Super Bowl XLIV: Keys to victory

Now that the eve of Super Bowl Sunday has finally arrived, let’s look at the keys to bringing home the Lombardi Trophy for both the Saints and the Colts.

Super Bowl XLIV, 6:25 (EST) CBS

Keys to victory: New Orleans

1. Red Zone defense

Peyton Manning and the Colts are going to drive the ball on Gregg Williams’ defense. Outside of not allowing the big play and tackling well in the secondary, the New Orleans defense — and their scheme — in the red zone will determine the outcome of this game. Look for Williams to play some Red 2 (Cover 2 with corners sinking to create a five-across look to the goal line) and some forms of Cover 0 (man-to-man with no safety help in the middle of the field), along with his man-free defense. Solid schemes, but the bottom line is simple for the Saints: force field goals. Three points will be a win for Williams’ defense, and with the field shrinking, Darren Sharper and the secondary will have to play big inside the 20-yard line.

2. Feature Pierre Thomas in the game plan

I expect Saints head coach Sean Payton to have a solid script for the first 15 plays tomorrow night — complete with some exotic looks and some vertical routes. However, once the Saints settle into this game and get into the meat of their game plan, Thomas should be featured in both the downhill running game and in the screen game. It will keep Manning off of the field, give Williams’ defense a rest, and like I detailed on Thursday in Scheme Session, will open up the vertical play-action game. Fifteen touches at a minimum for Thomas will force the Colts to bring a safety down into the box.

3. Challenge the Colts secondary

I am a big fan of Colts safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt, but they will face a Saints offense with enough weapons to challenge them down the field. The Saints offense — especially their vertical game — is full of double moves, and when teams lean on their Cover 2 scheme (which I expect Indy to do), it puts the safeties in a tough position. The Indy corners will have to play big at the line of scrimmage to jam and soften the vertical releases on Bullitt and Bethea, because a free release will put both of these safeties in a tough spot with the likes of Colston, Meachem, etc. running at them with a two-way go. The Indy Cover 2 needs to be on point tomorrow to avoid the big play.

4. Win the special teams battle

New Orleans needs to play their best game on special teams, and that includes the kicking aspect and their coverage units. Win the field position battle, make Manning earn points by driving the length of the field, and in the return game, set up Drew Brees with a short field to work with and provide easy scoring opportunities. A big play on special teams can change the course of the Super Bowl, and getting the ball on the ground when covering a kick can lead to six easy points. Big, big night for the Saints kicking units.

Keys to victory: Indianapolis

1. Get hits on Brees

Last week, it was Williams and the Saints defense talking about hitting Manning, but I think the Colts defense, and their front four, need to arrive at the QB and hit Brees early. Like we talked about above, Indy’s ideal situation would be to rush four and drop seven into coverage, and a lot of that will depend on the ability of Dwight Freeney to play and produce with this injury. If the Colts can’t get to Brees, their pressure schemes will have to come into play, and that means man coverage on the outside — which gives the advantage to Brees in my opinion. They must hit Brees and force him to throw underneath where they can rally, make a tackle and get off of the field.

2. Run the ball — when they have to

Throughout the week, and for the most part this season, I have written that the Colts use the 3-step passing game (hitch, smash, slant, etc.) as their running game because of Manning. Indy ranked 32nd in the league in rushing yardage, but tomorrow night they will need to run the ball with production by playing situational football. With the draw, the outside zone, and in the red zone, Indy must get numbers from Joseph Addai and Donald Brown. We aren’t talking big numbers, but meaningful numbers when the situation presents itself. You can run the ball on New Orleans.

3. Win on third downs

If the Colts offense can convert on third down opportunities, I don’t think schemes or game plans will matter much for the Saints. Williams’ defense is going to have to play well on first and second downs and put Manning in third-and-7-plus situations. But even then, they still need to get off of the field. The Colts will do what they always do on third downs with Manning: run the Smash-Dig and the Smash-7 combo. The Saints will know what to expect and they need to be in position to drive on the football, make tackles and give the ball back to Brees and the offense. But, easier said than done against the Colts. Look for TE Dallas Clark to be the receiver of choice for Manning on third downs, and if they can convert close to 50 percent of their opportunities, they will walk away with the Lombardi Trophy.

4. Eliminate Reggie Bush

If I am coaching the Colts defense, I stay away from pressure and man coverages when Sean Payton switches personnel and brings Bush in the game, because he is there for a reason — to get the football. Play your Cover 2 and Cover 3 schemes to eliminate the possibility of Bush drawing a one-on-one matchup he can exploit. Keep him in front of the defenders and let him catch the ball in the flat — where your guys can make a tackle. And, on special teams, why even kick to this guy? The Colts don’t need to risk the fact that Bush could take a punt back for six or set Brees up in easy scoring position. By kicking away from Bush, you can cancel him out in the return game. It’s not worth it in the Super Bowl and no one is going to hand out a pat on the back for kicking to him and trying to make a tackle in open space.

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Enjoy the game and check back with the NFP on Monday morning when I will break down my game notes from Super Bowl XLIV.

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