PHOTO: New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest (55) wraps up Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning for a sack late in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004. The Patriots defeated the Colts, 27-24, in the NFL season opener. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
With Perfect Play, Pats Can Send Peyton Packing Again
By John MacKenna
The prospect of a red-hot Peyton Manning attacking a Patriots' defensive secondary that is missing star cornerback Ty Law is scary. The Patriots beat the Colts in last year's AFC Championship Game because Law intercepted Manning three times. This year, they need a new formula--and perfect execution.
But there is a lot more to Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff than the match between the Colts' passing attack and the Patriots' patchwork secondary. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick: "In the end it is going to be how our football team plays against their football team. Their offense is a third of it. Their special teams [play] is a third of it. Their defense is a third of it, roughly, and vice versa. So, everybody is going to have to play a role in this game. I don't think any one phase is going to win it or lose it,"
Consider the following.
- The Patriots averaged 27.3 points per game this season, fourth-best in
the NFL. The Colts allowed 370.6 yards and 21.9 points per game, both fourth-worst
in the NFL.
- The Patriots rushed for an average of 133.4 yards per game, seventh in
the NFL. The Colts allowed 127.3 rushing yards a game, 24th in the NFL.
- The Houston Texans, ranked 23rd in the NFL in defense, held the Colts to
23 points on Dec. 12.
- The Patriots have scored 23 or more points in nine of their last 10 games.
- Colts Kicker Mike Vanderjagt has missed five of his 25 field goal tries this year.
So while Belichick and Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel have their hands full preparing for Manning, their Indianapolis counterparts, Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks, also have their work cut out.
"I think the bottom line is to score," Belichick said on Tuesday. "It doesn't really make any difference if both teams have eight possessions, nine possessions or 14 possessions. It will be what the production is with those numbers of possessions."
The Patriots undoubtedly will look to play keep-away by running the ball. RB Corey Dillon will probably have his busiest day of the year, running the ball 30-plus times. If the Patriots can mount long, slow drives that result in touchdowns nearly every time they touch the ball, the Colts will not have the chance to pull away, no matter how many completions Manning throws.
A one-dimensional game plan like that would fail against most playoff teams, but the Colts struggle against the run. They have the NFL's smallest defense, and they might have an even-worse record against the run if opponents didn't fall far behind so often.
Relying on the run also would neutralize the Colts' major defensive proficiency: rushing the passer. The Colts are tied for third in the NFL (with the Patriots) with 45 sacks, led by DEs Dwight Freeney with 16 and Robert Mathis with 10.5.
One flaw in this plan is that the Patriots have only one powerful running back. This is a day when they could use a two-pronged attack, such as the Steelers have with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. RB Kevin Faulk is not cut out for power running, and FB Patrick Pass lacks experience.
Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis undoubtedly will sneak in some pass plays, probably mostly on running downs in order to keep Freeney and Mathis off of QB Tom Brady. The Patriots might even get pass-happy at a few points in the game, trying to catch the Colts off-guard as they anticipate an all-out running attack. Brady's superior decision-making gives the Patriots a critical advantage.
This is a make-or-break game for the New England offensive line. Replacement OT Brandon Gorin must open some holes on the right side so that the Colts cannot load up on the other side. Look for the Patriots to play a lot of two-tight end sets. FB Pass should also see a lot of action as a blocker.
TEs Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver will do a lot of blocking, and they also will be the preferred targets for Brady's occasional passes. Look for short, safe passes in the middle of the field. The Patriots rehearsed this game plan in the last two games of the regular season, as the tight ends combined for 15 catches for 197 yards.
Belichick undoubtedly is insisting that the Patriots commit no turnovers this week because each fumble or interception will cost the Patriots a scoring chance while also giving Manning an extra possession. That is a recipe for disaster.
In Brady, New England has a quarterback who can heed that call. He threw no picks in seven of the team's 16 regular season games. Dillon has been less reliable, fumbling five times, including four in the last seven games. As a team, New England has 11 fumbles.
Turnovers are a Colts' specialty. They led the AFC with 35 takeaways and 17 fumble recoveries. Their 18 interceptions were third in the conference. "The big thing in this game is turnovers," Belichick said. "That is one of the reasons why the Colts are so successful, is the number of turnovers they get."
On drives where the Patriots can't find the end zone, they will need field goals. Kicker Adam Vinatieri has been the NFL's top kicker this season, making 31 of 33 attempts.
Keeping the ball away from Manning is the key to this game, so possession is critical for New England. If the Patriots turn the ball over even once or punt more than three times, they probably will lose. The offense needs to play a near-perfect game.
Once the Colts get the ball, Manning undoubtedly will find open receivers. The Denver Broncos took the field last Sunday with one of the league's best cornerbacks, Champ Bailey, in their backfield, and Manning still completed 27 of 33 passes for 457 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 49-24 victory. Bailey was assigned mostly to guard WR Marvin Harrison, so the Colts looked elsewhere. WR Reggie Wayne caught 10 passes for 221 yards while TE Dallas Clark caught six for 112 yards.
Law's presence definitely would help, but it seems that Manning always finds an open man regardless. After all, the Colts have six receivers with 25 or more catches this year. The third-best Colts receiver, Brendan Stokley, caught 68 balls for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"They are all good," said Belichick of the Colts' wideouts. "They all have a lot of skill. They are fast. They are quick. They run good routes. They catch the ball well. I mean, you hardly ever see their receivers drop the ball. They run good routes. They are on the same page as the quarterback. They recognize coverages and make route adjustments as the coverage changes. They do all of those things well."
It's an impressive attack, but there's some comfort in remembering that Manning can hit only one receiver per play.
Belichick recently offered an interesting perspective on his patchwork secondary. "I think, in a way, it could be a little more predictable if you had one established, experienced guy and then another one who is not. You can anticipate where a lot of balls are going to be headed. In our case, the quarterbacks are probably confused. They see so many guys out there, they don't know which one to go after."
Nice thought, but it's poppycock to Manning, who will not get confused when he has three open receivers instead of one.
It will be interesting to see what sort of formations Crennel uses. Under ordinary circumstances, the Patriots would use six DBs for much of the game. These days, however, that would mean putting Earthwind Moreland, Troy Brown and Don Davis on the field in place of much more capable defenders, such as Ted Johnson or Willie McGinest.
The Patriots have had a lot of success jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, but there are risks associated with that. "If you come up there and they get behind you, then you are looking at big plays," said Belichick. "So, if you want to take a chance on giving up big plays, that is one way to play them. The closer you get to the line of scrimmage, the more the ball is going up over your head. If you want to get up there and play them tight, then they are going to throw the ball deep. It is as simple as that."
This game is a classic case of "Bend but don't break." Look for the Patriots to use a deep zone as their base defense with minimal jamming. The goal is to force Manning into a short passing game, with numerous benefits for the Patriots. By forcing Manning to throw short, New England slows him down and sets the stage for red-zone matchups, where New England's elite linebacker corps becomes a factor in coverage and Manning has much less of an edge.
Manning seems nearly impervious to the blitz, so New England will likely dust off the game plan it used to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI: three- and four-man rushes with everyone else dropping into coverage.
The Patriots should dare the Colts to run the ball. Against most teams, it's a disaster when the opposing running back picks up yards in chunks, but not against the Colts. Anything is better than long touchdown passes.
The Patriots will also be looking to force fumbles at every opportunity. After a completed pass, the tackler's preferred method will be to hold the receiver upright while teammates rush in and try to dislodge the ball. Dungy would be smart to insist that his receivers go down quickly and easily. That's not playing soft; it's playing smart when any fumble might well be the game's turning point.
If the Patriots ever stop the Colts in their end, which, frankly, is unlikely, look for Brown to handle the punt returns, and mostly with fair catches. New England's offense can move the ball on the Colts; there is no need to risk a fumble.
One last note: Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Randall Gay need to stay healthy and play the best games of their young careers. If there is an injury to either of them or to safeties Eugene Wilson or Rodney Harrison, the Patriots won't stand much of a chance.
"We'll have to all be at our very best, every player, every coach," said Belichick. "Everybody is going to have to reach down this week and have a good week of preparation and be able to put our best performance out there on the field Sunday if we expect to win."
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"
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