Richard Seymour was a key component of the New England defense since he entered the league in 2001. He had been instrumental in many of the defensive stands the Patriots executed against Peyton Manning and the Colts over the years. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders in the offseason and is one of many 2008 defensive starters for New England that is either in a different precinct or has retired.
Even though the Patriots made sure to stock the cabinet with defensive line talent over the years, investing several first-round picks in the position, Seymour is a rare, exceptionally talented player and his shoes have been difficult to fill.
Compounding the issues along the defensive line is the fact that starters Jarvis Green and Ty Warren were held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, nursing various ailments. Even if they are both able to play, they will not be 100 percent and that will affect their ability to defend against the run and rush the passer.
Massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork has even lost some of his trademark strength and stubbornness at the point of attack. He still requires a double team and is still one of the best in the league at his position, but is no longer the dominant player that he once was, as evidenced by the fact that opponents are averaging 4.54 yards per rushing attempt on 50 carries up the middle and 5.51 yards per attempt on 66 carries to left and right guard.Those are not typical numbers for Wilfork's territory — they were 4.26 and 3.37, respectively, in 2008 — and they represent a decline in Wilfork's effectiveness and the overall decline of the defensive line, especially considering the fact that the Patriots have gotten much younger and more athletic at inside linebacker.
As far as the pass rush is concerned, Seymour was, by far, the most accomplished pass rusher New England had along the defensive line this century, so Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem should be able to handle Green and Warren — or their backups — without help. Derrick Burgess, acquired this season from the Raiders, could play a role as a situational pass rusher and already has two sacks. Diem and Johnson most likely will have their eyes peeled for him and will make sure they know where he lines up when he comes into the game.
Wilfork will not be easily neutralized by Jeff Saturday, Ryan Lilja, and Kyle DeVan, but he certainly can be neutralized whereas in the past he could only be contained — especially if Saturday plays a strong game. The more he can do by himself, the better.
The Patriots currently rank 20th in the league against the run in terms of yards allowed per game and the Colts currently rank 28th in the NFL in terms of yards rushing per game. In a matchup of the moveable object versus the resistible force, there will be opportunities for Indianapolis to run the ball to all areas of the field, particularly if Donald Brown is able to go. So far this season, the Colts have shown little to no interest in running the ball and rank 29th in rushing attempts per game, even though they have faced several favorable matchups in a row.
Chances are good that New England will take a page out of Houston's defensive playbook and come out in a nickel package. If that happens, Indianapolis will have only apathy to blame if they do not have a successful day running the ball.
Colt killers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are no longer with the team. Their departures mean two things for Indianapolis — it will be easier for the Colts to run between the tackles and target Dallas Clark over the middle and Vrabel will not be around to pressure Manning. Bruschi had made his fair share of big plays against Indianapolis over the years, but Vrabel always seemed to be in the backfield making game changing plays, especially in 2007 and 2008.
Their replacements — Guy Guyton for Bruschi and Adalius Thomas for Vrabel — are fine players, but Guyton does not have Bruschi's awareness and coverage ability and Thomas, who has been with the team since 2007, is not as accomplished a pass rusher as Vrabel, nor is he as familiar with the responsibilities of the position in this scheme.
Bruschi's retirement could explain some of the ineffectiveness for the Patriots against the run and Vrabel's absence could explain the fact that New England has only 15 sacks through the halfway point this season.
The other two linebackers in the scheme are a mixed bag, as inside linebacker Jerod Mayo is a versatile tackling machine that recently returned from injury and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has struggled to fit back in with the Patriots on the strong side after a couple of seasons with the 49ers. Banta-Cain does have three sacks and will actually be used as the isolated "fourth rusher" in the 3-4 defense New England deploys, but he struggles in the running game and in pass coverage — two liabilities that Thomas is not saddled with — so he will most likely be the fourth man coming in a high percentage of plays, possibly even with his hand on the ground.
One of the primary strengths for the Patriots defense over the years has been the interchangeability and versatility of their linebackers. Vrabel and Bruschi were the two most important cogs in that machine. Without them in the lineup, a great deal of the mystery and mystique is gone from the defense as a whole. They're still a strong unit, but a team that has had leads of 16, 28, and 59 should not be ranked 20th against the run.
Given the fact that Manning has tended to look in Reggie Wayne's direction first all season, it's worth noting that Leigh Bodden has had a very productive season so far in 2009. It's true that Wayne is having a tremendous season and that he has put up big time statistics against every opponent he has faced, but he has been targeted more or less frequently by Manning based on matchup.
This week, Wayne has a tough matchup, as Bodden is giving up only an average of 5.08 yards per pass attempt on short passes and 7.13 yards per attempt on deep passes. By way of comparison, Wayne's numbers for the season are 7.97 and 9.66, respectively.
Pierre Garçon draws the venerable Shawn Springs, whose numbers are not quite as stellar at 6.01 and 11.11. Garçon has been inconsistent this season, but his numbers to that side of the field match up very favorably against Springs, as Garçon's averages are 7.32 and 10.64, respectively. Overall, the matchups are pretty heavily weighted in the Colts favor and they should have a great deal of success on the perimeter, running, throwing short, and throwing deep.
What's interesting here is that the retirement of Rodney Harrison,another of the famous old guard of Patriots defenders, paved the way for the Brandons — Brandon McGowan and Brandon Meriweather — to make names for themselves in the league. James Sanders is also in the mix and may be deployed as a fifth defensive back in nickel situations, since he is also a strong run defender. The strength of this secondary lies in its safeties. There is an excellent chance that McGowan may shadow Dallas Clark and Meriweather will draw Austin Collie.
The silver lining here is that this is a matchup of strength versus strength, as the Colts have had the most success in the passing over the middle, particularly to the deep middle, where they are averaging 16.83 yards per pass attempt and where the Patriots are allowing an average of only 8.82 yards per attempt. Clark has been Manning's primary target in the deep-middle part of the field, so it will be up to him to create some separation on McGowan.
The fact that McGowan will be covering Clark means that there will be no safety help if Clark gets behind McGowan, so look for the Colts to at least attempt a few deep seam passes to Clark in an attempt to get him behind the coverage and into the open field, much like they did against Miami in Week 2.
Ultimately, though, New England has yet to face an offense of this caliber in 2009. They currently rank seventh in yards allowed per game and fourth against the pass, but have faced the 10th, 13, 16th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 28th, and 29th most prolific offenses in the league, which is not exactly a who's who of powerhouses.
In a contest that pits the top two scoring defenses in the league against each other, as well as the fourth and ninth best pass defenses, it's strange to think that there will probably be a lot of scoring and throwing, given the tendencies of the offenses in play.
It will come down to Manning and Brady, as it always has. Manning has won three of the past four games between the two teams. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top on Sunday.
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