February 04, 2010
Yes, we know that more and more, the NFL is a passing league. Yes, we know that both the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints finished in the top 5 in regular-season pass completions. Yes, we know that the Colts ran the ball an AFC-low 366 times in the regular season, behind only the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. But the Saints -- and this may surprise you, given their high-velocity aerial offense -- actually ran the ball 468 times in 2009, tied for seventh with the Baltimore Ravens. And as much as we expect Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) to sling the ball around in a shootout, the running game will be an important factor, and this is where the Saints have an advantage. New Orleans' rushing offense ranked first in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, and the Saints' Pierre Thomas(notes) was the NFL's most efficient back on a play-by-play basis. On the Colts' side ... well, they averaged a mere 80 yards per game, and 3.5 yards per carry. They ranked 22nd in those same FO metrics, and Joseph Addai(notes) led the team with the 17th-ranked DVOA in the league.
Still, don't be surprised if Manning comes to the line and audibles out of pass plays to run concepts at times -- he'll be facing a New Orleans run defense that has had major problems stopping enemy running backs. The Saints allowed 4.5 yards per carry in 2009, among the worst in the league, and they were especially vulnerable up the gut. The Colts can run Addai and Donald Brown(notes) up the middle as their offensive line washes out the Saints' front line with different zone slide blocks, and they'll likely make some serious gains if they do so. The Saints are already a balanced team, so expect them to pound it against Indy's light-but-fast front seven. Thomas and Reggie Bush(notes) can run well behind an outstanding Saints interior line, led by perhaps the best guard combo in the NFL in Carl Nicks(notes) and Jahri Evans(notes).
Brown was asked about the New Orleans defense at media day. "They are good. [They] are very talented up front. We have our work cut out for us. They are a very good defense; strive on [creating] turnovers, so we need to take care of the ball. It is going to be a good game."
Conversely, Evans had this to say about the Colts' front seven: "As everybody has said, they're not the biggest guys up front, but they are fast. They get off blocks well. They play the edges well. They try to edge guys just to give them that extra edge. Their linebackers are going to come downhill, and they all rally to the ball."
Yes, we know that the ball will be in the air quite a bit in Super Bowl XLIV. But don't be surprised if the winning team takes its advantage on the ground.
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