The Patriots will be traveling to the Oil Drum in Indianapolis for a game that just doesn't feel right. Peyton Manning was last game- and along with it all the hullabaloo and Papa John's you could ask for.
The Colts game just isn't the same without Manning, even though game will probably as close to the same style. It will have a quarterback who loves to turn the ball over against the Patriots. It will have Reggie Wayne and Adam Vinatieri. It will likely be a shoot out against a quarterback who can never be counted out.
I opted to watch the Colts past two games to see how they operate. In Week 8 they were stomped by the Steelers and in Week 9 they returned the favor to the Giants. How did they crumble against the Steelers? Why did they whoop the Giants? Were there any consistencies? Here's what I found:
When the Colts run the ball
Oh my, make sure you keep an eye on Ahmad Bradshaw. He's fantastic. He's decisive out of his cuts, he hits hard, he will fall forward, he will break arm tackles, he can pick-up the blitz, he can catch out of the back field. He's an angrier and smaller Matt Forte.
Trent Richardson? Not so much. He's slow to react and seems to overthink his running route instead of attacking the daylight. It's likely he won't be on the field as much.
When it comes to slowing the Colts rushing attack, there wasn't many glaring weaknesses or strengths. Bradshaw can pick up what's available and maybe pick up a yard or two after contact. He can bounce outside, but there's no real running back that looks transcendent running the ball.
The Steelers didn't really do much to stop the run, but the game got out of hand due to turnovers, forcing the Colts to pass the ball. The Colts rushing attack ground it out against the Giants without much flash.
The Patriots should be fine in their base defense to manage the Colts rushing game. If they can defend anywhere near as well as they did against the Broncos, they'll be golden. The question is if they even want to. Do they want to try and make the Colts win the game with Bradshaw, similar to how Forte was asked to carry the Bears (or Knowshon Moreno was asked by the Broncos in 2013)?
In all honesty, the Patriots might want to take the ball out of Andrew Luck's hand in the dome and try and entice the Colts to win it on the ground. They won't be able to sustain drives.
When the Colts pass the ball
T.Y. Hilton is one of the most fun receivers to watch in football and he's not fun to scheme against. He's extremely versatile; he's dangerous on low crossers to get the ball in his hand in the open field and he's lethal when asked to attack the end zone on post routes. Hilton deserves the attention that burners like Mike Wallace and Desean Jackson receive.
Reggie Wayne is still a savvy receiver, although he's not quite as integral to the Colts offensive success as we've seen in the past. He's still a reliable target who can get behind soft coverage, but he's no longer the elite target of years past. Beyond Wayne, Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks provide additional large targets, but they're still becoming active in the offense.
The tight ends should be concerning. Coby Fleener is their athletic tight end who, while a dangerous target, is less talented than Julius Thomas and can be covered by a linebacker, or eliminated by a defensive back. Just don't let him slip between linebackers in zone coverage. Dwayne Allen should be highlighted as their main tight end. He's a great blocker and a viable target up the seam. The Patriots can't afford to let him get behind the coverage.
The Colts are most dangerous when attacking the deep half of the field. They use multiple targets on combination routes and try to tempt safeties into jumping the shallow route to leave Hilton wide open behind the coverage. They try and confuse defensive backs with their breaks and Luck will deliver a perfect throw.
They also borrow from the Broncos playbook by trying to use their crossing patterns to open up passing lanes. They'll drag a target like Moncrief or Wayne or Hilton across the formation when the defense is in zone coverage. The goal is for the linebackers to slide away from the middle of the field to cover the receiver, leaving a hole in the zone for a tight end up the seam. If the linebackers don't move, then the crossing receiver will generally be open.
The Patriots need to use a similar game plan as their last game. Devin McCourty needs to be absolutely rock solid at safety because the Colts rely on home run hits. Expect Darrelle Revis to play tight coverage on Hilton, while Brandon Browner aligns against Fleener or whoever is the outside wide receiver. Look for a battle between Pat Chung and the tight end Allen, while Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins share coverage responsibilities on the outlet running back.
Luck is overly reliant on his running back when he feels pressure so Hightower and Collins will be very important. Bradshaw is the most utilized receiving back in the entire league- he's absolutely fantastic.
The Steelers were successful at disguising their pressures on Luck. They were able to use their edge rushers to contain Luck within the pocket so he couldn't scramble and then used their interior linemen to just push their way into the pocket. Luck is the most dangerous when he can either escape the pocket or complete his throwing motion. If he feels interior pressure, he'll rise into his throwing motion and float the ball over his target.
On the other hand, the Giants did not do a good job of containing Luck within the pocket. Instead, they actually gave him scramble lanes (even if he didn't take them), that worst-case-scenario just gave Luck an open view and passing lane. One thing the Giants did do well was stack and stunt their pressure. They put the defensive end and tackle on the outside of the line and gave an appearance of an open pocket to step up in, before the ends stunted to the inside and forced him to make a quick throw.
Unlike Manning, Luck doesn't overly rely on a timing based offense so jamming the receivers at the line won't be as beneficial. Instead, he tries to extend the plays so his receivers can shake free of coverage. Luck will consistently try and extend plays whilst in the grasp of an opposing defender and throw the ball instead of taking the sack. This leads to multiple fumble opportunities throughout the game, as well as errant throws that aware linebackers can possibly intercept.
The best part about Luck's game is his short memory; while he might struggle on consecutive plays, he forgets mistakes from drive-to-drive. The Patriots will just have to be consistent with their pass rush coming from different angles at all times.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Colts really struggled when facing runs up the interior when the ball carrier attacked the 3-tech defensive lineman. This is the gap between the guard and the tackle and the Steelers and Giants were both able to seal out the defensive tackles to let their backs reach the second level and lower their shoulders. This will be a big game for right guard Ryan Wendell who is a fantastic run blocker. Look for Jonas Gray to be used inside.
One place the Colts were consistently solid were defending stretch runs. Those plays where the linemen all slide towards the sideline and the back is asked to pick a running lane, cut and go? The Colts are excellent at sniffing out the back and stopping any sort of movement. The Patriots like to try this two or three times a game and they shouldn't expect much success.
Another strong point for the Colts was their 3-4 base defense. They shade their defensive tackles at the 4-tech, or right across from the tackles, and place their outside linebackers outside of the linemen. They force the offensive linemen to block 1v1, similar to how the Jets attacked the Patriots, and it means it's difficult for running lanes to open. Look for Brady to audible out of run plays if he sees the Colts in this alignment.
The Patriots shouldn't have much of an issue generating a semblance of a rushing attack to force the defense out of position for the play action pass. The Steelers and Giants had success with Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Andre Williams, and Peyton Hillis (all weigh 230-245 pounds) averaging nearly half a yard more per carry up the middle than to the outside.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Colts have a fantastic cornerback in Vontae Davis. His break on the ball on hitch/comeback routes is one of the best in the league and Tom Brady cannot afford to hang the ball outside the numbers. Additionally, Davis is extremely capable of running in the hip pocket of the receiver down the field. He's a hard player to beat, so expect the Patriots to try and attack him with inside routes where he can't use the sideline for help. When he was hurt against the Steelers, there was a domino effect, similar to when the Patriots lost Aqib Talib in the playoffs against Denver, where no one was able to cover their man.
The Colts like to mix up man and zone coverage and the Steelers definitely took advantage of the zone. Similar to how the Colts themselves stack up receivers to force a mistake by the safety, so too did the Steelers force the Colts defensive backs to make coverage decisions. The safeties and corners (not including Davis) are slow to react when receivers are coming out of their breaks so the Patriots will have to time their breaks and passes well.
Another point of note for the Steelers: they had plenty of success once the plays broke down and Ben Roethlisberger had to buy time. This is a skill that's new for Brady and hopefully it will pay dividends against the Colts. It should also be noted that the Colts didn't really generate consistent pressure and it should allow the Patriots time for the routes to develop.
The Colts struggle to cover tight ends, which means that Rob Gronkowski should have a great time- unless the Colts opt to put Davis on him, in which case the wide receivers will be great match-ups across the board. Hopefully Brandon LaFell gets over his strep throat as he'll be the likely candidate to square off against Davis.
Look for the Patriots to try and get the running backs in the open field, too- the Colts rank dead last in defending running backs as receivers. While Gray should have a solid day running up the gut, look for Shane Vereen to have a quality day as a receiver.
The Colts did a really bad job against the Steelers in maintaining their discipline. They were calling for numerous penalties that either extended the Steelers drives or took back big Colts gains. The Patriots will have to play spotless football if they want to take advantage.
The Giants really messed up with field position and let the game get away. The Patriots special teams unit will need to be on point- the Colts are very solid in their own right.
The Colts turned the ball over way too many times against the Steelers and then the Giants were both unable to hold on to interceptions and recover fumbles. The Steelers let them back in the game with some foolish turnovers. The Patriots will need to hold on to the football and they should be able to leave with a positive turnover margin.
The base offense of RB Bradshaw, TEs Allen and Fleener, and WRs Hilton and Wayne is excellent. The Patriots need to drop their defensive ends- Akeem Ayers and Rob Ninkovich- into shallow coverage to hopefully eliminate any easy passes.
WR Hilton and RB Bradshaw are above and away the most dangerous weapons on offense. Taking away either should be in the game plan.
CB Davis is the best player on their defense, but 33-year-old FS Mike Adams has helped create a pretty solid secondary. The Patriots will have to scheme routes to remove both from the passing lanes.
These are two well matched teams. The more disciplined and passionate players will leave with a victory.