INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning and his Colts have spent nearly a month preparing for the type of aggressive, 3-4 scheme played by the New York Jets.
Indianapolis hopes to turn all of that practice into a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Colts and Jets meet Sunday in the AFC championship game, a rematch from less than a month ago. Last week, Indianapolis opened its playoffs with a 20-3 win over Baltimore, a team strikingly similar on defence to the Jets.
Both the Jets and Ravens blitz frequently and feature versatile personnel. Jets head coach Rex Ryan was the Ravens’ defensive co-ordinator last season, and Baltimore’s philosophy hasn’t changed much since.
The Colts believe they caught a break by playing the Ravens and Jets back-to-back.
“The Ravens definitely help,” Colts centre Jeff Saturday said.
“They’re not exactly the same, but they do have general philosophies that are similar. They give you a lot of different looks, they try to trade guys, move guys’ positions.”
The Colts lost to the Jets 29-15 on Dec. 27 after pulling Manning and many of their starters in the third quarter to keep them healthy for the playoffs. After closing the regular season with a relatively meaningless game at Buffalo, Indy had a bye before beating Baltimore last Saturday, providing plenty of time to focus on Ryan-influenced units.
That extra time could be critical because the Colts often have struggled against the 3-4 in the post-season. The past three teams to knock them out of the playoffs — New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego — all have used that alignment.
New York’s defence might be the best of the bunch. The Jets led the league in total defence this season, surrendering just 252.3 yards per game. They also had the best per-game averages in pass defence (153.7) and points allowed (14.8).
“I think they’re aggressive and they’re fast,” said Colts receiver Austin Collie, who had six catches for 94 yards in the regular-season matchup. “They were fast, they were quick, they swarm to the ball. They’re a great defence, and I think that’s shown all year.”
The Jets will try their best to rattle Manning, the four-time MVP quarterback. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 192 yards in less than three quarters in the first meeting. He was replaced with the Colts ahead 15-10.
“Every time you play Peyton, it’s a different ballgame,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. “You can’t really confuse him. The guy’s a great student of the game. It will be tough sledding, but we’ve got things that we’re trying to put together.”
Despite the familiarity, Manning is doing his usual intense film study.
“This is a well-trained defensive unit,” Manning said. “They’re disciplined. They’ve seen a lot of different looks in the games they’ve played this season. I think every play, you have to read it out. Every play, you try to make a decision, react to the defence and go from there.”
The key to the defence has been Darrelle Revis, an All-Pro cornerback who has made a habit of shutting down the league’s best receivers.
“I can tell you he’s an excellent player, and he’s had an excellent season,” Manning said. “He’s made a lot of plays, and he’s defended a lot of passes. He seems to find a way to get his hands on the ball.”
Inside linebacker David Harris is a second-team All-Pro. Calvin Pace led the team with eight sacks in 12 games. Scott, safety Jim Leonhard and defensive end Marques Douglas followed Ryan from Baltimore and have been solid. Veteran cornerback Lito Sheppard and safety Kerry Rhodes also have played well.
“They really do, I think, tax your protections,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “But the caveat to that is that they also have great personnel to actually execute those techniques.”
The Colts feel they will need to be effective running the ball on Sunday to get to the Super Bowl. They ran for 42 yards on 25 carries against Baltimore.
Caldwell said the Colts will need to be better in all phases than they were in last month’s meeting.
“Hopefully, we’re a little bit better than we were at that time, and I don’t have any question in my mind that they are a better football team than they were,” he said. “They keep getting better each and every week. We’re going to have our work cut out for us in that regard.”