INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts and Falcons certainly are not common opponents. The teams have not met since 2007.
At that time, tight end Tony Gonzalez was with Kansas City, running back Michael Turner was with San Diego and quarterback Matt Ryan was toiling at Boston College.
Along with other teammates, Gonzalez, Turner and Ryan will invade Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time on Sunday, and Atlanta has the attention of the Colts and Head Coach Jim Caldwell.
"When you watch (Gonzalez) on film one of the things you realize, just in terms of how they have their offense packaged, they have a real strong running attack," said Caldwell. "(They have) two guys on the outside that can run with the best of them, that can catch and that are big. Julio (Jones) is 6-3 and 220 (pounds), and a good-sized guy. Both (Roddy White and Julio Jones) are very effective in terms of things that they do. Oftentimes, some of them (the receivers) may require teams to double cover them on the outside, which opens up who I consider to be the best pass-route running tight end in the business right now in terms of a guy who's been around and done it all. He (Gonzalez) still runs excellent routes. He's tough to handle. Not only that, but he's still making one-handed catches and things of that nature. He's a very good player, and he's still just as effective, and you can see that (Matt) Ryan really likes throwing to him as well. He's one of the top three receivers, and a very effective guy."
The way Gonzalez is deployed in the attack reminds Caldwell of the days when tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard were making plays as a Colts duo. He will have to prepare for Gonzalez now as opponents did for the Indianapolis duo. Caldwell also knows Ryan can orchestrate the attack effectively.
"Yeah, we got a lot of two-deep looks," said Caldwell of the days with Clark and Pollard. "Between Dallas (Clark) and Marcus Pollard, we had a number of guys that you'd see running down the middle with the ball in their hands. That's because of the fact that we had such explosion all the way across the field. That's the same thing I think these guys (the Falcons) have as well. It's always been a staple of ours, and it's a staple of theirs as well.
"(Ryan) keeps getting better. I think when you look at him on film you see what he's capable of doing. He's certainly got very good arm strength not only that, but you can see that manages an offense extremely well. He's got a good knack for it. He's doing a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage. He gets them into very good plays and he's very efficient. Obviously, he likes the guys who he's throwing to, (because) they give him some very unique matchups."
Clark is one of the game's best tight ends and along with John Mackey is the most decorated at that position in Colts history. He will be sharing a field with Gonzalez, who ranks second in NFL history with 1,104 receptions. Gonzalez wrested the spot from former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison (1,102) in Atlanta's last game. Gonzalez also leads all NFL tight ends with 12,843 reception yards, most receptions in a season (102), most touchdown receptions (92), most 100 games (27) and most 1,000 seasons (four).
Clark believes Gonzalez has helped revolutionize the position in the last 20 years. Clark does not measure himself against Gonzalez and is impressed by his ability to stay on the field.
"He has a lot to do with it. Since he came into the league, he's kind of revolutionized (the tight end position) slowly," said Clark. "He and Antonio Gates really helped kind of spark the 'receiving' tight end role. It definitely throughout the last few years has become more popular.
"I don't measure myself against (him). I don't think it's measureable. He's truly the greatest tight end to ever play. There have been some great ones, obviously not (so much) in my time. You hear stories about all the great ones, (John) Mackey in particular. No disrespect to those guys and those greats, but it's hard to argue against it (Gonzalez being the best). He's done some remarkable things. He doesn't miss any games. That's one thing, whether he was with the Chiefs or Atlanta, when he's out there, he's going to make plays. His ability to stay on the field, stay healthy, that's huge. It's productive when you're on the field. He's done a remarkable job of staying healthy and when he's in there, being productive."
Turner, 5-10, 247, is a difficult presence out of the backfield. With a 4.5 rushing average while gaining 621 yards and amassing four 100 games in 2011, Turner will face a Colts defense that has held four of eight opponents under a 4.0 average. Indianapolis has struggled at other points of the season. Turner is the 'challenge-of-the-week' that every NFL team faces weekly, according to Caldwell.
"(Turner is) powerful, quick, fast and with vision," said Caldwell. "He's very good. We see one every week. That's the thing about this league, last week it was (Chris) Johnson. This week it's a guy that, maybe a little different style, but highly, highly productive."
Caldwell knows the Colts are able to defense the run if all assignments are covered, but the club has battled inconsistency.
"It's a consistency issue, really, more so than anything else," said Caldwell. "It's just a matter of when we play well and take care of our gap assignments and do the little things right, then we usually have some measure of success in that area. When we don't, good backs, and there are a lot of good backs in this league and they all have two things in common – speed and vision, if you leave a gap unaccounted for, then they're going to find it. That's where our problem has occurred. When we're playing hard and good, solid assignment football, we usually do fairly well. Gap assignments not only deal with the front four. They also deal with the linebackers on the second level and the secondary on the third level. So everybody's assigned to a particular gap and an area responsibility. When we're not playing well, oftentimes no one has gone unscathed."
Dwight Freeney has seen the club distinguish itself against the run at times, and hopes it can be more consistent.
"I guess that's the million-dollar question," said Freeney on why the team has been up and down. "You work on being consistent every day at practice. Guys staying in their gap, and guys spilling to the right guys. The game comes and sometimes you're on, and sometimes you're not. I think especially with us, because for the last few years definitely we've been run on more than any team in the National Football League. Our division runs the ball more than any other division in the National Football League, so you have more opportunities for a run to break. That has a little bit to do with it."
The Pro Bowl defensive end has faced Turner before while playing against the Chargers. Freeney knows Turner is capable of big plays.
"He's a dangerous back," said Freeney. "He's a guy who can break it. He's like a bowling ball. That's kind of what he is, a low center of gravity. He's hard to get down, and he runs the ball hard. It definitely will be a challenge."
Conducting the Falcons' attack is Ryan, in his fourth season. Ryan helped the team to a 13-3 record in 2010, along with earning a home playoff game. Ryan threw 28 scoring passes in 2010 and has done so in 24 of his last 26 games. He is 37-16 as a starter.
"He keeps getting better," said Caldwell. "I think when you look at him on film you see what he's capable of doing. He's certainly got very good arm strength not only that, but you can see that he manages an offense extremely well. He's got a good knack for it. He's doing a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage. He gets them into very good plays and he's very efficient. Obviously, he likes the guys who he's throwing to, (because) they give him some very unique matchups."
Freeney concurs that Ryan causes concerns.
"I think (Matt) Ryan does a good job with the scheme he's in," said Freeney. "He understands when to take chances. He has a great deep ball. They do a lot of different things off play-action. They run the ball pretty well. It's not just like him going out there (and) slinging it. It's play-action and all the sudden you have 'backers and everybody's playing for the play-action (then) deep ball off the boot, because you have to commit to the run with a great running back. He does a great job."
Fourth-year Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith, 37-18 during the regular season at the helm, wants a coordinated attack by his offense.
"We'd like to be balanced, and as close to 50-50 as possible," said Smith. "Philosophically, we want to try to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side of the ball that means being able to run the ball effectively and protect the quarterback. When we get off-balance it usually is predicated by how defenses are trying to defense us. If they load the box, like we have had happen in a couple of ball games, then it makes it tough-sledding to run the football. Then you have to try to loosen the defense up and throw the deep ball. That's really, philosophically, what we believe in. We preach it to our players all the time, and I think they have a good understanding of what our identity is. It can change based on how people are trying to defend us."