For a number of seasons, one of the reasons for New England's success has been its offensive line. Under line coach Dane Scarnecchia, they have been one of the most cohesive, hard working, disciplined, and skilled units in the NFL.
They have been able to open up gaping holes in the running game and keep the quarterback upright, yielding only 21 sacks in 2007 and averaging 4.1 yards per rush when running the ball was an afterthought.
While some of those gaudy statistics can be attributed to Tom Brady's rapid decision-making skills and the talent on offense making defensive coordinators terrified to blitz, a good deal of the credit needs to go to Scarnecchia and his charges.
This season, however, though the Patriots have been averaging 4.2 yards per carry against more run-focused defenses, they have also given up 29 sacks in only seven games, which projects to a staggering 66 sacks by season's end.
For a Colts defense that has looked downright awful at times rushing the passer — Indianapolis has only ten sacks so far this season — this could be a dream come true.
Matt Light battles San Diego's Igor Olshansky
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
The matchups could work out especially well for the tandem of Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock if right tackle Nick Kaczur, who has missed the past two games, is unable to go. That would leave reserve Wesley Britt as the starter, which bodes very well for the left ends in this defense. Left tackle Matt Light has experienced mixed results against Dwight Freeney over the years, but has generally fared as well as his team.
When the Colts have beaten the Patriots, Light has played poorly. When the Patriots have beaten the Colts, Light has played well. In the 2008 game, Freeney was actually off to a good start against Light, as far as pressuring the quarterback was concerned, before he sustained the Lisfranc injury that ended his season.
Light is an excellent player, but is more of a technician and can get overwhelmed or outhustled by speed rushers coming off the edge. If Freeney is healthy for this game and has regained his explosiveness, he should fare well against Light.
In the running game, New England prefers to run the ball between the tackles behind Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen, Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, and Billy Yates. Yates is, by merit of the fact that he has not been to Hawaii as well as by skill level, the weakest link on this interior, so it will be very important for Eric Foster to shoot his gaps, penetrate into the backfield, and not allow the running backs to set up and drive.
Keyunta Dawson and Foster have actually settled into their roles very well and have put up three consecutive solid performances against running teams such as Baltimore and Tennessee as well as Green Bay, who tried their best to take advantage of this perceived weakness by giving Ryan Grant the ball 33 times in Week 7.The Colts defensive linemen need to continue to penetrate, continue to get off blocks, and Gary Brackett needs to keep up his aggressive sideline-to-sideline play. This is the least daunting test the Colts have faced in the past month, but that does not mean they can afford to let up.
If Kelvin Hayden is again unable to play, that would be a big loss for the Colts defense, as Hayden actually covered Randy Moss fairly well last November — with less help than most had last season — before losing focus and allowing some big plays in the fourth quarter. Tim Jennings draws a tough matchup, which means that Antoine Bethea will need to be heavily involved in the deep area on Moss' side of the field.
With Marlin Jackson out, Wes Welker could present matchup problems for the Colts
As for Melvin Bullitt, he needs to play closer to the line of scrimmage in order to take away the underneath routes of Wes Welker and Ben Watson, as well as checkdowns to the versatile and ever-dangerous Kevin Faulk. The linebackers need to be involved here as well, chucking the tight end and the slot receiver where possible and legal.
Marlin Jackson's injury is particularly problematic for the Colts, since he would be following Welker wherever he goes. If Hayden is able to play, this become Jennings' assignment; if Hayden is unable to play, the task will likely fall to Dante Hughes.
The Patriots tend to throw Welker a lot of bubble screens and quick slants when he lines up on the perimeter. If Jennings or Hughes can stick with Welker and bring him down after these quick hits, look for the Patriots to keep Welker on the inside, where he has more room to operate.
That will leave Jabar Gaffney in the X receiver spot, where he will draw Hughes. That would ordinarily be a mismatch but, with less talent on offense this season for New England and a different quarterback, Gaffney is not the same receiver as he was in 2007 and has only 11 receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown thus far in 2008.
The legendary nature of the 2007 Patriots offense was its inevitability. If a defense crept up to take away the screens and short passes, the Patriots made them pay deep. If a defense backed off, New England picked them apart with precision. A defense needed to pick their poison and stick with it, but had to know that, at some point, either the high-percentage passes or the deep ball — or both — was going to kill them.
The Colts chose to defend the first option last season and eventually succumbed to a few big passes to Moss. They need to employ the same strategy this year. There is a different quarterback and this is a different offense. If Indianapolis can keep the plays in front of them, they should do well.
With Laurence Maroney on injured reserve, and LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris nursing injuries, the Patriots were not effective running the ball against the Rams in Week 8, averaging only 3.4 yards per carry against a defense that has given up 4.8 yards per carry thus far this season.
Though the Rams are playing better of late, New England was simply unable to get off the ball and open up holes that were big enough and sustain them long enough for Faulk and rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis to be effective.
If Morris, who is much quicker than any back on the roster, or Jordan, who is decisive and still makes his way to the hole with authority, are unable to go, the Patriots will have a great deal of trouble running the ball.
Where they will be most dangerous — and where they had the most success last week — will be lining up in a spread formation and handing the ball to Faulk from the shotgun. That creates natural seams in the defense and puts lighter players on the field, which works to New England's advantage.
There is no doubt that an intelligent team like the Patriots has already considered this, but lining up in such a formation puts more emphasis — and pressure — on the quarterback, which is something they have shied away from thus far.
Matt Cassel has big shoes to fill, to be sure, but New England has approached the situation correctly and not asked him to do too much in the offense — or, at least, to do as much as Brady. Although he was more of a system manager than a game manager at the beginning, they are slowly letting him take on more responsibility and different aspects of the offense.
Pressuring Matt Cassel into mistakes will be the Colts' top priority on Sunday
He has overcome some early struggles, has looked better in recent weeks, and has his passer rating up to a very respectable 84.6 which, incidentally, is higher than Peyton Manning's 79.0. It would be foolish to state, though, that he is now playing at a Pro Bowl level or that he can even approach the level of efficiency with which Brady ran the offense.
The running game will struggle early on. Cassel holds the ball longer than Brady, goes through his progressions more slowly, and is not receiving the same level of pass protection.
The best way for the Colts to make Cassel unravel — and the way both teams that had considerable success against him have made him unravel — will be to turn up the heat.
Considering that Indianapolis has struggled to get to the quarterback using its conventional pressure method of only rushing the front four, they need to scheme for Cassel and this 2008 Patriots offense by blitzing, especially with linebackers Freddy Keiaho, Tyjuan Hagler, and Clint Session, as well as defensive backs Bullitt and Jackson, who will be close to the line of scrimmage anyway, making their assignment in the pass rush more difficult for Cassel to diagnose.
St. Louis tried to use this strategy in Week 8, but lacked the talent to keep pace with the Patriots and the tenacity to stay with them, as Cassel made just enough plays at the end to win the game. They fell apart late and failed to make the plays in the fourth quarter that they routinely made in the first quarter.
Cassel has his faults, but he is a very determined and focused individual who will not beat himself. Therefore, the Colts need to take the game to him and beat him straight up.
Endurance, both mental and physical. The defense let a tremendous performance against a tough Titans offense be pushed aside late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth, when they were unable to finish plays, stay with receivers, and get off blocks.
Where they matched the intensity and tenacity of Tennessee in the first half on Monday night, they faded in the second half and ended up getting blown off the field late in the fourth quarter.
While this may be a different Patriots offense, it is still coached by the same staff. New England's coaches will have their players prepared and motivated. Without the scoring machine of 2007, the Patriots have returned to playing hard for 60 minutes, playing smart, and waiting for their opponent to give in.
The Rams gave into them on Sunday and Indianapolis gave into the Titans on Monday night. In order to win and turn in a complete performance, the Colts defense needs to finish this game out.