3 unsung Patriots (and Colts) with big roles on Sunday
The explosive Donte Moncrief will likely have one-on-one opportunities downfield. Don Wright/AP
We all know the performance of superstars like Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis plays a huge role in their team's success, but each game features plenty of lesser-known role players whose ability (or inability) to hold up in their matchups plays a huge factor in the game. I've taken the liberty of selecting three players from both the Patriots and Colts whose impact on Sunday's outcome will far outweigh their national name recognition
Newcomers Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have gotten most of the credit for the Patriots improved secondary, but Arrington's ability to matchup in the slot has been huge for this defense. Arrington is especially important this week as the Colts most dynamic weapon, TY Hilton, lines up primarily in the slot. The Pats trusted Arrington with the matchup when these two met up back in Week 11, with Devin McCourty often providing help over the top to prevent Hilton from breaking any big plays.
The strategy was effective then, as Hilton was held to 3 catches for only 24 yards, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats go back to the well with that matchup. If they do, Arrington's open-field tackling will be critical, as Hilton has the explosive speed to quickly turn a short pass into a big gain.Arrington will also have to be mentally sharp, as the Colts will likely get creative trying to get Hilton the ball.
Few expected Newsome, a fifth round pick from Ball State, to develop a major role in his rookie season, but here we are. The rookie has developed into a role as an edge rushing outside linebacker in the Colts 3-4 front, providing a spark for a unit bereft of dynamic pass rushers without the injured Robert Mathis.
Newsome did a Dwight Freeney impression for Peyton Manning. Jack Dempsey/AP
Of course, Newsome can't match the impact of the Mathis, whom he's replaced as the Colts right edge rusher, but he probably represents the Colts best hope of getting pressure on Tom Brady. Newsome led the Colts with 7 sacks despite playing only 201 pass rushing snaps (fifth on the team), and he beat Ryan Clady for a huge, momentum-shifting strip sack of Peyton Manning last week.
Newsome will be matched up with left tackle Nate Solder, and he has the kind of speed that occasionally gives Solder problems. "Good Solder" showed up last week with a solid showing against Terrell Suggs, but the Pats could struggle if "Bad Solder" makes an appearance on Sunday. We've all seen what a bad game from Solder can do to Tom Brady and this passing offense.
Rookie center Bryan Stork hasn't practiced all week after taking a nasty hit last week in the divisional round game, and at this point it would be a major surprise if he's able to suit up. Therefore, it's likely that Ryan Wendell will once again slide over to his natural position at center, with Kline coming off the bench to play right guard.
A second year guard out of Kent State, Kline has played meaningful snaps in five games this season, with mixed results. He's a scrappy type, but Kline can get overpowered by bigger, stronger players in pass protection, as demonstrated by his allowing 13 pressures in those five games (and some troubling film).
It certainly hasn't helped his case that those five games have come against the fierce defensive lines of the Jets, Bills and Ravens. There's no Sheldon Richardson, Marcel Dareus or Haloti Ngata on Indy's defensive line, but Cory Redding and Arthur Jones are both big, physical pass rushers who could get their share of opportunities against Kline on the interior. Struggles from Kline will mean quick pressure up the middle, and we all know how that can throw Brady off his game.
Kline shows more promise as a run blocker, which is likely good news for him given the Pats recent run-heavy history against this defense. The Patriots did most of their damage running behind the right side of their line in Week 11's destruction of Indy, and the undersized Kline will have to step up his game to continue that success.
The last time the Pats played the Colts, the combination of Kyle Arrington and safety help from Devin McCourty essentially took away TY Hilton. With Reggie Wayne spending most of the night on Revis Island, Andrew Luck was forced to go after other matchups, with only Coby Fleener paying significant returns. Hakeem Nicks was the third receiver that game, and while he beat Logan Ryan for a 10 yard touchdown late in the first half, Ryan won his matchup for most of the night.
Moncrief, a third round pick from Ole Miss, was an target-less afterthought in his 10 snaps that night. However, the rookie has since overtaken Nicks on the depth chart, and has averaged 45.8 snaps a game since Week 13 (just 18.4 in the first 11 games). At 6'2" and 221 pounds, Moncrief is a big, explosive target with big play speed to burn. Consistency hasn't necessarily been his thing; he has 33 or fewer yards in five of the seven games in that recent seven game stretch. However, his big play potential is obvious, with Moncrief flashing superstar talent at times (7 catches, 113 yards and a touchdown Week 8 against Pittsburgh, 3 catches for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns Week 13 against Washington, a big 36 yard touchdown in the Wild Card game against Cincinnati).
If the Pats are able to successfully take away Hilton and Wayne a second time, Luck will once again have to turn to other matchups. With safety help likely focused on Hilton and the team's two tight ends, Moncrief will see plenty of one-on-one coverage, likely from Ryan, and it would be surprising if Luck doesn't take a few shots against that matchup. If Ryan plays like he did against Green Bay rookie Davante Adams, Moncrief's big play potential could make him an "X factor".
Harmon's late pick sealed the Pats win. Getty Images
Patrick Chung may have run away with the competition for the starting strong safety role next to Devin McCourty, but both Tavon Wilson and Harmon have both played well and earned playing time in sub packages during the season's second half. Like Chung, Wilson excels in the box as a big-hitter in run support, while Harmon has the range and smarts to play McCourty's deep centerfield safety role when the Pats peg McCourty for a one-on-one matchup.
Week 11saw Brandon Browner largely take on the matchup with Coby Fleener, and the big tight end was easily Luck's most productive target on the night. Fleener's partner-in-crime, Dwayne Allen, missed all but 14 snaps that game with an ankle injury that would keep him out the next two weeks, and his healthy presence in the lineup will give the Pats another tough matchup to account for. Jamie Collins could pick up some of that responsibility, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Devin McCourty spend some snaps in man coverage against those tight ends.
That would leave Harmon with deep responsibility, a huge responsibility given both the explosiveness of Hilton and Moncrief and Luck's proclivity for throwing downfield. It will be critical for Harmon to hold up in those opportunities and not let Luck connect for any momentum-generating big plays. Harmon certainly flashed the ability to do just that with his game-clinching interception of Joe Flacco last week, and he'll need to keep up that level of play against a dynamic passing offense.
A former college teammate and fellow 2012 draftee of Dont'a Hightower, the 316 pound Chapman mans the nose for Indy's undersized 3-4 defense. Chapman has flashed at times as a run stuffer, but his season-long performance has been uneven, with the Week 11 Patriots game unsurprisingly standing out as a low point.
To prevent getting run over for a third consecutive game against the Pats, the Colts will need better play up front, and that starts with their nose tackle holding his own in the middle of the line. Last week was encouraging, as Chapman was part of a run defense that held it's own against CJ Anderson and Denver's powerful ground game.
The Patriots offensive line may be weakened by the expected loss of Bryan Stork, but that loss might mean a tougher day for Chapman. He'll now find himself lined up across from Ryan Wendell, who has easily been the Patriots best run blocker this year. Jonas Gray had 5.3 yards per carry running behind Wendell that game, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats running game challenge Chapman and follow their best run blocker.