By: Steve Balestrieri
With the Patriots facing the Colts in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, it rekindles a rivalry that reached its peak in the mid-2000s. It was supposed to be the Patriots and Broncos with Tom Brady facing Peyton Manning, adversaries since those halcyon Colts – Pats days but it didn’t come to that.
Andrew Luck, the replacement for Manning in Indy bested his predecessor in Denver. While the Patriots squeaked by against a tough Ravens teams facing Joe Flacco, who is the very antithesis of Manning. So-so regular season performer and stellar playoff quarterback.
Now the focus is beating a team much different than the team you faced the week before. But, whereas the Ravens exceled in areas that the Patriots struggle in, this week’s matchup doesn’t have that degree of difficulty for New England as they are able to take advantage of some of the weaknesses of the Indy defense. The Patriots offense has the versatility to attack in a number of different ways which will be a tough matchup for the Indy defense.
Recent Success Running: The Patriots have met the Colts twice in the last 12 months and beat them easily each time (20+points), and did it by pounding the ball right at the Colts defensive front seven. In the divisional round last January the Patriots rushed for 234 yards. In November in Indy, the Patriots rushed for 246 more, a whopping 480 yards combined. In those two games, the leading rushers for New England, LaGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray accounted for 367 yards and eight touchdowns.
The running game opened up play-action passing for Tom Brady, opening up wide passing lanes. While not putting up eye popping numbers, the efficiency for the passing game was high as Brady averaged 8.27 yards per attempt in those two games.
Does this mean the Patriots are in for a cake walk? No, this one promises to be much closer. The Colts since the November beat-down haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher and have gotten better overall defensively, bolstered by the return of Arthur Jones in the middle. They limited the Denver running game to just 88 yards on Sunday, which was a big win for them overall.
Versatility, Thy Name is Belichick: Where the Patriots have the advantage again, is that they can beat you in a variety of ways. Last week facing a Ravens front seven stout against the run, they passed, passed and passed some more. The only second half run was a sneak by Brady…discounting a few kneel-downs at the end of the game. By running only 14 times last week, to ground and pound? This time the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
We’ll look at some of the ways this offense can line up and beat the Colts using the All-22 film supplied by the NFL Game Rewind and show how difficult a matchup it will be for Indianapolis this week.
Extra OL Frees Gray: In this first look from the game in November, the Patriots line up with Brady under center. Jonas Gray is the deep back and the offense goes Jumbo with Rob Gronkowski lined up on the line to the left. Cameron Fleming is in as the extra OL on the right side.
At the snap, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer and Fleming crash down to the left. Gray makes a step left and counters to the right. Guard Dan Connolly pulls and seals the linebacker and Gray has a big opening to run thru.
The result: Gray gains 14 yards and had the opportunity for even more.
Jumbo Package Touchdown Pass: On a Red Zone opportunity from the Colts 2 yard line, the Patriots line up with a heavy 3-TE package, Gronkowski on the left, Michael Hoomanawanui on the right and Tim Wright in the slot to the left off of Gronkowski. FB James Develin was the lead back for Jonas Gray with Brady under center.
Prior to the snap, Wright comes in motion to the right and Develin fires off at the snap as if to block for Gray. Brady fakes to Gray and Wright, who slipped into the corner of the end zone is open.
The result is an easy touchdown pass for Brady who fooled the defense into thinking run because of the success they’ve had running as well as the package on the field.
Gronk 26 Yard TD: On a fourth quarter play, a prime example of how difficult a Gronkowski matchup is for the defense is highlighted here. The Patriots are aligned in a passing formation with Shane Vereen as the running back, Brady in the shotgun. Gronkowski is in-line on the right side with Tim Wright in the slot left.
Prior to the snap Gronkowski comes in motion to the left, just inside of Wright. At the snap, the Colts rush five in an attempt to get after Brady. Gronkowski crosses Wright and goes into the flat for a six yard reception.
The result here: With Gronk hauling in the pass, he’s able to shake off the initial tackler at the 20-yard line and begins shedding Colts as he cuts back inside and rumbles into the end zone for a 26 yard score.
Gronkowski is very difficult to cover with a linebacker and defensive backs have issues bringing him to the ground. The Colts don’t have a proper matchup for Gronkowski and the mismatches he produces; open up other avenues for the offense if they choose to double him up.
The Colts defense faces a difficult challenge on Sunday against the Patriots, they’ve been run over for the past two meetings, but the versatile capability of the offense means they can’t just stack the box and dare Brady to throw. Using the heavy package with two TEs can still be dangerous with Gronkowski and Wright in the passing game.
An extra weapon at Brady’s disposal is Shane Vereen, Josh McDaniels has been good at splitting Vereen out wide as an extra wide receiver and forcing a linebacker to slide out and cover him which opens up extra room for Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to operate in.
Is this to suggest that the Colts have no chance? No, if you look at the job they did in Denver, there has to be hope that they can duplicate that effort again in Foxboro. But Brady is able to hit his receivers all over the field right now and the Patriots should have the advantage. However, if the Colts do win on Sunday, they will have earned their ticket to the Super Bowl, having beaten the top 2 seeds, not to mention Manning and Brady on the road. It should be a great game….Is it Sunday yet?
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