Matt Light and Dwight Freeney have been involved in some of the biggest battles this series has seen. Light came into the league in 2001, but wasn't a fully established starter at left tackle for the Patriots until Freeney's rookie season in 2002.
The good news for the Colts fans — but bad news for fans of the NFL in general — is that Light did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and is most likely out for Sunday night's game.
There has not been much of a dropoff in performance with rookie second-round pick Sebastian Vollmer protecting Tom Brady's blind side, but, having played Tennessee, Tampa, and Miami since Light got hurt, Vollmer hasn't faced an adversary that is as accomplished as Freeney thus far this season.
For his part, Freeney has been victimizing inexperienced left tackles thus far in 2009 and will look to extend his streak of games with at least one sack to ten games in Week 10, which would tie an NFL record.
The Patriots have averaged 4.17 yards per carry to the left side of the field and Freeney has allowed an average of 4.31 yards per carry to his side, so New England may run a little more than they have on average so far this season just to slow Freeney's pursuit of Brady. They rarely give the left tackle help in this scheme, but running backs Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis may chip Freeney on occasion to give Brady an extra half second.
New England has not been effective running in most other directions, but they have been particularly ineffective running around right tackle and right end, averaging 3.3 yards per carry to Nick Kaczur's side of the field.
Kaczur is a veteran who is very familiar with what Robert Mathis brings to the table, but Mathis has had his fair share of success against Kaczur in the past, so it will be interesting to see what the Patriots do in protection, since it would be highly uncharacteristic for them to keep seven men in the formation and only send three into the pattern.
Guards Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins have been part of the interior of the offensive line for several seasons, along with center Dan Koppen. Koppen missed practice on Wednesday, though, which would make life easier for Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir up the middle if Koppen is not able to play on Sunday.
This unit has been together for a long time and they are very in tune with each other, but Koppen and Light are the leaders on the offensive line. If both men miss the game, it will have an adverse effect on the line as a whole.
Bill Belichick's teams have always been able to adjust to injuries — and Vollmer's ability to step in for the Pro Bowler Light is another in a long line of examples — but two critical injuries like this will definitely take their toll in a big game like the one on Sunday between two talented teams that intensely dislike each other such as the Colts and Patriots.
Throughout most of the season, New England did not seem at all interested in running the ball. That changed slightly in Week 9 against the Dolphins, but Indianapolis can be fairly certain that the practice they got against the Texans last week in the nickel run defense will serve them well against the Patriots on Sunday.
Randy Moss is the star of this unit, but Wes Welker is far from being a flashlight at this point in his career. Since he came into the league, Moss has been one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL and he is enjoying another stellar season in 2009.
Welker is often looked upon as more of a slot receiver, but has moved to the perimeter in the past few games and has shown off some of his big play ability, catching the ball deep down the field and gaining fewer yards after the catch, but more yards overall.
In three games against the Colts in his career, Moss has 16 receptions for 252 yards (15.75 average) and two touchdowns. The past two seasons, Indianapolis has been able to keep him fairly in check during the first three quarters, but he has been able to get behind the defense in the fourth quarter. He did the exact same thing to the Dolphins in Week 9 and will look to exploit rookie Jerraud Powers in Week 10.
In order to effectively defend this very potent one-two punch, the Colts simply defenders need to keep Welker and Moss in front of them, whether they have the ball or not. Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea in particular need to make sure that neither Moss nor Welker is able to split them and gain serious yardage.
With the injuries along the offensive line for the Patriots, the fact that Indianapolis has been able to hold Welker to 15 receptions for 98 yards and one touchdown in three career games against him, and the fact that keeping the opposition in front of them is what the Colts defenders do best are all things working in Indianapolis' favor for Sunday.
The issue is that the considerable talents of Brady, Moss, and Welker are working against them.
It is possible that New England will try to take advantage of a smaller Colts front seven — both because Raheem Brock and Eric Foster will probably see a lot of action and because Indianapolis will play a lot of nickel, leaving an extra defensive back in the formation — but, most likely, they will play to their strengths and attempt to exploit the fact that they have two of the game's most talented playmakers at receiver and the Colts are starting two rookies and Bob Sanders' backup in the secondary.
The Patriots also understand that Indianapolis has been effective against them in run defense since about 2006 — even when they were allowing other teams to run all over them — and their options at running back are Green-Ellis and the enigmatic Maroney.
Even though the Colts may be vulnerable against the run and up the middle, New England didn't get to be where they are at this point in the season by running the ball. They will trust their receivers and their quarterback, because he happens to be a pretty good one.
Either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the league, depending on whom you ask. Some might answer Drew Brees of New Orleans, but either Manning or Brady would get the bulk of the votes if one were to ask 20 football fans at random.
Brady has, at times, looked a little skittish in returning from the knee injury that sidelined him for all but eight minutes of the 2008 season. Historically, his biggest asset has been his courage and awareness in the pocket and both of those attributes appear to be breaking down at the moment.
Taking those intangibles away from Brady would be like taking 20 percent of the zip off of Jay Cutler's passes or making Peyton Manning's vision 20 percent worse, so that it would be more difficult to see the defensive formations in front of him. Both men could still function in those situations, but they would be less effective. And one of the primary attributes that made them unique and great would be compromised.
That is what Brady is struggling with this season. It's possible that he may return to his 2007 form at any point this season, but the more likely scenario is that it will take him a full season to recover from the catastrophic knee injury that he suffered last season. For its part, the Indianapolis defense must make Brady as uncomfortable as possible on Sunday. The less comfortable he is, the less effective he will be. The less effective he is, the less effective the offense in general will be.
One of the things that set Brady apart from every other quarterback in the league prior to 2008 was the fact that he never seemed to be phased by the fact that he constantly heard footsteps. The Colts need to continue to rattle him and make sure that he doesn't turn into his regular cool, calm, collected self at any point on Sunday night.
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