Sunday, November 15, 2009

Key matchups along the line of scrimmage

Bill Belichick loves to get immobile quarterbacks on the run. Heck, any good defensive coach loves to get immobile quarterbacks on the run. It's the best way to get even the most precise passers to start throwing uncharacteristic interceptions. The Colts, too, will be looking for ways to get to Tom Brady and get him out of the pocket and moving around -- just as Belichick and the Patriots will be trying to do to Peyton Manning.

With that in mind, here's a look -- with the help of -- at some of the key matchups along the line of scrimmage and the matchups each team hopes to exploit:

Getting to Peyton Manning
* OLB Tully Banta-Cain against LT Charlie Johnson.
Johnson, a fourth-year left tackle, surrendered two sacks and five quarterback pressures in a miserable game against Mario Williams and the Houston Texans a week ago. For the season, Johnson has allowed 17 quarterback pressures in eight games and ranks near the bottom among offensive tackles.

Banta-Cain, meanwhile, has been a revelation as a pass-rushing linebacker. He ranks with the best in the league in hits on the quarterback -- only Anthony Spencer, Aaron Kampman, DeMarcus Ware and Lamarr Woodley have more. Overall, he ranks as the third-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL this season behind only Harrison and Ware.

* DE Mike Wright against LG Ryan Lilja
Lilja has tended to perform better this season as a run-blocker, but he's had his two best games in pass protection in the last two weeks. He allowed zero sacks and zero quarterback pressures against the Texans.

Wright saw his role diminished by the emergence of Myron Pryor and didn't have a spectacular game against the Dolphins when the injury to Jarvis Green bumped him back into the starting lineup. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, however, Wright was the best pass-rusher the Patriots had, recording two sacks, one hit on the quarterback and two other quarterback pressures.

Getting to Tom Brady
* DE Dwight Freeney against LT Sebastian Vollmer
With Matt Light unlikely to play, duty on the Colts' pass-rushing demon falls to Vollmer, a rookie who has handled himself awfully well so far this season. He actually has the third-best rating among Patriots' offensive linemen and has had three straight impressive games since he took over as the starter.

But he hasn't yet played against Freeney, who has 10 sacks, nine hits on the quarterback and a whopping 26 pressures so far this season. He's been the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL so far this season -- and he's the toughest test Vollmer has faced yet.

* DE Robert Mathis against right tackle Nick Kaczur and right tackle Steve Neal
Statistically, Kaczur and Neal have been the Patriots' two best pass-blocking offensive linemen, though Kaczur seems to have stumbled of late in that department. Neal has spent the season as the Patriots' most consistent offensive player -- but that means he often finds himself standing around with not much to do as opposing teams opt not to go after him on passing downs.

Mathis almost certainly will go after Kaczur -- and if he can wreak half the havoc on Kaczur that he did on Arizona right tackle Levi Brown in Week 3 (one sack, three quarterback hits, eight quarterback pressures), Brady might be in trouble.

* Colts linebackers against Laurence Maroney
As frustrating as it's been for Patriots fans to watch Maroney run the ball, he's actually been worse this season when he's been trying to block for Brady. If the Colts send a blitzer that's assigned to Maroney, that blitzer might not have much issue getting to Brady.

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