FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —The Indianapolis Colts know with absolute certainty how many players the New Orleans Saints' offense will have on the field at one time today. What they won't know, from one down to the next, is who those players will be and where they'll be lining up.
Few teams in the league employ as many formations and personnel groupings as the Saints. They had seven receivers catch at least 35 passes this season. Had three running backs with 70-plus rushing attempts. Ten Saints players had touchdown catches. Six players had rushing TDs.
"In the end, there are always going to be 11 guys on the field," Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "That's the one thing you can count on. A lot of guys, we just have to treat as receivers rather than driving yourself crazy trying to figure out what guys are out there on the field. Just figure there's going to be a lot of tall, fast guys running around and adjust accordingly."
The Saints and the Colts own two of the most explosive offenses in the league. But their styles couldn't be more different. If they were ice cream flavors, the Colts would be vanilla and the Saints would be honey-apple-cinnamon-raisin-walnut.
The Colts use very few formations and very little motion, and they keep their personnel substitutions to a minimum. The Saints? Their huddle has more people coming in and out of it than a liquor store on a Friday night.
"They're the antithesis of (the Colts)," said ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski. "With them, it's personnel packages, it's formation variations, it's motion. They try to confuse the defense. I use the term 'rent space in their mind.' Force them to make mistakes."
"The Saints can line up in any formation, any personnel grouping," said Jaworski's ESPN broadcast buddy, Jon Gruden. "They might line up in 30 different formations on the first 30 plays of the game. They're going to put a fullcourt press on the Colts' defense with formations and personnel groupings."
Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is well aware of the problems that coach Sean Payton's offense presents with all of its set and personnel packages. And that's not even taking into account that the guy lining up behind center — Drew Brees — is one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
"It makes it difficult," Coyer said. "They have a way of hiding their personnel groups. Different bodies play the same positions. They're difficult to deal with. Always have been. They've been multiple. They shift. They motion. The important thing is, you have to be sound. Because they're going to switch personnel groups almost every play."
"It gives you so much to look out for and worry about," Colts linebacker Clint Session said. "We've got to keep a simple game plan. Every time a team is doing all that motion, they're trying to get in a situation where they have a (matchup) advantage. We have to be on top of our film study this week and know what they're trying to do against us."
Coyer, who is in his first year as the defensive boss after replacing Ron Meeks, has dealt with a lot of injuries this season. Starting safety Bob Sanders, cornerback Marlin Jackson and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler all are on injured reserve. His other starting cornerback, Kelvin Hayden, missed seven games this season with injuries.
He's also staring at the likelihood of being without Dwight Freeney, his best pass-rusher. Freeney tore a ligament in his right ankle late in the Colts' AFC Championship Game win over the Jets and has been unable to practice.
Largely because of the injuries, Coyer's defense didn't have a particularly impressive statistical year. They finished 18th in total defense, 24th in run defense and 14th in pass defense, but were eighth in points allowed, one slot down from '08.
"There hasn't been a significant change in philosophy," Coyer said. "Coach (Tony) Dungy put together a fast group of players that run to the ball. All we tried to do is look at the different ways that people were trying to negate our speed. We changed just a couple of things. A couple of pressure deals (blitzes) to keep them from chipping on our ends in pass situations. But other than that, not a great deal."
"I'll appreciate it all when I'm finished and I look back and see what I've done. But right now, I think there's too much that lies ahead to think of what I've done to this point to get ahead."