The following are observations gleaned from re-watching Sunday's Patriots and Colts game, focusing solely on the New England defense. Going against Payton Manning is never an easy task, especially for a young group. Bill Belichick did a nice job of mixing up his defensive looks and not allowing Manning to get into a comfort zone. Not all of Bill's decisions paid off, but overall this was a good performance despite Manning's spectacular passing numbers (38/52 for 396 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs). I think the Colts missed Dallas Clark in this game, and were unfortunate to lose Austin Collie in the first half, although Jacob Tamme (7 catches for 60 yards) and Blair White (5 catches, 42 yards, 2 TDs) did a nice job of stepping up.
Vince Wilfork was on the field for more of the game than usual, and continued to line up in different spots along the defensive line. He held his ground well and collapsed the pocket to some degree, but was not able to get as much of an upfield push as he did against the Steelers. Colts center Jeff Saturday is a great player, and I think his skill along with the rest of the Indianapolis offensive line contributed to this, however they were not able to keep Wilfork from making numerous stops in the running game. The Colts gained very few yards on the ground aside from Donald Brown’s 36-yard run in the fourth quarter, and Wilfork played a large part in that. I was especially impressed with Vince’s willingness to follow plays down field. While he was usually too late to get in on the tackle, for him to play that many snaps and continue to give maximum effort every play is a tribute to his dedication and conditioning.
Gerard Warren and Mike Wright had important contributions. Wright was able to create pressure and force his way into the backfield on some plays, although Payton and the Colts line did an excellent job of preventing any sacks. Warren made some key run stops, and had a nice hit on Manning, but was not able to generate much pressure as a pass rusher.
Jermaine Cunningham and Tully Banta-Cain had good games as well. They started strong with some nice run stops on the Colts opening drive. Both were able to come off the edge and get close to Manning frequently, but usually Payton stepped up to avoid them, or they were pushed too far behind him to make the sack. Nonetheless, their pressure caused a number of hurried throws, including the final interception. Cunningham played his best game yet in my opinion, and seems to be equally good against the run and pass.
Banta-Cain had a critical unnecessary roughness penalty in the fourth quarter for some shoving after the whistle, which was an unfortunate blemish on his performance. It was not especially ‘rough,’ but came at a very inopportune time. It was interesting to see Darius Butler come over and presumably chastise TBC after that penalty. I could not tell what was said, but a second-year player encouraging a veteran to play smarter is a sign that there is a lot of respect between the Patriot defenders, and there is a shared belief in responsibility to the team.
The Patriots showed Manning a new wrinkle in the second half when they lined up Kyle Arrington at defensive end for a number of plays. Arrington was not very effective as a pass rusher, but his unusual presence may have helped confuse Payton when he threw the interception to Devin McCourty.
Gary Guyton played a lot more than Brandon Spikes, including in the 3-4 base defense, likely due to his speed and pass coverage ability. Guyton generally did a nice job covering the Colts tight ends and patrolling the middle of the field. It was his tight coverage on Jacob Tamme that allowed James Sanders to drop back and make the game-ending interception.
Jerod Mayo led the Patriots again with 15 combined tackles, and was good in run support. He blitzed on a few occasions, but not as much as in Pittsburgh. Mayo missed Tamme coming off the line on one third down play early in the second half, and the tight end made the catch to extend the Colts drive. Some of his zone coverage left too big of a gap between the linebackers and safeties, allowing for easy completions over the middle. Mayo played well this game, but could stand to improve his coverage skills.
Patrick Chung did not impress in his role covering the slot receiver. Blair White exposed him on two touchdown catches, although Manning deserves much of that credit for his pinpoint accuracy. Chung had some nice tackles, a pass-breakup, and tight coverage at times to round out his performance. Against a quarterback of Manning’s caliber it is a big risk to use a safety in man coverage. Once Jonathan Wilhite returns from injury it should allow Chung to return to his natural safety position.
Devin McCourty had a terrific interception, and a good game in general. While he was victimized on occasion by Pierre Garcon, McCourty continues to be one of New England’s best and most consistent defenders.
James Sanders has gone a long way toward shaking the good-but-not-great label. His interceptions in consecutive games have been the nail in the coffin for the Patriots. He may not have the speed and hitting power of Chung and Brandon Meriweather, but his smarts, consistency, and ability to step up in the clutch are a huge boost to the secondary.