1. The offense seems to be performing better with Hasselbeck than Luck- is that more the product of the opposing defenses, or is Hasselbeck just playing better?
It's both. The defenses that the Colts faced in the first three weeks (Bills, Jets, Titans) are definitely better than the defenses that the Colts have faced since (Jaguars, Texans), and in fact the Jets and the Titans are both in the top three in terms of total defense at this point, while the Bills, despite being 16th, have a lot of talent and are still a good unit. The Jaguars and the Texans don't really compare to the defenses the Colts faced in the first three weeks, so that certainly is a part of it and has helped the offense.
At the same time, however, it's not at all a stretch to say that Matt Hasselbeck has been playing better than Andrew Luck did early on in the season. Really, Luck has played 11 quarters of bad football and one quarter of incredible football this year, with that one quarter being the fourth quarter of the Titans game in which the Colts overcame a double-digit deficit. Luck has not been sharp when he has played this year.
I think part of that can be attributed to injury and the hits he has taken, but a large part of that is simply him missing throws and making poor decisions. There's plenty of reason to think that he'll get better as he goes along and returns healthy, but he hasn't been good when on the field this year.
Matt Hasselbeck, on the other hand, has played really well. He hasn't held onto the football too long (something Luck tends to do) but instead has released it quickly, taking what the defense has given him. He has made some tremendous throws, has total control of the offense, and has done everything the Colts asked him to do. There's no quarterback controversy or anything close to it, but Hasselbeck has been better than Luck so far this season.
2. The Colts have added veterans to both sides of the ball that the Patriots didn't see last season- namely Gore and Andre on offense and Cole and Mathis (injury) on defense. How have they been playing up to expectations?
Frank Gore has been a tremendous boost to the offense because he actually provides a running threat, something the Colts haven't had much of in years. He has rushed for 325 yards and three scores this year while averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but even then I don't think the numbers tell the whole story. He nearly became the first Colts' running back to rush for 100 yards in a game since 2012, but he fell two yards short against the Texans. He's on pace to become the first Colts' back since 2007 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
This is a team that had Trent Richardson as their starting back the last two seasons, so the impact that Gore has on the offense is a huge improvement. He has the burst that we're used to seeing from him and can see the holes and hit them quickly. The Colts won't become a running offense which will keep Gore's production from being eye-popping, but he has been a huge addition.
The same can't really be said for Andre Johnson, who has been largely invisible this year before emerging in the Texans game. In the first four games, Johnson caught seven passes for 51 yards combined with no touchdowns, including a two-game stretch in which he didn't catch a pass. Against his former team, he had a very good game, catching six passes for 77 yards and two scores. Hopefully, we'll continue seeing that from Johnson, but to be honest, I'm not sure the Colts did a ton differently against Houston other than actually get him the ball. So it could be one of those week-to-week things on whether we'll see Johnson contribute or not.
Trent Cole has been even more invisible than Andre Johnson has been, having only recorded seven tackles and a pass defensed in four games this year. He has generated some pressure, but it hasn't been with any consistency or anything close to what the team needs from a guy they are paying significant money to for the sole purpose of pass rush. The Colts' pass rush has been incredibly inconsistent, and the same is true of Cole.
Actually, the player who has been the most consistent at getting after the quarterback has been Robert Mathis, but his snaps have been very limited as the Colts ease him back from injury. He too was invisible against Houston, however, so even then the pass rush is still a major concern.
3. The Colts have an array of weapons on offense, including first round pick Phillip Dorsett. He's connected with Patriots first rounder Malcom Brown because everyone thought the defensive tackle was headed to Indy. Where does Dorsett fit in with all the other offensive players, and how has he played this season?
Phillip Dorsett has not had a big role in the offense, but he has done some good things when targeted. He has eight receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown this year, including the huge score against the Titans that helped spark a comeback. So Dorsett has looked solid in the receiving game, but he simply hasn't been a big focal point yet this season in the passing game. He's sixth on the team in receptions, fourth in yards, third in touchdowns (tied with two other players), and seventh in yards after the catch.
A lot of it has been the other receivers on the roster. T.Y. Hilton is the team's number one weapon and a legitimate threat, while Donte Moncrief has really emerged as a playmaker this year and has had a terrific start to his sophomore season. Andre Johnson is still getting a lot of snaps, and then tight end Coby Fleener is still involved in the offense (especially with Matt Hasselbeck in the game). Add in to that the passes to the running backs that the Colts make (probably especially now that they've re-signed Ahmad Bradshaw) and there's not a huge role for Dorsett at the moment.
I wouldn't be surprised if he starts to take some snaps away from Johnson as the season moves on, but I think this is a pick that will pay off more in the future than this year. I think there's a lot to like about Dorsett and he has the makings of a good receiver, but he's very much fighting for snaps and targets this year which has limited his role in the offense.
4. The Patriots have succeeded in running against the Colts in the past, but this year Indianapolis is one of the best [against the run]. Would you attribute the improvement to a new defensive line, or to the linebackers?
I would absolutely attribute the improvement to the defensive line. At this point, the inside linebackers are what they are - D'Qwell Jackson is very solid against the run in certain situations, while Jerrell Freeman is an average player as well. The starting inside linebackers are the same from last year, but the starting three defensive linemen are all new additions. Kendall Langford was brought in as a free agent to stop the run, as the Colts let Cory Redding (who's strength is in pass rush) walk in exchange for Langford (who's strength is in run defense). So far this year, Langford has done a very nice job at that.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the Colts drafted two defensive linemen out of Stanford in Henry Anderson (third round) and David Parry (fifth round). I loved both picks at the time, but I thought that, at best, they would be rotational players in their rookie year. Instead, both of them ended up starting from week one - Parry because he won the training camp battle and Anderson because Arthur Jones was injured. Parry has done a good job of providing the Colts with a nose tackle, and while he has room to improve, Parry has become an immediate contributor and an upgrade from Josh Chapman last year.
The single biggest addition to the run defense, however, has been Henry Anderson, who has been absolutely tremendous. He has recorded 25 tackles (six for loss), a sack, and a pass defensed this year, but even that doesn't tell the whole story. According to Pro Football Focus, no defensive lineman in football has more run stops than Anderson. Anderson has made plays all over the place against the run and has been a massive upgrade. The Colts' defensive line isn't the most intimidating group on paper (Kendall Langford, two rookies, and not a ton of depth), but they have really performed well this year. When the inside linebackers then step up and make plays, that adds up to an improved run defense from a year ago - including young talent that could continue to get better.
5. Vontae Davis is one of the best in the business, but he struggled against the Texans. Is there a specific type of offensive player that gives the Colts the most trouble in the secondary?
I'm not sure if there's one specific type of player that gives them the most trouble as much as it's schemes that can beat them. When the team is at full strength with their secondary, their approach is really rather simple: Vontae Davis and Greg Toler play on the outside (often staying on the same side) while Darius Butler operates out of the slot.
They like to play press man-to-man if they can, and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky trusts his corners to hold their own against receivers. Good game-planners (like the Patriots) can figure out ways to beat this approach. For one thing, Vontae Davis can only be on one side of the field, regardless of whether he's following around a receiver or staying on the same side.
We've seen teams go away from him and target Greg Toler, which has had some success. More than that, working the inside of the field is a must against the Colts' defense. Darius Butler is a solid slot corner, but other than that the Colts don't really have the talent inside to match up well, which is where mismatches (often with tight ends) can come.
So far this year, the Colts' secondary has had all sorts of problems. Vontae Davis has been injured a bit, which is part of the reason for his struggles on Thursday night - he was playing injured, which prevented him from following DeAndre Hopkins around and also hindered his play bait. Greg Toler played his first game of the season on Thursday after missing the first four weeks because of a neck strain, so he's working his way back.
Darius Butler also dealt with an injury earlier in the year, and we also saw once again that he is terrible when forced outside. Again, he's a solid slot corner, but he can't play outside. The Colts have had to work with guys like Jalil Brown (who's currently on injured reserve), Sheldon Price (who was waived-injured), and Eric Patterson (who has been up and down between the active roster and practice squad quite a bit this year), while also signing a few other guys to try to add depth to a very injured position (not to mention that D'Joun Smith, who entered the season as the team's fourth corner, is on IR with a designation to return).
This isn't to use injuries as an excuse, but rather it's to say that the Colts' pass defense has yet to be at full strength this year. They have really struggled so far, however, and specific game-planning can expose some of the Colts' weaknesses.