Week 13 Countdown to Kickoff

Oh, where aren’t thou, Howard Mudd?

To be honest, though, I’m not sure that the venerable Mudd, who coached for 34 years in the NFL and his last 12 as offensive line coach of the Indianapolis Colts, can fix what plagues Peyton Manning and the remnants of his running game.

The disaster that is the Colts’ offensive line, more than the loss of stars like tight end Dallas Clark and safety Bob Sanders, will ultimately doom this franchise’s chances of repeating as AFC South champions.

Today’s game against the Dallas Cowboys was supposed to be the NFL’s marquee matchup when the league’s schedule was released last April. But now it’s simply a game in which the Colts must win if they are going to keep pace with Jacksonville — yes, I repeat, the Jacksonville Jaguars — in the division race. Both teams are 6-5, but the Jaguars own a positive division record (and a Week 4 win vs. Indy) while the Colts do not.

The Cowboys, who feature DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff on the defensive line, definitely pose a serious dilemma for Manning and Co. because of their pass-rush abilities and physical toughness. In fact, the Cowboys may be a tougher test than the Chargers, whose defensive front seven totally dominated the Colts last Sunday night. There were whispers out of San Diego this week that the Colts may have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

After the Colts lost to the Saints, 31-17 in the Super Bowl, team president Bill Polian placed the blame for the upset loss on the offensive line and the special teams’ failure to deal with the second-half onsides kick which was successfully recovered by the Saints. Polian vowed to make the Colts tougher up front and make some changes.

Well, he did make one change, allowing starting left guard Ryan Lilja to leave. Lilja is now a starter in Kansas City, where his solid play is one reason why the Chiefs lead the NFL in rushing with 174 yards per game. Also, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel has been sacked only 15 times, merely twice more than Manning.

Basically, removing Lilja from the lineup was the lone significant move by Polian from the Super Bowl starters. Charlie Johnson remains the left tackle and Ryan Diem the right tackle. Aging Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday is the center and right guard Kyle Devan was moved to Lilja’s left guard. The only newcomer is right guard Mike Pollock, a third-year player from Arizona State.

When critiquing this cast, Johnson still receives the highest grades from pro scouts while Saturday is praised for knowing how to properly hold and use his experience to survive at center. However, Saturday does struggle against quicker, stronger defensive tackles like Ratliff. It will be a matchup worth watching today.

Diem has never been considered a physical right tackle, and his style doesn’t help the running game. But the bottom line is that both Pollock and DeVan each have been disappointments as starting guards and like a lot of teams Polian and the Colts will have to either find replacements or hope they do better, and quickly.

None of the inside trio are great run blockers, men who dominate the line of scrimmage and that’s why Indianapolis is averaging only 3.6 yards a rush — whereas the NFL average is 4.2 (the mighty Chiefs boast a  4.9 yards per carry).

Because Manning is so adept at working and throwing out of the shotgun formation, many of the line’s deficiencies are masked by his ability to release the ball quickly and on time. But when the Colts fall behind and the opposition doesn’t fear Indy’s running game, even Manning struggles because his O-line can’t protect him adequately.

It’s a major headache for the future Hall of Fame passer and something other top AFC teams like the Jets and Patriots don’t have to deal with.

NFL on FOX games: Dallas at Indianapolis, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Colts last missed the playoffs in 2001, but this injury-riddled team with a very poor offensive line could falter down the stretch. With injuries in the receiving corps, Peyton Manning has now gone five straight games without a passer rating of 100.0 or better. That’s his longest such streak since 2007. To negate the expected Dallas pass rush, look for Manning to work a lot out of the shotgun and throw a lot of quick slants and short flares. The key is for Manning to get rid of the ball before the pressure reaches him. In those situations, both Dallas cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman must show outside pressure and be prepared to jump the route inside. The Cowboys secondary has given up a ton of big plays all season. No one has succumbed more and been targeted more than Jenkins. Although he has been solid the past couple of weeks, Jenkins knows he will be tested again and again by Manning.

Dallas QB Jon Kitna has put up comparable numbers to Tony Romo’s this season after six games and  needs his best lineman, LT Doug Free, to handle Colts DE Dwight Freeney one-on-one. Freeney is the quickest defender that Free has faced this season and has an outstanding spin move. Even with the possible return of MLB Gary Brackett, the Cowboys figure to pound the ball inside against the Colts’ defense with RBs Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, who actually has better vision than injured Marion Barber. Cowboys LB Keith Brooking will test his foot in warmups and if he can’t go, rookie Sean Lee will start.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Cowboys QB Tony Romo (broken left clavicle) is throwing in practice with teammates, but he is still two or three weeks from returning to the field. Choice, who has been the third running back all season, wasn’t too happy when owner Jerry Jones said that he had to play better on special teams. “It’s best for me not to say anything,” Choice said. Jones said on his weekly radio show that “Tashard needs to be a better special teams’ player. Your third back has to be a real contributor on special teams and he’s not. That really handicaps him.” The coaching staff has never really explained why Choice has not gotten more opportunities to run the ball. Last season, the Cowboys were seventh in rushing in the NFL at 131.4 yards per game. This year, they are 27th at 89.4 yards per game. In his first two seasons, Choice had 92 and 64 carries, respectively. This season, he has had only 14 carries.

Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: One big reason why the Falcons are 9-2 and leading the NFC South is that their offense can do just about anything it wants. They can go fast with the no-huddle or pound the ball with Michael Turner like they did last week against the Packers. But look for the Falcons to return to the hurry-up set against the Bucs, who will have a new safety in Corey Lynch with Cody Grimm lost for the season. QB Matt Ryan is more relaxed in general in the no-huddle, and Atlanta wanted to keep the potent Packers’ passing game off the field last Sunday — and the strategy worked. With backup RB Jason Snelling very questionable to play, the Atlanta hurry-up makes sense. The Falcons don’t want to keep pounding Michael Turner early, especially if Snelling can’t go and with reserve Antone Smith already out. That means only Gartrell Johnson and possibly FB Ovie Mughelli will get some carries. The Falcons have had a league-high 29 series of 10 snaps or more.

QB Josh Freeman is coming off one of the worst games of his young career in Baltimore, where he seemed to watch the pass rush at times and was indecisive and inaccurate. Freeman will be in his comfort zone at Raymond James Stadium, but he needs to get into rhythm early. Look for Freeman to go to TE Kellen Winslow early and try to find rookie Mike Williams on deep out routes. The Bucs also need to control the clock on offense and need a big game from LeGarrette Blount.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Buccaneers had a flurry of roster moves this week. They placed G Davin Joseph (broken foot) and S Cody Grimm (broken left fibula) on injured reserve. The Bucs also placed DE Kyle Moore, who had not played in three weeks, on IR with a shoulder injury. Tampa Bay promoted S Vince Anderson, WR Dezmon Briscoe and G Brandon Carter from the practice squad.

In addition to closing in on 1,000 yards, Atlanta’s Turner has a career-high 11 receptions for 73 yards. He entered season with just 22 catches over five seasons. Turner has rushed for more than 100 yards six times this season. He has hit the century mark in four of the past five games as the Falcons have surged to the top of the NFC. “Last year was a tough year for Michael in terms that he missed so much time,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He really worked to cut his body fat and his weight. He’s been lighter this year than last year. It’s really helped him and helped us.”

Carolina at Seattle, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With five games left, the Seahawks still have a good chance of winning the NFC West. With the worst running offense in the league, Seattle has been forced to throw the ball with Matt Hasselbeck as much as possible. Ever since offensive line coach Alex Gibbs resigned prior to the start of the season, Seattle has been unable to master his zone-blocking scheme. It hasn’t helped matters that Seattle has used nine starting OL combinations in 11 games. Hasselback is still playing with a broken left wrist that is heavily taped while wearing a glove.

The Panthers will start rookie QB Jimmy Clausen again as RB Jonathan Stewart returns to the starting lineup although Mike Goodson will still get some carries. The Panthers should have won last Sunday, but kicker John Kasay missed a game-winning field goal. Even with Captain Munnerlyn starting again for CB Chris Gamble and Jason Williams at weakside linebacker, the Panthers believe they can control Seattle’s passing game.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Seahawks will unveil Walter Jones’s retired No. 71 jersey at Sunday’s game. The speculation that Arizona assistant head coach Russ Grimm could be at the top of owner Jerry Richardson’s list for the Panthers makes some sense. Grimm, a Hall of Famer, is deserving of an opportunity, plus his connection to Steelers owner Dan Rooney means a lot to Richardson. Those two owners are close friends. Panthers SS Sherrod Martin is making the league’s second-year minimum of $395,000, which translates into a paycheck of $23,235 per week over 17 weeks. So, after being hit with a $40,000 fine for a recent helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns TE Evan Moore, that means Martin will not make any money this week and only about $6,470 for the next two weeks. Carolina’s Stewart, a University of Oregon product, played his high school football in Lacey, Wash., about 50 miles south of Seattle, and he will play close to his hometown for the first time in his three-year professional career.

St. Louis at Arizona, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cardinals have lost six straight for the first time under coach Ken Whisenhunt and the major reason is that they are averaging only 257.7 yards a game while giving up 396.8, a differential of 139.1 yards. Defensively, the Cardinals must concentrate on limiting Rams RB Steven Jackson and reducing the number of big plays yielded. The Rams receiving corps has been helped by the emergence of rookie WR Danario Alexander, who takes about 20 snaps off per game in order to alleviate pain on his bad knees. The Rams may try more no-huddle on offense after rookie Sam Bradford used it effectively in last week’s first road win of the season in Denver. Bradford, who seems destined to break every rookie quarterback record, marched the Rams 80 yards in 12 plays, facing only two third downs, en route to a Michael Hoomanawanui TD catch of 36 yards. Hoomanawanui, known as "Illini Mike", will miss this game, meaning Billy Bajema must pick up the slack.

Offensively, the Cardinals need to run the ball to set up some play-action deep. They have been trying to do that, but QB Derek Anderson has not been accurate enough to make plays. This has been frustrating for both Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, two quality receivers. Rams DE Chris Long now leads the NFL in quarterback hits to go with his 6.5 sacks.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Arizona’s Anderson met with reporters on Wednesday after his postgame tirade Monday night. Anderson opened by saying, “Let’s try this in a manner that doesn’t end up all over YouTube if we can,” he said. Anderson had reacted angrily to questions about why he was smiling late in Sunday’s game, something that ESPN’s Jon Gruden was highly critical of during the telecast, when the Cardinals were getting blown out. Two days later, he apologized for his outburst.

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo likes the no-huddle as a strategic change of pace. “It’s kind of a mixer for us,” he said. Bradford is comfortable with the no-huddle because he ran it at Oklahoma and thinks it keeps defenses on their heels. “When we go no-huddle, they can’t huddle,” Bradford said. “They’ve got to do all their communication without being in the huddle, which just makes it a little bit tougher on them. I think everyone in this offense really likes it. When we go to our no-huddle offense, we have a good tempo with it and I just think it’s something that we do really well.”

The TV ratings in St. Louis for the Rams recently have been among the highest in six seasons. In fact, the Rams have shown the greatest rating increases of any team in the league.

Other Sunday games

Oakland at San Diego, 4:05 p.m. ET: Despite passing for more than 400 yards in the AFC West rivals’ first game, Philip Rivers and the Chargers lost because a blocked punt and a fumble return gave the Raiders two touchdowns. It’s the lone Oakland win in the last 14 meetings between these two teams. QB Jason Campbell starts for the Raiders, who must find a way to run against the Chargers. Meanwhile, the Chargers’ O-line has been a force lately and there’s a chance of rookie Ryan Mathews running today with Mike Tolbert. Chargers TE Antonio Gates seems determined to play and play as long as he can deal with the pain. The Chargers have won four straight this season, 13 straight in December under Norv Turner and are tied for the NFL record with 18 consecutive December victories.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 8:20 p.m. ET: The debate all week has been about the status of Ben Roethlisberger’s right foot and whether the NFL is unfairly fining Steelers like James Harrison. Yes, Big Ben has been in a walking boot this week, hoping to help his foot heal. But the bottom line is that he’s 7-2 lifetime against the Ravens. This also figures to be another slugfest, considering both teams have averaged 16 points against each other in their last four games. Ray Lewis actually has some sympathy for Harrison and his $125,000 worth of fines, but the league hopes that Harrison changes his tactics.