Joe Theismann's take on Sundays game.....
By Joe Theismann
Special to ESPN.com
The injury-plagued New Orleans Saints (1-2) will host the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts (3-0) on ESPN's Sunday Night Football (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
This is the most improved Indianapolis team I've seen in the past five years. The Colts have made quantum leaps, particularly on defense. Finally, they've found the balance they've been looking for on both sides of the ball.
New Orleans is beaten up badly on defense. Five starters are out with injuries, and the Saints need to find a way to weather the storm and salvage their postseason hopes. When ESPN broadcast a Saints' preseason game, I spoke with defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, and he said his unit would be a work in progress, with plenty of personnel changes. That's certainly been the case.
The most critical part of this game will be the first quarter, because the Saints must come out ready to assert themselves despite the injuries. If the Colts can stuff 'em early, they'll gain more confidence and add to the questions for the Saints.
But don't underestimate a beat-up anything. A team can be the most dangerous when it's the most destitute. We see it again and again in the NFL. Players on that 53-man roster are expected to play like starters when they get the chance -- that's the bottom line.
Keys for the Colts
Coach Tony Dungy is continuing to implement his defensive system -- and the Colts' D now feels it can contribute. In his second season in Indianapolis, Dungy has had an entire offseason and another training camp to work out the kinks.
The defense isn't relying on the offense to win games. There's a sense of confidence and capability, but not necessarily cockiness. The unit still faces a learning curve, but the confidence is high. Defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and Dungy have to feel that they're now headed in the right direction.
The secondary is playing more aggressively. Cornerbacks Nick Harper and Walt Harris are playing well, as is rookie safety Mike Doss. Up front, the Colts bring pressure with second-year DE Dwight Freeney, a special outside pass rusher, and wily veteran DE Chad Bratzke. MLB Rob Morris is in his fourth year, and for a guy who never played middle linebacker, he's settling in nicely. LB Marcus Washington has been a stable force.
The Colts' defense is young across the board. Everywhere you look on the roster, there are one-, two- and three-year guys. After Bratzke (in his 10th year) and Harris (8th year), no Colts' defensive player has more than four full years of NFL experience. Young guys tend to pick things up fast, and they can go forever. Now, they're starting to reach a comfort level where they're not overthinking but just using their athletic ability. Just look at the Broncos' 31-10 demolition of the Raiders on Monday night to see what happens when younger athletes match up against older athletes.
Now, the defense is complementing the offense. QB Peyton Manning is an All-Pro who loves to be in control. He studies hard and knows what opposing defenses will do. In the past, he didn't have enough weapons to take advantage of it. He had to find go-to WR Marvin Harrison, and if defenses rolled to Harrison, someone else had to step up.
WR Reggie Wayne struggled catching the football last year, and Manning didn't have a tight end who could threaten the middle of the field. Now, he has rookie TE Dallas Clark. And Sunday vs. the Jaguars, Wayne had 10 catches for 141 yards and two TDs. So Manning has more confidence in his ability to spread the ball around. If Clark and Wayne can keep stepping up, it will make a huge difference for Indy.
In the running department, Edgerrin James is two years removed from knee surgery, and he's looking like the Edgerrin of old. He's missed some practice time this week because his back is bothering him, and Dungy said Thursday that he'll be a game-time decision.
Here are the main keys for the Colts on Sunday night:
1. Get the Ground Game Going
If Edgerrin James (or his sub) can get the running game going, the Colts will be in good shape. When James is on, everything is easier for Manning in the passing and play-action game.
2. Shut Down Deuce
The Colts must stop (or at least slow down) Saints RB Deuce McAllister and make QB Aaron Brooks beat them with his arm.
Keys for the Saints
With all the injuries on defense -- including LB Sedrick Hodge, CB Dale Carter and safety Mel Mitchell -- the Saints are trying to stay alive in the early playoff hunt. And they must rely on their offense to help stop the bleeding.
RB Deuce McAllister was stopped cold in the Saints' 27-12 loss to the Titans on Sunday, gaining a mere eight yards on 11 carries. If you can't run the football ... well, there are certain basic elements in the game. And if you can't run and thus become one-dimensional, your chances of winning are minimal.
When your quarterback is your leading rusher (with 15 yards), you've got a problem. The Saints must handle the pressure and make plays. WR Donte' Stallworth has been disappointing since a solid first week. He's got to get it going. QB Aaron Brooks has to play virtually flawless football -- the pressure mounts on the quarterback when other elements of the offense aren't working.
If the Saints can't run the ball effectively, Brooks must be more careful with where and when he throws the football and when he takes sacks. He's got to protect scoring opportunities. All those issues become priorities in Brooks' minute-to-minute decision-making process.
On to the offensive line: Whatever Kyle Turley was as a pain in the butt, he was a presence (and now he's with the Rams). With Turley gone, RT Victor Riley has to be that guy. Sometimes, if people are stuffing your running game, it isn't the fault of the offensive line. But that will open up lots of one-on-ones in the passing game, and guys have to make plays. Evidently, the Saints didn't do that against the Titans.
Last year, the Saints ranked third in the NFL in scoring (27 ppg), so you know the capability is there. They just have to find themselves -- and for that to happen, Deuce is key. How well the Saints' offense starts against the Colts' defense Sunday night will be key. New Orleans must move the football with confidence.
Here are the main keys for the Saints on Sunday night:
1. Limit the Big Play
Make Colts QB Peyton Manning be patient. Neither Manning nor offensive coordinator Tom Moore is long on patience. The Colts like to race downfield and score points fast. So the Saints must slow them down -- and they can't let Marvin Harrison beat them. He could have 10 catches for 120 yards, but he can't have two for 80 and two TDs.
2. Find a Way to Run
The Saints need to figure out a way to get RB Deuce McAllister going. He ran well the first two weeks but struggled Sunday vs. Tennessee (11 carries, only eight yards).
Joe Theismann's take on Sundays game.....
Indianapolis (-2) over NEW ORLEANS
One of my NFL gambling traditions: Inexplicably liking a team too much before the season, then begrudgingly sticking by them until they\'ve emptied my bank account. Well, I\'m not allowing the Saints to bleed me to death. I\'m abandoning ship. This team is a nightmare -- crummy coaching, shoddy decisions, tons of mistakes ... they bring everything to the table. Just a dumb team. I want a divorce.
(What does Jim Haslett have to do to get fired, by the way? Show up late for a game? Take off his pants in the fourth quarter? Call five consecutive fake punt plays? Have three of his his players get arrested in one week? Seriously, I want to know.)
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