|Butler's textbook break up of this Hilton target was a standout play on Sunday. Sam Riche/Tribune News Service|
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. Pats fans were expecting a Sunday Bloody Sunday when their team traveled to Indianapolis to get revenge on the tattle-tale Colts, but there did appear to be some legitimate cause for concern in the Patriots secondary. Labeled as a weakness going into the season, the secondary had done it's job so far this season, but against a weak slate of competition. Facing Indy's deep and talented group of receivers figured to be a tall task, even before losing the services of starting corner Tarell Brown to a foot injury. Instead, the supposed weakness of this team stood up to it's biggest test of the season, and were a huge part of a hard-fought Sunday night victory. Here's how they overcame the on-paper odds to limit Andrew Luck's options.
Much was made in the aftermath of the win about the Patriots matchup decisions, particularly the surprising amount of time strong safety Patrick Chung spent lined up against Colts top target TY Hilton. While that wrinkle was unexpected, it was merely one of a variety of looks the Pats threw at Luck.
Going against a team with as many weapons as the Colts, it was imperative for the Patriots to get their best coverage players on the field. However, this required a good deal of creativity given their lack of depth at corner with Brown gone. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are currently the unquestioned starters, and both played all 80 defensive snaps. However, despite playing nearly the entire game in nickel packages, third corner Justin Coleman only played 18 snaps, most of them coming late in the game with the Pats playing conservative prevent defense.
While the Pats are thin at corner, they are extremely deep at safety, and Matt Patricia used this to his advantage on Sunday. Straying from the conventional three corner two safety nickel that most teams run, the Pats kept it simple and put their five best defensive backs on the field. It wasn't surprising to see Devin McCourty play all 80 defensive snaps, but both Chung (70 snaps) and Duron Harmon (71) came close to playing the entire game as well, with rookie Jordan Richards chipping in with 33 snaps of his own. Harmon's ability to be trusted in McCourty's customary deep centerfield role was pivotal to this strategy, as it gave them the flexibility to use McCourty in a number of different ways.
One of the keys to getting away with this safety-heavy approach was the Colts usage of Coby Fleener, a tight end by name but essentially a big receiver by scheme. The Pats have always treated Fleener as a receiver, and continued to match up with their nickel defense against him. However, while designated "big corner" Brandon Browner drew primary Fleener duty last year, the lack of depth at corner meant more safety coverage on him, with McCourty playing a big role there. McCourty also saw some usage as a pure outside corner, with his most noteworthy play being a questionable pass interference call against rookie Philip Dorsett. McCourty also played some deep safety in this one, at times in a cover 2 zone look where he and Harmon would split the field into two deep halves. While his best position is clearly safety, McCourty's ability in man coverage and versatility to take on a variety of coverage responsibilities was key to Patricia's flexibility in mixing up coverage looks.
Going with just two corners meant that one of TY Hilton, Andre Johnson and Donte Moncrief would wind up with a safety on them when the Colts went three wide. If you had told me this prior to the game, I would have predicted the 6'3" Johnson would wind up drawing a safety, likely McCourty due to Johnson's size and physicality. Instead, Logan Ryan had primary duty on Johnson and showed up with one of the best games of his career, as Johnson caught just three of his six targets for a largely harmless 35 yards. The lone blemish on Ryan's night was a touchdown where he got caught peeking into the backfield for a split-second too long, allowing the shifty Hilton to escape his strong initial jam and break free, but the good far outweighed the bad on his night.
When the Pats did use Chung on Hilton, it was often with safety help over the top. This was similar to their past strategies against the speedy Hilton, when they would match up former nickel standout Kyle Arrington on him with bracket coverage over the top from McCourty. Known more for his prowess in run support than in coverage, Chung was able to get physical with Hilton, knowing he had help over the top if he got beat. That often disrupted the timing of Hilton's routes, which often had him running across the formation to try to break free and get the ball in space.
This second quarter play was a good example of the wrinkles the Pats put in to get away with putting Chung on a number one option like Hilton. With Hilton lined up in the slot, Chung protects himself by lining up with an outside shade, forcing Hilton to either fight through a jam to get towards the sideline or take the inside release. Chung gives him a solid jam towards the middle of the field, which takes him right into the zone of linebacker Jerod Mayo. Mayo gives Hilton a shot as well, which affords Chung a crucial extra split-second to stay with him as he takes his route across the field. If, after all that, Hilton still breaks free, there's a safety over the top to minimize the damage.
The Pats also aided their three safety approach by mixing in far more zone defense than they had in past matchups with Colts. There were times that Luck was able to take advantage of the spacing of those plays and find open receivers (tight end Dwyane Allen found the soft spot in zones several times in the first half), but those zones also served to constantly provide help to whatever on-paper mismatch the Colts would theoretically try to attack.
Playing more zone also helped the Pats keep the Colts dangerous targets in front of them, limiting the possibility of big plays. Despite Andrew Luck dropping back to pass 53 times, the Colts vertical passing attack managed just three plays of 20 or more yards and no plays of 30 or more. Luck managed to get a 300 yard game, but averaged a so-so 6.24 yards per attempt to get there. He was just 5 of 13 on intermediate and deep attempts on the night. A Colts offense designed to create big plays was forced to consistently dink and dunk all night, allowing the Pats to play smart situational football and get off the field despite yielding a high completion percentage on the shorter throws.
Strong tackling on the outside played a factor in that strategy. Bill Belichick has always sought to have good tackling from his corners, and both Butler and Ryan showed up in that department. One underrated play from Ryan's night came on a second quarter screen to Frank Gore. The Colts set the play up well and had two blockers out in front of the hard-charging Gore, but Ryan slipped past them from his cornerback spot and got enough of Gore's leg to bring the bruising back down. Instead of a big gain, the play was limited to five yards, setting up third and five and giving the defense a chance to get off the field. Butler also showed up with several solid open field tackles, including a nice one on the much bigger Fleener in space, but the highlight of his tackling night came on a third down play against Moncrief. Giving up a sizable cushion due to the situation, Butler took on the difficult task of chasing the explosive (4.4 40 time) Moncrief across the field through traffic. The statsheet says he allowed a nine yard catch on the play, but that can be chalked up as a defensive win, as Butler's hustle and athleticism allowed him to tackle Moncrief out of bounds before reaching the sticks, allowing the defense to get off the field.
Butler also shined when in man coverage, where he spent plenty of time on Moncrief along with his fair share of snaps on Hilton. While he did give up a touchdown to Moncrief, Butler more than held up overall against that talented duo. Luck completed under 50% of his throws Butler's way (5-12), with the second year corner showing up with three pass breakups in the second half as the Colts attempted to mount a comeback. It's tough to fault Butler on the touchdown, as his good position forced the bigger Moncrief to make a very difficult catch. Even when he did allow passes to be completed against him, he was always pretty close in coverage and in position to quickly make the tackle and prevent yards after the catch. His yardage total was also inflated by a 17 yard catch surrendered to Philip Dorsett, which was more the result of giving a huge cushion in a fourth quarter prevent defense than any flaws in coverage. The Patriots ability to trust him and Ryan to handle their assignments with minimal help proved crucial, as it allowed them to devote more resources towards minimizing Hilton's damage.
Of course, the Patriots always strive to play "complementary football", and the defense certainly did that on Sunday night. Many speculated going into the season that an improved pass rush would help cover up whatever deficiencies existed on the back-end of the defense, and that rush did it's part to help the corners out. Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich all made plenty of plays against an overmatched Colts offensive line, with their pressure often either forcing Luck to resort to harmless checkdowns or negating potential big plays. For example, Luck appeared to have gotten a drive starter in the fourth quarter when he hit Hilton for a chain-moving 16 yards on third and 14, but the play was called back after Chandler Jones cleanly beat left tackle Anthony Castonzo, forcing an obvious hold. The ensuing third and 22 was highly unlikely to be converted, but Jones made sure of it by spinning his way out of a double team to get in Luck's face, forcing a harmless 5 yard checkdown to Moncrief. Instead of getting a drive going, the Colts were forced to punt from deep in their territory.
Of course, complementary football goes both ways, and there were plays where the coverage helped the pass rush look good. Dominique Easley and Jones combined to dominate the stat sheet, and they shared the glory on a third down sack in the third quarter that forced a Colts punt. However, take a look at the coverage Luck was looking at on the play. Do you see anyone open?
Without an open checkdown option, Luck was helpless if the pressure got home. Home it did, as both Easley and Jones decisively won their individual matchups to meet at the quarterback. Easley was particularly impressive, as he tossed aside center Khaled Holmes like a ragdoll before closing in on Luck. It was merely one of his eight quarterback disruptions from the game.
Looks like that screen shot were becoming a common sight for Luck by the time the fourth quarter got around. Try to find an open receiver here on an eventual incomplete target to Moncrief:
Or here, on a play that resulted in a slow-developing Chandler Jones sack:
Or here, where another late developing pressure from Jones forces Luck to throw a dangerous ball over the middle that was tipped by Duron Harmon and nearly picked off by McCourty.
Aided by such strong coverage, the Patriots mounting pressure seemed to get to Luck late in the game. For the first time in his career, Luck managed to escape a game against the Pats with no interceptions, but he had some uncharacteristic inaccurate passes late in the game, as the cumulative pressure began mounting. Some came directly as the result of pressure (one notable one came with Easley in his face again), but by the final two drives Luck was missing passes even with a clean pocket. That's a sure sign of a rattled quarterback and a clear indication of how the different aspects of a defense can combine to create an end result greater than what the cumulative parts would suggest. Complementary football at it's finest.