Running the ball against the Patriots is one of the best ways to control the clock and the tempo of the game. The Patriots rush defense has allowed opposing primary runners to average over 100 yards per game with gains of 4.5 yards per carry. New England has suffered miserably in an attempt to stop opponents from running the ball down their throat. They rank 24th overall against the run, even with Tedy Bruschi back in the mix.
Edgerrin James has been able to get the ball rolling early and often this season as the Colts migrate back toward a more balanced attack. James 4.9 yards per carry average is the key. If he can maintain that level of productivity against the Patriots, third down conversions will be easy for the multi-talented Colts offense. Conversions lead to long drives, and long drives lead to points.
The ability to put points up on the board is nothing new against the Patriots, they currently rank 26th in the league giving up an average of 25.7 per game. The inability to slow teams down in the red zone has been the problem. When teams manage to get to the Patriots red zone, they score touchdowns, not field goals. Before the Buffalo game, the Patriots hadn't been able to stop any team when it got to the red zone.
The Colts need to lean on the Patriots defensive line, pushing Vince Wilfork to one side or another. When teams run against the Patriots, they seal Wilfork out of the play then put a man on one of the inside linebackers, formerly Chad Brown and Monty Beisel. Wilfork's inability to fight off the blocks and the linebacker's inability to get a clean shot at the runner has magnified the Patriots troubles.
New England's rush defense was so ineffective that they changed up their personnel to deal with the problem, benching Brown and Beisel, and moving Vrabel inside along with Bruschi. The teaming of Bruschi and Vrabel on the inside with McGinest and Colvin on the outside improved communication, but hasn't solved their problems. The Colts should be able to exploit this area, especially if DL Richard Seymour, a solid run stopper, doesn't play due to injury.
2) Put pressure on the Patriots rookie offensive linemen
The Colts need to put the heat on Tom Brady to eliminate the Patriots ability to get out of second or third and long situations. Indianapolis has the perfect opportunity to do so with their matchup of all-pro caliber talents on their defensive line going against the Patriots rookies Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins. Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis have to be factors in the pass rush in order to pressure Brady. Their ability to get to the quarterback will only exacerbate the Patriots rookies' protection troubles.
The left side of the Patriots line is the suspect part of the unit. Tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson will help out the young linemen with protection on that side, but there are times when the Patriots will need the linemen to stand on their own. Mankins has allowed stunting linemen and blitzers to get through the G-T gap, and Kaczur has shown that speed rushers can get around him to Brady.
If the Colts can exploit the mismatch on the Patriots left side of the line, they will have a field day getting pressure on Brady. The best way to take the Patriots out of their game is to exploit their suspect offensive line, and the Colts certainly have the horses to do that.
3) Don't give up the big play
The Patriots have been able to make big plays at crucial times to keep themselves in games. Offseason personnel moves have added speed to an offense that needed a boost. Tim Dwight joined the team after leaving San Diego and the Browns traded Andre Davis to the Patriots for a draft pick. Davis and Dwight add the threat of the long ball with their field-stretching speed. Dwight has burned defensive backs that try to play him too close, while Davis poses the same threat just by being out there. Davis is the playmaker the Patriots have to get more involved to replace the speedy Bethel Johnson.
Eight New England receivers have catches of 30 yards or longer, some with more than one. From their tight ends to the running backs to their receivers, the Patriots have players who can make a great catch and turn it into a long gain, as Atlanta found out when TE Daniel Graham took a screen pass and rumbled 45 yards running over people to score.
The concern for the Colts is to keep everything in front of them, and not let New England's playmakers come up with the big play. The Colts have faced a few playmakers on the field, with arguably their biggest challenge coming from St. Louis before Marc Bulger was knocked out of the game. Bulger is one of the best quarterbacks in the business, and had the Rams firmly in contention during that game before being sidelined by the shoulder injury. New England's receivers may not pose the same threat as the Rams, but they can create the same kind of havoc when Brady is allowed to get the ball to them.
Indianapolis has to find a way to pressure Brady while being acutely aware of the Patriots speed, their playmaking tight ends and their Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. The Colts will get into the most trouble if Brady has time to check down to his third or fourth option. There are too many playmakers on New England's offense to shut them out completely, but a solid, aggressive defense tends to work best against them. Tony Dungy is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, and should have his team well prepared for the Patriots playmakers; it's just up to the players on the field to execute the plan properly.