1. Beware of the spread — No, this has nothing to do with food, but perhaps food for thought. While some focus on whether the Colts can stop the run after getting run over at home by the Patriots on Nov. 16, the experience of seeing these teams play each other three times in the playoffs since 2004 suggests that the Patriots’ strength is when they go to a five-wide formation and have quarterback Tom Brady whistling passes in a matter of seconds, before a pass rush can get any penetration. He slices and dices, varies his targets and usually finds an open man. It can be extremely frustrating for defenders. Don’t get discouraged. First, Colts defensive linemen have to get their hands up on everything. When Brady takes that quick drop, the big guys up front must do what they can to knock some of those passes down. Cornerbacks will press at times, so it’s important to get good jams. Keep the receivers in front, and if possible, take away the inside routes. The Colts need to disrupt those patterns and do their best to tip passes when the receiver and defender are close together. Tipped balls typically turn into interceptions. At the very least, tipped balls are typically incompletions. Get enough of them and the defense will get off the field with some consistency.
2. Deal with ‘Gronk’ — The danger in pressing in the secondary is letting tight end Rob Gronkowski release down the field and make game-changing plays. He’s the Patriots’ best target, without question. And it’s not wise to hope a linebacker can stay with him. No, this is where team defense is so important. If the Colts don’t stick safety Sergio Brown on him — Brown did a decent job in the previous meeting — then it’s imperative the linebackers get a piece of him and the Colts bracket the tight end with a safety or nickel back over top. Make the window tight for Brady when he tries to find his tight end. The guy is going to catch some passes. He’s that good. But the Colts can’t let him take over the game. If I’m the Patriots, I’d target him more than anyone else. But if the Colts can stay on him, underneath and over the top, that lessens the opportunities for big gains. Even when the Patriots go to a spread formation, Brady could surprise by holding onto the ball a little longer to give Gronkowski time to get free down the field. And Brady has such a quick release, it only takes an instant for his tight end to provide enough of a target. Steal a page from Bill Belichick’s book. Attack the Patriots’ strength. And that’s Gronkowski.
3. Be ready for runs — Because the Patriots rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries the last time they faced the Colts, New England will undoubtedly test the visitors’ mettle early on. As Baltimore showed last week, if the Colts can be sound against these plays, the Patriots will ignore rushing and stick with Brady slinging the ball. They didn’t even bother to run in the second half against the Ravens. That said, LeGarrette Blount is a battering ram who ran over the Colts in last January’s 43-22 AFC Divisional playoff win. So New England will continue to see what it can get with a balanced attack in the first half. It’s a game of adjustments. The Patriots will come into this game believing they can run the ball. But this Colts defense didn’t have defensive tackle Arthur Jones for the last game, and they’re stronger with him in there. Jones, Josh Chapman, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean Francois need to stand up those Patriots blockers and keep inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman free to make tackles. Do that and it’s back to worrying about the first two keys and dealing with Brady. At least then, the Patriots will be one-dimensional in their attack. That’s half the battle for this Colts defense.
4. Spread the ball around — It’s a given that the Patriots will look to lock down Colts No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, presumably with cover cornerback Darrelle Revis. Remember the old adage about Belichick: He forces foes to try to beat him left-handed. Hilton has the speed to win some of those battles, but there will be times he’s not open so Andrew Luck can’t force it. Tight ends Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle can take a lot of pressure off the wide receivers. And the Patriots have had trouble covering tight ends. If Luck can establish those tight ends early, it opens up the pass game. Same with utilizing running back Daniel “Boom” Herron on those short passes. Herron has 18 receptions for 117 yards in two playoff games. Sometimes, he doesn’t get chunks of yards, but sometimes he does. And the Patriots will have done their homework. They’ll be looking for those dump-offs. Again, the best part about the Colts’ passing game is Luck has completed passes to nine different receivers in two playoff games. That’s difficult for any defense. If Luck can mix it up and keep the Patriots guessing where the ball is going, that’s a big plus for the visitors. Except for two unwarranted deep throws that were intercepted at Denver, Luck has been smarter about throwing the ball where only his targets can catch them. That’s important against the Patriots, who disguise their defensive looks well. Their linebackers disrupt crossing routes, drop into coverage and are easy to overlook. Luck will be mindful of that, especially after being intercepted eight times in three losses to the Patriots. And when all else fails, tuck it and run. Luck is a great scrambler and can run away from defenders, so it might be smarter for him to get what he can with his legs if the pass options are risky on some plays.
5. Turnovers! — When the Colts have lost to the Patriots in the past, they’ve turned the ball over and made New England’s job that much easier. The Colts have three turnovers in the two playoff games, so the Patriots are going to be confident they can create some. Herron needs to hang onto the ball. Luck can’t try to extend plays if he’s wrapped up because another defender is probably coming for that football. Tight ends and wide receivers, wrap that ball up with both hands and arms. New England will blitz at times to try to get Luck out of his comfort zones, but the Patriots had just 26 sacks in the regular season. The Colts’ O-line has to be aware of those plays when New England brings extra attackers. Blitz pick-ups are vital. The Patriots were plus-12 in turnover differential. They came away with 16 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. Their offense had just nine interceptions and four lost fumbles. So true to form, Belichick’s team doesn’t give the ball away. That makes it even more important for the Colts to be conscious of ball security. All it takes is one or two turnovers to change a playoff game against the Patriots.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.