The New England Patriots defense hit its stride during the team’s seven-game winning streak, establishing itself as one of the stoutest units in all of football. In fact, the unit is ranked first in the league in points given up per game entering its Week 15 contest against the Indianapolis Colts.
That game, however, presents a considerable challenge for the Patriots. The Colts, after all, are the NFL leaders in points scored per game since Week 7: led by an offense coordinated by Marcus Brady, the team has averaged 32.1 points per game. Over that same stretch, for comparison, New England has given up a mere 10.4 points each contest.
Needless to say that the matchup between the Indianapolis offense and the New England defense is one of the best the league has to offer at the moment. While it remains to be seen who will eventually prevail, let’s try to find out what the Patriots can do in order to make life hard for the Colts on Saturday night.
Go old-school against Indianapolis’ ground game...
The Patriots of the early 2000s regularly fielded some of the top defenses in the NFL, in part because they were difficult to move the ball against on the ground. Playing a 3-4 defense as the base alignment, one formation in particular helped New England keep its run-fit integrity on a week-to-week basis: the so-called bear front.
Obviously, a lot has changed over the last two decades and the running game is no longer as integral a part of offensive football in the NFL. That said, stopping the opponent from moving the ball on the ground is still an important skill to have for any defense — something that is especially true for those going up against the 2021 Colts.
Indianapolis, after all, features one of the best running games in the league right now. Led by future Pro Bowler Jonathan Taylor, the Colts are ranked in the top-five in most meaningful categories: they are first in yards per attempt (5.1), expected points added per run play (0.085) and DVOA (12.2%), and are ranked second in both total yards (1,972) and touchdowns (20).
The Colts have been able to find regular success thanks to their running backs — most notably Taylor, who has gained 1,348 rushing yards already — and a powerful offensive line. The team’s scheme, however, has also helped.
Indianapolis is running a mid zone attack with outside zone elements mixed in. The goal is to move the defense horizontally and create cutback lanes in case it overcommits. This is an area where Taylor shines, and where the aforementioned bear fronts could become relevant again.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used those early on against the Colts in Week 12, and they were able to limit the team’s output. The main focus was on closing any cutback lanes, and in order to achieve this goal bear fronts were employed.
As opposed to the usual symmetrical front, however, the Buccaneers added a twist: they slanted the defensive line to the field-side whenever the Colts aligned on a hash mark in order to create backside traffic and allow the second-level linebackers to flow with the play and close any gaps.
Schematically, those fronts looked as follows:
With the interior line covered up, the Buccaneers were able to generate favorable matchups versus the mid zone scheme that is looking to create cutback opportunities. With the edge defenders playing contain and trying to funnel everything to the middle, the three down-linemen and off-the-ball linebackers were able to stop Taylor and company in their tracks.
The following run for a loss of 2 yards is a good example of that:
In a traditional bear front, nose tackle Vita Vea (#50) would line up directly over the center. With Tampa Bay moving away from the symmetrical structure, however, Vea was slanted towards the field-side A-gap. This look made it hard for Taylor (#28) to find any openings: he either had to cut straight into the heart of the Buccaneers’ defense or try his luck getting to the edge against a unit closing in on him.
The Patriots are no strangers to bear fronts, regularly running them still. The game against the Carolina Panthers and another top running back — Christian McCaffrey — is one recent example.
With cutback runs in mid zone concepts as the bread and butter of the Colts’ impressive running game, New England might decide to go back to those looks. The team certainly has the personnel to play it. Davon Godchaux and Carl Davis are both capable of playing the nose, while Lawrence Guy offers size and experience to fill one of the end spots. A 3-4 look with Godchaux and Guy flanking Davis would give the Patriots a stout front.
...but don’t be afraid to make tough decisions
While the Buccaneers were able to limit the Indianapolis ground attack early on in Week 12 by the usage of slanted bear fronts, the Colts were able to fight back. Brady went away from heavier groupings in favor of more three-receiver sets — a move that prompted Tampa Bay to change its 3-4 front to a 4-2 alignment.
This move took one big-bodied interior linemen off the field in favor of an additional defensive back. The Colts obviously liked this matchup and trusted their offensive line to still get a push up the field even with only one instead of the usual two tight ends on the field.
The plan worked: facing a smaller front, the Colts were able to seal off the down-linemen on the interior to create the cutback lanes Taylor has been so good at exploiting.
On this particular 12-yard run, the Colts are able to create a lane through the right-side A-gap by moving 2i-technique defensive tackle Rakeem Nuñez-Roches (#56) off the ball. With the line flowing to the right, Nuñez-Roches followed but his momentum allowed guard Mark Glowinski (#64) to move him off his gap. Together with the double-team on the other side, Indianapolis gave Taylor an opening he did not hesitate to exploit.
In case the Patriots stack the box and find success doing so, the Colts will likely make personnel changes in order to get favorable matchups. New England, meanwhile, needs to be able to react and maybe make tough decisions.
If the Colts go light, after all, Bill Belichick and company will have to ask themselves whether they want to counter by still going big against Taylor and company — or by sacrificing some run game integrity to be better equipped against the pass.
While Taylor is the most potent weapon in Indianapolis’ arsenal and responsible for 35.2 percent of the team’s offensive yardage output, having him run the ball might still be favorable than allowing quarterback Carson Wentz to find mismatches throwing the ball. Sure, Wentz flamed out as the Philadelphia Eagles’ former starter, but the former second overall draft pick still is able to distribute the football.
With the passing game generating a higher success rate per play than the run, New England might be willing to give up some yardage on the ground in order to match personnel. While this might allow Taylor to find openings, as long as he does not break any home run plays the Patriots should be in decent shape regardless.
Respect the other runners
While the Colts have a solid group of wide receivers and tight ends, the best skill position on the team’s roster is the running back spot. But while Taylor is the big name to watch, he is not the only player worth keeping an eye on on Saturday night.
Fellow running back Nyheim Hines also. cannot be underestimated. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said so himself earlier this week.
“Hines is really good in the passing game,” said Belichick. “He’s, obviously, very fast, a very explosive guy, can get through holes, or can get the ball and get into space quickly and make big plays, excellent in the passing game in terms of route running and his ability to attack all three levels of the defense.
“He can run by corners, not to mention linebackers. He’s a good route runner, catches the ball well, and very explosive with the ball in his hands, whether it’s a running play, jet sweep, pass play, punt return, they get it to him multiple ways. He gets to top-speed quickly and he’s a shifty guy, good football player, and then there are times where he and Taylor are in there together, which is just another way to attack the defense.”
So far this season, Hines has run the ball 51 times for 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also hauled in 32 catches for an additional 262 yards. Like Taylor, he is a do-it-all back and a potential mismatch against New England’s linebackers — especially if the team goes big to account for a potent rushing attack.
The Patriots might therefore best be served by using a safety such as Adrian Phillips to come down and cover the shifty backs, regardless who the Colts are using on any given down. One thing is certain: both Taylor and Hines are serious receiving threats as well, and New England cannot allow them to break the game open through their pass-catching skills.
Speaking of other runners, one more player deserves special mention — and it’s the quarterback himself.
While Carson Wentz is no Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, he is more than capable of exploiting openings if they present themselves. The Patriots’ pass rush therefore needs to be disciplined against a player who is averaging 5.5 yards per non-kneel-down carry.
Read the Colts’ tendencies
Ask any Patriots defender what he has to do to play good football and he will tell you to “read the keys.” What those keys look like depends on the position — a nose tackle will look for different things than a mike linebacker — but there is one thing they all have in common: they need to be attentive if any clues present themselves.
The Colts have shown some of them over the weeks as well, with the positioning of tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo Allie-Cox in particular standing out. Their pre-snap movements and alignment might be a tell about the play that is being run by the Indianapolis offense, particularly in the running game.
The tendency that can be found on film is the following: there is a difference between bunch and solo formations.
Sometimes the Colts will have #84 Jack Doyle or #81 Mo Allie-Cox shift pre-snap to move the 2nd level/create better blocking angles— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 14, 2021
When they move into a bunch, run is likely going away from the TE
If they’re alone on the wing, it’s probably going to them pic.twitter.com/P3VIubP2al
The Patriots will obviously be aware of those tendencies, and have trained their players accordingly. Of course, Colts head coach Frank Reich is no slouch either: he will be prepared to run counter plays out of those formations to test the defense.
The key for New England will be simple: be aware of what certain formations might tell you, but don’t be afraid to make quick-hit decisions in case a play breaks down differently. The Patriots should certainly expect some curveballs being thrown by Reich and Brady to keep the defense honest and test its ability to process information on the fly.