JS: Early on it was the team's inability to find the open receiver. That was caused by the newness of those receivers to the Patriots system. More recently it has been injuries and the defensive secondary's ability to stop big plays on third down, or big plays in general. A solid running game, combined with the play -action will be able to exploit New England's ever-improving defense. I expect the Colts to try to take advantage of that and the great adjustments Manning usually makes in these types of games. The Pats defense will probably have trouble stopping that if they're not able to get to him.
ET: In New England's sole loss of the season, what did Denver do that was so effective in limiting the Patriots to just 7 points? In the rest of their games, the Patriots offense has usually scored roughly 20+ per game...
JS: The Week 3 loss to the Broncos was a low point for the Patriots who had new receivers, a new tight end, a rookie right tackle and a lot of things going in with their offense. New England started the game with three tight ends in an effort to protect Brady, and to establish a running game against a very solid front seven of Denver. Daniel Graham has been injured on and off since training camp, and the third TE David Thomas was a rookie who saw his first start. WR Doug Gabriel was in his second week as a Patriot, and rookie Chad Jackson was out. With no speed to stretch the field, a host of new receivers who weren't' familiar with the Patriots system, and some rookies trying to protect Brady, it was the perfect time for Denver to play New England.
As much as Denver was able to pressure the Patriots, New England looked just plain bad on offense. Dropped passes, guys running the wrong route or not making adjustments on blitzes, all contributed to the Broncos ability to impose their will on defense. That's probably the most notable point in why the Patriots weren't able to score. It would be far different today now that guys are healthy, and have a much better understanding of the system.
ET: What will we notice in regards to running style differences between Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney? And which one has New England counted on to get the tough yards on 3rd-and-short or goal-line situations most frequently?
JS: Corey Dillon has the same "knock the guys' socks off" mentality he has had his entire career. When you watch Dillon run, he makes a point of delivering the hit to the defender rather than to just slide off the tackle to avoid the contact. A number of times, Dillon's decision to run over or through the defender has kept him from potentially gaining extra yards. He still breaks arm tackles regularly and has made many a would-be tackler look silly with the piston-like stiff-arm that Dillon is known for. Maroney is more of a slashing type of back who - when given a hole - explodes through the line of scrimmage with surprising speed. He runs with power, but will get taken down more quickly than Dillon.
You will see a heavy dose of Dillon if he's healthy. He is the battering ram the Patriots like to use to wear down defenses. The Pats mixed it up well with both backs, but Dillon's nagging dings and dents have limited him, opening up opportunity for Maroney. If the holes are there, then you're going to see a lot of Laurence Maroney. If the ball is near the goal line or a short-yardage situation, expect to see more Dillon as he's proven he can still get a yard or two even when the hole is very small or non-existent.
ET: The running backs haven't been a big factor in the passing game this year. Do you expect that to continue against the Colts?
JS: The Patriots running backs have played well enough to seal the win for them a number of times. Late in the Jets game, the Pats spread the field on a critical 3rd and 4. New York was forced to put Jonathan Vilma on Kevin Faulk. Faulk ran a quick curl route to get the first and a new series that enabled New England to drain the clock. Against Denver, Brady couldn't get the ball to his receivers, so he doled it out six times to Faulk, and five to Maroney. Against the Vikings, Dillon took a screen and rumbled for 27 yards. So overall, you're correct that the Patriots haven't used the running backs to be big receiving threats; they use them when they need specific matchups. What they do is to throw tight end screens, which have been more effective for them. It's tough to tell how the backs will be used in the passing game against Indianapolis, but I expect we'll see a lot more of them running the ball than receiving.
ET: Where is the weakest spot on the offensive line in regards to pass
protection that the Colts defense will likely try to exploit? And which
defensive back do you think that Peyton Manning will try to test early in this
JS: Pass protection... the right side. Even though I mentioned RT O'Callaghan as a positive surprise in yesterday's Behind Enemy Lines article, he's still a rookie and has been burned a few times by speed rushers. Next to him is former practice squad member Billy Yates who is effectively the Patriots third-string offensive lineman. If RG Stephen Neal is out, and his backup Russ Hochstein is still nursing his knee injury, then the path to Brady is along that right side.
As for defensive backs, the entire secondary has been burned at various points during the season. Javon Walker showed repeatedly how to beat the Patriots coverage in that Denver game. But there's no way Peyton Manning will have the kind of time Jake Plummer had to get the ball to his receivers. Plummer rolled out and used his ability to make some of the plays in that game. Manning will likely find the slot receiver open or plays that clear out the middle of the field. Although Ellis Hobbs has played well, and Asante Samuel has shown the ability to make plays, both were burned in coverage by a premiere receiver like Walker. Reggie Wayne is in that mold and should be able to find some space, or be able to make a few plays if Manning has time. I also expect Dallas Clark to have a big game, as the Pats LBs will have a tough time trying to slow him down.