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Patriots 2014 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Packers

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are scoring an average of 48.6 points per game in their last three home games. (USA Today photo)

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are scoring an average of 48.6 points per game in their last three home games. (USA Today photo)

 

The New England Patriots go back out on the road and travel to the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers in another battle of divisional leaders on Sunday. The game will be carried by CBS and the kickoff is slated for 4:35 p.m.

The Patriots (9-2) are winners of seven in a row and dominated the then NFC North division leader Detroit Lions 34-9 on Sunday in Foxboro. The defense kept the Lions out of the end zone and Tom Brady threw for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns as the offense continued their hot streak of averaging 30+ points.

The Packers (8-3) survived a close divisional game against the Vikings on the road 24-21 as Aaron Rodgers tossed two touchdown passes to lead the offense. With the win coupled with the Lions loss in New England, the Packers vaulted back to the top of the NFC North and now hold the #2 seed in their conference.

With both teams getting hot and moving up in their respective conferences, many have circled this matchup as a possible Super Bowl preview. While it is certainly in the realm of possibility, it is still a tad early for that type of hype. Regardless, it promises to be a great football game with two teams playing very well right now.

Sunday marks only the third trip the Patriots have made to Lambeau Field in their history. The last being back in 2006, a 1988 game was played in Milwaukee.

Here are our 5 First Impressions of the Packers:

Rodgers Matchup, A Difficult One For Belichick/Defense: It seems like every week, the Patriots defense has faced an offense that has the potential to score a ton of points. This week facing the explosive Packers, it will be a huge test for the Pats secondary as Aaron Rodgers has Green Bay operating at peak efficiency now.

After some early season struggles, Rodgers told the Packers fans on a radio interview to R-E-L-A-X, that the Packers would find their groove. And they have… Green Bay is a perfect 5-0 at home and scoring points by the bushel. In their last three games at home, the Pack are averaging a ridiculous 48.6 points per game.

Rodgers is having another stellar season completing 228 of 342 passes (66.7 percent) good for 2957 yards, 30 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. He has a QB rating of 119.2, has tremendous accuracy and is able to make plays with his feet to extend plays and is excellent at throwing on the run.

Curiously, this will be the first time that Rodgers has started against New England. The two teams rarely play each other and Rodgers missed the 2010 Sunday Night Football matchup with a concussion. Backup QB Matt Flynn played in that one. Rodgers did play in some mop-up duty in 2006 at Lambeau for Brett Favre.

Nelson, Cobb Provide Potent 1-2 Punch: The Green Bay offense is a passing one and Rodgers’ top two targets are the talented Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The two WRs average 173 yards of production per game and are capable of breaking one to the house at any time. Their 19 touchdown receptions are the top 1-2 WR combos in the league. After losing Greg Jennings and James Jones to free agency and Donald Driver to retirement, many wondered if the Packers passing offense would take a step backwards…those questions have been answered.

Nelson is a big (6’3, 217), WR, is sneaky fast and is outstanding at reading opponents’ coverages. Nelson is Rodgers favorite target, while Cobb (5’10, 194), is more of a proto-typical slot receiver in terms of build, similar to the Patriots Julian Edelman.

They provide a dynamic tandem in the passing game and versatile enough to play inside or outside.  Nelson has 68 catches for 1066 yards and 9 touchdowns on 106 targets. Cobb has 58 catches for 837 yards, 10 touchdowns on 79 targets.

Nelson is on pace for nearly 100 catches, 1600 yards and 14 touchdowns. It is somewhat of a head-scratcher that he has yet to be voted to a Pro-Bowl, but this season he should not only be selected for that but as an All-Pro as well.

It would seem that covering Nelson would fall to Darrelle Revis which would make this the premiere matchup to monitor this week. But something the Patriots have been doing is putting Revis on the #2 option and having Brandon Browner with safety help covering the #1.

Lacy Gives GB Needed Balance: Much like the Patriots, the Green Bay offense tries to remain balanced to keep opponents from either pinning their ears back getting after Rodgers or in flooding the passing lanes. And in Eddie Lacy, the Pack has found an excellent runner who is also good in the passing game.

Lacy is a big (5’11,229), powerful runner who is perfectly built to help with the running game now that the weather in Wisconsin, like New England is turning cold and wintry and may affect the passing game.

Lacy has 154 carries for 673 yards and six touchdowns on the season, but his best effort was on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Battling a stomach illness, Lacy rushed for a season high 25 times for 125 yards, 5.0 average and had two touchdowns (1 rush, 1 receiving) in the win over Minnesota.

More importantly, the fact the Vikings were able to contain the top receiving duo in Nelson and Cobb, Lacy was able to pace the offense and act as the closer for the offense in the final quarter. He had 65 of his 138 yards from scrimmage coming in the final quarter and Lacy got 10 carries, including five in the final three and half minutes to close it out.

With much of the Patriots focus this week on slowing down the passing of Rodgers to Nelson and Cobb, Lacy will play a pivotal role in the Packers offense.

Clay Matthews Must Be Accounted For: The Packers defense has struggled against the run this season, allowing an average of 136.7 yards per game. So Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers moved LB Clay Matthews inside next to AJ Hawk on early downs to help with the run defense and then slide him back to the outside on passing downs where his normal position has been.

Matthews has 4.5 sacks on the season and is always dangerous coming off the edge in the passing game. But he may be a factor in coming up the middle on earlier downs in an attempt to disrupt both the passing and running games this week.

With Tom Brady not being the most mobile of QBs, it is something to watch for and the Patriots OL will have to know where Matthews is at all times this week.

Special Teams A Focus Again This Week: Something to monitor for both teams will be the battle between the special teams on Sunday. Green Bay has a very solid kicker in Mason Crosby who is 16-18 on field goal attempts this season. They also are getting solid production from punter Tim Masthay who is averaging 45.8 yards per punt this season.

One area that the Packers have struggled in has been in the return game. But two weeks ago, Micah Hyde returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the blowout win over the Eagles.

As we’ve seen in the big Patriots’ wins over Detroit, Denver and Chicago, a key special teams’ return can ignite a team against a quality opponent. The STs of New England have been improving, now the Packers, at home will have the opportunity to do the same.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at stevebpatsfans@gmail.com

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Megatron? Golden Tate? With Revis and Browner, Patriots Now Have an Answer


Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have boosted the secondary play of New England in 2014, giving them a deep and talented unit. (USA TODAY Images)

Nearly every superhero has his sidekick, Optimus Prime had Ironhide, Starsky had Hutch, heck even Bill had Ted to navigate the waters of their great adventure. But the New England Patriots secondary has a dynamic duo of their own and Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner are getting it done on the field this year.

The pair has elevated the play in the Patriots secondary to a point where they are arguably the deepest, most talented at the corner position that the team has ever been during the Bill Belichick era, perhaps ever for this team.

The Patriots sit at 9-2 and the #1 seed in the AFC and while the offense has been rolling during the current seven game winning streak, the play of the defense can’t be overlooked. Because during the slate of winning football, this defense has faced some tough challenges and met them all head-on.

Facing A.J. Green and the Bengals? No problem. Brandon Marshall and the Bears? Another easy win. The Denver Broncos and the slew of targets that Peyton Manning has? Ho-hum, just another blowout victory. How about Andrew Luck and the high flying T.Y. Hilton? No drama there in Indy, a three touchdown win. Uh-oh…Megatron, Golden Tate and the Lions are on the schedule, should the Pats be worried?

Not anymore.

Revis and Browner were instrumental pieces of a total team effort in shutting down the vaunted pair of the Lions wide outs in another convincing win over Detroit as the Patriots rolled 34-9 and kept Detroit out of the end zone.

Back in the spring, all eyes were focused on Revis and the question was whether he still had the skills to be among the top corners in the NFL after a serious knee injury suffered while still a member of the NY Jets. Browner was also the subject of many whispers….He was jettisoned by the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks who opted for a younger player. Can he still cover? Will the new rules against contact make him a liability in the secondary?

Those questions were answered early in training camp, Revis was routinely providing blanket coverage of Patriots WRs in practice and after a session that the secondary admittedly didn’t have their best day, not being physical enough…and hearing it in the press, Browner had enough.

He set the tone early the next day in practice, driving WR Kenbrell Thompkins backwards and then long after the whistle, picked him up and rag-dolled him to the ground. Patriots WR Coach Chad O’Shea was incensed, Browner actually got into a heated exchange with O’Shea but didn’t back down. Message sent and received. This is a different secondary than the Pats have had …for several years.

Revis has all of the savvy and technical skills of Prime while Browner brings the physicality and warrior mentality of his Ironhide, something the Patriots have lacked in the secondary since Rodney Harrison hung it up a few years ago.

On Sunday, Lions QB Matthew Stafford targeted his own dynamic duo of Golden Tate and “Megatron” Calvin Johnson 21 times in the Patriots blowout win. He completed only eight of those passes and the Lions couldn’t find pay dirt once, having to settle for only three field goals, which against this Patriots team in Gillette Stadium won’t win many games.

Revis in particular was immense on Sunday against Detroit, breaking up four passes and providing blanket coverage. Browner with safety help over the top played his usual brand of physical coverage. Detroit and their offense were frustrated and it showed more and more as the game wore on.

Revis spoke at length with the media after the game and talked about how much like the New England offense, the defense’s game plan changes from week to week and the players have to be versatile and prepared for different roles depending upon the opponent.

“It’s a tough job but at the same time I’m the man they call for to do it sometimes — to play inside, to play outside, to do whatever, to help the team, Revis said. “The big goal is to help the team. I call us hybrids. We’re all interchangeable.”

Revis and Browner give Belichick some much flexibility, now they have to opportunity to mix and match against quality opponents and play to their strengths rather than reacting to their opponent. Look at last week’s Colts game. Belichick matched Revis up with Reggie Wayne, leaving Hilton to the Pats fastest corner, Kyle Arrington. Hilton finished with 3 catches for 24 yards.

And much like Patriots teams of the past, the players use perceived notions of slight as locker room fodder to motivate themselves. Revis mentioned the Lions’ talk about having the #1 defense in the NFL as extra motivation on Sunday.

Revis went even further stating that this secondary is very special, “This is probably the best group of guys I’ve been around, secondary wise where everyone is just talented. We can do some versatile things.”

Things get even harder this week, as the Patriots travel to Lambeau Field to take on the talented and high flying Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. But Belichick will put together a plan to counter. It should be another fun matchup to watch.

So while the Patriots offense didn’t get a “Megatron” type wide receiver as fans have been clamoring for the past several years, they did get an Optimus Prime for the defense. With a little assistance from Ironhide…it isn’t a bad thing at all. Nowthey just need to pay the man (Revis) and lock him up for a few more seasons.

“Just kidding. I just wanted to show him my cannons.” Ironhide to Optimus Prime

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at stevebpatsfans@gmail.com

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Declining? Not This Guy – Observations From Patriots vs Lions


Tom Brady and LaGarrette Blount had plenty to celebrate about in the Patriots 34-9 win over Detroit.

In another impressive performance in all three phases of the game, the New England Patriots routed another divisional leader on Sunday easily beating the Detroit Lions 34-9 on Sunday in Foxboro.

With the win, the Patriots improved to 9-2 and remain the top seed in the AFC and travel to Green Bay to take on a red-hot Packers team next Sunday. The loss dropped the Lions to 7-4 and out of the top position in the NFC North, as Green Bay held on to nip the Vikings and now own first place at 8-3.

But this was a day that belonged to the Patriots, even after a getting off to a somewhat slow start for the offense, the Lions top-rated defense held them to three and outs on the Pats first two possessions. But Brady and the offense showed how versatile this unit is and can be. A week after rushing 44 times for 250 yards against the Colts and facing the #1 rushing defense in the NFL, Brady passed 53 times, completing 38 for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns to pace the offense.

Brady was on top of his game, the Lions front four is able to put great pressure on opponents’ QBs but never sacked Brady and in the pivotal first half, Brady shredded an excellent Detroit defense. By the time the teams went off at half-time New England was firmly in control of this one at 24-6.  Only a lack of time at the end of the second quarter stopped the Patriots from scoring 4 straight touchdowns. Consider this…. in their past three games against division leaders Denver, Indianapolis and Detroit, the Patriots offense has scored 43, 42 and 34 points while slowing down all of the high flying offenses of their opponents.

Here are some other observations from Sunday’s game:

Declining? Not this guy: Once again Brady faced on the top tier teams in the league and this time, facing the #1 statistical defense in terms of yards and points and had a huge game. As we mentioned above, Brady had a big statistical game completing 38-of 53 for 349 yards and 2 TDs to go along with 1 interception. Rather than try to beat Detroit at their own game, Brady utilized the short passing game and negated the fearsome pass rush of the Lions.

It worked to perfection, Brady spread  the ball around with nine receptions for Brandon LaFell, 11 for Julian Edelman, seven catches for Rob Gronkowski, six for Shane Vereen and five for TE Tim Wright who caught both touchdown passes from Brady. In the red-zone, the Patriots used Gronk as a decoy, with the Lions giving him all the attention, Brady twice made great plays by staring down Gronkowski and allowing the defense to collapse all around him and then finding Wright all alone for easy scores.

Brady forced a throw on the first drive of the second half to Gronkowski that former Pat safety James Ihedigbo picked off deep in Lions territory at the six yard line. But the Lions got away with a possible pass interference on Gronk that went uncalled. But on a first down pass, perhaps that was one that shouldn’t have been forced in there.

Gray Sits, Blount Shines: Only a guy who plays for Bill Belichick and the Patriots can rush for 200 yards and four TDs on Sunday, be on the cover of Sports Illustrated on Monday and then not play a snap the following Sunday. One certainly can feel for Jonas Gray who was on top of the world on Monday and then overslept on Friday and was sent home unable to practice with the team and then was benched against the Lions.

Of course where else but New England and with Belichick can a player like LaGarrette Blount leave the field early on Monday Night Football with the Steelers, get released on Tuesday, get signed by the Patriots on Thursday and practice with an OL’s jersey number and then carry 11 times for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns against the top rush defense in the league on Sunday.

But that is exactly what happened. Blount returned to where he had a very solid 2013 and played a key role in Sunday’s victory. Detroit entered the game allowing 68 yards per game on the ground. Blount bettered that and averaged a nice 6.5 yard average to boot. A nice welcome back to New England game for the 250 lb battering ram.

Special Teams Shine Again: In our pre-game Razor’s Edge piece, we talked about the importance of STs in this game. Well the Patriots units had another stellar game. With the Patriots backed up deep in their own end, a bad snap from Danny Aiken skipped the ball to punter Ryan Allen who boomed the punt 66 yards that completely flipped field position.

Danny Amendola later had a fantastic return of 81 yards on a kickoff return that set up Brady and the Patriots with a short field and a subsequent touchdown. Amendola ran up the middle and then broke to the right sideline where he rolled all the way to the Detroit 22 yard line.

Julian Edelman had an even more impressive 78 punt return for a touchdown wiped out by a block in the back by Pat Chung. The play was close but correctly called as Chung tried to get in front of the Lions coverage gunner. Overall it was another very impressive day for the Pats, STs units.

Revis, Browner Secondary Rise Once More To the Challenge: Facing another potent passing attack, the Patriots secondary had a tough matchup as the Lions boast Golden Tate, Calvin Johnson and a trio of talented tight ends. But led by Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the New England secondary was more than up to the challenge.

Revis and Browner frustrated the Lions WRs and although Tate had a big first quarter, wasn’t a big factor after that and the Patriots kept Detroit out of the end zone in an impressive display. Throwing to Tate and Johnson, QB Matthew Stafford could only complete 8 of 21 passes. Revis in particular was again outstanding, providing great coverage and breaking up four passes.

On the day, Matthew Stafford had one of his worst if not the worst statistical day of his career, completing only 18 of 46 passes for 264 yards, 0 touchdowns and one interception for a QB rating of only 49.5. The Lions were only 5 of 17 on third down.  Revis Island…..alive and well and with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense on tap for next Sunday, it will be needed.

Offensive Line Answers the Bell: Facing Ndamukong Suh and fierce Detroit front four, the interior of the Patriots offensive line was facing a tough matchup. And the interior trio of C Bryan Stork, and Guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell did a fantastic job of giving Brady a great deal of time to throw. Brady helped his own cause with many of the throws coming on quick timing patterns but overall this unit did a great job of keeping Suh from being the disruptive influence in the passing game that he has become.

But the OL deserves a ton of credit, earlier in the season, this unit was in shambles, now they’re asserting their will on others even rushing for nearly 25 percent more than what Detroit had been allowing. And while passing 53 times, it was a great effort. The balance displayed makes the Patriots offense a very tough one to defend.

Players of the Game: Revis for the defense, and Tim Wright with two big touchdowns for the offense.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at stevebpatsfans@gmail.com

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

 

Blount Rejoins Patriots, With An Eye To the Future?


LaGarrette Blount rejoins the Patriots where he had a big finish to the 2013 season. (USA TODAY Images)

LaGarrette Blount wasted little time. Just two days after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he signed with the New England Patriots and shortly thereafter was seen at the Pats practice wearing #60 on Thursday.

Blount left the field early on Monday night during Pittsburgh’s win over the Tennessee Titans, reportedly upset at the lack of carries and playing time while backing up LaVeon Bell for the Steelers. He was cut loose less than 24 hours later in a move that was applauded by Pittsburgh’s players.

But the Patriots, who signed Blount to a 2-year deal for the veteran minimum with a lot of performance incentives, were more than willing to take another chance on the big, 6’0, 247 lb. running back who performed quite well down the stretch for the Patriots in 2013. Blount had 153 carries for 772 yards last season, which averaged 5.0 ypc, and scored seven touchdowns.

In the season finale against the Bills, Blount rushed for 189 yards and then against the Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns more. He signed with the Steelers as a free agent this spring and had only 266 yards rushing with 2 touchdowns this season in spot duty.

This move by the Patriots could be seen as a move for the post-season push and a look to the future. By signing Blount the Patriots now have depth at the running back position with Jonas Gray and have two big backs who can carry the ball and get the tough physical yards inside, especially now that the weather in the Northeast is getting more wintry. It will take the onus off of Shane Vereen, and allow him to be used more on passing downs, which is his forte.

The other factor is now with Blount, Jonas Gray and James White in the stable for 2015, it gives the team some stability and insurance at the running back position as Stevan Ridley, Vereen and Brandon Bolden are all free agents next year.

Blount may actually see a few snaps on Sunday against Detroit as he’s already familiar with the Patriots offense and could help in the return game where he had a 29.1 yard average in 2013.

Patriots – Lions, Who Has the Razor’s Edge? Key Matchups

This week's matchup of the #1 defense of Detroit and the Patriots offense with Tom Brady will be an interesting one to watch. (USA Today photo)

This week’s matchup of the #1 defense of Detroit and the Patriots offense with Tom Brady will be an interesting one to watch. (USA Today photo)

The New England Patriots return to the friendly confines of Foxboro to take on the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. and will be televised on Fox with their top announcing crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call.

The game is important to both teams in terms of playoff seeding although there are still six weeks to play. New England currently holds the #1 seed in the AFC and Detroit finds itself as the #2 seed in the NFC.

The Patriots (8-2) have won six in a row and last week went on the road and soundly defeated a very good Indianapolis Colts team 42-20 in Lucas Oil Stadium. 1st year running back Jonas Gray ran for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns and the Patriots offense converted 9 of 12 first downs against a Colts defense at home that had allowed only 8 of 45 third downs all season.

The defense stymied Andrew Luck by taking away his best receiver, T.Y. Hilton and holding him to just 3 catches for 24 yards. The Colts running game was also non-existent, rushing for only 19 yards on the day. Luck passed for over 300 yards but couldn’t put more than 20 points on the board, far below their norm at home this season.

The Lions (7-3) lost a tough game to the Arizona Cardinals 14-6 on the road on Sunday. In a game that saw at least two horrible calls go against them, the Lions gave up two first quarter touchdown passes to Drew Stanton before shutting down the ‘Zona offense the rest of the way.

The offense which has had its share of fourth quarter comebacks couldn’t generate one this time in the desert as the 9-1 Cardinals was able to hold them to only two field goals.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our  “Razor’s Edge”  column in 2014 to give a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Lions have only met 10 times in their history; the two teams rarely meet so there hasn’t been much of a rivalry between the two. The Patriots hold an overall 6-4 lead in games including the past three meetings and hold a 3-2 lead in games at Foxboro. The two teams last met in 2010 with New England winning a 45-24 game in Detroit. Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

Patriots RBs vs Lions Front Seven- Razor’s Edge Lions
Detroit’s strength on defense is having a deep and very talented defense line. It starts with DT Ndamukong Suh in the middle next to Nick Fairley. Those two along with DE Ziggy Ansah are disruptive and can penetrate into the backfield to blow up plays. Detroit’s opponents are averaging nearly 38 percent less yardage on the ground in games against the Lions defense. SS James Ihedigbo is a strong presence in the box in run support as well.

The Patriots got a tremendous effort from Jonas Gray last week (200 yds, 4 TDs) in Indianapolis but against a team that allows only 68 yards per game and only 3.0 per rush is a pretty daunting task. This week look for Shane Vereen to get more of the work.

New England will find the pickings slim against this defense and will have to be creative in finding room to run. Look for some traps and draws and a gameplan that will have to mix things up a bit. But the Lions hold the definite edge here.

Patriots WRs vs Lions Secondary-Razor’s Edge Patriots
The Lions are the #3 team against the pass this season, again it is a dominant DL that can get after the QB and disrupt plays before they get off the ground. Detroit has been excellent in getting opponents in third and long and get after the QB.

The Lions disguise their intent well by showing Double A gap pressure and sometimes coming on a blitz but at others dropping into coverage and flooding the underneath zones. The Lions third down defense is currently #2 in the NFL.

The Patriots’ passing game hinges, as always on their ability on protecting QB Tom Brady. When the team can give him time to throw, the passing game will thrive. During the current six-game winning streak, Brady has been on fire. This will be the big matchup this week with the Pats OL against a very good Lions front seven.

Look for Brady to work the short area of the field this week, the Patriots will attempt to throw short, quick timing passes to Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell as well as Rob Gronkowski underneath to try to neutralize the Lions pass rush. Shane Vereen will have a much bigger role in the passing game this week as well.

Lions RBs vs NE Front Seven- Razor’s Edge Patriots
Detroit’s running game has been stuck in neutral for much of this season, and a lot of it has to do with the injury suffered by Reggie Bush that has hampered him all year. Bush is due to return this week but it isn’t known at this time how close to 100 percent he’ll be. Joique Bell had 85 yards on 14 carries last week in Arizona but the Cards defense played the majority of the game in dime defense in an attempt to slow the Lions’ passing game.

The Patriots have tightened up their rush defense the past two games allowing only 62 yards combined against Denver and Indianapolis. Vince Wilfork and Dominique Easley have been able to disrupt plays at the point of attack inside and newcomer Alan Branch has been solid in spot play.

Look for the Patriots to play a lot of nickel in this game, so the onus will be on Bush and Bell to generate the yardage to make them pay. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower will again play a big role in the defense for the Pats. Both linebackers have been very solid the past few games.

Lions WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Patriots
The Lions have a very talented and deep group of receivers for Matthew Stafford to throw the football to. Calvin Johnson (Megatron) is the gold standard in terms of size and athleticism and he and Golden Tate are a superb 1-2 punch outside.

Detroit has three talented tightends in Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and rookie Eric Ebron. Reggie Bush out of the backfield adds to their plethora of riches. The problem has been injuries, Bush, all three TEs and now Johnson have been hobbled with differing injuries. That and some questionable play-calling have left the Lions operating at far below their potential

The question this week of who will cover who for the Patriots. Johnson is an amazing WR can go up and catch a jump ball with perfect coverage. See his TD against Miami a few weeks ago. I look for Darrelle Revis to cover him with over the top safety help. Kyle Arrington, the speediest of NE’s corners will draw Tate and Brandon Browner will take on Ebron.

The Lions OL has had issues with protection so look for more of the Double A gap pressure from Hightower and Collins. Bush’s health is a big thing to monitor this week. When operating a 100 percent, he’s a dangerous weapon rushing or receiving.

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge Patriots
The Lions have missed 11 field goals this season and are on their third kicker, former Bronco Matt Prater. Sam Martin is having an excellent season with a 41.7 yard net in the punting game. Jeremy Ross is a very good returner in both the punt and kickoff return game.

But Stephen Gostowski gives New England the edge in the kicking game. He’s been lights out, the only miss coming on a bad snap in Buffalo. Ryan Allen has been solid and Julian Edelman has been heating up in the punt return game. Both teams have had solid coverage units.

Prediction:
This should be a good football game, the Patriots have been playing great football in all three phases for the past six games and at home have been tough to beat. Detroit’s defense will give New England some trouble but look for Tom Brady to find the open man enough to get some points, especially in the second half as they find a way to adjust to the Lions’ pass rush. New England holds serve at home 31-20

Patriots Player to Watch-  Darrelle Revis
No one has transformed the Patriots defense more than Revis in 2014. He’s given Bill Belichick the ability to mix and match and now have the deepest secondary that the team has had in Belichick’s tenure in New England.

After heating up with some impressive performances against Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis, Revis will probably draw the tough matchup against Calvin Johnson, who is the most trusted receiver for Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense.

If Revis can slow down the production of Johnson, the battle is already half-won against Detroit. But Johnson is no ordinary WR, even with blanket coverage, he’s able to go up and bring down a pass for a big gain or touchdown. This should be a great matchup to watch this week.

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at stevebpatsfans@gmail.com

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots 2014 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Lions

Ndamukong Suh anchors a deep and talented defensive line for the Lions that has been dominant in 2014. (USA Today photo)

Ndamukong Suh anchors a deep and talented defensive line for the Lions that has been dominant in 2014. (USA Today photo)

The New England Patriots return home to Foxboro for another big NFC matchup with the Detroit Lions. The game will be carried on Fox Sports and the kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be on the call for play by play and in-game analysis.

The game has far reaching playoff seeding implications for both teams. With six games left in the season, it may be still early to dwell too much on that, but this is the time of year when teams begin to make moves to solidify their standing.

New England currently owns the #1 seed in the AFC but is only a game ahead of Denver and Kansas City for the top spot in the conference. Detroit is currently the #2 seed in the NFC but are one of four teams with the same record (7-3) which is also what their divisional rivals the Green Bay Packers are. They can ill-afford a loss now if they want to hold onto the division lead as well as the conference spot and earn a bye in the first week of the playoffs.

The Patriots (8-2) have won six in a row, and are fresh off big wins against divisional leaders Denver (43-21) and Indianapolis (42-20) which have them in the enviable position of being the top team chased in the conference.

The Patriots offense continues to roll up points, averaging more than 40 points per game during the current six game winning streak. Last week running back Jonas Gray rushed 38 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Indy.

The defense for the second week in a row was able to limit a high-powered, high scoring offense by limiting them in the red zone, holding the Colts and Andrew Luck to just 20 points. The secondary led by Darrelle Revis and Kyle Arrington was outstanding, holding T.Y. Hilton to just 3 catches for 24 yards.

The Lions (7-3) lost a tough game to Arizona 14-6 in the desert as the tough defense of the Cardinals limited the Lions to just a pair of first half field goals. The offense just couldn’t get untracked and although the Lions suffered a couple of terrible calls by the officials in this one, will be the first to admit, their offense production must improve.

The Lions defense gave up a pair of 1st quarter touchdown passes to Drew Stanton but from there clamped down and played their normal stout game. Although they didn’t get to Stanton as much as they’ve been accustomed to in the pass rush department, they were able to shut the Cardinals offense out the rest of the way.

All-time History: The Patriots and Lions have only met 10 times in their history; the two teams rarely meet so there hasn’t been much of a rivalry between the two. The Patriots hold an overall 6-4 lead in games including the past three meetings and hold a 3-2 lead in games at Foxboro. The two last met in 2010 with New England winning a 45-24 game in Detroit.

As part of the lead-up to the game on Sunday, we’ll have a detailed breakdown of the matchups later in the week, but here are Five First Impressions of the Lions:

Suh, Defense Carrying the Team: Unlike in past seasons when the Lions had an explosive offense and a weak defense, this 2014 version of Detroit has the Lions defense carrying the team and may find themselves in prime position for a deep playoff run. That’s something that has been unheard of in the Motor City with only one playoff win in the past fifty years.

Detroit boasts the #1 defense in the NFL in terms of both points (15.6 ppg) and yards (290.3) and is led by arguably the best defensive line in the league headed by Ndamukong Suh. Suh spearheads a deep unit, including Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah that has allowed a league low 68.8 yards per game rushing including only 3.0 yards per carry.

The Lions defense is very physical and fast and they stop the run and get after the opponent’s QB extremely well with their front seven. They’ll be a tough opponent for an offense that has been rolling the past six weeks.

Bush Injury Has Offense Stuck: With so many weapons on offense, the big question this season has been why has the Lions’ offense been stuck in neutral? Coming into Sunday’s game, the Lions are averaging only 18.8 points per game, 26th in the league and a surprising 332.2 yards per game. Those numbers are down over sixty yards and six points per game from 2013…so what gives?

Reggie Bush’s injury this season has really limited the Detroit attack from being balanced. Bush had an outstanding 2013 and his ankle which has really bothered him since the beginning of the year has left the team almost one-dimensional.  His absence has trickled down to the OL play as opponents have teed off on rushing the QB causing the protection to break down.

Part of being one-dimensional has really hurt them early in games is that they are constantly playing from behind. The Lions have only scored one first half touchdown in the past four games.

Joique Bell had a good game in Arizona (14 carries, 85yds) last week, but the Cardinals played mainly with a big dime look with rookie safety Deone Buchanon playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role similar to the Pats “Money” position as they loaded the secondary to slow down Detroit’s passing game. It worked; QB Matthew Stafford was only 18-30 for 183 yards on Sunday.

Bush was a game time to decision to play but was held out to give him a better chance to play at New England this week. His presence should give the Lions offense a big boost this week as he is expected to play.

Tight Ends, Options, Options, Options: The Lions already have an outstanding 1-2 punch at the WR position with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate but with a trio of tight ends that can catch the ball, it provides Detroit all kinds of matchup problems to work against opponents.

Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and rookie Eric Ebron gives the Lions an embarrassment of riches at TE that Stafford can use in the passing game. But all three have had injury issues this season. Fauria hurt an ankle in mid-September and is just now beginning to round back into shape. Ebron has been slowed by a balky hamstring and Pettigrew has had a foot injury.

All three should play this week and will present a tough matchup regardless of who is on the field at any time. New England like many other teams in the league has struggled at times in covering tight ends.

Rush Defense Incredible: As we mentioned above the Lions are the #1 rush defense in the league allowing an average of a paltry 68.8 yards per game. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of how dominant they’ve been.

Only one team (Jets) has rushed for more than 100 yards on the season against Detroit, and the Lions have allowed only four rushing touchdowns all season, and only one in the past six games. Contrast that with New England running for four just last week in Indianapolis.

Every team they’ve faced has rushed for less than their season average and the Lions are holding opponents to nearly 38 percent below what they normally rush for. This is especially important to recognize as the Patriots rely on being balanced in the run/pass game to open up play action passing.

Special Teams Focus Again: In what could be a very tight defensive game, there could be an increased focus on Special Teams play again this week. Bill Belichick always talks about “total team wins” which means offense, defense and special teams.

The Lions were very poor in their field goal kicking earlier in the season; they’ve missed 11 field goals on the year. But they’ve solidified the position by signing former Broncos kicker Matt Prater. Detroit also has one of the better returners in the league with Jeremy Ross who handles both kicks and punts.

Facing a Patriots unit with the ever dangerous Julian Edelman, both units will be hard pressed to contain the other. Sam Martin has been outstanding for the Lions in the punt game with a 46.7 average and a 41.1 yard net.

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Patriots, Gray Run Over Colts 42-20


Jonas Gray had a fantastic night for the New England Patriots rushing for 199 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Patriots win over the Colts. (USA TODAY Images)

On a night where the New England Patriots passing offense sputtered in the first half, they put their offensive game plan behind their offensive line and 1st year player Jonas Gray who had a fantastic evening running the ball. Gray ran 38 times for 199 yards for four huge touchdowns as they routed the Indianapolis Colts 42-20.

As we pointed out in our pre-game matchups, the opportunities were there for the Patriots to run up the middle on this Colts defense as their #9 ranking against the run was more of an issue of how potent their offense is and teams having to play from behind, than it was how stout they are up front.

Establishing the run early the Patriots behind two Gray touchdown runs had a comfortable 14-3 before an errant Brady interception gave the Colts life just before the half which led to a Andrew Luck touchdown pass to narrow the lead to 14-10.

But the New England offense took control right from the outset of the second half, pounding the ball between the tackles and with Brady much sharper they kept scoring and kept the Colts in catch up mode for the rest of the night.

With this win the Patriots improve to 8-2 and have put a little distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC for the #1 seed. Against the top three divisional leaders (Indy, Denver, Cinn) in head-to-head play, they’ve dominated all of them by a combined score of 128-58.

Interesting Stat of the Day: Patriots’ running backs got 248 yards rushing, while Indy’s? They could only manage 4 yards rushing. That is a perfect road winning football formula. In Sunday’s game the Patriots rushed for 244 yards on 45 carries with 4 TDs. In the playoff game in January, they rushed for 234 yards on 46 carries with six TDs.

And Bill Belichick finally won a game in Lucas Oil Stadium, which has been the site of numerous awful performances by the Patriots both against the Colts and the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Here are some other observations from the game:

4 Shades of Gray: In just his fourth NFL game, Gray was immense for the Patriots. One of the only knocks the past five weeks during their recent winning streak, has been the inability to run the ball consistently, especially in short yardage as well as the goal line. For this night at least, those issues were put to rest.

The Patriots entered the game with three rushing touchdowns on the season. Gray accounted for four alone on Sunday night as well as punishing the Colts defenders again and again. They frequently hit him short of the first down markers only to find themselves tossed aside as he kept his legs churning.

With the team missing  the big, physical Stevan Ridley in the running game, Gray at 5’10, 230 more than fits the bill as a powerful, physical presence in the interior. He won’t make anyone miss, but he can run over defenders and his play tonight easily gives him the Player of the Game nod.

Jonas Gray, promoted from the practice squad has the size and physicality the team needs between the tackles moving forward. (SBalestrieri photo) Jonas Gray, here doing an interview after practice is a big physical back that can really boost the effectiveness of the offense. (SBalestrieri photo)

Offensive Line Huge: With a five game winning streak averaging 40+ points, it was mainly thru the pass as the OL hadn’t got a big, consistent push upfront for the running game. The offensive line had a fantastic night as well especially in the running game as time after time, they pushed the Colts defense back at the point of attack.

Since they settled on a starting five of Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer, the offense has really taken off. Another 40+ point effort and this time by grinding the ball down the throats of a defense that knew it was coming until Tom Brady and the passing game got untracked.

On Sunday, they frequently used an extra offensive lineman, rookie T Cameron Fleming as an extra blocker and the running game was unstoppable all game long.

Brady Rebounds After Bad 1st Half: Tom Brady during the current winning streak has been on fire. But in the first half, he was tentative, didn’t step into his throws and made two bad decisions that resulted in interceptions. Brady was only 10-19 for 84 yards with 0 TDs and 2 INTs at half time.

His second pick was a particularly bad decision, he audibled at the line of scrimmage on a 3rd and 1 and called a deep pass play to Gronkowski. But the Colts blitzed up the middle and Brady, falling away should have taken the sack. Instead he floated an awful pass down the sideline that was easily picked off by Mike Adams and set up the Colts for an easy touchdown with less than a minute to go in the first half.

But Brady salvaged his night and the game with touchdown drives on the first four drives of the second half. He was much sharper as well, completing 9-11 for 173 yards and 2 TDs as well as 0 INTs.

Brady’s final numbers for the night were 19-30 for 257 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs for a QB rating of only 85.0. Hardly the type of night he’s been putting up during the winning streak but good enough with the way the running game was going.

Any Doubts About Defense Now?: The Patriots defense once again faced one of the top QBs in the game and frustrated him when it mattered most. Andrew Luck, again as we mentioned in our pregame was going to get his yards, but the key to the game was stopping him in the red-zone and keeping the Colts out of the end zone.

Darrelle Revis and Kyle Arrington get very high marks in the secondary taking T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne out of the game. Wayne had a 46 yard catch early but that was more of breakdown in coverage where Revis passed him off to a safety who didn’t read the play correctly. Hilton had only 3 catches for 24 yards which was a huge win for New England. The one interception they got from Luck was more a case of Revis making a great play on the ball and tipping it, which Devin McCourty intercepted.

Overall Luck was solid but far from the fantastic QB who has been tearing it up all season. Luck completed 23-39 for 303 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT for a QB rating of 90.

They didn’t force Luck into any real bad decisions, but the coverages were solid all night long and holding the Colts offense, which had been averaging over 30 points per game to only 20 on the road has to be a satisfying performance.

Also the much maligned Patriots run defense held the Colts to only 19 yards on 17 carries. Luck was the leading ground gainer with 15 yards and wasn’t a factor in scrambling and making plays with his feet. The Patriots made Indy one-dimensional and that was a huge boost in quieting the crowd.

Coby Fleener had a fantastic day for the Colts hauling in seven passes for 144 yards, consistently getting separation and making big plays down the field. No doubt his area of the film study this week will be dissected by the coaching staff as they will attempt to remedy this going forward.

The past two games the Patriots have held Denver and Indy to a combine 62 yards rushing…..Much better since the struggles earlier in the year. Vince Wilfork and Dominique Easley were big in stuffing the run at the point of attack as were linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.

Gronk Huge Game Receiving/Blocking: Rob Gronkowski was dominant all game long in the Patriots running game helping spring Gray on his runs. There was a lot of jawing going on between Gronkowski and Sergio Brown, the former Patriots safety who was given the task of slowing him down in the passing game.

On a touchdown run by Gray in the second half, Gronkowski put a stamp on the night when he drove Brown off the ball and five yards out of bounds and then rag-dolled him to the ground like a sack of mail, much like Brandon Browner did to Kenbrell Thompkins in training camp.

Although Gronkowski was flagged on the play 15 yards for a personal foul, it put forth the point that he’s all the way back and if teams want to get physical with him, it might not be a good idea to poke the bear.

Gronk also added 4 catches for 71 yards including a 26 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter where he dragged several Colts defenders down the field and into the end zone.

Third down Efficiency: The Patriots came into Indy with the knowledge that the Colts were the #1 defense in the NFL on third down (30.2%), and more impressively at home, the Colts had only allowed 8 of 45 attempts (16 %) on third down.

Thanks in part to the outstanding running game, the Patriots converted on 9 of 12 third down attempts and held Indy to just 5 of 13 third downs. The Colts were only 1 of 3 on fourth down.

Looking Ahead: The Patriots return home to Foxboro next week to take on the Detroit Lions (6-4) in another big matchup. They will then go back out on the road to take on the Green Bay Packers and then the San Diego Chargers.

In what was circled as a critical six game schedule of the season the Patriots are halfway thru it and they are 3-0. The next three are going to be tough but as of right now, this team and Bill Belichick have to be very confident to win against anyone.

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Patriots – Colts, Who Has the Razor’s Edge?, Key Matchups


Jamie Collins will be looked to play a big game, much like the Divisional Playoff game from last January. (USA TODAY Images)

The New England Patriots travel to Indianapolis to renew their rivalry with the Colts on Sunday Night Football. This rivalry peaked during the Peyton Manning years but now with the addition of Andrew Luck to the Indy offense, the rivalry has been rekindled and will take place on the national stage. Both teams are coming off their bye weeks and are rested and prepared for a big game with large playoff implications.

The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.

The Patriots (7-2) have won five in a row, mostly recently beating the Denver Broncos 43-21 two weeks ago. Tom Brady continued his recent hot streak where he’s thrown 18 touchdowns and just one interception.

The defense intercepted Manning twice and threw many different looks at the Denver offense which kept them off balance all game. Denver’s running game which netted 280 yards in New England last year, flopped and gained only 43 this time around.

The Colts (6-3) are also coming off of a bye week and have won six of their last seven. Two weeks ago they blew out the NY Giants 40-24 with QB Andrew Luck throwing for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Luck has pass for more than 3000 yards in the team’s first nine games. He and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton have become a potent combo while leading the league’s most potent offense, averaging 32.1 points per game..

The Colts’ defense has the best third down percentage in the NFL (30.1 percent), and they’ve stiffened their run defense, coming in at 9th best in the NFL. They’re aggressive in the blitzing department with 2nd year LB Bjoern Werner rushing off the edge in the absence of Robert Matthis.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our  “Razor’s Edge”  column in 2014 to give a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Colts have met a total of 78 times dating back to the 1970 season. New England holds a commanding 48-29 edge overall including the playoffs. The Patriots have won the last four meetings including a 43-22 divisional playoff game last January in Foxboro.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

Patriots RBs vs Colts Front Seven- Razor’s Edge Colts
The Colts have the 9th best rush defense in the NFL allowing only 98.1 yards per game. Cory Redding, and Arthur Jones surrounding NT Josh Chapman have done a good job of limiting opponents running games.

But it is a tad misleading, since most of the Colts opponents are trailing most of the time and are forced to play catch-up. Opposing running backs are averaging 4.4 yards per carry which is exactly what the Patriots have allowed this season.

The Patriots have been struggling to run consistently this season, missing the big workhorse Stevan Ridley between the tackles. Shane Vereen is best suited to a third down back type role. Jonas Gray was activated off the practice squad and has played well albeit in a smaller role thus far.

The Pats can run on this defense, but they have to do so between the tackles, those long developing stretch plays will go nowhere on this defense. The Colts are good at stringing those out and holding the opponent to little yardage.

Patriots WRs vs Colts Secondary-Razor’s Edge Patriots
Tom Brady has been on fire the past five weeks since the KC game. The issues along the offensive line have been remedied, Brandon LaFell is now more comfortable in the offense and most importantly, Rob Gronkowski has returned to full health.

In the past five games Brady has thrown 18 touchdowns against one interception. The Patriots during that stretch are averaging over 40 points per game and Gronkowski’s production has been off the charts. In the past two games, 19 targets, 18 receptions, 254 yards and 4 touchdowns.

As we said in our All-22 piece, Indy’s biggest weakness is the middle of the field in their pass defense. They’re solid outside with corners Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, but the Patriots should target down the middle and find plenty of room to make plays. And that includes both Gronkowski and fellow tight end, Tim Wright.

Colts RBs vs NE Front Seven- Razor’s Edge Colts
The Colts offense has had good production from the running game utilizing a two-tiered running attack featuring Ahmad Bradshaw who is averaging over five yards per carry this season and Trent Richardson.

Bradshaw is the must-stop guy here, just a year removed from neck surgery he’s been outstanding both running and catching the ball out of the backfield. On a star-studded Colts offense, he’s one of the unsung players but is capable of making plays all over the field.

The Patriots run defense has been good in wins and woefully bad in losses. However in the past two games they held Matt Forte in check while the game was still in doubt and then Denver to a paltry 43 yards on the ground.

Expect a lot of nickel looks on defense again by the team in trying to slow down Luck and the passing game. Which means the Colts should be able to run.

Colts WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Patriots
Wait….What you say???? New England has the advantage here? Yes they do, whether or not they can keep the advantage is a big question on how this game will ultimately turn out.

In the two previous meetings with Andrew Luck, (both in NE) the Patriots were good at forcing the ball out of Luck’s hands early and forcing turnovers. They registered four picks in the playoff game last January.

Luck has been outstanding thus far in 2014, passing for over 3000 yards and 26 touchdowns. T.Y. Hilton has been explosive, catching 56 passes for 937 yards, (16.7 ypc) and three touchdowns. But the big production guys have been TE Dwayne Allen (7 TDs) Bradshaw (6 TDs rec) and Coby Fleener (4 TDs).

Look for NE to mix up their coverages, and pass rush, they have to contain Luck in the pocket, if he can get to the outside and make plays with his feet, it will be a long evening. Jamie Collins will play a key role this week as he did in January’s playoff game. The key is limiting the Colts in the red zone, Luck is going to get his yardage, but a few FGs and a turnover or two will go a long way to winning this matchup.

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge Push
This will be a key area to watch as the Patriots STs units have really picked up their play.  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been superb, his only FG this season occurring on a bad snap. Ryan Allen is turning in a solid season with a 46.0 yard average. Danny Amendola has given a boost to the Pats moribund kick return unit and Julian Edelman has been getting hot in the punt return unit with big returns against Chicago and Denver (84 yd TD).

The Colts are outstanding in both phases of the kicking game, Adam Vinatieri keeps plugging away into his 40’s and has been perfect on his kicks this season. Pat McAfee has been outstanding averaging over 46 yards per punt with a superb 43.3 yard net. The coverage units have been solid and it will be interesting to watch who gets the advantage here. In a closely matched game, STs may indeed decide the difference.

Prediction:
This one promises to be another Pats – Colts classic as both teams are playing well and are jockeying for a prime playoff position.

New England hasn’t been a good road team the past few years and this one could exorcise some demons for them. Indy has been very solid at home and the place will be loud on Sunday night.

With both offenses operating at a very high level, this one will come down to which defense is able to slow down the opponent enough. This Patriots secondary can be a difference maker if they put in the effort they played Denver with two weeks ago.

In a close game, Brady and Co. led by a big game by Gronkowski win a big one on the road over a good Indianapolis team, Patriots 34-26.

Patriots Player to Watch-  Rob Gronkowski
This is a tailor-made game for Gronkowski, it is on the national stage, going in with a hot QB that is on fire lately and facing a team that has struggled all season to cover tight ends.

The Colts safeties don’t match up well at all with him, he has big size advantages over both starters, Sergio Brown and Mike Adams. The Colts linebackers struggle in coverage and if they choose to double-team him, it opens up other avenues elsewhere.

Look for Gronkowski to have a big game on Sunday night with at least one Gronk spike as Brady will take advantage of the Colts dependence on having to blitz to get pressure.

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Beating The Colts, An All-22 Look At How The Patriots Can Defeat Indy


Tight Ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright may be big parts of the New England game plan against Indy this week. (USA TODAY Images)

War is 90 percent information”
Napoleon Bonaparte

Looking at the Sunday Night Football matchup between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts is an intriguing exercise this week. Both teams have explosive offenses that average over 30 points per game. And it pits the newest young gun of top QBs Andrew Luck against the wily veteran Tom Brady.

The rivalry between the Colts and Patriots reached a pinnacle with the battles between Peyton Manning and Brady, but with Luck in the fold, those days have returned and now Luck is leading the league in yardage as well as points per game.

Lucas Oil Stadium should be a loud place on Sunday night as the two teams do battle. At stake are not only divisional implications but conference ones as well. The Patriots (7-2) currently own the #1 seed, but haven’t been a good road team going back to last season. The Colts (6-3) want to climb into the role as one of the teams to beat and lost a chance to defeat Denver early this season. Now they’ll have the chance to beat the Patriots at home.

From a New England perspective, how do they beat Indianapolis? They’ll need a total team effort and the offense, defense and special teams will be tested in this one. Since Luck and the Indy offense have been setting the world on fire all season, we’ll start with Indy’s offense.

We’ll have a detailed breakdown of all the key matchups later this week but here are a couple of the most important ones looking at the NFL’s All-22 film.

Quicker the Better: Most casual fans look at the similarities between Manning and Luck being such prolific passers and think the Patriots will just utilize the same game plan this Sunday. But where the Patriots tried to get physical with Broncos WRs to disrupt their timing, the Colts have no such issue with that. The longer the play develops the better, Luck and his WRs love when the play takes on that aspect.

Luck is most dangerous when making plays with his feet, he can move around the pocket and either scramble for good yardage or find a receiver deep down the field. The Colts are always looking to push the ball deep. The best bet is to force Luck to get rid of the ball quicker, the quicker the better. Although he has thrown for over 3000 yards in just nine games, he has thrown nine interceptions and still at times suffers from making mental mistakes.

The Steelers looked to contain Luck from the edge and push the pocket from inside. On one play early in the second quarter, they showed pressure from the Double-A gap, one linebacker came straight up the middle, the other looped to the outside, crossing DE Brett Keisel who stunted inside.

Steeler A-gap pressure

The result was Luck having to get rid of the ball quickly and the pass was incomplete. Another quick pass in the first half was an ill-advised one and CB William Gay read the play perfectly and picked it off, returning it for a pick-six.

The Patriots utilized this same technique against Denver showing pressure and then mixing up their blitzes and coverages. In this aspect, they’ll look to continue with the same type of play. See the image below with Jamie Collins and Donta’ Hightower showing the same type pressure scheme. Collins was very disruptive in the playoff game against the Colts in January and could play another big role this week.

Double A-Gap look

Hilton/Wayne Aren’t the “Must Stops”: While much of the focus that you’ve been reading this week concerns WRs T.Y Hilton and Reggie Wayne, those aren’t the guys that you need to stop on Sunday. Regardless of whatever schemes the Patriots use, they won’t shut those two down completely. They are going to get their yards, but like our friend Kerry Byrne likes to say, they are “Shiny Hood Ornaments.”

Combined, Hilton and Wayne have just five touchdowns, once the Colts get to the red-zone, the guys who are the most productive are RB Ahmad Bradshaw as well as TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.  Bradshaw with 8 TDs, (2 rush, 6 receiving), Allen, 7 TDs and Fleener 4 TDs should be the focus. Bradshaw will be a tough matchup for the NE Defense.

Just a year removed from major neck surgery, Bradshaw the former Giants standout has had a quietly superb season. Averaging 5.1 yards per carry in the running game, he’s Luck’s most trusted receiver when things go awry. He’s caught 34 passes for 6 touchdowns on the season, all of them in the red zone. New England will have to account for him on every down.

Allen is their most productive receiver in the red zone and a very tough matchup because of his prowess at both blocking and receiving. Looking back at the Pittsburgh game, on a play in the second quarter, the Steelers showed max blitz with ten players in the box close to the line of scrimmage.

Allen 21 yard TD

Luck recognized that Allen was one-on-one with a linebacker with no help, and obvious mismatch. Allen ran a route straight down the seam and Luck hit him for an easy touchdown. One option that the Patriots may consider with either Allen or Fleener is move Brandon Browner over to cover them. Belichick said earlier this week, they consider Fleener a big wide receiver anyway and with Browner’s size and physicality, he could help in that regard.

Allen 21 yard TD2

Attack the Middle: This isn’t new, especially with Rob Gronkowski’s resurgence in recent weeks, but the Colts have really struggled to cover the tight ends with both their safeties and linebackers. A look at who they’ve faced and the production that has been given up includes:
Julius Thomas 7 catches, 104 yards, 3 TDs
Zach Ertz 4 catches, 86 yards
Delanie Walker 5 catches, 84 yards, 1 TD
Owen Daniels 5 catches, 70 yards
Heath Miller 7 catches, 112 yards, 1 TD

The Colts are one of the worst (29th) teams at defending the tight end position and Gronkowski is arguably a better target than any of the tight ends listed above. Colts coach Chuck Pagano called him a “Matchup nightmare” and he can stretch the seams of the defense and make athletic plays in bringing down the ball like this one against Denver.

Gronk grab

In an earlier game against the Colts, Gronkowski had 7 catches for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns. They are sure to remember that and will be trying to slow him down. Another thing Gronkowski does is to draw a lot of attention away from others. In the Denver game, he drew three defenders in the red zone towards himself, leaving Julian Edelman with single coverage for an easy touchdown pitch and catch from Brady.

Edelman TD, gronk clearout, pass protection

TE Tim Wright could also play a bigger role this week, the Patriots could opt to show more of a 2WR, 2TE look (12 Personnel) and he and Gronkowski in the middle of the field could be a dangerous combination.

Vereen “X”-Factor: One other player to watch in the Patriots passing game this week is running back Shane Vereen. The wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman will be matched up with the Colts good corners in Vontae Davis and Greg Toler and will have their hands full. With Gronkowski in the middle, Vereen could further provide some matchup help in isolating him on a linebacker in the passing game.

Look for Brady to try to work that into the game plan, split Vereen out wide and take a shot with him down the field.

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Patriots 2014 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Colts

Andrew Luck and the Colts have the #1 offense in the NFL in 2014 and will be a huge test for the Patriots defense. (USA Today photo)

Andrew Luck and the Colts have the #1 offense in the NFL in 2014 and will be a huge test for the Patriots defense. (USA Today photo)

The New England Patriots come off their bye week and travel to Indianapolis to renew their rivalry with the Colts on Sunday Night Football. This rivalry peaked during the Peyton Manning years but now with the addition of Andrew Luck to the Indy offense, the rivalry has been rekindled and will take place on the national stage.

The Patriots (7-2) have won five in a row, mostly recently dismantling the Denver Broncos 43-21 two weeks ago. Tom Brady continued his five game hot streak where he’s thrown 18 touchdowns and just one interception.

The defense intercepted Manning twice and threw many different looks at the Denver offense and kept them off balance all game. They held the Broncos to just 43 yards rushing and forced them into being a one-dimensional attack.

The Colts (6-3) are also coming off of a bye week and have won six of their last seven. Last week they blew out the NY Giants 40-24 with QB Andrew Luck throwing for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Luck has already thrown for more than 3000 yards in the team’s first nine games. He and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton have become a potent combo.

The Colts’ defense has excelled at getting opponents off the field on third down and has stiffened their run defense, coming in at 9th best in the NFL. They’ve found their pass rush with 2nd year LB Bjoern Werner rushing off the edge in the absence of Robert Matthis.

All-time History: This will be the 78th meeting between the two rivals dating back to 1970. The Patriots own the all-time edge 48-29 and have won the last four meetings including a 43-22 win in the divisional playoffs last season in Foxboro.

As part of the lead-up to the game on Sunday, we’ll have a detailed breakdown of the matchups later in the week, but here are Five First Impressions of the Colts:

Luck An MVP Candidate: Much of the talk at the half-way point of the season centered around who was the first half MVP. As usual, much of the discussion had to do with Manning, Brady and DeMarco Murray who has gotten off to a blistering start for the Dallas Cowboys. But Luck’s numbers jump off the page as equally worthy.

Luck has completed 250 of 393 passes for 3085 yards, good for 26 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is only the fifth time in NFL history that a QB has thrown for 3000 yards or more in just his ninth game.

The Colts are the #1 scoring offense in the league, averaging 32.1 points per game as well as the leading offense in terms of yardage overall (452) and in passing (337). Luck has spread the wealth, tossing touchdowns to eight different receivers.

Hilton/Wayne Another Dynamic Duo: The New England defense faces another stiff test this week as Luck will have the speedy T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne to deal with in the Colts dynamic passing offense.

Hilton has been on fire lately with three 100 yard receiving games in the last four outings and has 56 catches for 937 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. Wayne doesn’t quite have the same breakaway speed he possessed a few years ago but is still quite effective and has had a productive first half with 42 catches for 504 yards and two touchdowns.

The matchup between Hilton will probably fall to Darrelle Revis and this one should be a great one to watch on national television. Hilton has 15 catches of 20 yards or more and will be a tough matchup for the Patriots corner.

Colts Defense Aggressive Using The Blitz: One of the reasons the Colts defense has been so successful on third down this season (30.2 percent) is they’ve been very aggressive at using the blitz to disrupt opponents passing schemes.

It is something Chuck Pagano brought with him from Baltimore, an up-tempo, aggressive scheme that tries to overload the opponents blocking schemes. It can’t be successful without relying on solid play from the corners and Vontae Davis and Greg Toler have been very good. Davis in particular has been outstanding limiting opposing WRs to a 45.5 completion percentage.

Defensive end Cory Redding, and LBs Werner and D’Qwell Jackson have been very effective at providing QB pressure. It will be an interesting chess match on Sunday to see how much Pagano will send extra bodies at Brady, who always seems to find a way in defeating the blitz.

Colts Defense Struggling Against TEs: One interesting sub-plot this week will center around Indy’s struggles covering tight ends. Thus far they’ve had their struggles covering the likes of Julius Thomas, Heath Miller, Zach Ertz and Larry Donnell. But Rob Gronkowski brings an extra dynamic into the mix bringing the element of size and physicality with the ability to stretch the seams of the defense.

Opposing tight ends according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) have been targeted 67 times and have caught 49 passes for 577 yards (11.8 ypc) and seven touchdowns. That places Indy 29th in the league at covering tight ends. Gronkowski now fully healthy has been on fire lately and has 49 catches, for 663 yards and eight TDs on the season.

Gronk has a huge size advantage on safeties Sergio Brown and Mike Adams and the recently activated LaRon Landry is physical enough but struggles in coverage. Colts LBs have struggled in coverage as well so how they look to slow down Gronkowski and force Brady to test their corners will be a key to watch.

Special Teams Key For Both Teams: Another area to watch closely is the special teams battle on Sunday. Indy has an outstanding kicking tandem in the ageless Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee.

Vinatieri is a perfect 20 for 20 on field goal tries this season and at 42, remains one of the best of all time. He has ice water running thru his veins and never seems to miss a big kick at crunch time as Patriots fans can attest to. McAfee has an outstanding 46.6 punting average with a ridiculous 43.6 net.

The Colts coverage units on both punts and kickoffs have been outstanding in 2014 and facing the Pats Julian Edelman on punt returns will be a key to watch. In a match of two good football teams, special teams can easily turn the tide for one or the other. Look no farther than the Patriots – Broncos game of two weeks ago where STs play made a difference of 13 points in the early going.

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