The Indianapolis Colts possess a dizzying array of aerial weapons, so many that it’s easy to get distracted by all the bells and whistles.
There’s Andrew Luck, the widely proclaimed next big thing at quarterback, big and talented and preoccupied with making big plays down the field. Ty Hilton’s a proven burner, Donte Moncrief has prototypical size and speed, rookie Phillip Dorsett runs like a track star, and veteran Andre Johnson remains to work underneath.
With all those weapons, it’s easy to forget that the powerful running of Frank Gore might be the best weapon Indianapolis has against a New Orleans defense that’s increasingly capable of making teams work for their plays in the passing game.
“We have to be able to run the ball better, and our run defense has to be better, or it’s going to be an up-and-down ride,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We’ve given up (at least) 100 yards rushing in 15 of our last 16 games. ... I think it’s an area that both sides of the ball need to improve there or (it will be tough to win in) the games where we don’t have three takeaways and a blocked punt for a touchdown.”
Gore’s signing was questioned in the offseason, in large part because the long-time 49er has so many miles on his tires.
But the critics appear to have underestimated him. Gore might be 32 years old, but he’s been a significant upgrade over the punchless running attacks that Luck has worked with in the past. Gore ranks 10th in the NFL with 403 yards on 89 carries, a 4.5-yard average that looks like a formidable challenge for a Saints defense giving up 4.8 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL.
“I think within the NFL community, he is very well respected,” Payton said. “He is something. He runs with power, pad level low. He is hard to get a clean hit on, and that is the way that he carries his pads. He’s someone that I think (plays) exceptionally well. I do not know how many Pro Bowls he has been to, but he is a special player.”
New Orleans turned in its best game against the run three weeks ago.
Facing off against a Dallas line widely hailed as the NFL’s best, the Saints shook off an early 45-yard carry and held the Cowboys to less than 3 yards per carry the rest of the way, forcing Brandon Weeden into third-and-long situations. New Orleans could use those type of situations against Indianapolis to put heavy pressure on Luck, who has been mistake-prone behind a leaky line early this season.
First, though, the Saints have to regain their momentum against the run. Both Philadelphia and Atlanta carved up New Orleans for big gains on the ground.
“We have to focus on the little details,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “(Devonta) Freeman is a good back, but at 10 yards a carry or whatever he rushed for, that’s not going to beat anybody. We have to make sure we’re on point. We spent extra time doing that. It’s going to be corrected. It needs to show up this week for sure.”
Finding one fixable problem has been hard to pinpoint for Saints defenders.
If there’s a key, though, it’s that New Orleans has to play within the scheme. Teams have hurt the Saints with the outside zone, which pushes a running back horizontally and then asks him to make a cut when a seam opens. An overzealous defender who chases too hard and abandons the gap essentially creates the running back’s hole for him.
When the Saints are playing it soundly, as they did against Dallas, the running back is forced to wait long enough to either hurry a poor decision or find himself chased down by backside pursuit.
“We’ve got to play as a unit,” said defensive end Bobby Richardson, who is often tasked with holding the point of attack. “Each part means something. If one guy does something wrong, it can cost the whole defense, so we’ve got to do our job to the best that we can within the defense.”
Tackling also has been an issue at times with running backs who hit the hole in one-on-one situations. But the larger point remains that if the Saints cover every gap, more players can get to the football.
New Orleans has to do a better job of taking away the running back’s options.
“Alignments are a big key,” linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “You’ve got to set yourself up in an easier position to make the tackle before the snap. We’ll just start with alignments, because it’s an attitude when you’re stopping the run.”
Stopping the run will help the Saints stop that high-flying passing game.
Shut down the Colts’ run game, and the New Orleans pass rushers face more obvious passing situations, when a defensive lineman can focus solely on getting to Luck.
“You get to tee off and get your best pass rush moves,” Ryan said. “You are not having to play technique and things like that before you go. You just get off the ball, and those are always fun times, to watch your defense play with a big lead. You have to work hard to get that, and when it does happen though, it is obviously much easier to play defense.”
And the Saints need anything that can make their task against Luck and his fleet of fast-moving receivers easier.