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Offenses receive attention, but these two defenders are pivotal

The presence of the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV has fueled speculation that the modern NFL game is all about offense.

That statement would ring true during the initial analysis of this matchup, as the defensive units of the Colts and Saints lack the panache typically associated with the league's most feared defenses. However, a closer examination reveals that these defenses are worthy of their spots in Super Bowl XLIV, as they rank among the leaders in several important defensive categories.

The Saints finished No. 1 in takeaways, and they have continued to display their opportunistic ways during the playoffs. New Orleans has forced seven turnovers in its two playoff games, and its ability to take the ball away has been critical to its success.

The Colts, on the other hand, have excelled at keeping opponents out of the end zone. They finished the regular season ranked eighth in points allowed, and that number was negatively impacted by their controversial decision to rest key defensive starters in the final two weeks of the season (when they gave up 59 points).

Given the enormous challenge that lies in front of both defenses, it is imperative that a starter or unsung situational player emerges as a difference-maker Sunday.

Let's take a look at some of the defensive X-factors that could surface in this matchup:

Colts: Gary Brackett, middle linebacker

The Colts' defense has long been viewed as a finesse squad, but Brackett's hard hits are slowly changing that perception. The seventh-year pro is the centerpiece of the team's defense, and his ability to blow up ball carriers often sets the tone.

The Colts fared well against two physical ground attacks in the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, and they must find a way to slow down the Saints' better-than-advertised running game. Although the Saints' prolific offense excels at making plays through the air, it is the threat of the running game that often leads to big plays off play-action. Given the difficulty in defending a two-dimensional attack, it is important for Brackett to show up against the run early and often.

Saints: Will Smith, defensive end

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has emphasized the importance of getting hits on the quarterback this week, but the defense can't rely solely on the blitz to rattle Peyton Manning. The onus falls on Smith and his cohorts to win their individual battles to create consistent pressure on Manning.

Smith, who finished the season with 13 sacks, is the undisputed leader of the crew, and his ability to collapse the pocket off the edge will give Williams the freedom to use some umbrella coverage behind a conventional four-man rush. Given Manning's ability to defeat the blitz, Smith's effectiveness as part of a four-man rush could be the deciding factor in this game.

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