Attempts to move nose tackle Vince Wilfork out of the middle have been ineffective since 2004, though Jeff Saturday has had some success against the mammoth tackle since he came into the league. Given the fact that the Patriots allow only 3.07 yards per attempt up the middle — which is fourth in the league — and the Colts have averaged just 3.47 yards per attempt up the middle (25th in the league), it is probably in their best interest to avoid the middle of the defense in the running game altogether.
When you add in the fact that their two best inside runners — Mike Hart and Joseph Addai — have yet to participate in practice this week and likely starters Donald Brown and Tavarris James have not been effective running between the guards, that makes the argument for avoiding Wilfork all the more compelling.
New England is currently ranked 18th in the league in run defense, but they don't have an obvious weakness in any direction that would tend to offset the obvious advantage they have up the middle. Teams have averaged 5.54 yards per carry running at right end Mike Wright and Indianapolis has averaged six yards per carry running behind left tackle Charlie Johnson, so that is the most favorable matchup the Colts have in the running game.
Where Johnson needs to worry is in pass protection, as Wright is a far better pass rusher than he is a run defender, leading the team with 5.5 sacks. Johnson has struggled against speedy right ends, but Wright is more of a power rusher that relies on leverage and a fairly good repertoire of moves.
Johnson should be able to handle Wright one-on-one, but he is the more likely of the two tackles to need help, as Ryan Diem draws journeyman Gerard Warren. Warren is a fine run defender, but his days of harnessing his potential as a premiere pass rusher are past him, so Indianapolis should generally avoid his side of the field in the running game, but not concern themselves too much with giving Diem extra help.
The primary issue for Saturday and Peyton Manning will be identifying where the fourth pass rusher is coming from. Manning had issues identifying the mystery fourth rusher in the past — especially against the Patriots — but has familiarized himself with the 3-4 defense enough over the years to be able to properly diagnose who will be applying the pressure.
Typically, rush linebacker Tully Banta-Cain will have his hand on the ground and will be coming at Manning, but New England has shown a tendency to bring pressure from all angles and all positions this season, as evidenced by the fact that ten different players on defense have at least half a sack.
Bill Belichick does not have the flexibility and interchangeability on defense that he enjoyed in the past, but he still has enough moving parts with this group to make Manning work.
The Patriots linebackers — once the pride of their defense — have gotten younger and faster over the years, but are not yet as savvy as they were in the early-to-middle part of the decade. Jerod Mayo is the star of this and is a tenacious run defender that has improved significantly against the pass.
Mayo and rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes are a formidable duo against the line, but Manning should be able to target Jacob Tamme and (hopefully) Austin Collie over the middle, both in the short area and in the seam. Indianapolis has averaged 6.82 yards per attempt to the short middle, which is there best area in the short passing game. The Patriots are yielding an average of 5.7 yards per attempt to the short middle, which is their worst average in pass defense in the short area, but they are also fourth in the league in that category. If Manning can properly diagnose the New England pressure packages, he should have enough time to strike deep, where the Patriots are more vulnerable.
Banta-Cain and fellow outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich are fairly interchangeable and often switch places from the strong side to the weak side. Whichever man shows the best ability to chuck, redirect, or force Tamme to block will win a spot on the strong side for the balance of the game. Banta-Cain is not as skilled a run defender as Ninkovich, so the Colts will probably isolate to his side and run in that direction depending on who wins the spot opposite Tamme.
Overall, the linebackers will enforce the passing lanes in their areas of the field and will generally hold up against the line. The key will be whether or not Tamme, Collie, and the Colts receivers can get to the next level and attack the New England secondary.
Reggie Wayne was held out of practice this week, but should be able to go since he hasn't missed a start since 2002. He will draw rookie first round pick Devin McCourty. McCourty has two interceptions on the season and eight passes defended. He has been solid in man coverage, but he is still a rookie and is susceptible to missing out on the small details that Wayne thrives on. Wayne has fared exceptionally well when facing a rookie cornerback the past two seasons and Sunday should be no different.
McCourty is allowing 12.27 yards per attempt to the deep left, so there will be opportunities for Wayne in the short area as well as down the field. Manning has leaned on Wayne and Tamme in particular the past three weeks, so having Collie back full time will give him another target to utilize. Collie should be available and will draw an adequate amount of attention from Manning and the New England defense.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington draws Pierre Garcon, who has possibly lost the confidence of Manning. Since Arrington is allowing 12.56 yards per attempt to his side of the field in the deep passing game, it may be time for Manning and Garcon to get back on track, as they are currently averaging only 9.65 yards per deep attempt to Garcon's side. It's possible that Manning has lost faith in Garcon's short arms and inconsistent hands, particularly if Collie is available to him, but he needs to give Garcon a chance on Sunday, given the fact that he will need all the weapons he can muster in the passing game facing a potent offense and a generous defense.
Collie, Garcon, and Wayne — possibly even Tamme — should be able to take advantage of safeties Brandon Meriweather and Pat Chung in the deep middle, as Indianapolis has attempted the most passes in the league to the deep middle with 26 and are averaging 12.31 yards per attempt. The Patriots are yielding 11.93 yards per attempt to that area of the field, so there should be plays to be made there.
New England has had the lead in a number of games this year and has eased up on defense, so their rankings in points allowed per game (23.8, 24th in the league) and passing yards allowed per game (277.8, 30th), so the stats are slightly skewed, but this is still a defense that gives up big chunks of yardage in the passing game.
The Colts have passed the ball over 64 percent of the time on offensive snaps and have come under fire for their reliance on Manning and his talented skill position players — with a great deal of that fire being provided by yours truly — but Sunday's game is a situation where they should pass as much as they are able. The Patriots have actually allowed more passing yardage than they've gained, with a 2,500 to 2,088 margin and have given up almost as many touchdown passes as they've scored, by a 17 to 16 margin. They are allowing an average of 7.6 yards per pass attempt, while only gaining 7.1 yards per attempt on offense. Opposing quarterbacks have a 93.1 passer rating against New England, which is surprisingly close to the 98.8 rating that Tom Brady currently holds.
The difference in the respective passer ratings is that Brady has thrown only four interceptions, while the Patriots have ten interceptions on defense. Part of the reason New England leads the league in scoring is that they've also scored four touchdowns on defensive returns and two touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns. If Manning is smart with the football and avoids critical mistakes, the opportunities against this pass defense far outweigh the risks.
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