Colts - Patriots: New England Needs To Emulate Indy
By Dave Fletcher
Strange as it may seem, the Colts (7-0) enter Monday night's showdown at Gillette Stadium as the team the Patriots (4-3) probably most wish they resembled.
It is a peculiar thought considering how different these two teams have been over the past two years. An opportunistic, playmaking defense and an efficient, ball control offense have been Patriots trademarks during their championship runs. Yet so far this season, Indianapolis is the team with the inside track for the AFC's number one playoff seed thanks to their success in these areas.
Statistically speaking, the Colts defense has been doing most of the jaw dropping this year. They have allowed an average of just 11 points per game, lifting much of the weight that the vaunted offense took upon its shoulders in the past when the teams defense was, at best, average. Indy's detractors explain their success by pointing to their weak schedule so far this season (their opponents are a combined 17-34). But now Peyton Manning and the Colts finally have a chance to prove themselves against the defending world champs in the stadium where their past two seasons have come to a grinding halt in the playoffs.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are far from the team that has embarrassed the Colts on the way to two Super Bowl victories in as many seasons. They have yet to exhibit a consistent running attack, instead relying heavily on the arm of quarterback Tom Brady. Their defense, meanwhile, showed signs of life against Buffalo last week, but is still giving up big plays at crucial junctures.
While New England's defense allowed a season-low 16 points to the Bills, thanks in no small part to the return of Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots realistically will have trouble keeping Indianapolis to that total unless they can control the clock with their running game.
The Bills thoroughly dominated New England in time of possession last week by keeping the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game. That cannot happen again this week against a Colts team that is fully equipped to exploit the Patriots patchwork secondary if given as many opportunities as Buffalo.
If he is healthy, Corey Dillon can be his defense's best friend on Monday night by carrying the load, similar to what he did in January's AFC Divisional Playoff, when he reeled off 144 yards. Despite his ailing ankle, Dillon managed 74 yards on 18 carries in just a little over two quarters against the Bills. It was his most gutsy performance of the season so far and may be a sign that the Patriots are beginning to overcome their woes running the football. If the Colts defense has a weakness, it is the 108.6 yards per game they have yielded on the ground this season. With Patrick Pass nursing a hamstring strain, newly signed free agents Mike Cloud and Heath Evans would get the bulk of the carries if Dillon has a setback is not able to play.
Teams have the most success against Indianapolis when they run to the left side, negating defensive end Dwight Freeney's exceptional speed by isolating him with blockers. Left guard Logan Mankins and tackle Nick Kaczur will likely receive blocking help from tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson.
The Patriots will have their hands full with the Colts pass rush if Tom Brady is forced to stage a comeback with his arm. Not only does Freeney have six sacks, but the Colts have sacked opposing quarterbacks an NFL-best 26 times. Teams spend so much time focusing on Freeney that Robert Mathis has dropped the passer a league-leading eight times.
No one has come up with a viable solution to slowing Freeney down yet.
"Maybe we can put a ball and chain on him. That would slow him down," quipped coach Bill Belichick. "He's never out of the play. There's a lot of plays that he makes that you actually see him getting blocked and you think, Oh, that was a pretty good job, and then he still ends up on the ball somewhere."
Add Indy's 12 interceptions to the mix and it is no wonder opponents have only passed for only 169.3 yards per game against the Colts (seventh in the league). Coach Tony Dungy finally has the personnel in his secondary to integrate the Tampa 2 zone coverage defense that he cultivated while he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
All this makes playing from ahead instead of from behind all the more important. The embattled Patriots defense will undoubtedly face its toughest challenge yet. There is nothing the Colts do not do well on offense. Conversely, the Patriots defense hasnt been particularly good in any one facet.
The difference in the Colts offense this year has been their commitment to the running game. Handing the ball to Edgerrin James is no longer just an afterthought as defenses have loaded the field with defensive backs in an attempt to slow down the passing attack. James has made teams pay, leading the league with 801 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. His 4.9 yards per carry average has made Indianapolis play-action passes that much more effective.
Manning has only been sacked five times this season, giving him plenty of confidence to stand in the pocket and sling the ball to his many weapons (Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are tied for the team lead with 37 catches each). The All-Pro quarterback, however, has lacked the poise he normally exhibits when he faces New England. He is 2-10 against the Patriots in his career, 0-7 in Foxborough with a 76.3 rating.
The common misconception is that Belichick's defenses have found ways to confuse Manning and rattle him before the ball is snapped with exotic formations and schemes.
"In terms of really fooling (veteran quarterbacks like) Manning, (Dan) Marino, (John) Elway at this point in their career, they've seen every blitz," said Belichick. "They've seen every coverage. They've seen every front. In terms of him standing back there scratching his head like, 'Well, I wonder what coverage that is.' I don't think that's really happening."
Though Belichick may be right about Manning's level of confusion, the Patriots defense has had the most success against Manning when they bring in extra defensive backs and linebackers and move them around before the snap. Linebackers Mike Vrabel, Bruschi, Willie McGinest and even the maligned duo of Chad Brown and Monty Beisel are likely to have a primary impact on Manning's success throwing the football. They can force tougher throws by taking away short slants and providing late pressure in the pocket.
With defensive lineman Richard Seymour a game-time decision, New England may try to duplicate Romeo Crennels 3-4 blueprint that his Cleveland Browns used to neutralize the Colts offense, which only scored 13 points at home in the Week 3 matchup.
"They gave up a long slant that was a catch-and-run play," said Belichick. "It was only about a two-yard pass and (Reggie) Wayne probably took it for (51 yards). It couldn't have been more than two yards downfield, but it was all done after the catch. Cleveland just played a good, disciplined game."
The problem with Cleveland's effort was that they only intercepted one pass and did not record a sack -- a losing formula when coupled with a stagnant offense. New England knows it will need to put up impressive statistics on both sides of the football to hand the Colts their first loss. They'll need lots of rushing yards, a few turnovers and lots of points. For a change, this seasons Colts-Pats matchup is less about New England's defense versus Peyton Manning and more about beating the Colts at their own game.
What to look for: Can the Patriots defense force third downs and get off the field? The Colts have converted third downs an NFL-high 51 percent of the time. Of course, they have only had 77 third-down plays this season, the least in the league. And with James averaging nearly five yards a pop, Indianapolis typically finds itself in very manageable situations when it is faced with a third down. The Pats have allowed a fresh set of downs on third down 37.8 percent of the time, 19th in the NFL. For a defense that has had trouble getting off the field, forcing third-and-long situations will increase the chances that New England's defense can get off the field and avoid fatigue.
Notes: Since 2001, the Patriots record after November 1
is 39-5 Manning has a 140.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter (4 TDs, 0 INTs)
New England has won six straight games overall against Indianapolis and their
last nine against the Colts in Foxboro Brady is 6-0 with a 98.0 rating against
Indy The Colts have outscored their opponents 189-77, making them the only team
in the NFL with a point differential over 100 Indy's turnover differential is
+8 Manning's passer rating is 109.9 on the road this season Opponents are a perfect
7-for-7 against the Colts defense on fourth down The Colts don't have a kickoff
or punt return over 30 yards.
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