Monday, October 19, 2015

Defense Rises To The Occasion As Patriots Put Down Colts

The New England Patriots defense is reverting back to last season's form.

During the stretch run in what proved to be the Patriots fourth championship season in franchise history, the defense surrendered just 32 points combined in the second half's of their last nine games, which included their last six regular season games and all three playoff games, culminating in head ball coach Bill Belichick hoisting yet another Lombardi Trophy...
Luck is sacked by Chandler Jones (L) and Dominique Easley

...but even more impressive is the fact that in that same stretch, Belichick's defense gave up only 12 fourth quarter points.  That's an average of 3.5 points per second half and a miserly 1.3 points for every fourth quarter - and all of this despite being merely average statistically.

But when the Patriots decided to let shutdown corner Darrelle Revis and his hard-hitting accomplice Brandon Browner leave in free agency, many opined that the Patriots would have a tough time duplicating their phenomenal and historic run to the championship - but after a slow start, the defense is rounding into the same point-stingy unit that helped New England dominate teams when it counts the most.

Again, the Patriots' defense ranks in the middle of the pack statistically but, again, they are starting to find their groove, adjusting to whatever teams are throwing at them, allowing just nine second half points in their last two games, including a closer-than-expected 34-27 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night.

The Colts dominated time of possession, ran for nearly five-and-a-half yards per rush and quarterback Andrew Luck completed 30 of 50 pass attempts for 312 yards, but gained only 40 of their 409 total yards during a crucial stretch encompassing the first five possessions of the second half in which the Patriots offense scored 14 points to erase a halftime deficit and take control of a tight game.

All of the Colts' points were not on the Patriots' defense, and the points in the fourth quarter came in garbage time with the Patriots in three-deep shell - meaning that Luck and the Colts offense scored only 14 points when it mattered, as New England forced six punts and held on downs twice in 10 drives before mop up time, when the Colts gained 141 of their total yards on the night.

That's important to remember going forward, as is the fact that on their two desperation drives late in the fourth quarter, Luck was 7 of 15 for 113 yards, and also scrambled twice for 28 yards, meaning that when the game was still in question, the Patriots' defense allowed Luck to go 23 of 35 for 191 yards and two touchdowns and the Indianapolis running game 85 yards in 18 carries, for 4.7 yards per attempt...

...not elite stats for the "D" by any stretch of the imagination, but when you have an offense like the Patriots do, the defense is tasked no so much with stopping the opposition cold, but making them work for their yards and to rise up when absolutely needed to force them leave points on the field - and as they are giving up just a hair over 20 points per game while the offense is scoring at a clip of 37, well, mission accomplished.

Brady was far more efficient than his counterpart, completing 23 of 37 in matching Luck yard-for-yard with a matching 312, and in touchdowns with three, the only real miscue coming on his first interception of the season, which was more a matter of favorite target Julian Edelman bobbling a a quick out in the right flat, the ball ending up in the hands of Indianapolis safety Mike Adams, who jogged into the end zone for a 14 yard pick six.

Edelman's targets in the game, as well as his punt returning duties, fell by the wayside after he dislocated his right pinkie on a 12 yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and subsequently dropped three catchable balls, uncharacteristically letting the ball get to his body instead of plucking it out of the air - at which point Danny Amendola took over and put forth an Edelman-like effort.

Amendola led all receivers with seven catches for 105 yards and fielded two punts on the night, while Edelman himself finished with six catches on ten targets for 60 yards and the aforementioned touchdown, while tight end Rob Gronkowski found holes in the Colts' zone for three second half catches for 50 yards and a score...

...running back LeGarrette Blount contributing in the passing game as well with designated passing back Dion Lewis limited by an abdominal injury, catching an 11 yard strike from Brady for his first career receiving touchdown to go along with his 93 rushing yards on just 16 carries, highlighted by one of his patented Colt-killing long touchdown romps.

Like a heavyweight fight, the game started with each team landing heavy blows, the Colts going 89 yards in 13 plays to take the early lead, but New England countered with Edelman's finger-dislocating touchdown reception to knot the game at seven, then a Stephen Gostkowski field goal gave the Patriots their first lead of the night at 10-7 to end the first quarter.

Edelman's faux pas in the flat led directly to Adams' pick six to give the lead back to Indianapolis early in the second frame, but an ensuing onside kick failed, resulting in the Patriots having excellent field position, which they turned into Blount's 38 yard dash for a touchdown, New England regaining the lead in the process.

The Colts responded with a 12 play, 80 yard drive capped off with Luck feigning a scramble from the three yard line to draw Patriots' linebacker Jamie Collins closer to the line of scrimmage and abandoning his middle zone, then finding T.Y. Hilton in the vacated space to take the lead back at 21-17.

As is usually the case, the Patriots won the coin toss and elected to defer until the second half, a tactic that has paid huge dividends thus far in the season. In all, the Patriots have won the coin toss in every game except against the Cowboys, and are now five-for-five in doubling down - that is scoring just before the half and then scoring again with the first possession of the third quarter - and for the first time this season, doubling down got them out of a hole.

The Patriots responded to the Hilton touchdown with a Gostkowski field goal to cut the Indianapolis lead to one going into the room, then took the second half kickoff and drove 80 yards in seven plays, Gronkowski taking it the final 25 yards, taking a crosser and outrunning the zone coverage to give New England the lead for good.

Both offenses hit the skids after that point, with only Blount's touchdown reception breaking a cycle of punt-after-punt.

After the Colts gave the Patriots a short field to work with - the result of an ill-advised fake punt attempt turned into a epic fail - Brady needed only six plays to cash in. Flushed from the pocket and scrambling to his right, he found Blount, who released into the pattern at the same time Brady broke the pocket, on the two yard line and the 250 pound power back tumbled into the end zone for the dagger.

The Colts had the ball twice more, but the Patriots held on downs from the New England 28 to stymie one drive, but then gave up a touchdown pass from Luck to Griff Whalen with a minute and a half remaining in the game, but Collins leaped over the offensive linemen to block Pat McAfee's extra point attempt, then Gronkowski corralled McAfee's onside kick to settle the matter.

The defense will need to bring a similar effort next Sunday, when New England hosts the hated New York Jets, who are just a game back of the Patriots at 4-1, the winner taking control of the AFC East. The Jets are heavily slanted towards defense, as their top ranking in total defense will attest, but are also in the top 10 in total offense...

...each unit attaining those lofty rankings by running the ball with authority on offense and clogging the running lanes on defense - most definitely a different brand of football than what the Patriots have seen thus far in 2015, and perhaps their sternest test as well.

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