FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With defensive end Dwight Freeney likely limited -- at best -- for Super Bowl XLIV because of an ankle injury, the Indianapolis Colts' inability to generate a pass rush on Saints quarterback Drew Brees seems the obvious concern. Freeney or not, we could be overlooking a more significant matchup issue for the Colts defense: Limiting the New Orleans Saints' running game.
Indianapolis has been surprisingly stout against the run this postseason, holding the powerhouse ground games of Baltimore and the Jets in check. Those teams totaled 173 rushing yards combined, a far cry from the 126.5 the Colts allowed per game during the regular season. Those teams were relatively one dimensional, with the pass coming more out of necessity. Indianapolis knew the Ravens and Jets were going to run, so it schemed and executed accordingly and forced those teams' young quarterbacks to make plays.
The Saints are a far different challenge. The NFL's No. 1 offense can throw the ball as well as, or better than, any team in the NFL. That forces defenses to play more nickel (five defensive back) packages and prompts the Saints to attack them with a series of runs and swing passes that capitalize on personnel mismatches. They also can simply grind out yards against base defenses, using an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers (Jonathan Goodwin, Jahri Evans and Jonathan Stinchcomb) and three running backs with varied styles.
The Saints finished the season with the No. 6 rushing offense in the league, averaging 136.6 yards per game. That average has dipped to 119 in the playoffs, but it's effective production nonetheless.
"We want to establish that our running game is powerful," Saints starting tailback Pierre Thomas said. "They have to watch out for the run with Mike Bell, Reggie (Bush) and myself. They have a defensive line that is very fast, so that's something we have to establish first."
The Colts, who play a 4-3 front as part of their Tampa 2 base scheme, invite that challenge.
"Our defensive tackles have been doing a great job, and they get excited when teams say they want to run the ball on us," said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock, who will either play for Freeney or rotate with him, mainly on running downs. "Dan Muir, Eric Foster and Mookie (Antonio) Johnson; they love when teams come in and say they want to run the ball on us."
The Saints, and especially play-calling coach Sean Payton, excel at dialing up the unexpected. That's why it would be no surprise for the downhill-running Bell to be commissioned for significant playing time after being shelved for most of the first two playoff games. Bell's confrontational running style is not what the Colts want to deal with.
When I spoke with him early this week, Bell made a point for me to look up his numbers against the Colts in 2006 when he was a rookie with Denver: 136 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns. He didn't touch the ball until the second half.
Things are different now with Bell on the Saints and the Colts employing a more physical defensive interior. Still, his style could prove beneficial in a game like this. Bell hasn't played much this postseason because Thomas and Bush, who are better off tackle and on the edges, were better fits against Arizona and especially Minnesota, which isn't going to yield much between the tackles.
"I'm feeling it," said Bell, who was the Saints' second-leading rusher behind Thomas with 654 yards and five touchdowns. "I think I'll be a factor."
Thomas and Bush will be as well. Thomas is the most versatile back, able to grind out the inside yards but also bounce things to the edge and make defenders miss. Bush is the biggest perimeter threat in the Super Bowl, but he also plays the type of game the Colts can neutralize based on the speed and philosophy of their defense.
"We're going to try and get you running sideways," Colts outside linebacker Clint Session said. "We're going to try to make you run to the outside. We've also got to hit guys and get them going back. We can't have guys falling forward, getting those garbage yards, those extra two, three yards. Those yards add up and could put us in a bad situation in the later downs.
"You're not going to outrun us to the edge. You've got to run up the middle."
Though the Colts are smallish along their front seven, they are incredibly fast and disciplined. They also are sure tacklers in the open field, which could be critical since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees do a great job of getting the ball to Thomas and Bush in open space. Both sides are going to have to be disciplined with their assignments in the running game, especially the Saints.
As fast as the Colts get to the ball, they rarely overpursue to enable cutback lanes. The athletic defensive ends -- Brock fits into the category with Freeney and Robert Mathis -- usually are in position to compensate for any mistakes and to hedge attempts at misdirection runs or reverses, plays that Payton isn't bashful about calling.
"We've got to be disciplined," Bell said. "We have to understand and react to the flow. They have a bunch of fast guys, but we know where our blocks are coming from. Mathis or Freeney is going to be coming on the backside so if you cut back, you're probably going to get blasted. One of them seems to always be coming unblocked (on the back side), so we have to know where everybody is and what the blocking scheme is."
Said Brock: "We swarm. You might see 11 guys around the ball on every play. It's what we've done since (former coach) Tony Dungy was here. They haven't seen our type of speed yet. The teams I've seen them play (on film) ... I don't think they've seen our speed yet."
The run-game matchup between the Saints and the Colts defense seems tailor-made for both teams to excel; yet an outright stalemate is unlikely. At some point, one side will impose itself and, according to Stinchcomb, that's when things will get down to the basics.
"We'll have our work cut out for us," Stinchcomb said. "We just have to believe in the plan we have in place and you know what, there are going to be times when we'll just have to bow up and get the job done."