Sanders is physical and will stick his head in against anyone.
The new World Champions will be crowned this weekend, and while the world wonders if Rex Grossman can handle the load, or if Peyton Manning can handle the pressure, if the Bears defense can once again dominate, or if the Colts defense can continue to play at a high level, we will break down the game for you piece-by-piece. Here is how we think things will shake out down in Miami this weekend.
Bears Offense vs. Colts Defense
QB Rex Grossman continues to struggle, and the Bears will look to take as much pressure off him as possible. Look for plenty of the running game, especially early on, with Chicago running the ball as many as 35 times. Expect Thomas Jones to get the bulk of the load with Cedric Benson contributing 10-12 carries, running between the tackles and using his physical running style to wear down the Colts front. Jones can run with power as well, but likes to run off tackle, attacking the hole and then making one cut to get downhill quickly.
The Colts defense has seen a vast improvement in the playoffs, but they have done so by overreacting to the run and overplaying their hand in the tackle box. Safety Bob Sanders has been the key. He is physical and will stick his head in against anyone. But the Chiefs and Ravens didn't loosen up the defense with the pass at all, and a bad game from the New England WR's last week forced Tom Brady to rely on the short passing game, which gave Sanders time to react and get into position when necessary. Rex Grossman will have to make plays downfield in the passing game to keep Sanders honest and create room for the running game.
Still, the Bears have a punishing O-line led by the best center in the NFL in Olin Kreutz. Guards Ruben Brown and Roberto Garza will man up on the Colts undersized DT's, Booger McFarland and Raheem Brock. If they can single block them, as they expect, Kreutz is athletic enough to get to the second level and will be able to engulf MLB Gary Brackett. With a body on the MLB, the Bears backs will have a clear lane and will be able to get past the line of scrimmage easily and make their cut.
Before Grossman can drop back for a pass, he will have to locate SS Bob Sanders on every play. If he is up in the box supporting the run, Grossman will throw. If he is back in coverage, Grossman will check to a run. The challenge for Grossman will be reading the Colts coverage under heavy pressure.
The Colts feel like they can get pressure on the QB from all four spots along the D-line and will not send extra blitzers. Even with Grossman's poor record of passing with pressure in his face, Indy will play him with coverage, employing a Cover Two zone whenever possible, keeping the passing attack in front of them. With a mix of press and off coverage on the corners, and Sanders moving all over the field, the Colts hope to get Grossman holding the ball, giving Dwight Freeney and company time to collapse the pocket.
Grossman will counter with quick passes to Muhsin Muhammad on the slant, using the WR's size to attack the Colts smaller corners. They will also try to get TE Desmond Clark involved in the intermediate passing game, but the Colts LB's are very athletic and can cover. Expect Sanders to spend a fair amount of time in coverage against Clark, and even if the Bears split Clark out on the slot and have him run the seam, Sanders will run with him, allowing FS Antoine Bethea, who has played very well in coverage all season, to help on the Bears only real deep threat, WR Bernard Berrian, who will see press coverage from the corner, but can beat CB Nick Harper with double moves. If Sanders is playing close to the line of scrimmage, Berrian will have chances to beat Beathea on the deep ball as well.
Colts Offense vs. Bears Defense
The Colts running game is usually predicated on QB Peyton Manning's pre-snap reads. If Manning reads seven defenders in the tackle box, he will audible to a run. If he sees eight in the box he normally calls a pass. When they do run, they rely on a balance of rookie Joseph Addai's explosiveness in the open field on 1st and 2nd down, and veteran Dominic Rhodes, who runs with more power and usually gets the call on 3rd down, in short yardage situations, and near the goal line.
Look for the Colts to rely on the run more as they have become more balanced on offense in the postseason (they ran 37% of the time on 1st and 2nd down against the Patriots in a game where they were trailing by 18 points). They like to line up in 2-TE sets when they are in run mode, rather than with two backs, but don't be surprised to see them run out of spread formations and work out of the no-huddle, where heading into the AFC Championship Game they had run 19 times and passed 20 times. Against the Bears, look for the Colts to attack up the middle where Chicago has been more vulnerable since the loss of DT Tommie Harris to injury. The Colts had success between the tackles against New England and feel like they can dominate the smaller Bears front.
The Bears like to show seven in the box, and will expect the shotgun formation with a 1-back set. Chicago feels that they can stop the run with the front seven, and had success doing so against the Saints last week. This will allow them to play two-deep coverage in the secondary and keep the Colts passing attack in front of them. But look for the Colts to mix their formations and sets to disguise their intentions and force MLB Brian Urlacher to read and react. The Colts balance will also keep the Bears on their heels. Look for Indy to maintain a 50-50 run-pass split on 1st down, then run as much as 65% on second down, and pass almost exclusively on 3rd down. They have been running on 3rd and 4 or less, but won't try to do so against the Bears.
Everyone knows about the WR tandem of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But in three playoff games, the Colts backs and tight ends have 42 receptions. As more and more teams play press coverage with safety help over the top to take away the perimeter threats, Manning has found the middle of the field wide open. They will use 2-TE sets with Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht split out in the slots, Clark on Wayne's side, Utecht on Harrison's side. With all four running routes, the Colts will try and force the safeties to choose between two routes, and Manning will make the quick read and throw to the open man
With the loss of Harris, Chicago's pass rush pressure has fallen off, but the Bears will not blitz. They will play the Colts passing game with coverage because of their LB's ability, particularly Urlacher, to drop into coverage and play the deep middle. Urlacher will draw Clark in coverage and has the ability to run the seam with him, while Hunter Hillenmeyer will be able to hang with the less athletic Utecht. This will leave Lance Briggs in coverage on the back, likely Rhodes, who lacks the explosiveness to shake the LB in coverage.
With the athleticism of the LB's, don't expect a big day from the tight ends. Harrison and Wayne will have to step up in this game for Indy to succeed.