New England Patriots on Paper: Talib needs to pick on someone his own size

Indianapolis Colts' wide receiver TY Hilton is all the rage.

And why not?  After all, he and quarterback Andrew Luck torched the Kansas City Chiefs secondary for 224 yards in the Colts' improbable 45-44 come-from-behind victory in last weekend's Wild Card round playoff game, and his story is as cute and as story book quality as you could want...
The Patriots want to make sure Hilton doesn't burn them like this again

...his 2013 season numbers suggesting that he is the go-to guy when Luck and the Colts need a big play - but for all of the hype regarding his deep 4.34 speed, the munchkin-sized second-year pass catcher earns his bones underneath the coverage, where his quickness makes him a more dangerous after-the-catch play maker.

Ever since veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL in the Colts' week 7 win over the previously undefeated Denver Broncos, Hilton has more than picked up the slack as his 64 catches for 895 yards will attest - but a closer look at those numbers reveal a bizarre truth.

Hilton has been targeted deep 21 times in 10 games since Wayne went down for the season, latching onto 13 of those for 408 yards and a stupid-good 31 yards per reception, but most of that damage came in three games, a week 8 win over Houston, the week 9 loss to St. Louis and last Saturday's win over the Chiefs - otherwise, he is a merely spectacular six catches for 146 yards, for a 24 yards per catch average.

As an underneath or possession receiver, he is mortal, catching 56 of 80 targets for 487 yards, an average of 8.6 yards per reception.

In layman's terms, the Colts lull a defense to sleep with a dink-and-dunk approach, then strike when they sense the time is right to get loose behind the secondary, which happens a couple of times a game for mad yardage - and the numbers have increased as the stage has gotten bigger.

That said, how do the Patriots defend him?

The answer is as simple as sticking with what has worked for the Patriots over the second half of the season, by using multiple coverage options and personnel, mostly with either Kyle Arrington or Logan Ryan jamming him at the line to prevent his release, with a safety shadow over the top.

Because, let's face it, the kid can run - and if it came down to a foot race deep down the field, New England has no one that can stay with him on the corners, but both Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon have good centerfield speed and awareness.

The Colts know this as well, and will try to open things up not only for Hilton, but also for their other, less-heralded weapons, including tight end Coby Fleener and undrafted free-agent rookie receiver Da'Rick Rogers.

Both are big intermediate targets with sticky fingers - Rogers at 6' 3" and 210 pounds has a vertical leap of nearly 40" with 4.54 speed, not a burner by any stretch of the imagination but his size and leaping ability make him a dangerous possession target.  In five games played, Rogers has caught 14 balls for 192 yards and two touchdowns...

...but Fleener's numbers are even more impressive.  Standing 6' 6" and weighing in at a svelte 250 pounds, Fleener is bigger and faster than Rogers, though just barely at 4.52 in the 40 - his 52 receptions for 608 yards good for nearly 12 yards per reception and four scores.

The Colts also use their running backs extensively in the passing game, comparable to what the Patriots faced in Atlanta early in the season, Donald Brown and Trent Richardson accounting 55 catches for nearly 500 yards - Brown no slouch in the running game either, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in his limited opportunities.

The Colts don't run the ball as much as most other teams, but get good production when they do - all of this painting a picture that sees the Patriots having to be stout against the run in the middle, containing Luck in the pocket and mugging the Colts' receivers coming off the line of scrimmage, with shutdown corner Aqib Talib shutting down the left side rather than sticking with one receiver and Alfonzo Dennard competing on the other side...

...Arrington and Ryan keeping Hilton close and not giving him free release into the pattern while the outside corners fight with Fleener and Rogers - and a combination of linebackers and safeties keeping tabs on the backs curling out into the pattern and in the flat for screens.

It goes to figure that Luck will look deep a couple of times, so the Patriots just need to make sure that they are diligent in making sure to use the five-yard cushion that the rules allow for defensive backs to contact with receivers - effectively mugging them and throwing off the timing of their routes.

In the end, Hilton's speed is just too much to allow him free release, and he's too shifty to count on a corner dealing with him out on an island as New England found out last year when ,as a rookie, Hilton had a breakout game against the Patriots by catching six balls on nine targets for 100 yards, beating Talib easily on a 43 yard scoring strike in the process.

But the Patriots have learned a thing or two since then and, being as coach Bill Belichick loathes error-repeating, one can be certain that the same mistakes will not be made again.