By: Steve Balestrieri
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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