A rookie left tackle against Dwight Freeney. Should be a Freeney feast, right? Let's dissect it.
During an interview with Boston radio station WEEI a few weeks back Tom Brady was asked who the most intimidating player he faced was. "Dwight Freeney," Brady replied. "Every play with him is a game-changing play. Every time you throw the ball, (Freeney is) a factor. As a quarterback, you probably have anywhere from a second and a half to sometimes four seconds to make your decision and throw the ball. With Freeney, it's probably consistently around two seconds with sometimes being from the time the ball is snapped, a second and a half, you've got to throw that ball. There's no time for decision-making. You're making your decision before the ball is snapped based on the coverage."
Freeney has a sack in nine straight games and is starting to garner defensive player of the year mentions. Normally, its nine year pro Matt Light protecting Brady's blind side and keeping Freeney away from his quarterback. A knee injury to Light, however, has elevated rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer into the role.Vollmer has been outstanding so far in three starts (Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Miami). "I think Sebastian's gotten better each week, even going back to training camp," Belichick said on Monday. "He's a guy that doesn't have a great football background, it's solid, and he's certainly added to it and he's gotten a lot of opportunity to practice against good players and play against good players and get some experience. He's learning every week, every play." This week lining up across from Dwight Freeney should go a long way in that learning experience. Mike Hurley of NESN hits on that very point. Hurley wrote:
Vollmer, a 6-foot-8, 315-pound monster, has been hard to miss since filling in for an injured Matt Light in Week 5. The Patriots lost that game, but Vollmer held his ground well. Since then, he's only gotten better, with his most recent feat coming against the Dolphins, when he helped keep the outspoken Joey Porter from recording a tackle.
Vollmer has a bit of an interesting history. He didn't play football until he was 14, and he was originally a tight end at the University of Houston before making the move to left tackle. Out of college, Vollmer did not even receive an invite to the NFL Combine. Many viewed it as a reach when New England selected him in the second round of the draft.
Bill Belichick gave a quick scouting report of his rookie left tackle at Monday's presser. "He's very competitive, he's tough, he's long," Belichick said. "He's pretty athletic and he can stay with quicker guys and he can hold up to the stronger guys and play with the guys that have combinations of those two skills. And his techniques are improving — his footwork and his hands and seeing things. It's not perfect. He has plays that he can certainly learn from, but he's got more good ones than bad ones and that's heading in the right direction. He's working hard."
Really tall tackles like a 6-foot-8 Vollmer can struggle with against Freeney. Why? I can't say it any better than John Clayton did, so I'll let him break it down: "Because Freeney is short and plays at such a low level of gravity, he's a matchup nightmare for tall tackles. Once he gets under the pads of a tall blocker, Freeney can win the battle with strength or his spin move. Belichick naturally must commit a tight end or running back to help Vollmer against Freeney."
Now, the flip side of that is New England will look to wear Freeney down by running right him in hopes of letting the massive Vollmer wear down and beat up the much smaller Freeney with drive blocks. This is a game plan similar to what Miami did with Jake Long against Freeney in Week 2.
With that in mind, look for even more rotations at end than usual by Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck. Teerlinck will want a fresh Freeney and Mathis, especially late in a close game.
New England will likely also be without their starting center Dan Koppen this week. His replacement, Dan Connolly, took over after Koppen went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of last week's game against Miami.
Connolly played collegiately at Southeast Missouri State. He was on and off the Patriots' practice squad the last two seasons, and has played in six games this year.
"I think his progress has improved gradually," coach Belichick said, "but in the last six to eight months, he's taken a big jump. Why that happened now and it didn't happen at some other point, I don't know the answer to that. But from last spring to training camp to the end of training camp this year, his level of play has jumped up significantly."
A couple of things to watch closely: How does Connolly handle the noise of what should be a rancorous crowd and loud Lucas Oil Stadium? Do the Colts do much to try and confuse the young center? The Colts defender to watch here will be Colts MLB Gary Brackett.
Brackett is the Colts best blitzing linebacker. It was his blitz pressure up the middle last week against Matt Schaub that resulted in an interception by Clint Session. How often will the Colts send Brackett? They have to be careful, because Brackett is also the Colts best linebacker in coverage, and with a receiver like Wes Welker going over the middle, its not often smart to send the middle linebacker on a blitz unless you're confident he can alter the play and quarterback's progression.
Still, I do expect the Colts to test Connolly and blitz Brackett from time to time. How Connolly recognizes and picks up that blitz will be the difference between a positive and negative play. Timing is the other big factor: Is it on a key third down in the game? Do they test him early, or try to surprise him after he settles in?
Keep an eye on Brackett throughout the evening and see how Connolly handles the blitz when, and if, it does come from the Colts' middle linebacker.
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