Each week, PatriotsLife will be posting a scouting report of the
Patriots upcoming opponent, going over their playmakers, tendencies, and
how the Pats might match up. The Pats will face a stern test this Sunday coming off of last week's bye in Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts, who come into the Sunday Night showdown boasting the league's top scoring offense. Without further ado, lets get right to the matchups Indianapolis offense
It's all about Luck and the passing game this week. The Colts aren't necessarily shy about running the ball (their 255 rushing attempts currently rank 9th in the league), but they've statistically been a below average running team. However, their passing game has lit it up, ranking first in the league in attempts and yards, second in touchdowns, and fourth in yards per attempt (7.4).
This isn't surprising given the construction of the Colts roster around Luck. Much like they did previously for Peyton Manning, the Colts organization has prioritized putting weapons around their franchise quarterback. Those intentions were made clear in the 2012 draft, when the Colts added receiver TY Hilton and tight ends Dwyane Allen and Coby Fleener after drafting Luck with the first overall pick, and the Colts stuck to that approach this offseason with the drafting of receiver Donte' Moncrief and the signing of free agents Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw.
Hilton is a dynamic, big-play threat. AP Photo/Brent R. Smith
The result has been a deep, diverse collection of targets for Luck and the Indy passing attack. The lightning quick Hilton has been the statistical standout and leads the team with 84 targets, 56 catches and 937 yards, with much of that damage coming out of the slot. He's joined by long-time Colts standout Reggie Wayne, who has been solid if unspectacular coming off of a season-ending knee injury in 2013. Those two are backed up by Moncrief and Nicks, who both have the ability to make big plays down the field.
Neither of Luck's tight ends are the kind of dynamic, field-stretching threat Rob Gronkowski provides the Pats, but their 11 combined touchdowns proves their effectiveness in the red zone. Dwayne Allen has particularly provided a boost to the Colts offense after missing almost all of last season. Known as one of the better two-way tight ends in the league, Allen has seven touchdowns himself, and his size and prowess in the red zone could draw attention from Brandon Browner.
It will be interesting to see how the Pats match up with this group. Hilton is the most dangerous weapon of the bunch and could see his fair share of Darrelle Revis, but I'd be surprised if the Pats simply sic Revis on him every play. My guess is they'll mix things up coverage-wise, attempting to confuse Luck and bait him into mistakes.
As good as Luck is (and I've been driving the Luck hype train from the start), he is prone to the occasional brain-fart throw, especially when he's forced to carry the offense on his broad shoulders. Luck does lead the league in both passing touchdowns and yards, but his 9 interceptions are on the high end for a quarterback of his caliber. His yards-per-attempt numbers prove he's certainly willing to drive the ball down the field, which will result in an interesting contrast of strengths. The Pats defense has been exceptional at preventing the big play, as evidenced by them only allowing 1 passing play of 40+ yards all season. The Colts already have seven such plays, and they comfortably lead the league in passes of 20+ yards with 48.
Some of those turnovers could be the result of shoddy protection. The Colts are fortunate that their quarterback is built like a Mack truck, as he's once again been one of the most hit signal callers in all of football. Luck has been hit, hurried or sacked on a whopping 30% of his dropbacks, and while he's capable of making Roethlesberger-esque throws with defenders hanging off of him, no quarterback is better with defenders in his face. Some of those pressure numbers are enhanced by the deeping passing nature of the Colts offense, as well as their pass-heavy play calling, but plenty has simply been due to mediocre line play. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus has particularly struggled in pass protection, and could be a target for the New England defense.
However, pressuring Luck can be a dangerous proposition because of his mobility. Luck certainly isn't a run-first quarterback, but his combination of deceptive speed and power makes him a load to bring down when he does decide to tuck it down and run. I would expect the Pats defense to have schematic wrinkles in place to account for Luck's legs, perhaps in the form of a safety spy (Patrick Chung?). I'd also expect Matt Patricia to continue to generate pressure from A-gap blitzes, where both Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins have excelled in recent weeks, as it's harder for any quarterback to escape from immediate pressure up the gut rather than a strong edge rush.
The Patriots ability to stop the run out of their nickel defense early was a major key to their convincing win over Denver, and repeating that performance would pay major dividends again on Sunday night. The Colts have tried to maintain some semblance of balance on offense, with their 255 rushing attempts ranking ninth in the league, but they haven't been particularly effective on the ground. Trent Richardson leads the team with 108 carries, but his 3.6 yards per carry represents only a slight improvement over last year's disastrous season. At 5'9" and 225 pounds, Richardson is a powerful, tackle-breaking back, but he still hasn't shown the decisive instincts to take advantage of the natural talent that made him the third overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Bradshaw has been a key addition to the Colts offense
The Colts more effective back has been former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw. The smaller, more-explosive Bradshaw has averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and has also been a major contributor in the passing game. Bradshaw has been a reliable safety-valve for Luck when the pressure gets there. His 34 receptions rank third on the team, and he his six touchdown catches are second behind only Allen. Given the likelihood of Revis and co making life hard for Luck's receivers, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Colts try to feature Bradshaw in the passing game, where he could be a tough matchup for the Pats linebackers in space.
The Colts defense isn't terrible, but a quick glance at the numbers proves their winning record has been thanks to the offense. Their defense has been remarkably middle-of-the-pack across the board, ranking 18th in the league in both points (23.4) and yards allowed per game (361.7).
The Patriots haven't emphasized their running game since Stevan Ridley's season-ending knee injury, with fewer than 70 yards on the ground in three of the team's five consecutive wins. However, they may have an opportunity to build some offensive balance against a Colts defense that's allowed opponents to rush for 4.4 yards a pop on the ground. Defensive lineman Corey Redding has been solid, but the Colts have lacked reliable run stuffers else-where, particularly with free agent addition Arthur Jones missing most of the year with ankle injuries. Jones is questionable for this week, and the Colts are surely hoping he can return and give a boost to their run defense.
However, the Pats have been most effective when they air it out, and that could be an effective strategy against a Colts pass rush that has been toothless for most of the year. Again, Redding has been effective for them, with 23 combined hits, hurries and sacks, but they've missed the disruptive presence of Robert Mathis. They lack a go-to playmaker to draw attention from opposing offenses, as evidenced by linebackers Eric Walden and Bjoern Werner tying for the team lead with only four sacks.
An anemic pass rush could prove deadly against a Pats offense that has been very good whenever Tom Brady has been afforded the time to pick apart opposing secondaries. Brady has been on fire during this recent winning streak, and his group of receiving targets could be difficult for the Colts to match up with, thanks largely to human force of nature Rob Gronkowski.
Davis is having a shutdown season. Photo via Indystar.com
The Colts secondary is led by corner Vontae Davis, who is in the midst of an exceptional season; quarterbacks are completing a measly 43.2% of their passes against him with no touchdowns, 2 interceptions and four passes defensed. Unfortunately for the Colts, Davis lacks the size to contend with Gronk, leaving Indy without a desirable option to contend with the Gronknado. I wouldn't be surprised to see Davis spend some time on Brandon LeFell, who has emerged as a reliable, chain-moving target on the outside, but the Pats win over Denver proved that their offense can excel even if LeFell is largely held in check.
The Colts secondary is lacking behind Davis. Fellow starter Greg Toler has been picked on recently, surrendering 229 yards into his coverage in their past two games, and Patriots cast-off Darius Butler hasn't been particularly impressive in a nickel role. The thought of either one of them attempting to cover Julian Edelman should have Tom Brady licking his chops.
The Colts are also weak at safety, where fellow Pats cast-off Sergio Brown has started recently in place of the suspended LaRon Landry. Landry will be back this week, but is expected to be eased back into the lineup. His return shouldn't scare Pats fans, as Landry is a heavy-hitter in run support, but a historically poor pass defender with a well-known propensity to bite on play-action fakes. Brown is as bad in coverage as Pats fans remember from his 2011 struggles, and is a poor matchup for either Gronk or Tim Wright. Former Bronco Mike Adams has had a solid year, but it's hard to imagine he'll be able to make a difference against the Pats diverse passing attack.
Another weakness for Brady to target could be the Colts linebackers in coverage. Jerrell Freeman has been solid in that department, but fellow starter D'Qwell Jackson has struggled mightily. The Patriots feel strongly that Shane Vereen is a mismatch to exploit against most teams in the passing game, and there's little reason to see that changing against this Colts group.
Two of the better special teams units in the league will meet up in this one. The Colts have generally won the field position battle this season, starting their average drive on their 30 yard line while holding their opponents to an average drive start at the 22. They've gotten steady if unspectacular play from return man Griff Whalen, and exceptional performances from kicker Adam Vinatieri (who has yet to miss a kick this year) and punter Pat McAfee.
The Patriots special teams are pretty good themselves, and have received major contributions from in-season additions Don Jones and Jonathan Casilas on their coverage units. As always, special teams always have the potential to bring a momentum swinging play, particularly in a matchup with two prolific offenses like this, and it will be imperative for the Pats special teams units to match their counterparts.
Other factors to watch
The revenge factor
The Pats provided a rude ending to the Colts season last January, defeating them 43-22 in the AFC divisional round. It was a loss that served as a loud reminder that the up-and-coming Colts still weren't on the level of top AFC contenders New England and Denver, and one that surely still resonates in the heads of Andrew Luck and co. The Colts will surely be looking for not only revenge, but a major statement win in this one, and it will be important for the Pats to match the intensity of what promises to be a fired-up Colts squad out of the gate. Ignore the noise
Whether it comes from legitimate sources or not, the Colts RCA Dome is one of the NFL's louder road environments to play in. That crowd noise figures to be even louder given the Pats long-time status as a Colts rival and the game being a prime-time, nationally televised broadcast, and could be a challenge for a Patriots offensive line that has improved but remains a weak-point of their otherwise strong offense. Communication will be key in such a hostile environment, and persevering through tests like that could provide major dividends for a Pats team that still has a few tough road games left (including back-to-back road tilts against Green Bay and San Diego).
The Pats come into this game having won five in a row after a troubling 2-2 start, and maintaining that momentum will be critical as they continue to slog through the toughest portion of their schedule. With Denver still very much in the race for the AFC's top seed, every win is critical as the two AFC powers battle for the right to host a presumed rematch in the AFC Championship game.
The Pats face a team looking to maintain some momentum themselves. Indy started even worse than the Pats, with back-to-back losses to open their season, but they've since won six of their past seven. Indy's upcoming schedule is less daunting than New England's, but they'll be looking to maintain momentum as well as they enter the all-important second half of the season. The sense of urgency will be high for both teams, and it's yet another reason to expect a ramped up effort from a Pats team that that has historically been close to unbeatable coming off of their bye week.