Saturday, January 17, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 3: Colts' Offense Custom-Built To Challenge Patriots' Defense

The best way to get to Colts' Andrew Luck is with "Hug" Blitzes, with Linebackers like Dont'a Hightower.

The evolution of the tight end from the big lumbering end-of-the-line blocker into the even bigger, more athletic downfield threat has changed the way that defenses regard the position, and to what extent defensive coordinators game plan for specific threats.

Today's tight ends are more akin to a power forward in basketball than their ancestors, bringing jumping and running ability with big, soft hands that suit them well running up the seam, at times almost looking like the aforementioned power forward driving the lane towards the hoop...

...except in football they can be stopped by being tackled by any assortment of linebackers, safeties and corners, and usually it takes more than one.

Tight ends stretch the field like no other position, given the athleticism and speed employed, as well as they number of defenders that it takes to stop them, routinely taking two players up the seam with them, which opens up the field for other pass catchers - and particularly slot receivers and running backs curling out of the backfield.
Containing Fleener is a group effort, including linebacker Jamie Collins

And although the New England Patriots present perhaps one of the most effective usages of a tight end in the world of professional football, they have also provided that entity a blueprint in which other teams might employ these freakish hybrid into their game plan, both as pass catchers and as field stretchers to open up the rest of their play book.

In that sense, you might say the Patriots created a monster that has changed the way defenses game plan, and that has come back to haunt them many times this season. It has usually been on underneath routes when the Patriots are in zone coverage where the big guys settle into the gaps in the zones - but because of the quality of New England's cover corners and safeties, there hasn't been many who test the seam.

The exception to this was the Indianapolis Colts on November 16th, who unleashed tight end Coby Fleener, whom quarterback Andrew Luck found seven times for 144 yards.  New England corner Brandon Browner served as the goat on most of those deep balls, while safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Jamie Collins had far more success underneath.

The problem for the Colts on that night was that they had virtually no production from their backs, either on the ground or curling out into the pattern, and also because Kyle Arrington was able to manhandle speedy Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton while shutdown corner Darrelle Revis did exactly that to an aging Reggie Wayne on the outside... head ball coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia were content to play the Colts straight up and let the chips fall where they may, the result being a 42-20 blowout of the Colts on their own turf.
Patriots' safeties will play a huge part in defending the Colts

Some things have changed for the Colts since that night.  For one, Wayne has fallen off the map, rookie Donte Moncrief emerging in his stead, but the biggest difference in this team is the presence of a shiny new set of running backs that still don't provide much on the ground, but enough for their opponents to at least have to respect the run.

The biggest difference that Indianapolis has going for it is that these backs provide effective targets in the passing game, causing a quandary for the Patriots in this Sunday's AFC Championship Game that wasn't an issue for them back in November.

Many teams use the screen pass and the wheel route into the flat as an extension of their running game.  The Indianapolis Colts now take that to a whole different level.

The Patriots have had a tough time recently in covering the flat, blowing up the screen and shutting down the opposition's tight ends, particularly on third down where a combination of those threats spread New England thin - and where Luck is a mobile quarterback who often finds success floating out of the pocket, that just adds an extra layer for the Patriots' defense to have to fight through.

So what can New England do to level the playing field against the Colts' improved weaponry on offense?

The success that Arrington had on Hilton is compelling, as Arrington is a quick-twitch slot corner that took on Hilton out of the slot in the first meeting and holding him to a pedestrian three catches for 24 yards, so that matchup may work itself out once again unless Hilton lines up split wide, in which case he may find himself either layered against Browner and a safety over the top or lined up opposite Revis.

In this respect, it makes sense for the Patriots to deploy Revis to one side of the field regardless of who is lined up there to simply take away that side of the field and to limit the amount of room that Moncrief and Fleener have to operate, and let nickel corner Logan Ryan take on the other side, leaving Browner (who is limited with a bum knee) to take on an interior zone, much like a box safety.

Keeping Fleener in a phone booth to one side of the field with Browner underneath to crack him coming off the line allows Collins and Chung freedom to pick up the leftovers in the flat and to help set the edge on the line of scrimmage.  In this scenario, the Patriots will probably have to sacrifice the pass rush to a certain extent, but it's not as if New England can consistently get to the quarterback anyway...

...instead playing a game of keeping Luck in a jar with solid outside containment and consistent gap integrity with the big uglies up front and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower roaming freely to plug gaps and chase down plays to the edge.

Containing Luck is the biggest key to defeating the Colts, but it's not as if there has to be a defender shadowing him.  As long as defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich do not get drawn up and around the pocket and maintain their edge, keeping a lid on Luck falls to the interior rush where timely hug blitzes should be able to get to him on occasion.

Of course, there are more weapons on the Colts than just Hilton, Fleener, Moncrief and running back Dan Herron, as Wayne still demonstrates veteran savvy and old Patriots nemesis Hakeem Nicks has started to come on late in the season - and the Colts' have Dwayne Allen and young Jack Doyle as larger targets to compliment the tight end position.

If all of this sounds imposing, that's because it is.  The Colts are one wide receiver and some offensive line help short of being a truly elite offense, but what they have at the moment is obviously enough for them to be known as one of the two best teams in the American Football Conference, and their heart should not be taken for granted...

...for after being trounced by New England in mid-November, Indianapolis responded by winning seven of eight to get to Foxborough, and while their schedule down the stretch wasn't exactly the Murderer's Row that New England had to face, the fact remains that they closed out things in impressive fashion, winning the games that they were supposed to.

And now they have the chance to finally get past a New England team that has dominated them early in the Andrew Luck era, and will likely try to do so by getting the ball to Hilton underneath and on the screen, letting Fleener carry a linebacker and a safety up the seam to clear out room for Herron and the rest of their backs to make plays by snagging balls in the flat.

In other words, the Colts are custom-made on offense to take advantage of what New England hasn't shown much success in stopping on defense, but with Bill Belichick's game-planning expertise and with having the athletes to pull off just about any scenario, this defense has enough in the tank for one more shut down and to earn a trip to Arizona for the Super Bowl.

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