You might hate Manning for his general douche-baggery, or specifically for the patronizing Visa series where he cheers us "regular folk" on at our piss-ant jobs. You might hate him because he's a corn-fed ultra cracker or that he seems about as genuine as A-Rod's smile or Shawne Merriman's sack crown. But if you're a Bears fan, the real reason you should hate him starts with a bomb, pans to Reggie Wayne/Marvin Harrison and ends in a touchdown. Just don't be surprised if you have to hate him a few times on Sunday.
Reggie Wayne/Marvin Harrison: Goodbye Joe Montana, hello Steve Young. With the recent decline of Harrison most teams would be SOL. HOF receivers, especially inner-circle HOF receivers, don't come around very often. So on most teams the gradual decline of Harrison would be met with mounting anxiety, but seemingly as soon as Harrison looses a step, Wayne picks it right up. This is the second year the former Miami "grad" has surpassed his venerable teammate to be come the most valuable receiver in football. The number two, why that's Marvin Harrison. For Chicago fans that's exactly the problem.
Indianapolis is the only team in the NFL with two true #1 receivers. Sure Cincinatti's T.J. Houshmanzadeh is good for exposing the education of lug-heads in the booth, but no matter how valuable, Houshmanzadeh's, essentially, an astoundingly talented #2. The same could be said about Anquan Boldin and Marques Colston--great possession guys, but hardly game breakers. The closest duo that compares is Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens, but Glenn is hardly an intimidator and Owens drops the ball too much. Both Harrison and Wayne have great hands. Both run their routes with precision and timing. Both can find the soft spot in a zone, and both can take it to the house on almost any reception.
Harrison is a finesse/speed receiver. In his prime he could get an absurd amount of separation, faking DBs out so badly that he and Manning often simply looked like they were playing catch while the secondary looked on. He is a master of the double move and the league has likely not seen a route runner of his caliber since Jerry Rice. In recent weeks, however, Harrison's hands have looked less airtight than in years past. Physical defenses have been able to bully him in situations where he once shrugged them off. The Bears can't run with him, but they may be able to wear him down with hard bumps and stiff tackles.
Wayne is adept at boxing out the receiver, gaining space by positioning and then making the tough catch. Wayne's yards after the catch is decent, but not elite like Steve Smith or say Marvin Harrison circa 2001. Wayne is also an excellent route runner with the agility to befuddle DBs with a sudden curl or a filthy double move. Wayne is in his prime, never better, rested and ready to explode.
The reason I stress that both Wayne and Harrison are essentially #1 receivers is that Chicago's otherwise strong pass defense crumbles against #1 receivers. Need less esoteric proof? Weeks 14-16: Holt, Galloway and Roy Williams combine for 261 yards and 4 TDs. In a Tampa 2 a lot of the blame for this falls on the safeties. Perennial bench player Todd Johnson is just not good enough to start in the NFL and promising rookie Daniel Manning has done what most rookies do in the NFL, tire down the stretch. Further, neither Nathan Vasher nor Charles Tillman should be put in man coverage against Wayne or Harrison. Both are very well suited for a Cover 2 scheme that demands versatility out of the corners: An ability to press the receiver, be opportunistic in the shallow zone and able to tackle the rusher on the perimeter. But neither excels at man-to-man coverage, and lest Chicago fans wish to see a repeat of last year's divisional game against Carolina--this time in stereo--neither should be left on an island against Indy's stellar pair.
What Chicago really needs is the kind of pass rush that resurfaced against New Orleans last week. A pass rush that's been spotty ever since Tommie Harris went down to injury. That puts the onus directly on DEs Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown.
Adewale Ogunleye/Alex Brown: If a argument can be made for Dwight Freeney it's that as a DE in a Tampa 2, Freeney's first priority is to get a strong pass rush. When the front four can't pressure the Qb in any Cover 2, the WR and Qb can find holes in the zone and the whole defense becomes about as effective as a 3-4 without a monster NT. But what Freeney and his line mate Robert Mathis neglect is when to break off the pass rush and defend against the run. Freeney and Mathis featured a poor-for-a-DE stop rate of 71% and 72%, respectively, in 2005 as measured by Football Outsiders. Stop in this sense means to prevent "success": 45% of needed yards on 1st down, 60% of needed yards on 2nd down and 100% of needed yards on 3rd and 4th down. To compare, Alex Brown recorded a stop rate of 83% in 2005 while Ogunleye stopped an impressive 92%. Perhaps equally as impressive, Brown and Ogunleye did this on 62 plays vs. Mathis/Freeney's "where were they?" 39.
On Sunday Ogunleye and Brown must shorten Manning's time in the pocket, thereby neutralizing slow developing deep pass patterns. When Manning is hurried, he looks for his three TEs: Utecht, Clark and Fletcher to bail him out. That plays right into the Bears' strength, because Chicago is merciless against opponent TEs. Lovie Smith isn't likely to deviate far from his usual game plan, and I wouldn't expect much blitzing from either team, but for once it might be wise to advise Chicago's ends to take a page from the Freeney notebook and consistently sell-out against the pass. That's because while Brown and Ogunleye must be able to hurry Manning to protect their secondary, they shouldn't need to contribute against the run for the Bears D to be effective. Tomorrow, I'll explain why Chicago's speed and intelligence at LB is well suited to defend against Indy's stretch routs, delays and draws along with my prediction for the final score for Super Bowl XLI.