Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Patriots, AFC Divisional Round

 

Willie McGinest's heart attack, Walt Coleman's pass interference masterpiece, the comeback, 4th-and-2. The Colts and Patriots have produced some of the most thrilling, dramatic football games over the past decade.

On Saturday, they'll renew their rivalry, as the Indianapolis Colts travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. Will Andrew Luck's Colts be able to do what the Manning Colts never could – beat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium during the playoffs? Or will Tom Brady and the Patriots pick up where they left off in last year's 59-24 regular season drubbing of the upstart Colts?

Win or lose, it'll be Dan Dierdorf's last chance to verbally assault our eardrums and brains, so we've got that going for us…

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 17th (17th) 13th (13th)   10th (7th) 18th (14th)
Rushing 20th (11th) 26th (22nd)   9th (6th) 30th (27th)
Total 15th (13th) 20th (16th)   7th (4th) 26th (21st)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense New England Patriots Defense
13 WR TY Hilton 50 DE R. Ninkovich
80 TE C. Fleener 72 DT J. Vellano
74 LT A. Castonzo 94 DT C. Jones
69 LG H. Thornton 95 DE C. Jones
64 C S. Satele 52 OLB D. Fletcher
72 RG J. Linkenbach 91 MLB J. Collins
78 RT G. Cherilus 54 OLB D. Hightower
81 WR D. Heyward-Bey 32 FS D. McCourty
12 QB A. Luck 31 CB A. Talib
39 FB S. Havili 37 CB A. Dennard
31 RB D. Brown 28 SS S. Gregory

For the first 34 games of his career, Andrew Luck was playing football. In his 35th, he'll be engaged in a high-stakes game of chess.

Most defensive coordinators scout an offense as a whole. They see what your tendencies are, what your best and favorite plays and concepts are, and they come up with a plan to limit the damage they do. Bill Belichick is different. He examines and dissects your offenses, identifies your quarterback's favorite/best target, and formulates a plan to take him away.

So for the past week, that's what Belichick's been doing: going through tape of the Colts offense (especially over the past 5 weeks) with a fine-tooth comb. If he was awake and sober, it didn't take him long to identify Luck's most-dangerous weapon: TY Hilton. So what's his plan for neutralizing Hilton?

It likely centers around having CB Aqib Talib take adderall (allegedly) and then trying to rip his leg off. If the Maiming Plan™ fails, Belichick will probably fall back on having Talib shadow Hilton, lining up across from the speedster before every snap, and bracketing him with a safety over the top.

With that move having been played, it's up to Luck and Hamilton to formulate the best strategic response. Their first plan will be to move Hilton around – something they've been doing successfully all year – in an effort to get him a free release off the line. If Hilton does get that free release, he can use his speed to blow by the double team.

But this isn't Madden25, and Hilton can't run a go route every play, so Belichick's plan will probably work on a vast majority of the Colts' offensive snaps. It's on those snaps where Hilton isn't a great option that the game will be won or lost.

So what happens on plays where Hilton has been neutralized by the double team? The first thing we have to realize is that Luck and the Colts will know where the Patriots best CB is the entire game. So WRs Brazill, Rogers and Whalen and TE Fleener will be going up against the depth of the Patriots' secondary. The next thing we need to understand is that if they are playing this kind of coverage against Hilton, then they will be in man coverage, and the use of the safety bracketing Hilton means the rest of the receivers will be getting single coverage.

With this in mind, I'd love to see Luck target TE Coby Fleener early and often. If the Patriots choose to cover him with a CB, Fleener should be able to use his size to win the match-up, and if the Patriots choose to cover him with a linebacker, his speed should allow him to beat the coverage. A few plays down the middle for the tight end may force Belichick to abandon his Hilton strategy.

I'd also like to see the Colts continue to involve the running backs in the offense. When a defense is playing man coverage in the secondary, it usually means there is going to be a lot of open space for the running backs to operate in the passing game. Both Richardson and Brown thrive in these situations, so the Colts should look to exploit that advantage often.

The final thing I'd like to see the Colts do is take advantage of Andrew Luck's ability to run the ball. When a defense is keying in on one receiver with a double team and in man-coverage against the rest of your receiving options, they start to run out of bodies in the back-seven. As you get more and more people caught up in coverage, you get fewer and fewer eyes on the quarterback. Designed runs, such as the read-option the Colts used on their 4th-down conversion Saturday, should be able to catch the Patriots in awkward situations, allowing the Colts to hit a big play with minimal risk.

I cover all of these adjustments in more detail below.

The biggest thing for Andy and the Colts is to not get caught up in playing Tom Brady. They have to do their job. Yes, they'll need to score a lot of points to win on Sunday, but there is no 30-point touchdown. There is no 100-point field goal (which is a shame, because this team would be undefeated if there was). Play within yourself. Play calm, patient, intelligent football.

This offense is good enough to beat the Patriots. Don't get caught up in anything besides doing your job.

What I'm watching for, offense:

1. Silver Linings Play Calling – If you know me, you know that I'm an optimist at heart, always looking for the bright side of every situation. Take, for example, last Saturday's first half performance against the Chiefs. Sure, it looked bad, with the Colts going into the half down 31-10, but if you ask me, the biggest moment of the playoffs may have occurred during that 30 minute stretch.

With 14:39 left in the 2nd quarter and the Chiefs leading 17-7, Trent Richardson took an Andrew Luck hand-off and… fumbled it.  The Chiefs would recover the fumble and three plays later they would extend their lead to 24-7. At that time, it seemed like that play would put the nail in the Colts season. We know, of course, that that's not true. Luck and the Colts would author an amazing 2nd half comeback to beat the Chiefs and move on to the 2nd round.

Though that play wound up not negatively impacting the outcome of the game, I believe it will have a lasting effect on the remainder of the Colts' playoff games this season:

After that fumble, Richardson touched the ball exactly 0 times. He got a few more snaps, but after missing a pass blocking assignment, Richardson was stapled to the bench. The result was an offense that featured Donald Brown. He was used as a running back, as pass catcher out of the back field, and as a receiver split wide. Brown would be involved in 3 of the Colts 5 second half touchdowns (including his brilliant fumble to Andrew Luck).

The offense is better when Brown is a focal point. He makes the smart, simple play. He's explosive. He limits the negative plays. He's a better player than Trent Richardson. 

The Colts will face the Patriots on Saturday, if they win they'll face the Broncos or Chargers the following week. You cannot waste plays against those teams. Having Brown receive a majority of the snaps and touches gives the Colts offense the best possible chance of winning games.

2. Exploit the Adjustments – TY Hilton had the greatest playoff performance by a receiver on Saturday when he hauled in 13 catches for 224 yards and 2 TDs. The talk since then has centered around how Bill Belichick will scheme to take away TY Hilton.

While I agree taking away Hilton will be Belichick's top priority, I disagree with the premise that it will be easy simply because he's Bill Belichick. There are two things in play here that help Hilton and the Colts:

1) Hilton is one of, if not the fastest WR in the NFL. This means it will take more than just a double team or special coverages to shut him down. Perhaps the Patriots try to jam him at the line with one or two people, but …

2) The Colts do a great job at moving Hilton around. Unlike years past when Harrison and Wayne would line up at the same spot on the same side of the field all day every day, the Colts do a good job of moving Hilton around on the field. Split wide, in the slot, in motion, keying in on Hilton won't be simple.

All of that means that, if Belichick wants to focus on clamping down on Hilton, he'll have to make a conscious decision to weaken his defense in some way. Does he play man coverage and assign Talib and a safety to bracket Hilton? Does he pull out the Tony Gonzalez Defense he deployed earlier this year, where he had two people assigned to jamming Gonzalez at the line and a third over the top for coverage?

Whatever he decides, there's going to be a hole left behind. The first key for the Colts will be to exploit the one-on-one match-ups that LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers, and Coby Fleener will see on most plays. If they can consistently make catches against those one-on-one coverages, it may force Belichick to re-think his Anti-Hilton strategy.

The next adjustment for the Colts will be to exploit the holes underneath: if you're in man coverage, your defenders will have their backs turned to the line of scrimmage. Running your WR/TEs deep and dumping off to the RB under the coverage is an effective way of punishing those defenses.

The third and final adjustment that I'd like to see is letting Luck use his legs in designed runs. If, as I said in the previous point, the defenders have their backs turned to the line of scrimmage in man coverage, this allows Luck the ability to, if he chooses, pick up big chunks of yards with his legs. Not only do I think the Colts should encourage Luck to run on Saturday, I think they should call plays designed with his running in mind. I understand they want to minimize the risk of an injury, but this is the playoffs, it's time to throw everything you've got at the opposition, and Luck's legs are one of the Colts' best, most-underused weapons.

When the Patriots have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense New England Patriots Offense
90 DE C. Redding 80 WR D. Amendola
97 NT A. Franklin 77 LT N. Solder
99 DT R. Jean Francois 70 LG L. Mankins
93 OLB E. Walden 62 C R. Wendell
52 ILB K. Sheppard 63 RG D. Connolly
50 ILB J. Freeman 61 RT M. Cannon
98 OLB R. Mathis 47 TE M. Hoomanawanui
28 CB G. Toler 11 WR J. Edelman
30 FS L. Landry 12 QB T. Brady
41 SS A. Bethea 22 RB S. Ridley
23 CB V. Davis 34 RB S. Vereen

As Dan Shaughnessy pointed out earlier this week, there's really not much reason for the Colts defense to take the field on Saturday. This year's playoffs, like every year since 2001, is little more than a parade held to honor the greatest quarterback and coach in the history of sports. While most of us know that the final float will have Tom Brady, surrounded by throngs of the most handsome women on earth, hoisting the Lombardi high above his perfectly-coiffed hair, the NFL refuses to allow us to skip the meaningless marching band and balloons. So I guess the Colts are legally obligated to take the field. Oh well.

When they do take the field, the biggest issue will be the secondary's ability to cover Slot Receiver All-Stars Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola*. The heaviest of those burdens will fall on CB Darius Butler, who showed us just how good he could be by shutting down Wes Welker in week 7. But his play against Welker was his best of the season, and since then he's been struggling to find consistency in his game. The Colts will need him to find that consistency Saturday night, as everything Tom Brady and the Patriots do on offense revolves around Edelman and Amendola.

I would compare the 2013 Patriots to a Peyton Manning-led offense: execution over trickery, a handful of concepts over a superfluous playbook.

For the Patriots, those concepts revolve around using decoys, route combinations, and clear-outs to provide Tom Brady with clear reads and easy throws. Back when TEs Hernandez and Gronkowski were free and healthy men, those concepts were most-often used to get the tight ends open. Flankers would run deep to clear out the coverage (mostly as decoys) while the tight ends would run option routes based on the coverage. The result was a dangerous, explosive, and efficient offense that, given the physical gifts bestowed upon Hernandez and Gronkowski, was nearly impossible to stop.

But bad things happen to good people, and Hernandez and Gronkowski couldn't beat a bad rap and a bad slap (to the leg), so while the concepts haven't changed, the targets have. And while Edelman and Amendola will never be confused for the hulking beasts of goodness in Hernandez and Gronkowski, they make up for their lack of size (IT DOESN'T MATTER!!!) with shiftiness, elusiveness, heart, determination, grit, shiftiness, hard work, dedication, smarts, IQ, shiftiness, etc…

The Colts, who have struggled all year against slot receivers/slot routes, must be on top of their keys, make good reads, and close on the ball quickly. The Patriots will complete passes, but you must not let the receivers get yards after the catch. Tom Brady collects approximately 392% of his yards after the catch, so if you can limit them to 0 yards after the catch, my math says you're doing well.

When they aren't throwing the ball, the Patriots have a dangerous running game. Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley (great spelling of your first name, stupid person who killed my fantasy teams, why don't you change it to CASE?) and LeGarrette Blount provide the Patriots offense with a great punch. But what makes their running game even more dangerous is Tom Brady's use of the hurry-up offense and quick snap, which catches opposing defenses off-guard, allowing running backs to hit creases and quickly get into the second level.

The Colts, who, based on the first 16 weeks of the season, are apparently unaware of the existence of the hurry-up offense, will need to make their play calls quickly, get set, and be prepared for everything Brady throws at them. For every negative thing you can say about Brady (and really, the guy does bad things to goats, so you can say a lot) he's a smart guy who uses those smarts to exploit the NFL rules to their fullest.

Gosh, that sounded snarky and bitter. What I mean is Tom Brady is a super guy. The Colts defense should be honored to be on the same planet as him.

*until he gets injured

What I'm watching for, defense:

1. Mathis' Momentum Maker – The Colts defense isn't great. In fact, it's probably not very good. With holes in the secondary, at linebacker, and along the D-line, they will be spending the off-season upgrading their defensive roster no matter how far they go in the playoffs. But it's not all bad news, because what they lack in skill and talent and competency at most positions, they make up for by having one of the true game-changers in the league, OLB Robert Mathis. Every time the team has needed a stop, whether to preserve the lead or to start a comeback, Mathis has been the catalyst.

Against a QB like Tom Brady, who is able to buy time with subtle movements in the pocket, allowing his receivers enough time to get open, Mathis' ability to provide game-changing moments will be key to the Colts winning the game. If he can cause havoc on just a handful of plays, creating sacks and/or turnovers, I like the Colts' chances.

2. Man Up – One of the most interesting things about Tom Brady is that there is a clear blueprint for beating him. It's interesting because, while the various blueprints for beating Peyton Manning are discussed, digested, and regurgitated ad nauseam, you rarely hear people talk about "how to beat Tom Brady."  I guess this is because Brady is invincible, never losing games, especially play-off games. He has three rings, ya know?

Anyhow, here's how much of a blueprint there is for beating Brady: in the midst of their struggles against the Patriots, the Tony Dungy Colts made a defensive switch when they'd play New England. Primarily a Tampa-2, zone coverage team, Dungy made the decision to switch to man coverage. See, Brady is one of, if not the best modern QB when it comes to picking apart zone defenses. If he knows where you're going to be, he'll find a way to exploit it (with his army of slot receivers and tight ends), but when it comes to fitting a ball into tight man coverage, Brady struggles.

The good news for the Colts is they already employ a man-coverage scheme, so there's no last-minute changes being made. The tricky part, however, is getting the kind of pass rush that will force Brady to make quick decisions. We talked about Mathis in #1. This is a teamwork issue. Mathis can force Brady into making decisions, the man-coverage will turn those decisions into mistakes.

Keys to the game (Besides outscoring your opponent)

1. Protect Luck (For eighteen-consecutive weeks!) -  Against the Chiefs, Luck was pressured on 18 of his 49 drop backs. On those plays, he was 9 of 16 (56.3%) for 192 yards, 1 INT and 1 sack for a 72.9QBrating. When he wasn't pressured, he was 20 of 29 (69.0%) for 251 yards, 4 TD, 2 INTs and 0 sacks for a 106.5 QBRating.

If the Colts are going to win this game, they have to protect the quarterback. While my biggest concerns with the OL lie in the interior, where Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele continue to bring excitement to our relationship by finding new ways to suck, the hardest job Saturday night will fall on OTs Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, who will be tasked with stopping the best Patriots pass rushers, DEs Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. If the Colts can neutralize those two, Luck will have enough time to pick apart a pedestrian New England secondary.

2. Attack Tom Brady - Tom Brady's stats for the year: 380 of 620 (60.5%), for 4343 yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 40 sacks, and a QBrating of 87.3.  

Tom Brady's stats when pressured: 27 of 79 (34.2%) for 348 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT and a 57.4 QBrating.

We've talked about the importance of playing man coverage in the secondary and of Robert Mathis creating chaos in the backfield, and these stats illustrate just how important (and hard) it is to pressure Tom Brady. If Brady is able to stand in a clean pocket for 60 minutes on Saturday night, the Colts are going to lose, and frankly, it won't be close. They must get after the quarterback, they must pressure Brady into making mistakes. Their season depends on it.

3. Protect the Ball – In the regular season, the Colts had the fewest turnovers in the league (14). Against the Chiefs, they survived an astounding 4 turnovers. That might work against a team lead by Andy Reid and Alex Smith, but it won't work against a team lead by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Colts offense is going to need to be explosive and efficient, but they are also going to have to take care of the ball. It's up to Luck to judge the risk/reward of a specific situation and figure out if a dangerous throw outweighs the negatives of a punt. Luck is a smart guy, and I expect him to learn a lot from the Chiefs game and apply that to Saturday night.

4. Make A Few Big Plays (in all 3 phases of the game) – By all measures, the Patriots are the better team. While injuries may have leveled the playing field a little (for as many injuries as the Colts have dealt with, no one can deny the significance of losing Gronkowski and Wilfork), the Colts are still going to need a few breaks to win the game. While they can't control the bounces or the referees, they can control (to some degree) the outcome of big plays. This is obviously simplistic, but the Colts need to limit the Patriots' big plays in the return and passing games (if I see one Amendola or Edelman reception of 50+ yards, I'll… do nothing, but I'll be mad while I do it).

On the flip side, Saturday would be the perfect time for the normally lackluster Colts' return game to provide a spark (I wish they had held on to Deji Karim) and, no matter what Belichick throws at them, the Colts are going to have to find a few big plays on offense. Whether they come in the form of a big TY Hilton reception, a Coby Fleener seam route, or a Donald Brown screen, the Colts need to be able to land an uppercut or two if they are going to win the game and advance to the AFCCG.

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

Aubrayo Franklin REST (PROBABLE)
Darrius Heyward-Bey HAMSTRING (DOUBTFUL)
Khaled Holmes CALF (QUESTIONABLE)
Josh McNary CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)
LaRon Landry CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)


New England Patriots

WR Aaron Dobson FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Kyle Arrington GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Alfonzo Dennard KNEE/SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Dane Fletcher GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
S Steve Gregory FINGER/KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
S Devin McCourty CONCUSSION (QUESTIONABLE)
OT Will Svitek ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins HIP (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Shane Vereen GROIN (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Danny Amendola GROIN (PROBABLE)
QB Tom Brady SHOULDER (PROBABLE)


 

Series note and a video

  • The Colts and the Patriots have met 73 times in the regular season with the Colts winning 28 and losing 45 of those match-ups.  The teams have met 3 times in the post season with the Colts owning a 1-2 record in those contests.

 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

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

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Jim Sorgi

Is the Game on in your area? Probably

Officiating Crew: Pete Morelli

Prediction

Patriots – 34, Colts – 24 :(

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