The Patriots have had a great deal of continuity on the offensive line the past few seasons and their five starters have been relatively injury free. Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, and Stephen Neal have played together since 2005 and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer started eight games as a rookie last year and all nine games this season.
This is a talented group, but their experience together and knowledge of each other's tendencies is what makes them a great unit. New England has allowed only 13 sacks on the year and did not yield a sack against Pittsburgh's blitzing defense in Week 10.
Still, Robert Mathis destroyed Vollmer in their matchup in 2009, with eight tackles, two sacks, a pass defended and a forced fumble. Light has been able to handle Dwight Freeney the past couple of seasons, usually with the help of a tailback. The Patriots will most likely give Vollmer the extra help on Sunday and hope that Light will not get overwhelmed by Freeney without the benefit of a double team.
One way that New England will seek to slow down the Colts pass rush is by running right at Freeney and Mathis. The Patriots have averaged 6.12 yards per carry around left end and six yards per attempt around right end, while Indianapolis has given up 5.77 yards around left end and 6.33 yards per carry around right end. New England likes to run sweeps and pitches to get the running back to the edge when they run out of a standard formation, but they tend to fake the run inside and allow BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Danny Woodhead to bounce the play to the outside when they run out of the shotgun formation.
With Randy Moss now in Tennessee and the Patriots focusing on short, quick passes, Freeney and Mathis will need to get to Tom Brady in a hurry, but they cannot abandon their gap responsibilities in an attempt to tackle the ball carrier on their way to the quarterback.
The return of Antonio Johnson has helped the Colts run defense on the interior, but they are still allowing 7.3 yards per carry off left guard, which is worst in the league. Part of the reason for that is Freeney taking a wide angle to the quarterback and leaving a natural, gaping hole between the guard and the tackle. Freeney needs to stay at home when he recognizes run, engage Light, and make sure that he does not lose contain.
The Patriots passed the ball 64 percent of the time last week against the Steelers, but they have been running a more balanced offense than that in general this season, with a 56-44 split in favor of the pass. If Indianapolis sells out on the pass, New England will not hesitate to run wild on them, as they did against Minnesota in Week 8.
Without Moss, the Patriots receiving corps is missing a lot of the star power it had in previous seasons, but they still have the 15th-ranked pass offense this year and Brady was able to throw for 360 yards and three touchdowns last week.
Defenses have placed a great deal of their focus on stopping Wes Welker since Moss' departure and have mostly been successful in shutting him down. The result of that focus, though, is that Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, and Deion Branch have all been more productive and have easily surpassed whatever stats Welker could have put up on his own.
At this point, New England's receivers are working as interchangeable parts in the scheme and should be treated as such. Justin Tryon is the only cornerback on the injury report this week, has not practiced, and is unlikely to play. That means that the Colts should have Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden ready to go on Sunday and they should be ready to stay close to the line of scrimmage and hit anything that moves. Linebackers Tyjuan Hagler and Philip Wheeler need to chip in as well underneath in order to keep the Patriots from picking the Colts apart in the short game.
Brady will not be afraid to target any one of his receivers deep if he sees single coverage — especially Tate — but all of his targets are more dangerous in the open field with the ball in their hands than they are over the top. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez established themselves as red zone threats and have caught eight of Brady's 17 touchdown passes on the season.
New England has been extremely effective in the red zone — they rank 18th in the league in yards per game, but first in scoring — so Indianapolis needs to make sure they finish drives on defense and make the Patriots settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
Green-Ellis and Woodhead haven't received much in the way of press or fanfare, but they are good at what they're supposed to do in this offense, which is to move the chains, don't cough up the ball, and score when they get a handoff inside the ten-yard line.
Green-Ellis has six rushing touchdowns this season and Woodhead has pitched in two. They are both capable blockers and Woodhead has stepped into the Kevin Faulk role since the Patriots placed Faulk on injured reserve earlier this year.
Although neither back has seen significant action in 2010 — Green-Ellis is starting to establish himself as the lead back, but has not been in that role for most of the year — Woodhead is averaging five yards a carry and Green-Ellis has a 4.2 yard average. New England can run the ball with authority and gain chunks of yards from their running backs, it's just that they tend to average more yards per play when they throw the ball.
If the Colts are able to shut down the short passing game early, look for the Patriots to establish the run and stick with it for the balance of the game, with some play action and long throws from Brady mixed in to keep the defense honest.
Now that Brady does not have a go to option in Moss, his decision making process has been simplified. He simply takes the snap, reads the defense, and throws to whichever option is the most open. The Browns, Jets, and Ravens were able to mix Brady up on several occasions by disguising their tendencies before the snap and moving into an unexpected coverage scheme after the ball was hiked.
Indianapolis has not gone with this strategy on defense and most likely will not on Sunday, especially if Gary Brackett is unable to go after missing practice all week. Pat Angerer did an excellent job filling in for the defense's captain against the Bengals in Week 10, but Brackett's knowledge of Brady and his tendencies and cues will be missed on Sunday. There is no doubt that Brackett has been imparting everything he knows about Brady to Angerer this week, but there is no substitute for actual game experience.
Since it is incredibly difficult to outsmart Brady, defenses that have been successful against him — including the Colts at various points throughout the years — have simply out-hustled and out-executed the ten men surrounding Brady. Indianapolis will have to do that through sound tackling, gap discipline, taking good angles to the ball carrier, and covering their responsibilities in their zones. Brady is a confident quarterback, but he does have a history of becoming easily frustrated and lashing out at his offense. If the Colts defenders can frustrate Brady early and often, it will pay off in the second half.
The other way to frustrate Brady is to hit him and sack him within the bounds of the NFL rulebook. Brady has become more susceptible to this since the knee injury that ended his 2008 season, so a furious pass rush in the first and second quarter will lead to mistakes and off target throws by Brady in the third and fourth quarters.
The biggest key, though, to stopping Brady and the potent New England offense is through execution. When the Colts have executed well on defense, they have been able to contain Brady. When they start to take too many chances or have missed too many tackles or assignments, he has worn them down and made them pay.
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