OLB Tully Banta-Cain is happy to be back in New England, after a couple years with the San Francisco 49ers. During his first stint in New England, the former seventh-round selection was a role player who only usually saw 15-20 snaps a game.
That's changed. "ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss noted Banta-Cain was one of only three Patriots to play every defensive snap Sunday," ESPN's TIm Graham wrote this week. "Banta-Cain was credited with nine tackles, one for a loss, and a game-high three quarterback hits. His three sacks this year rank second on the team, and his seven quarterback hits are tops."
Now, getting pressure on the quarterback is not something New England has excelled at this year. As a team they rank 26th in the NFL in sacks with 13. Banta-Cain (three sacks) and Mike Wright (four sacks) have been the only consistent pass-rushing threats. So a big question this week is: Can New England find a way to get pressure on Peyton Manning without blitzing or will the lack of a pass rush will catch up to them?
In the past, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick had some success confusing Manning by disguising blitz packages and bringing extra linebackers or by employing delay blitzes. Back then, Belichick had the personnel to pull that off. Does he still? I'm not sure.
In recent weeks, San Francisco and Houston have had success keeping the Colts offense in front of them by dropping backers into coverage instead of blitzing Manning.
Given that, out of their base 3-4, I expect New England will bring pressure with Tully Banta-Cain, but also think they will drop back into zone coverage and hope to generate pressure without having to bring extra blitzers.
The Patriots will move Banta-Cain around a bit, so both OTs Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson will see plenty of him. However, I want to focus on his matchup with Charlie Johnson.
To the relief of all in the Colts organization, Charlie Johnson has been extremely solid this season. A lot of people questioned if Johnson was a true full-time NFL left tackle after he outperformed Tony Ugoh for the spot this past offseason. Johnson was an all-conference tight end at Oklahoma State before moving inside to tackle as a senior. So technically, this is just his second season as a starting left tackle at any level.
That makes his performance so far this season even more impressive. So how does Johnson do it? I went back and read Ed Thompson's breakdown of Johnson for this site back into September of 2006 and realized not much has changed.
Ed wrote at the time:
"Rather than simply trying to outmuscle his opponent — although he did register 45 knockdowns that season — Johnson consistently put himself in position to keep edge rushers from blindsiding his quarterback, showing good intelligence and technique at his position ...
I hope Charlie Johnson has that list of 62 offensive tackles NFLDraftScout.com ranked ahead of him somewhere and that pulls it out every now and again for motivation or a good laugh. Because the simple fact is that Charlie Johnson has developed into a very solid NFL offensive tackle, and a good portion of those on that list have not.
Johnson has shown the step out and arm-reach skills to constantly keep his squatty body between the defender and his quarterback. That will be important against a player with good initial quickness off the ball like Banta-Cain. Johnson has a natural low base, so it's tough to move him with a straight ahead bull move or by just using power.
RG Kyle Devan vs. LE Ty Warren (run situations):
Kyle Devan had been rotating with Mike Pollak at right guard ever since Week 3. Last week, after weeks of inconsistent play for Mike Pollak, Devan took over the job full-time. Given that the former Arena2 player will be making just his second professional start, I look for Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick to target Devan with the hope of creating a personnel mismatch.
In the Patriots 3-4 alignment, left end Ty Warren's job is to take up space, fill gaps, and occupy blockers. His run gap responsibility will be the two gaps that exist between the right guard-right tackle and tight-end-right-tackle. If both the right tackle and right guard must be used to block Warren, it prevents a blocker from getting to the second level.
Warren shows outstanding strength, uses his hands well and recognizes blocking patterns immediately. He's especially productive against the run, so look for Belichick to seek and create opportunities where his crafty veteran will be able to use both his strength and intelligence against the rookie.
DeVan is a bowling ball type who maintains good pad level, stays square, and is smart with his hands. Now, Devan is not going overwhelm at the point, but will stun a defender a bit with just how quickly he gets into blocks. He can also show a bit of a nasty streak and is a high-effort guy.
DeVan will not block Warren on every down, but when he does, it's important that he get into Warren quickly and maintain a low center of gravity. That will prevent Warren from gaining a leverage advantage. If Warren is able to get even the slightest leverage advantage, he'll use his strength to quickly overpower Devan and as a result get penetration into the backfield and disrupt the play.
Last week, the Patriots actually moved Vince Wilfork from nose tackle to right end. "We just felt like overall with Vince and Ty (Warren) outside, Mike inside (and rookie Myron Pryor as well), that that would give us the best matchup on Miami's personnel and what they were doing," Belichick told the Providence Journal. "Vince ... is a pretty versatile player. He's very flexible. He did a good job. He embraced the move all week."
Wilfork is expected to be back at the nose this week and lining up across from a familiar foe in Colts C Jeff Saturday. This Sunday will mark the eighth time these two have lined up against each other. Mutual respect abounds on both sides. Saturday is back strong anchoring the Colts offensive line following an injury-plagued 2008.
On the other side, many believe Wilfork is having the best season of his career. "If the Patriots had one, their midseason defensive MVP award would undoubtedly go to Vince Wilfork," Rich Garven of the Worcester Telegram writes. "The sixth-year nose tackle is having a heck of a season. He's sixth on the team in tackles (33) and has basically been unmovable in the middle, with the exception of last weekend against Miami when he shifted to end due to an injury to Jarvis Green."
Against the 3-4 defense, a main question will always be whether the center can control the nose tackle without help. If the Colts are forced to double Wilfork, it allows another linebacker to roam free in pursuit of the ball carrier.
Wilfork wants to occupy the blocks of both the center and weak-side guard Ryan Lilja. If Saturday can control Wilfork without much help from Lilja, it does two things. It allows Lilja to get into the second level and create deeper running lanes for Colts running backs. It also prevents the Colts running game from becoming too focused on the edges.
Now, blocking a plugger like Wilfork single-handedly is easier said than done. Saturday's most famous block, of course, occurred against Vince Wilfork without help. It was his pancake of Wilfork that opened the huge hole for Joseph Addai's fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown run in the 2006 AFC Championship.
Saturday is not going to overpower Wilfork all game, and he knows that. He has never been a consistent overpowering type of run blocker, who easily drives big, powerful nose tackles off the line of scrimmage.
So, the key to winning this battle is the same as it's always been. Jeff needs to use sound technique, smarts, efficiency, and his motor to maintain his ground.
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