The New England Patriots have won their past six contests against the Indianapolis Colts and Bill Belichick is looking to tie the franchise record with seven straight over their former division rival (the record took place between 1996 and 1999). Here's what you need to know.
When the Colts run the ball
The Colts have improved their rushing attack over the past couple of weeks as veteran Frank Gore seems to have finally gotten comfortable in their offense. There's no great difference in the quality of the offensive line when compared to last season, but Gore is able to generate a little more out of the backfield than the cocktail of journeymen the Colts featured last season.
There isn't really a player to wax poetic about like the talent on the Cowboys offensive line, but it's important to note that the Colts played with a 60/40 pass/run first down split with Andrew Luck under center, and that has flipped to 40/60 pass run with Matt Hasselbeck under center.
There isn't a tell, like the Cowboys had, where the Colts favor to pass out of the shotgun, but the Patriots need to be aware of sticking the Colts in as many -and-long situations as possible.
New England has beefed up its defensive front with Akiem Hicks and should operate with a similar "first stop the run" mentality that they brought against the Cowboys, but with a different personnel grouping.
Against Dallas, the Patriots featured a standard 4-3 line-up, but played linebacker Dont'a Hightower at the line of scrimmage in essentially a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker role. With both Hasselbeck and Luck potential scramblers, the Patriots should instead operate with their traditional 4-3 that features Patrick Chung as a linebacker. This should be a viable player grouping to stop the Colts rushing attack.
When the Colts pass the ball
The added benefit of Chung as a linebacker will help protect the Patriots in case of play action pass. If Hasselbeck is at center, the Colts will try to get the ball out as quickly as possible, specifically to the tight end Coby Fleener, or to the outlet running back. Andrew Luck doesn't use his tight end as much, with Fleener seeing his targets increase from 2.3 per game to 7.5 per game with Hasselbeck under center.
The Colts feature a ton of talent in the passing game, with wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief front and center, and with veteran Andre Johnson an impressive #3 receiver. Add in their first round pick wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, their two tight ends Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and Gore, and the Colts roll seven deep with viable starters.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Indianapolis can only put five of them on the field at any time.
Hilton is the top target and he contributes in nearly every way. He can run crossers, he can run levels, he can run comeback routes, he can beat defenders down the field, and he will be the Colts top target. He's averaging 10 targets per game and the Patriots need to ensure that they have two bodies on him at all times. Look for Justin Coleman to receiver help from Devin McCourty in coverage.
Moncrief is a big #2 player that has really broken out this season. He's a dangerous player after the catch and he uses his frame to box out defenders. The Patriots could put Malcolm Butler in coverage, although I'd be wary of leaving him on an island if Luck is at quarterback; if it's Hasselbeck, Moncrief is a smaller threat.
Johnson is a great #3, although he definitely seems to have slowed down a fair bit. The Patriots could put Logan Ryan or Tarell Brown in coverage and expect to have a fairly solid defensive play.
Jamie Collins should be spying Gore all game, while Fleener is a big threat and should draw Chung in coverage. Allen is a bigger, slower player, that is far less utilized in the passing attack and whichever other linebacker is on the field should be following him.
Unlike Weeden, Hasselbeck hasn't forced the Colts to change their game plan too drastically. He is throwing it deep with great touch. This is still an offense that flinches if they get roughed up by the defense.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Patriots actually have the #1 rushing offensive line in the league per Football Outsiders, but they'll have a great test with the #4 run stuffing defensive line across the field. Other top defensive lines include the Jets, Broncos, Seahawks, and Jaguars, so it's clear that Dion Lewis is going to be the top running back in the game plan. The Colts have improved from their #22 rank in 2014.
How did the Colts improve? Part of it is their pattycake schedule against the AFC South, but they're actually a very good run defense. They have a new defensive line with rookies Henry Anderson and David Parry playing at a high level. New defensive tackle Kendall Langford is far better than what they were using last season. Robert Mathis is back from an injury that sidelined him all of 2014 and Trent Cole is adding value on the edge.
This is a defensive front that has a lot more talent than it did last year.
The Texans had some success running the ball by cutting back across the formation. While Anderson is a menace in run defense, he tends to over-penetrate at times and vacate his gap. If Dion Lewis keeps his eyes open, there could be plenty of room to run on the backside.
But overall, don't look for the Patriots to try and run too much unless the Colts try to sell out against the pass, or New England builds a major lead.
When the Patriots pass the ball
While the Colts feature Vontae Davis in their secondary, the Indianapolis passing defense is clearly the chink in the armor. They are really bad stopping the yards after the catch, which is the Patriots bread and butter. The linebackers can't cover. Whichever cornerback lines up across from Davis suffers from Nnamdi Asomugha disorder, where opposing offenses will pick on them because they're just a far lesser quality than Davis.
There are some obvious routes that the Colts struggle with every time. They can't stop anyone running out of the slot. They can't defend the quick outs. They really struggle to defend running backs out of the backfield. They play off coverage a fair amount of time, which leaves receivers wide open for quick passes.
If there is one strength to the Colts passing defense, it's their ability to defend against the seam pass. They sit 34-year-old Michael Adams in the middle of the field to deter any deep passes up the middle, while dropping their linebackers to a depth that requires opposing quarterbacks to have perfect accuracy to make a completion. This is how Tom Brady throws an interception against the Colts in every single game.
Instead, the Patriots need to attack that linebacker depth with quick crossers underneath. The linebackers are so deep that a receiver or a running back could grab an outlet throw and pick up 10 yards after the catch. This will force the Colts to draw their linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, which will ultimately open up more passes for Rob Gronkowski up the seam. But until those linebackers are forced to move, the Patriots shouldn't waste their time with seam routes.
The Patriots should focus on quick in or out routes with all of their receivers. Treat the quick passing game like they have treated the running game in the past; use it to break the Colts will and to extend drives. It's the clear way to put points on the board.