Carolina's defense, facing a few middle-of-the-road offenses in weeks past, has gotten back to form with the help of a little extra attention from John Fox and replacing James Anderson with Jon Beason, will face its biggest test of the year in the Indianapolis Colts. A nearly flawless quarterback, a top receiver, a great young back and TE, and a strong offensive line give the Panthers a challenge at every position.
Marvin Harrison won't suit up, which is a gift to Carolina, but Reggie Wayne has proven the better receiver for this year. Wayne (6', 190) isn't a weakness in any area - he's a great deep receiver, he makes plays short, and he goes over the middle without fear. Without Harrison in, it may be best to play a fair amount of man coverage in a 2 or 3 deep shell, and it may be worth keeping either Ken Lucas or Chris Gamble directly on Wayne every play - pick of the two, have him study nothing but Wayne, and stay with him. Carolina has inexplicably struggled to cover the #1 receiver in 2007, where pass ability had been at a premium for the defense in years past. Stopping the Colts means staying on Wayne every play as much as possible.
Backup/slot WR Anthony Gonzalez steps up to start this week, a rookie who's unassuming and a bit pedestrian, but will play a solid complimentary role to Wayne. Since Gonzalez is a slot guy, they may use combo routes on him to keep him in his strengths, so whoever draws Gonzalez needs to play solid contain corner instead of trying to make things happen. Gonzalez won't beat you deep with elite speed, but is quick in routes and crafty.
TE Dallas Clark is quickly becoming a playmaker in lieu of the injured Harrison - Clark leads the team with 6 TDs, and the team may bracket him with Thomas Davis and Chris Harris. Clark isn't exceptionally tall, so he's not a big matchup problem if you can be physical off the snap and stay with him, but he's elusive, compact, and quick. The Panthers have been a lot more solid in zone this year with Beason and Davis underneath than in years past as well, but can't just let Clark drift into open spots.
Joseph Addai, as well, has been a threat receiving, and the Panthers must be aware of the screen game and not get upfield too fast. Backups at RB and TE aren't specifically threatening.
Peyton Manning calls the plays, which gives a unique sense of tendency that makes him harder to study on tape. It's much more of a reaction than a situational playcall. You can't effectively blitz him - Manning led QBs in completion percentage and TD percentage against the blitz, was 4th least sacked against the blitz, and was 2nd best in INT percentage against the blitz. His QB rating facing the blitz was 124.5 for 2006.
so how do you play him? Disguising coverages, a Fox staple, doesn't really work that well; he knows how to read a defense. If you can get solid pressure up front, you can get a sack - but he's only been sacked five times this year. Manning is slightly worse away from home, and on grass, but still above average.
LT Tony Ugoh is a gametime decision, and that helps. Backup Daniel Federkeil is a converted DL from Canada, a 2nd year tackle, which should help things if it comes to pass. Ugoh, a top 50 pick this year, is a big, physical pass blocker and solid run blocker. Mike Rucker won't simply be able to blow by him, and Ugoh is too strong to walk directly back to the QB. The best choice may be to stay at home, play the run first, and take a few chances as they show up.
Inside, UNC alum Jeff Saturday is solid, mistake-free, and a good run blocker. Pushing Kris Jenkins on his nose might solve two problems - keeping Jenkins from jumping offsides and challenging Saturday right on Manning's viewpoint. Converted OT Jake Scott has been solid at guard, but can be walked back a little bit - get on his outside shoulder and drive - but he and Ryan Lilja have been certainly more than solid inside.
RT Ryan Diem has been very solid and should be receiving more Pro Bowl cred at this point - he gave up 2 sacks last year, one so far this year. A matchup one on one against Julius Peppers, coming off a 1.5 sack performance against AZ, should be a good one, and one Peppers will need to win. Peppers may need to try various bullrush moves to combo off onto other moves to get free. The team may also use the one-on-one to attempt a slant or two inside with Thomas Davis.
The Colts' running game is stellar - and that's been the difference between having an all-world offense for years and wearing a ring right now. Ranking 6th in the league running, the colts' OL is tops in the league running in power situations, rank lowest in stuffed plays, and have the highest ranking in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards. They also run a significant amount of plays outside - 16% far left, 20% far right. A lot of their inside yards (the team has a big dropoff between outside plays or inside plays, to off-tackle plays, where they barely register) come on draws. Playing outside contain, playing pursuit, and playing solid fundamentals will limit this, but the Colts are very good in the run game right now. Also, in goal, the team has taken to quick snaps to sneak it to Manning, and it's produced 2 TDs in 6 games.
The Panthers' defense must be flawless, and past that, they need to keep the Colts' O off the field at every opportunity, and if it were at all possible, force the Colts to play from behind. The Colts aren't much easier to stop one-dimensionally, but it keeps them from getting an early 7 point lead and grinding the ball at you for 45 minutes while you watch helplessly.