Thursday, January 15, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 2: Patriots' Offense Ready For Encore Performance Against Colts' Defense

The Patriots' Big Three of Brandon LaFell (19), Julian Edelman (11) and Rob Gronkowski (87) are poised to dominate

The intelligence was there.  Something was amiss with Peyton Manning.

It had been evident for the entire second half of the season.  He was pushing the ball more than throwing it, his wobbly knuckleballs devolving into floating ducks.  More and more the Broncos became reliant on the running game to limit the thought that there was something seriously wrong with their franchise quarterback...

...and they were able to defer it through the end of the regular season, but once the playoffs hit and the level of competition and intensity had risen to new heights, they could mask their deficiencies not longer.  The Indianapolis Colts recognized something in his set up or release that made them not so wary of Manning's arm, choosing instead to take away Denver's running game and making Manning's broken body beat them.

As it turns out, Manning had played the last month of the season and last week's disastrous run-in with the Colts with a torn right quad, which, depending on the severity of the tear, can severely limit the push off of a right-handed thrower in initiating his throwing motion, resulting in things like bad overthrows and equally bad-looking interceptions.

The point being that the Colts were able to do the Broncos' offense last week what the Broncos' defense did to New England in last season's AFC Championship Game - stacking the box to stop the run and put the game in the hands of a handicapped quarterback.

But while Manning's inability to generate push off his plant leg was the issue that killed the Broncos on Sunday, last season it was Tom Brady's lack of receivers that caused the same kind of ugly offensive performance.  In both cases, the passing game was the weak link, which had a trickle down effect on the entire offense, from the inside out.

Even so, the Colts are still far from having a stout run defense.
Jonas Gray had a career game against the Colts in November...

Focusing on the eight games that Indianapolis has played since being blown out by New England on November 16th, the run defense didn't give up anywhere close to the 246 rushing yards that Jonas Gray and company laid on them in that game, but they haven't been particularly rugged in that department, either.

Much is being made of defensive end Arthur Jones missing the game with the Patriots back in November, as well as safety LaRon Landry being limited in coming back from suspension, many pointing to the speculation that the running game would not have produced what it did that night, and that tight end Rob Gronkowski would not have been as effective...

...but what is being forgotten is that even with Jones at his regular three-tech position in the Colts' 3-4 base alignment, the Colts actually gave up 10 more yards per game than when he was absent and that when Landry came back from suspension, that number increased even more.  As far as Gronkowski is concerned, he caught only four balls on five targets that evening for 71 yards (right on his season average) and a touchdown as Brady needed only 30 dropbacks to keep the defense on their heels, completing 19 balls.

Obviously, Sergio Brown was no match for Gronkowski in coverage, but where Gronkowski made the biggest difference in that game was in his run blocking.
...just as LeGarrette Blount did against the last January

Following Gronkowski to the right of the formation on his patented "Wham" blocks, Patriots backs picked up yardage at a clip of 6.2 yards per carry, running 26 times to the right for a staggering 160 yards, and when running to the left with reserve tackle Cameron Fleming claiming eligibility as a tight end, New England busted loose for 6.5 yards per carry.

With those kind of numbers, it's easy to see why there was such a disparity between run (46 plays) and pass (30) - and probably a good thing, too, as the victory over the Colts was not quarterback Tom Brady's best outing of the season.

Brady threw two interceptions on two poor decisions, the Colts turning those picks into all 10 first half points that they managed, both on a short field.  All of these facts added up shows that the Patriots' success on offense was no fluke, that the Colts aren't necessarily any better on defense with their returning starters than they were without them, and that the only way that Indianapolis was able to stop New England's offense was to take advantage of Brady trying to fit a rocket into a tight window.

That said, do the Patriots go into the game on Sunday night with a similar mindset and game plan?

Rhetorically speaking, why not?

Why not line up in similar formations and try to run the ball right down the Colts' collective throat?  Well, one point of contention is that New England will likely be without Bryan Stork at the pivot, meaning that Ryan Wendell will slide back into the center spot that he's manned for the past couple of seasons, and second year man Josh Kline will take over at right guard.

Another point to consider is that the Patriots pass catchers were underused in that game plan, by design, and if using their entire compliment of talent in the corps to their full advantage, they outclass the Colts' secondary by a wide margin - and just the fact that Danny Amendola has started to round into form only makes the Patriots' offense that much more potent.

It goes to figure that Belichick would use the passing game a little more than he did in the first game, if for nothing else just to mix it up a little bit.  The Colts' secondary is brimming with confidence after what they were able to realize against the Broncos, so it would be just like the Dark Master to go after them early to bring their confidence back to earth a little bit, ruminating that their "success" was more a matter of Manning being handicapped than anything special the Colts' had designed.

The same goes for the run defense, where they are beating their chests after holding Broncos' running back C. J. Anderson to 80 yards on Sunday, which really isn't that impressive - and even less so when you stop to ponder both that Anderson gained those 80 yards on just 18 carries, a 4.4 yards per carry average, and also that the Broncos inexplicably stopped running the ball at halftime. 

All of that considered, it must be noted that the Patriots stable of running backs has also received a boost since the November matchup with the fortunate signing of LeGarrette Blount to the team right after the game, and it is certain that Patriots' fans remember the carnage his presence caused in last season's divisional playoff game against the Colts last season.

There is nothing to limit the imagination and play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in this game other than his own penchant for forgetting about the running game at times - but that will be difficult for even McDaniels to pull off if they can get the running game going early and often, and even if the Colts somehow manage to slow the New England ground game, the Patriots can turn right around and lull them to sleep with their methodical passing game.

So if the Colts are to make a game out of this, they are going to have to do it on offense, where they have the ability to take advantage of New England's maddening habit of letting running backs and tight ends roam free in the pass pattern....

This is the second installment of a four-part series leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough.  Part 1 focused on the Patriots' structural integrity and overall health. Part 3 will take a look at their defense and Part 4 will delve into game day intrigue...

Part 1:  Patriots enter championship Sunday fully loaded

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