and Brown can average at least 4 to 4.5 yards per carry, they’ll be even more efficient in the passing game than they were against the Ravens or Jets. That’s a scary thought. Keep in mind that Addai and Dominic Rhodes really rose to the occasion against a stout Bear run D in the Super Bowl three years ago.

Of course, this list does not include players who could fairly obviously be expected to perform well, such as the two QBs, the two TEs and both #1 WRs. Reggie Wayne in particular should be poised for a good game, since he’s got something to prove after being bottled up by two superb defenses thus far in the playoffs. For obvious reasons, the Saints dare not double-team him.

So how does this game shake out in the end? The Colts have the “big-stage” experience that the Saints lack, a factor that has mattered more often than not in the Super Bowl. Based on the fact that Washington’s comeback from being down 10-0 in 1988 was the only double-digit rally to win in Super Bowl history, history indicates that neither team can win if they don’t stay very close. The Saints won’t have the raucous home crowd that they have relied on fairly disproportionately this season. And New Orleans probably lacks the shutdown factor against the run needed to force Indy to abandon their “just keeping it honest” attack and play one-dimensionally. There’s a tremendous consensus – shared by FDH prognosticators – that the game will end up with the total points in the 50s or 60s – so here’s one more log on that pile. Look for a plethora of big plays on both sides, but for “George Seifert 2K10” to be standing tall in the end with MVP Peyton Manning. Colts 34, Saints 28.

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