Patriots vs. Colts is no longer the same marquee matchup it was in the 2000s and early 2010s. That does not mean their upcoming Week 9 meeting is not still a big one for both teams, though.
The Patriots and Colts, after all, are entering the contest in a similar position: both are right outside the playoff picture, trying to build some momentum heading into the late-season stretch run. New England is 4-4 coming off a victory over the New York Jets, while Indianapolis is 3-4-1 after losing back-to-back games to Tennessee and Washington — losses that have cost their starting quarterback and offensive coordinator their jobs.
Despite the Patriots being in a better position heading into their meeting, head coach Bill Belichick knows that the Colts cannot be taken lightly by any means.
“Well-balanced group across the board, offense, defense and special teams,” Belichick said earlier this week. “Well coached, really good with [Frank] Reich, [Gus] Bradley and [Raymond Ventrone]. I have a lot of respect for them. They all do a good job. We need to be ready to go here.”
The contest between the long-time rivals should be a highly-contested one, despite the Patriots currently being listed as 5-point home favorites (via DraftKings Sportsbook). What can they do to live up to those expectations? Based on the Colts’ game tape over the first eight weeks of the season, here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Colts defense
Eight games into the season, the New England offense continues to be an up-and-down unit. That much was on display last Sunday, during the Patriots’ 22-17 win over the New York Jets: quarterback Mac Jones was generally OK but had a few plays he would likely want back; the offensive line struggled; the running game relied on Rhamondre Stevenson breaking tackles; the unit again had a hard time finishing drives.
At the end of the day, the Patriots were able to do just enough on offense to complement the opportunistic play on defense and special teams. They managed to do that by moving away from the deep-shot game they attempted to play earlier in the year, and instead relied more on their bread-and-butter plays to methodically move the ball down the field.
Why is all of that relevant when it comes to the Colts game? Because their defense is quite similar to the Jets’, both in terms of structure, scheme and success so far this year.
“Really good defensive group,” said Bill Belichick this week. “Coach [Gus] Bradley has installed his scheme which has always been tough to deal with. There are some similarities to what they did last year. Obviously, it’s different with a different coordinator, it’s a little different but it’s a four-down scheme with a lot of similar principles defensively.”
The unit coordinated by Gus Bradley, who took over for Matt Eberflus this offseason, has played some solid football so far this season. It is tied for seventh in points given up per game (19.6), ninth in yards (319.8) and 15th in EPA per play (-0.005) despite ranking only 22nd in takeaways (8).
The foundation of the Colts defense is their strong defensive line, led by standout interior linemen Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner. Similar to the Jets’ Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins — two players who gave New England plenty of problems in Week 8 — Stewart and Buckner are capable of disrupting an offense on an every-down basis.
Stewart is one of the best at his position and a criminally underrated player — a powerful mountain of a man with excellent recognition and shocking quickness. Buckner, meanwhile, is not just a physical specimen but also a technician with his hands and has the versatility to win 1-on-1s, as a penetrator, or as a looper on stunts, and from different alignments as well.
Take a look at the following play against the Tennessee Titans in Week 7 as an example:
Stewart (90) aligns as a 1-technique over the offensive left-side A-gap, and he quickly reads his keys to shoot through the gap versus Tennessee’s zone run. 3-technique Buckner (99), meanwhile, is on the backside of the formation but able to close in as well after being able to immediately shed his block and start chasing from behind. The result of Stewart blowing up the play and Buckner coming in as a clean-up player is a run for no gain.
So, how do you counter those two up front? It will certainly not be easy given that New England will again operate without starting center David Andrews; the team captain has already been ruled out because of a concussion.
The Patriots will not be able to double both because that would create unfavorable matchups on the edges, against more talent such as Yannick Ngakoue and Kwity Paye. The best course of action might be to pick their battles wisely: help rookie left guard Cole Strange to avoid a repeat of last week against Quinnen Williams, and try to run away from the big-bodied Stewart.
Additionally, the passing game comes into play as well. Just like last week, getting the ball out quickly and targeting the short and intermediate zones should be a priority.
The Colts, after all, are also built similarly to the Jets in that regard: they play a lot of Cover 3 and are more than capable of taking away the deep shot.
They limit throws into the deep areas of the field thanks largely due to deep drops in their in combination with an aggressive rush up front. Most explosive plays they have allowed have come on screens and underneath throws where teams capitalized on these factors.
The Colts defense is in a single-high look, with the off-ball linebackers quickly dropping out to move into their coverage zones. The key player here is Bobby Okereke (58), who gets drawn further back by a Curtis Samuel (10) crossing route; this opens up plenty of space for Antonio Gibson (24) to exploit on the check-down throw to the flat. Targeting those parts or of the field might help New England to neutralize a talented front.
The Patriots might also find success versus Indianapolis’ man-to-man looks. The Colts like to mix in man calls, especially Cover 1, but teams have been able to take advantage on digs, deep outs, and crossing patterns.
On this play, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) went to Zay Jones (7) on an out from the right-side slot, targeting an area that was cleared out by the deep go on the perimeter. If that read did not appeal to him, though, he also might have had a shallow crosser available.
The Patriots should be able to find some success versus man-to-man looks and by targeting the short zones, but a lot will depend on how the offensive line holds up. If the unit plays on a similar level than last week, New England will need to pick its spots wisely and try to get the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands quickly.
A repeat performance of last week’s game, when he was pressured on 38.6 percent of dropbacks and several runs were blown up in the backfield, is not a winning recipe.
Patriots defense vs. Colts offense
The Colts offense enters Week 9 in a state of turmoil. The unit is tied for 32nd in the NFL in giveaways (16), is 30th in points (16.1/game) and only 29th in EPA (-0.098/play). While it is ranked a comparatively respectable 18th in yards (339.4/game), it has not held up its end of the bargain so far this season.
This has led to some personnel consequences. As noted above, the Colts made some changes at quarterback and offensive coordinator: Matt Ryan, who was acquired via trade from the Atlanta Falcons during the offseason, was benched in favor of second-year man Sam Ehlinger two weeks ago; Nick Foles will serve as backup with Ryan slipping down all the way to QB3 (before being ruled out with a shoulder injury).
Meanwhile, coordinator Marcus Brady was fired. Head coach Frank Reich will not name an interim, but instead continue to do what he has done ever since arriving in Indianapolis in 2018: have an active hand in running the unit.
Those changes create an interesting dynamic heading into Week 9, because it is impossible to say how Brady’s firing in particular will impact the unit. The same is true for the absence of one of the league’s most dynamic running backs: Jonathan Taylor has been ruled out as well because of an ankle ailment.
With Taylor out and receiving back Nyheim Hines traded to Buffalo earlier this week, the Colts will be down their two most productive running backs. Will Deon Jackson and trade pickup Zack Moss be able to fill the void? That remains to be seen, especially given that the. Indianapolis has also had its fair share of issues blocking up front this season: after ranking first in the NFL in EPA per play on the ground in 2021 (0.065), the unit is currently only 31st (-0.207).
Needless to say that the team’s ground game is far less of a threat than it was a year ago when Taylor and company were able to gain 228 yards on 37 non-kneel down plays versus New England. That does not mean the Colts won’t be competitive.
After all, there is one element that has recently entered the equation: the quarterback run.
“The quarterback, they’ve added some quarterback running type plays in there which obviously we haven’t been great against this year,” said Belichick earlier this week. “We’ll see how that goes.”
The Colts have not gone full Baltimore Ravens or Chicago Bears so far this season, but given that those two teams have had considerable success with QB runs in their respective matchups it would not be a surprise to see Indianapolis explore this mode of attack as well. Last week versus Washington, the team did so only sparingly: two designed quarterback carries were called all day.
The Colts tried a QB crack sweep with a bubble screen option backside in the form of Nyheim Hines (21) — a play nearly identical to the one Justin Fields scored on a couple weeks ago. The Bears used jet motion to create conflict instead of an RPO, though:
Additionally, the Colts used jet motion to get the defense flowing left with Ehlinger (4) reading the defensive to decide whether to hand off or keep it on a split zone read. He eventually kept it to move the chains on 3rd-and-2:
Patience and trusting the keys will decide how well the Patriots will fare against the Colts’ quarterback runs, no matter how many they will eventually call.
Quarterback runs might be the biggest threat the Colts offense can bring to the equation given that a) the Patriots have struggled against this type of plays this year, and b) the supporting cast is not necessarily one to put major strain on a defense. Make no mistake, though, Indianapolis does have the means to test New England’s offense in other ways as well.
Against Washington, for example, the Colts also relied on a lot of under-center zone runs off jet motion from 11 personnel. Parris Campbell received a handoff on one of those jet sweeps for 28 yards. Additionally, they mixed in some trap and a sweep with Nyheim Hines as a wildcat QB, as well as a fake reverse.
Indianapolis also mixed in gap runs from two-tight end sets, specifically two reps of duo and one counter run. The expectation is that a similar diversity will be on display versus New England.
The team will obviously also try to get the ball to its playmakers in the passing game, primarily the three-headed wide receiver attack of Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell and second-round rookie Alec Pierce. Pittman Jr. stands above the rest at the position: the third-year man is the undisputed WR1 and the team leader in targets (70), receptions (51) and receiving yards (528) while ranking fourth in receiving touchdowns (1).
For comparison, Campbell and Pierce have caught only 30 and 24 passes, respectively, so far this year. Campbell has gained 282 yards and scored two touchdowns, while Pierce has gained 373 while finding the end zone once.
Those three are the main men at wide receiver, and the Patriots should be able to win their matchups against them on a fairly regular basis given who is throwing them the football. Again, that does not mean they will not be able to win their battles but New England will count on Ehlinger and the Colts doing so consistently.
If they can, kudos to them. If not, however, the offense should have a difficult time against the Patriots — especially if the designed quarterback runs do not work as planned.