Why to Watch
Why to watch? Why to watch? It's opening night, baby! The only reason not to watch this game is if you can't stand big plays and lots of scoring. The first team to 50 wins? Could be. Two phenomenal quarterbacks. Two lethal offenses. Reggie Bush is worth the price of admission by himself, but Joseph Addai and Deuce McAllister are sure to provide some fireworks as well.
Then there are the receivers, who should torture cornerbacks all night long. There is a lot of things to like about this game. Both teams have their key players back and have their sites set on the Lombardi Trophy.
When the Saints Have the Ball
Bush gets most of the headlines, but McAllister makes this offense go. He is a physical runner who is quick to get his pads squared to the line of scrimmage and get positive yardage. He runs behind a very solid offensive line that has a clear advantage over Indianapolis' weak defensive front.
The Colts defense was historically awful stopping the run last year and did very little to improve this offseason. They will more than have their hands full on Thursday night.
While McAllister is the thunder, Bush is the lightning. Both players are capable of beating a defense on the outside or between the tackles and they will spend a large number of snaps on the field together. As a duel tandem, they can be very dangerous.
Having both on the field will make the Colts' defensive coordinator Ron Meeks decide whether to go with their base defense or the nickel package. Against base, Bush will move to wide receiver and probably be matched up against a linebacker. Against the nickel, New Orleans would be able to pound McAllister against a smaller unit. The Colts' defensive line often plays the run on their way to the quarterback, so delays and draws can be very effective.
Indianapolis' defense is also very susceptible against play-action and the combination of McAllister and Bush will accentuate this weakness. The Colts often use a Cover-3 shell with SS Bob Sanders in the box as an extra run defender, but this is a risky proposition against Drew Brees, who could shred the Colts in the passing game.
Brees picked up in the preseason where he left off last year. His accuracy is simply fantastic and he is a great deep passer. Without question, he is the most important player on this team. With all the great players in New Orleans' offense last year, it went somewhat unnoticed just how good of a season Devery Henderson had.
Always a speedster, Henderson made great strides in becoming an excellent all-around wide receiver. He is a perfect complement to Marques Colston, who isn't nearly as fast. Henderson can stretch a defense as well as any receiver in the league. His presence will open up a lot of room in the intermediate zones for Colston, who combines very sticky hands with exceptional body control and size.
Indianapolis had a particularly difficult time with their opponents' No. 1 receiver last year and that shouldn't change, although this group of Saints receivers is extremely young. New Orleans coach Sean Payton loves to use empty sets and this formation will help create matchups against the Colts' sub-standard defensive personnel. To combat the Saints' devastating deep passing game, the Colts will often play their traditional Tampa-2 coverage, keeping their safeties deep to help eliminate big plays.
While Indianapolis will stick with its traditional bend-but-don't-break philosophy, it doesn't have anywhere close to the manpower to match-up with the Saints. The Colts are not a blitzing defense and will look to generate pressure with just their front four. At most, they will bring one blitzer. This is the philosophy they use nearly every week and it will be evident again on Thursday night. Simply put, the Colts will get as many defensive players in coverage as possible.
A critical matchup will be between RDE Dwight Freeney and Saints LT Jammal Brown. Both players are among the very best at their respective positions and that battle is simply one that Freeney must win for the Colts defense to be competitive in the passing game.
When the Colts Have the Ball
The Colts are usually thought of as a passing offense, but they run the football extremely effectively and Peyton Manning excels changing passing plays to runs at the line of scrimmage to gash opposing defenses. As always, Indianapolis will operate out of a single-back set, ensuring that all eligible receivers are also quality pass catchers.
Addai operates very well without a lead back and benefits from the Colts' ability to expand the field horizontally. Indianapolis tends to run a high percentage of the time when they have two tight ends on the field. The Colts' bread and butter running play is their stretch play, which Addai now runs extremely well. Addai demonstrates the necessary patience and vision to allow his blockers to do their job before he attacks the hole. Addai runs low and is a surprisingly powerful runner. He blends power with niftiness and the ability to break long runs.
This will be Addai's first game as "The Man" and he looks poised to excel in his new lead role. The Colts utilize play-action as well as any offense in the league and Addai's productivity makes that work.
Understandably, rookie Tony Ugoh is not yet up to speed and will go through growing pains as the starting left tackle. This week could be especially difficult against RDE Will Smith, an excellent pass rusher, but the Colts do a very good job of protecting their pass blocking liabilities when they control the pace of the game.
Indianapolis will often keep a tight end in to help pass block, usually Ben Utecht. When the Colts do not keep a tight end in next to Ugoh, it will usually be in their three-step passing game. A problem with this is that RT Ryan Diem isn't a great pass blocker in his own right and will have to battle Charles Grant one-on-one quite often. This clearly favors New Orleans.
The Saints will also blitz Manning's blindside to challenge Ugoh from a mental standpoint. The book on beating Manning used to be to get him to move off his spot. That is no longer the case. He's now excellent at throwing-on-the-move, which is scary considering his already ridiculous skill set for the position. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are obviously an elite tandem of wide receivers who give every defense they face fits, but may present an even bigger challenge than normal for the Saints.
New Orleans' cornerbacks are questionable at best, but by no means can they afford to play off the line of scrimmage and not attempt to reroute these wideouts. Safety support is a must if the corners press, but any way they slice it, the Saints are very simply outmanned. Harrison and Wayne will either pick them apart with short-to-intermediate routes or toast them deep.
Addai is also an excellent check down option and should abuse linebacker coverage. Indianapolis uses three receiver sets as much as any team in the league today and the Saints just do not have comparable players on the backend to hold this passing game down. Manning is going to have a field day.
The Colts' special teams were abysmal last season and it doesn't look like they will be much better in 2007. One big thing that they have going for them, though, is Adam Vinatieri. If this shootout comes down to a clutch kick in the final seconds, Indianapolis' sure-thing kicker will drill it home.
Olindo Mare is the Saints' new kicker. He is not in Vinatieri's class, but still has a real big leg and does an excellent job on kickoffs. Outside of the kicking edge though, New Orleans certainly has the leg up in the kicking game in all other facets.