Two reigning division champions meet this Sunday at Lambeau Field, and the similarities don’t end there when the Colts face off against the Packers. Both teams head into action with three wins and are riding two-game win streaks. Both have struggled with consistency and injuries early in the year, including a pair of quarterbacks trying to get healthy.
The Packers need a win to guarantee a share of the division lead, while the Colts need to win if they have any hope of chasing down the surprising Titans in the AFC South. On paper, this looks like a high-scoring game with plenty of passing. Establishing the run will be extremely important for both teams in order to prevent the opposing defense from pinning their ears back and getting to the quarterback.
When the Colts have the ball
Peyton Manning says he feels 100 percent back from the two knee surgeries this offseason, and that is bad news for defenses, particularly one as banged up as Green Bay’s. The Colts, however, already fall a step behind capitalizing on Green Bay’s major defensive weaknesses.
The Pack’s run defense ranks a paltry 27th in the league in yards per game and has lead to long drives by opponents. Indy will not have Joseph Addai though, due to a head injury, and even with their leading back they were last in the league in rushing. If the Colts cannot run the ball, the Packers have the horses up front to get pressure, as well as the secondary behind them, to give Manning fits.
In the passing game, this is a case of strength versus strength. Last week, Manning and Co. absolutely destroyed one of the best defenses in the league, although plenty of that had to do with excellent defense play setting up their offense.
The Packers lead the league in interceptions, and Al Harris’ replacement, Tramon Williams, has a pick in each of the last three games. Manning and offensive coordinator Jim Mora will look for ways to move their receivers around, preventing the physical Packer DBs from jamming them at the line and throwing off the offensive rhythm.
Key Matchup: Dallas Clark TE vs. Atari Bigby S
It looks like Atari Bigby will be playing, but if he doesn’t, this matchup becomes even more paramount for the Colts. Dallas Clark can take over a game with his array of talents, and the Colts employ him in a number of ways, making him so difficult to defense.
With Al Harris in the game, we might have seen the Packers use a nickelback to cover Clark, but with Harris out for at least this week, Clark will see Bigby, A.J. Hawk, and perhaps a corner, occasionally. If the Colts can win this matchup, their offense will be tough to stop, even without a run game.
When the Packers have the ball
It may not show up in the stat column, but Mike McCarthy trusts his running game. Ryan Grant toted the rock an impressive 33 times for just 90 yards against the Seahawks.
Grant does not appear to be fully recovered from a hamstring injury that limited him in the preseason, but injuries along the Packers' offensive line has prevented the run game from establishing continuity. The Colts' defensive front is undersized and will be without Bob Sanders, by far their best defensive player in the run game. Without Sanders, this Colts rush D ranks behind the even the Packers at 29th in the league.
If the Packers can establish the line of scrimmage early and get Ryan Grant going, that will open up an already vulnerable secondary for Aaron Rodgers and that dangerous group of receivers.
Speaking of the passing game, much like on the other side, this is strength versus strength. The Packers' passing game has been their driving force all season long, and Aaron Rodgers actually has better numbers than Peyton Manning.
However, the Colts rank sixth in pass defense and sixth in scoring defense. Indy’s pressure forced five turnovers last week, with outstanding pressure off the edges from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Packers have had success on max protect plays and will utilize play action as well as bubble screens, slants, and hitches to neutralize the Colts rush.
The Packers' receivers have a distinct advantage against this secondary, with Sanders and corner Kelvin Hayden out with injury. With the Colts' ability to get pressure off the edge however, the Packers will probably use more two and three-wide-receivers sets rather than going empty in an effort to get better matchups in protection.
Key Matchup: Mark Tauscher OT vs. Robert Mathis DE
If the Packers' tackles can block the Colts’ ends, one-on-one, the Colts will have a tough time stopping this Packer offense. Chad Clifton has been nothing short of phenomenal in the passing game, rendering some of the best pass-rushers in the league helpless. On the other side, Mark Tauscher can struggle against speed rushers like Mathis.
The Packers love two-tight-end sets with Donald Lee and Tory Humphrey. Expect the Packers to keep a back or a tight end in to chip on Mathis and Freeney. However, there will undoubtedly be times when the situation will simply preclude that, and Tauscher will simply have to win his individual battle, giving his QB the time to survey downfield.
Aaron Rodgers has been in big games before. Joe Flacco of the Ravens had not and it showed last week. The Packers' offensive line has a distinct advantage in the running game, and that should keep the offense balanced, helping to alleviate pressure from Rodgers and limit the turnovers.
In the Packers’ three losses, they turned the ball of six times. In their three wins, Green Bay only lost the ball twice. The Colts' defense forced five turnovers last week and will be looking for more against the Pack. If Green Bay can hold onto the ball, their balance on offensive should make them tough to stop.
For the Colts, they have to find balance offensively and force the Packers into turnovers. Otherwise, it will take an outstanding offensive output to match the Pack in this one.