Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Patriots, NFL Week 11

The air is crisp with the chill of Autumn, the smell of fire places tickles our noses, and the sound of illegal video taping equipment working overtime can be heard over the din of our everyday bustling, which can mean only one thing: It's Colts-Patriots week in the NFL! While the script for this week's game seems all-too-familiar – two teams lead by their offenses, ranked near the top of the conference, fighting for playoff position – many of the players have changed. Sure, there is still a Brady, a Wayne, a Freeney and a Mathis, but gone are Manning, Saturday, Clark, Brackett, and a bunch of lame New England players who I don't care to name.

Will the surprising 6-3 Colts be able to head into Foxborough and pull off the biggest surprise of all – a victory over the 6-3 Patriots? Or will Tom Brady and the Patriots offense be too much for a thin, injury-depleted Colts defense? We'll discuss the key stats, injuries, and match-ups as we try to decide who will win and why.  Also: JOSH CHAPMAN!!!  After the jump…

 

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Patriots measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.  

 

Indianapolis Colts

   

New England Patriots

 
  Offense Defense   Offense Defense
Passing 8th (15th) 15th (32nd)   7th (1st) 29th (20th)
Rushing 14th (14th) 22nd (31st)   5th (4th) 9th (8th)
Total 5th (15th) 18th (32nd)   1st (1st) 25th (17th)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense New England Patriots Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 50 LDE R. Ninkovich
13 WR TY Hilton 75 DT V. Wilfork
74 LT A. Castonzo 74 DT K. Love
76 LG J. Reitz 95 RDE C. Jones
64  C S. Satele 51 OLB J. Mayo
75 RG M. McGlynn 55 MLB B. Spikes
69 RT W. Justice 54 OLB D. Hightower
83 TE D. Allen 32 LCB D. McCourty
11 WR D. Avery 28 SS  S. Gregory
12 QB A. Luck 25 FS  P. Chung
31 RB D. Brown 24 RCB K. Arrington

Sunday could be the stiffest test this offense has faced all season. That pressure and test will come not from the Patriots defense, but courtesy of their offense. With the news that the Colts defense will be missing Jerraud Powers (IR), Drake Nevis (IR) and Vontae Davis (out at least 1 more week with a knee injury), you get the feeling that not only will the Patriots have success moving the ball, but there is a possibility that they score on most, if not all, of their offensive drives. So while the Colts have played in plenty of close games this year, this may be the first game in which the offense must match the opposing offense score-for-score.

To have success – and to help out their defense – the Colts may want to take a page out of the playbook so many teams used against the Colts during the "Manning Era" and employ a long, deliberate, clock-killing offense. While this is certainly a viable strategy, the Colts offense lacks the kind of running game required to lead those kinds of drives, and they should instead look to put the ball in the hands of their best players – Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne – and attack this Patriots defense through the air.

If this is the method of attack the Colts choose, they should find some success: the Patriots are surrendering 285ypg through the air (28th, NFL), are 16th in the NFL in sacks and adjusted sack rate, and are tied with Indianapolis for 15th in the league in points surrendered per game at 22.3. In other words: you can attack this Patriots team through the air, and their pass rush shouldn't do much to stop you.

So what should the Colts be doing in the passing game? As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Colts have been able to move the ball on every defense they've faced (other than Chicago, but they aren't human and therefore don't count) by following a simple formula: allowing Reggie Wayne to abuse defenders on short and intermediate routes, using Hilton and Avery on WR screens and deep down the field, and using Allen (Fleener will miss Sunday's game) to attack the weak spot in the center of the defense.

While it may seem like an oversimplification of the Xs and Os that go into the Colts offense, it's also true. Bruce Arians is not interested in your short passing game, your West Coast offense, and your flat routes, he wants to go deep early and often. While this philosophy resulted in a rocky start for the offense, it has started to pay dividends as the offensive line has improved its pass blocking and as Luck has improved his down-field accuracy.

The Colts should have no trouble moving the ball, the key will be making those long drives end in touchdowns, not field goals. We talked about Red Zone scoring before the Miami game, let's quickly update you on the Colts stats: they are getting into the red zone 3.3 times per game (11th in the NFL) and scoring on 46.67% of those trips (22nd in the NFL). On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots are surrendering 3.0 red zone trips per game (T-12th in the NFL) and are allowing opponents to score on 55.56%.  The Colts will need to improve on their red zone numbers if they want to have a chance on Sunday, and the stats seem to indicate that they'll have the opportunity to do that against the Patriots defense.

When the Patriots have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense New England Patriots Offense
90 DE C. Redding 83 WR W. Welker
99 DT A. Johnson 77 LT N. Solder
95 DE F. Moala 70 LG L. Mankins
98 OLB R. Mathis 62 C R. Wendell
53 ILB K. Conner 63 RG D. Connolly
50 ILB J. Freeman 76 RT S. Vollmer
93 OLB D. Freeney 87 TE R. Gronkowski
32 CB C. Vaughn 85 WR B. Lloyd
28 SS T. Zbikowski 12 QB T. Brady
41 FS A. Bethea 39 RB D. Woodhead
20 CB D. Butler 22 RB S. Ridley

As I alluded to in the offensive section, this could be a long day for the Colts defense. With the injuries to Powers and Davis, Brady's primary targets – Welker, Lloyd, and Gronkowski – will be covered by Cassius Vaughn, Darius Butler, and Tom Zbikowski. I would say that's a recipe for disasters, but it would be an insult to disasters. Only the most optimistic Colts homer would think the Colts secondary has a chance of slowing down the Patriots passing attack.

Instead, the Colts must hope to generate a pass rush with their front 4/5 if they hope to slow down Brady and company. They should get a boost with the return of OLB Robert Mathis and maybe even a little help from recently activated NT Josh Chapman who, while not a pass rusher, should be able to eat up space and command enough attention to allow his teammates to create havoc.

But successfully generating pressure, while the start of something good, isn't the entire answer. Brady excels at sliding in the pocket and getting rid of the ball quickly – he loves his short routes. So if the Colts DL and OLBs are able to pressure Brady and force him to complete shorter passes, the back seven must do their part by making quick, sure tackles. The Patriots defense will likely find some deep success with Lloyd and Gronkowski down the seam, they can't allow underneath passes to turn into big plays as well.

If the Colts defense is able to do the unlikely and contain the Patriots passing offense, their work isn't done yet – these aren't your slightly-older brother's Patriots. The 2012 Patriots offense is one of the best in the league not only because of their deadly-efficient passing game, but because of the addition of an equally efficient running game.

The Patriots have run for 146.0ypg (5th in the NFL) and have scored 14 rushing touchdowns. Clearly, the Patriots will be the most dynamic, dangerous offense the Colts have faced this year. The return of Mathis and the activation of the mythical Chapman can help, but it's going to require a total team effort with players making the kind of plays they've been unable to make all year. Pressures, sacks, and the elusive turnovers will all be required if the Colts are going to pull off this upset.

Five key match-ups

1. Colts Back Seven vs. Patriots WRs and TEs – As you may imagine, the focus of this section will be on the Colts defense. No one expects the Colts defense to shutdown the Patriots passing offense. Even if the team were completely healthy, Brady would still complete his share of passes and the Patriots would have success moving the ball down the field. The key for the Colts on Sunday will be to limit the big play. Against most teams, that would mean not allowing the offense to get open behind them for long completions. And while that's true this week – I mean, really, you should make an effort to never allow WRs and TEs to get open behind the secondary -  a look at the numbers suggests that the best way to limit the Patriots big plays is to limit their yards after the catch.

First, the highest yards-per-catch average on the team for receivers with 20 or more catches is 13.3 from Gronkowski. For comparison's sake, all 3 of the Colts starting WRs have a higher YPC average. Second, Brady has thrown for 2645 yards this year, but 1127 of those yards (42.6%) have come AFTER the catch. In other words, the Patriots offense revolves around short passes which allow the receivers to make plays after the catch. If the Colts want to limit the big plays and put the Patriots offense in tough situations, they must tackle the receiver immediately.

2. OLBs Freeney and Mathis vs. OTs Solder and Vollmer -  While the numbers indicate that the Patriots offense has favored shorter passes this year, we know that Brady can throw the ball deeper when asked. To take away that option and to force Brady to continue to rely on the short throws, the Colts pass rush must get pressure on him.

There is some good news for the Colts in this department. First, Robert Mathis appears ready to return to the starting lineup yet again. The pass rush specialist returned from a knee injury 2 weeks ago against Miami, but was quickly sent back to the side lines with a back injury. The second bit of good news is that Mathis' partner in sackin' crime, OLB Dwight Freeney, appears to be close to 100% healthy for the first time since week 1. Freeney's best games of the year have come in the past 2 weeks, and Wednesday marked the first time since Week 1 that Freeney has NOT shown up on the injury report.

Remember, a defensive secondary is only as good – or bad – as the pass rush in front of it. If Mathis and Freeney are both healthy, it should go a long way towards providing the pass rush the Colts need.

While these are the keys to containing the Patriots passing game, they also have a very effective running game. What can the Colts possibly do to stop that running game? Is there a superhero walking through the door? Wait, do you hear that music? Could it be…

3. NT Josh Chapman vs THE WORLD – Dun nuh na na nuh na na nuh na na CHAPMAN duh nuh na na duh nuh na na  CHAPMAN CHAPMAN CHAPMAN CHAPMAN!

The Colts 5th-round pick is set to make his NFL debut against the Patriots. Though the hype may be slightly out of control (and we do mean slightly), Chapman's presence could be huge. Nose Tackle is one of the most vital – and hard to fill – positions in the 3-4 defense, and if Chapman is able to come in and stabilize the position it will not only help this defense take a major step towards becoming the defense Pagano and Manusky were hoping to build, but it will also be a major item Grigson can cross off from his off-season shopping list, allowing him to spend assets on the other holes still on the roster.

Part of me is sad. Chapman represented a lot of hope for the future of the Colts defense. He was this mythical beast who was going to come in and fix all of the problems plaguing the Colts defense.  The reality is, It's hard for a player – especially one who has no ACLs left -  to live up to the ridiculous hype and expectations many of us have built up for him. Chapman can't cover WRs and TEs and he's likely to be a major pass rusher. On Sunday he'll step on the field and the mythical beast will be just a man. A TOTALLY AWESOME, UNSTOPPABLE MAN, but still, a man.  As a fan and a blogger, I hope that, when it's all said and done, my favorite part of Josh Chapman's career is not the first 10 weeks when I was left to hope, dream, and imagine just how good he could be.

4. Interior Colts OL vs. DT Vince Wilfork – There's not much to say about the Colts offense: protect the passer, protect the ball, score in the red zone. If there is one player on the Patriots defense who can disrupt the Colts plans for world domination, it's DT Vince Wilfork.

While he's not a dominating force in terms of rushing the passer, Wilfork is the kind of big, disruptive force that gives the interior of the OL fits and can really hamper the running game. The Colts biggest offensive weakness, coincidentally, happens to be the interior OL. It looks like C Samson Satele is set to return from his back injury, though we're honestly not sure that's a good thing. While his replacement, AQ Shipley, hasn't been great, he was significantly better than Satele had been in the weeks leading up to his injury. If Wilfork is able to dominate his match-up with Satele, it could shutdown the Colts running game and make them one dimensional.

While Luck has shown the ability to be successful without a functioning running game – the Miami game comes to mind – having a successful (not dominating, just successful) running game would go a long way towards not only keeping the Patriots defense off-balance, but also eating up clock and keeping Tom Brady on the sideline.

Luck has been amazing this year. He's supremely talented and poised beyond his years. If the Colts OL can block Wilfork and the Patriots DL, it may be just enough to allow Luck and the Colts offense to go toe-to-toe with the Brady-led Patriots.

5. The 2012 Indianapolis Colts vs the Ghost of Colts/Patriots Past – We're going to hear a lot about the Colts-Patriots rivalry this week. We're going to be told this is Luck-Brady Round 1. We're going to hear that it's just like old times, that these teams are going to be in each other's way for a long, long time. Unfortunately, due to the dismissal of Bill Polian, we won't hear the word Pay-Tree-Aughts thrown around any time soon.

None of it matters. The Colts and Patriots may develop into a great, new rivalry, but the truth is, the main force that made the story so compelling (Manning v Brady) is no longer applicable. THIS team didn't struggle against New England in the early part of the 2000s. THIS team didn't overcome a major hurdle on their way to the 2007 Super Bowl. THIS team has yet to take residence in Bill Belichick's head on Sunday Night Football (but, please, PLEASE let this happen, soon).

The Colts-Patriots rivalry of the early 2000s was the best of the decade in my opinion. The teams changed the way the NFL was played with their high powered, innovated offenses. But THIS team wasn't part of it. THIS team is in the process of forging its own (amazing) history right now. This is Andrew Luck's team, they should be living up to no one else's expectations. Play their game, play to their strengths and weaknesses, and win for them (and their coach).

Sunday isn't about the past, it's about the future. It's about now.

The injury reports

NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.

Indianapolis Colts

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
TE Coby Fleener SHOULDER (OUT)
CB Vontae Davis KNEE (OUT)
RB Donald Brown KNEE (PROBABLE)
RT Winston Justice KNEE (PROBABLE)
OLB Robert Mathis BACK (PROBABLE)
C Samson Satele BACK (PROBABLE)

New England Patriots


Player Name Injury (STATUS)
DL Ron Brace ELBOW (PROBABLE)
S Patrick Chung SHOULDER/HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)
OL Dan Connolly BACK (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Julian Edelman HAND (PROBABLE)
S Steve Gregory HIP (QUESTIONABLE)
TE Rob Gronkowski HIP (QUESTIONABLE)
TE Aaron Hernandez ANKLE (NO ONE KNOWS)
LB Dont'a Hightower HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Brandon Lloyd KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
G Logan Mankins ANKLE/CALF (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Jerod Mayo ELBOW (PROBABLE)
OL Nick McDonald SHOULDER(QUESTIONABLE)
DE Trevor Scott HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Brandon Spikes KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
OT Sebastian Vollmer BACK/KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Wes Welker ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Tracy White FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
DB Malcolm Williams THIGH (QUESTIONABLE)


 

Series notes

  • Note that these are regular season stats! :)

  • The Colts and Patriots have met 72 times, with the Colts holding a 28-44 record in the series.

  • Once again, Colts rookies Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, and/or LaVon Brazill have yet to face the Patriots, so there are no series stats for those players.

  • WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Patriots 10 times in his career. He has 55 catches for 734 yards and 5 TDs in those games.

  • RB Donald Brown has 35 carries for 123 yards and 1 TD as well as 5 catches for 63 yards in 3 career games against New England.

  • DE/OLB Dwight Freeney has 3 sacks in 7 career games against the Patriots. Robert Mathis (who is questionable) has 5 sacks in 6 games against New England.

  • QB Tom Brady has completed 221 of 321 passes (68.8%) for 2512 yards, 21 TDs and 10 INTs in 10 career games against the Colts.

  • WR Wes Welker has 40 catches for 360 yards and 2 TDs in 6 games against the Colts.

  • WR Brandon Lloyd has 12 catches for 232 yards and 1 TD in 4 games against the Colts.

  • TE Rob Gronkowski has faced the Colts twice in his career and has 6 catches for 89 yards and 2 TDs as well as 1 rush for 2 yards and a TD in those games.

  • TE Aaron Hernandez has played the Colts twice in his career. He has 8 catches for 51 yards and a TD in those games.

 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford 

Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at The506 will be able to tell you.

Officiating Crew: John Parry.  (The NFL was gracious enough to not make the Colts face Brady AND Walt Coleman or Ron Winter. Thanks, NFL!)

Prediction

PATRIOTS – 42, Colts – 30

Note: this is not me hating on the Colts. I just ranked them 9th in the NFL! I just happen to think the Patriots are a better team, and their offense is going to do naughty things to the Colts defense. In a year or two, I expect the Colts to not be the scrappy young team with a puncher's chance, but the BETTER TEAM. It'll happen, and soon, just be patient.  And, hey, I do think they have a chance, but it's going to take some luck, some Luck, and some LUCK. And a few turnovers wouldn't hurt, either.

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