While just the 10th game of the season, it might be the most important for the Indianapolis Colts in terms of playoff seeding come January. The Colts (6-3) host the New England Patriots (7-2), owners of the AFC’s best record, Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Here are five Colts keys:
1. Minimize ‘Gronk’ — Easier said than done, but the Colts must do whatever possible to keep Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski from taking over this game. Gronkowski is a one-on-one mismatch with either linebackers or defensive backs, which means the Colts would be wise to use a lot of double teams to prevent game-changing plays. Even with two men on him, this guy still catches passes sometimes. Gronkowski has 49 receptions for 663 yards and eight TDs. He’s obviously Tom Brady’s go-to guy, particularly in the red zone. Gronkowski’s eight touchdown receptions are tied for second in the league; only Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb has more with 10. The Colts have had difficulty covering tight ends, most notably in the season opener, when Denver’s Julius Thomas caught three TD passes.
2. Spread the ball around — Patriots coach Bill Belichick will likely put cornerback Derrelle Revis on Colts No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, which means quarterback Andrew Luck must use all of his weapons and not try to force too much to his favorite pass catcher. While that might be a hard habit to break, considering Hilton’s 937 receiving yards rank third in the league, but the Colts have 11 guys who have caught passes, including eight with at least 17 receptions. Expect the Colts to spread it out and look to isolate certain defenders in one-on-one matchups. Tight end Dwayne Allen excels in these situations. He has a team-high seven TDs. The Colts have also succeeded by throwing the ball to running backs. Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson have combined to catch 55 passes for 475 yards. Bradshaw has six TD receptions.
3. Win time of possession — Relying mostly on passing typically doesn’t equate to hanging onto the ball more than an opponent, but the Colts lead the NFL in time of possession with an average of 34 minutes, 39 seconds, almost two minutes more than the next team. That could be vital against the Patriots, who have been rolling on offense in a five-game win streak. Colts fans will recognize the strategy. Opponents use to try to do it to Peyton Manning back in the day. Keeping the ball for long stretches reduces how much time Tom Brady is on the field. The Colts have thrown more short-range passes this season to keep the chains moving, but they will need to run the ball as well. The Patriots are 22nd against the run, the Colts 14th in rush offense. If Bradshaw and Richardson can be productive, that takes pressure off Luck to pass for first downs and keep the clock moving.
4. Turnovers — This gets mentioned almost every week because the Colts have 15 giveaways and are even in takeaway-giveaway ratio. The Patriots are tied for the league lead at plus-12 with 18 takeaways opposite just six giveaways. Luck has had eight turnovers — seven interceptions and one lost fumble — in the two times he’s faced the Patriots. He knows he can’t continue that trend. Belichick is known for mixing up the defensive schemes and disguising coverages. Luck has to quickly recognize where defenders are in zone coverage and not misread situations where it looks like a receiver is drawing man-to-man coverage. Patriots linebackers, as usual, are adept at reading the eyes of the quarterback and flowing into passing lanes. They fooled Peyton Manning in the Patriots’ last game as he threw an ill-timed interception when he didn’t see linebacker Rob Ninkovich drift in front of a receiver running a crossing route.
5. Pass rush vs. pass protection — When the Colts defense has had success, it’s started with rushing the passer. In three losses, the Colts have only one sack. In six wins, they have 23. Problem is, Brady gets rid of the ball quickly and has seen everything a defense can throw at him. He’s been sacked 14 times, but much of that was earlier in the season, when the Patriots’ offensive line was unsettled. While it might be unrealistic to expect a lot of sacks, the Colts must get consistent pressure on the pocket to force Brady to throw quickly. This guy can’t be given all day to survey the field. On the flip side, the Patriots’ pass rush has 22 sacks. While they don’t have a dominant pass rusher, the Patriots are effective at pressuring the pocket with timely blitzes. The Colts can’t allow guys to come free on Luck. In key situations, particularly on third down, it would be wise to keep one or two guys in to help block to ensure Luck has the time needed to find the open man.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.