The last game before their bye week saw the New England Patriots use a historically run-centric approach to beat the Buffalo Bills. Now preparing to go up against the Indianapolis Colts in the climate-regulated confines of Lucas Oil Stadium, one thing seems like a safe bet: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will not call just three pass plays again.
According to Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke, however, that is exactly what the team wants. Talking to reporters earlier this week, Okereke stated that “we’re really going to try to make the game one-dimensional and see what he can do.”
The “he” in that sentence is Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones, thrower of three passes in Buffalo. While the oddsmakers believe that Okereke and the Colts offense will have success against Jones and company — New England is currently listed as 2.5-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook — McDaniels does have the tools in his shed to put his young QB and the unit around him in a position to be successful.
What are those? Let’s find out!
Put the linebackers in conflict
The Colts’ base defense is a nickel look with two off-the-ball linebackers on the field: Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke, one of the most productive linebacker duos in the NFL this season.
“Both those guys have a lot of tackles,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the pair earlier this week. “They have a disruptive front in front of them. They help them. The line helps the linebackers. The linebackers help the line. They play well as a front six or front seven, however you want to call it.”
A former second-round draft pick now in his fourth season in the system, Leonard has long established himself as a big-play machine at the heart of the Indianapolis defense. This season, he leads the Colts in turnovers — registering two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He furthermore has forced five fumbles and notched 97 tackles.
Okereke, meanwhile, has picked off a pass himself. The third-year linebacker also has a sack on his résumé, as well as a team-leading 107 tackles. Like his partner, he appears to be around the ball at all times.
But while the two are capable of delivering game-changing plays, they also may be the key to New England’s passing game: putting the two in difficult positions in the middle of the field has to be high up on Josh McDaniels’ to-do list.
McDaniels has multiple ways to do that, and he can look to Indianapolis’ previous opponents to find inspiration. Take the following play from the Colts’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
With Leonard (#53) drifting off to cover the running back in the flat, Okereke (#58) is left in the middle of the field within the Colts’ two-high structure. The offensive route distribution, however, is forcing him to make a decision while also stressing the communication with slot cornerback Kenny Moore (#23): either he goes for the underneath crosser or he drops back to help defend the seam against the tight end.
Okereke does neither in definitive fashion, which allows Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (#12) to find tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87) over the top between the second and third levels of the defense. Gronkowski ran the high route in this particular high/low concept — a concept meant to stress the underneath coverage by forcing it to make quick decisions.
The play above run out of a three-receiver structure on the strong side is one the Patriots also have in their playbook, albeit with slightly different depth:
Regardless of the play design itself, the idea remains the same: put pressure on the linebackers in pass coverage. Using high/low concepts is one way to do that, but there are others as well — all of them regularly employed by the Patriots.
Option routes, for example, are another tool New England regularly uses. Why can the team find success running them versus the Colts’ primarily zone-based coverage looks? Because Indianapolis’ defense is an aggressive one, and every movement one way or the other might trigger a different route depending on how they impact the coverage.
Obviously, quarterbacks and receivers need to be on the same page to make them work but Mac Jones has shown some good chemistry with his wideouts this season. Two in particular might be in for big days given that they can be seen as New England’s top options versus zone: wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and tight end Hunter Henry. Both have an impressive feel for zone looks while regularly being on the same page as their young QB.
On top of it all, New England will also likely incorporate plenty of play-action concepts. Those would help the Patriots check two boxes at once: challenge the linebackers and using the Colts’ aggressiveness versus the run against them.
Speaking of which...
Use the Colts’ aggressiveness against them
Indianapolis’ defense is one of the best in the league versus the run. Giving up 1,454 yards and eight touchdowns on 322 carries, the unit is ranked fifth in the league in both run-game EPA (-0.128) and DVOA (18.6%).
But while the unit has been impressive, teams have found some success against it. The Colts have given up 100-plus rushing yards in seven games, including 180 against the Tennessee Titans and 179 against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
How did they and others find success? You guessed it: by capitalizing on Indianapolis’ run defense being built around shooting gaps to disrupt plays in the backfield.
The following play from the Buccaneers’ visit to Lucas Oil Stadium is a good example for how the Patriots might try to attack the Colts’ run defense as well:
The key player to watch is left guard Nick Leverett (#60), who pulls behind the center and causes the two off-the-ball linebackers — the aforementioned Darius Leonard (#53) and Bobby Okereke (#58) — to flow with the play. The Buccaneers, however, are not using Leverett as the lead-blocker. Instead, they are running a trap/wham play with Rob Gronkowski (#87) coming in to also help clear a path.
The idea behind this concept is to challenge the linebackers’ keys and also to get blockers to the second level. In this particular case, center Ryan Jensen (#66) is able to climb up and move Leonard out of the way. With him gone and with both Gronkowski and wide receiver Tyler Johnson (#18) clearing an ally, Ronald Jones (#27) is able to the take the ball for a gain of 11 yards.
The Patriots love calling trap/wham as well because it allows them to create a numbers advantage at the second level. They used it multiple times versus the Bills in Week 13.
The Buccaneers also attacked using another element the Patriots like to incorporate: double-team blocks.
On this inside zone run, the Buccaneers double-team defensive tackle Grover Stewart (#90) while releasing Rob Gronkowski (#87) down the field to help take on Bobby Okereke (#58). This leaves weak-side linebacker Darius Leonard (#53) as the potential disruptor. However, running back Leonard Fournette (#7) patiently sets the defender up to attack the opposite gap as soon as he commits.
The Patriots use double teams quite a lot in the run game, either to run inside zone or, more prominently, to use duo (featuring two double teams in the middle). Regardless of the concept, the goal remains the same — and it is also what those two plays have in common: players are brought up the field to take on the second-level defenders.
While concepts such as trap/wham, inside zone or duo are used to create numbers advantages down the field against a gap-shooting defense such as the Colts’ running between the tackles is a dangerous endeavor: defensive tackles Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner are tremendous run defenders. More often than not, trying to attack them leads to failure.
The Patriots will therefore need to expand their arsenal by also incorporating plays that target the edge of the defense. There are several different concepts, with some of them tying into those illustrated above.
Alternatively, New England could also use toss concepts:
On this particular play, called Toss 38 Bob, the quarterback pitches the football to the running back, with the H-back helping the right tackle seal the edge against the second-level weak-side linebacker. The center and left guard both climb to the second level, helping create additional space for ball-carrier.
There are multiple variations to this standard play, but one is particularly intriguing: the fake toss bootleg. In this case, the quarterback would keep the ball and advance it himself. Optionally, he could also throw it on a play-action concept.
The Patriots could also use stretch concepts behind zone blocking:
This play, titled Sprint 38 in the Patriots’ playbook, is designed to stretch out the defense while giving the ball-carrier the option to either bounce outside behind the Y-tight end block or cut back depending on the flow of the defense.
The goal remains the same regardless of what the Patriots call: attack an aggressive run defense to the outside rather than running into a strong interior duo in Stewart and Buckner.
Make smart decisions with the football
One of the primary reasons for the Colts’ defensive success this season is the team’s ability to take away the football. Indianapolis is ranked first in the league with 29 takeaways: the team has picked off 15 passes (4th) and recovered 14 fumbles (1st). The high number of turnovers generated by the defense has helped the Colts rise to the top of the league in turnover differential (+13).
The Patriots have done a good job of limiting giveaways on offense during their seven-game winning streak; New England turned the football over just five times since Week 7 (including once on special teams), compared to 11 giveaways over the first six games of the season. However, the team needs to focus on being smart with the football against a defense as opportunistic as the Colts’.
For one, the team’s secondary has some strong ball skills. Led by ex-Patriots cornerback Kenny Moore, who has notched a team-high four interceptions, the group has shown a knack for attacking the football by turning its heads around in time to make plays.
Take the following interception by cornerback Isaiah Rodgers (#34):
Rodgers looks through wide receiver Scotty Miller (#10) to read Tom Brady (#12) until the wide receiver gets into his blind spot. The defensive back then turns around to find his man and close the gap, becoming the receiver himself once he is back in Miller’s hip. The tracking of the ball and his concentration to make a tough catch in bounds are outstanding — and a testament to both himself and Indianapolis’ coaching staff.
Likewise, the Colts are strong when it comes to knocking the football loose. As noted above, Darius Leonard himself has forced five fumbles — the second highest number in the NFL this season. In total, Indianapolis has forced 14 fumbles this season.
The pressure is on the Patriots’ ball-carriers to play proper technique and not get careless with the football while trying to gain extra yardage, and on rookie quarterback Mac Jones to read coverages correctly and make smart decisions with his throws — something head coach Bill Belichick also pointed out earlier this week.
“We’ve just got to read the coverages, do a good job with our pass protection, run good routes, have good spacing, run good routes against man-to-man coverage and read the play out,” Belichick said.
“Wherever the coverage tells him to go, I think that’s where he should go with the ball, which is what he’s trying to do and what we’re trying to get him to do. We’ll see how it goes. It depends on how certain plays match up against certain coverages and how they’re played, so we’ll have to see.”
Jones has limited his mistakes recently, which should bode well for the upcoming game in Indianapolis. Furthermore, he has played some solid football when faced with zone coverage schemes like the Colts use them.
Nonetheless, he and the rest of the team cannot give Indianapolis’ defenders any easy chances to make plays. They will take advantage, as they have so often this season.