Friday, October 16, 2015

Grudge Match, Part 2 - Balance The Watchword For Patriots Offense Against Colts

A full quarter of the New England Patriots season has come and gone, and the team is undefeated.

If this were any other team in any other city, the fans would be ecstatic and riding the wave for as long as it lasts - albeit in the back of their minds knowing that the season could turn at any moment and they would be back at square one - but for Patriots' fans, this is old hat.

The difference between the Patriots and the other teams in the NFL? The Patriots start at square one for each and every game. Certainly, they have a playbook that gives them a point from which to proceed and from where they create a game specific manifesto based on the strengths and weaknesses of their opposition.

In reality, all teams do this to one extent or another, but there are precious few teams that can play it any way you want, evolving into whatever they need to be to take full advantage of their foe. Your defense going to try and take away our running game? Well then here's quarterback Tom Brady flinging the ball all over the place, his favorite receiver being the open one...

...and if you try to take away the passing game, then head ball coach Bill Belichick has what has been classified as the most efficient running game in the league for your consideration, highlighted by the syrup-on-waffles style of power running from 250 pound "lead" back LeGarrette Blount, complimented by the ankle-breaking stylings of "passing" back Dion Lewis.

And if you try to contain both the running and passing games, you'll be spread so thin that the Patriots will embarrass you with both, running up the score just to teach you a lesson.

The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, have a fan base that expects success as well, thanks to the years of service that former head coach Tony Dungy and former franchise quarterback Peyton Manning put into making the Colts a true contender for the better part of the past decade, earning nine consecutive playoff appearances before Dungy went to television, Manning got a bone stuck in his throat and the entire Colts organization mailed in the 2011 season, vowing to "Suck for Luck".

And suck they did, gaining the first overall draft pick in the 2012 draft, with which they selected current franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, the team improving in playoff status each of Luck's three years in the league: losing in the Wildcard round in 2012, losing in the Divisional round in 2013 and then losing to New England in last season's conference championship game.

The natural evolution would suggest that the Colts' next step would be to lose the Super Bowl, which is probably what most pundits were banking on when they made the Colts a prohibitive favorite to represent the AFC in next February's Super Bowl 50.

And why not? After all, Luck is just coming into his own as an NFL starter and General Manager Ryan Grigson has surrounded him with big name talent, while on the other side of the ball, he gave the Colts a badly needed transfusion with a healthy mixture of veteran guile and rookie exuberance - but Luck turned into an interception machine then separated his shoulder...

...putting the onus for the Colts' success on a defense that, despite the influx of new blood, still has plenty of holes - particularly in the secondary that is giving up nearly 300 yards passing per game, a number that places them in the bottom five in the NFL despite the presence of Vontae Davis and a decent safety combination of Mike Adams and newly acquired Dwight Lowery.

Grigson brought in several players both in free agency and the draft to compete with second corner Greg Toler, who was abominable in coverage last season, but rookie corner D'Juan Smith and undrafted free agent Tevin Mitchell ended up on the IR, leaving Toler the starter opposite Davis by default, which is neither here nor there when it comes to defending the Patriots because the real issue for the Colts is in how New England is built to pressure their linebacking corps.

The Colts' linebackers were awful last season, as the inside 'backers were too small to handle the run and the outside linebackers couldn't handle running backs or tight ends in the pattern, mostly leaving them to the safeties - and it was bad for Indianapolis last season when it was just Gronkowski and Vereen running over them, but it's worse now as Lewis does the Vereen role better than Vereen did, and Gronkowski now has a running mate down the seam in Scott Chandler.

Former Philadelphia standout Trent Cole joins the Colts in his 12th season, but the aging Cole is little more than a situational pass rusher who will rotate in and out on the weak side with greybeard Robert Mathis, who is a shell of his former self after suffering a torn Achilles that sidelined him all of last season, while ninth year strong sider Erik Walden draws combination coverage on tight ends along with the safeties.

Cole and Walden flank interior linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Jerell Freeman, who are mediocre in under zone pass coverages and simply don't have the size to match up in the running game. Former Bronco Nate Irving was brought in to rotate in and keep the duo fresh, but he has been a disappointment to this point.

The defensive line is certainly a work in progress, as the three man front is starting two rookies and an eight year veteran, none of whom were with the team last season. David Parry at nose tackle and defensive end Henry Anderson, teammates at Stanford, were drafted two rounds apart, Anderson in the third and Parry in the fifth as Grigson figured chemistry would win out if he had two guys who had played together for the past four seasons on the same line.

Which makes sense, though the depth behind them offers little, if anything at all, in the way of a rotation to keep the starters fresh. On the weak side, former St. Louis Rams defensive end Kendall Langford is the only veteran presence on the line, which is doing a fair job at stopping the run - giving up a middle-of-the-pack 3.8 yards per carry - but have not been able to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

In fact, the Colts have registered just six sacks in five games, tied with Houston for 31st in the NFL, three of them via one sack a piece for Langford, Anderson and Parry and three from the second level. Obviously this bodes ill for Indianapolis as the book on stopping Brady calls for the pass rush getting in his face, and even then, it's a crap shoot - just ask the Dallas Cowboys, who collectively hammered Brady with five sacks and half-a-dozen hits, yet still gave up 30 points.

All of these facts added up do not give the Colts much of chance of holding the Patriots below their 37 point per game average. In fact, a quick look at the stats effectively demonstrates what the Colts' defense is up against on Sunday night.

The Patriots offense is ranked first in the NFL in total offense, turnover differential, first downs gained, passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions against, scoring percentage, average yards per drive and average points per drive, and are second in scoring average and quarterback hits allowed...

...while the Colts are in the bottom five in the league in total defense and passing yards allowed, while maintaining a middle of the pack standing in rush defense and points allowed - so it goes to figure that the Patriots' mindset going into Sunday night's nationally televised showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium will be more about balance in comparison to recent history.

The two teams have met four times since 2012, with New England running the ball at will against the Colts, with efforts of 115, 234, 246 and 177 yards, each time running straight into the maw of the Colts' interior run defense. But that was with New England employing a veteran interior line known for their grit and determination more than skill level.

Now, of course, the Patriots will be entering this game a vastly different entity, with three rookies starting on the interior - a fact made more daunting by the loss of left tackle Nate Solder to a torn bicep, which causes two worries for New England. The most obvious of which is that Solder does a serviceable job of protecting Brady's blind side, but that has now fallen to an as-yet unnamed player among reserve swing tackle Marcus Cannon, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and former Detroit Lions swing tackle Michael Williams.

The smart money has Cannon at the spot, with Williams acting as a sixth offensive lineman as an eligible tight end, leaving Vollmer to where he is best suited in the drive blocking scheme, particularly given that Belichick likes to pull rookie left guard Shaq Mason across the formation to the right to seal off the inside linebacker while Vollmer escorts the defensive end around the play.

But there is also the possibility that Vollmer will switch to the left side, as New England has activated second-year tackle Cam Fleming from their practice squad, giving the team another right tackle option.

The running back who has benefited the most from both the Patriots' excellent run blocking line and the Colt's porous run defense has been Blount, who torched Indianapolis for 314 yards and 7 touchdowns in two career meetings, and while it would be foolish to expect the same production this time around from one power back, it would also be prudent to suggest that the Patriots' running game is even more dangerous with the addition of Lewis.

Lewis leads the Patriots in total offense, rushing and opposing ankles broken and is second on the team to receiver Julian Edelman in receptions and receiving yardage. In fact,the Pitt product will likely see more snaps than Blount, simply due to his ability to hurt opposing defenses both in the pattern and up the gut, as he is a surprisingly tough runner between the tackles...

...but that depends on his health, as Lewis is questionable for the game with some sort of abdominal issue, though the fantasy geeks at RotoWorld expect that he will suit up. If he can't go, it changes the dynamic of the entire offense, though sophomore James White would take over for Lewis with an essentially similar skill set, but with very little experience

Blount will see his snaps as well, particularly when the four-minute offense is called for, and the fact that he and Lewis are a terrific one-two, lightning and thunder punch to hammer defenses with.

If, as expected, the Patriots are able to establish a solid running game, the Colts are finished as they will be forced to bring a safety up into the box, leaving just three defensive backs to cover all of the Patriots weapons - a task that is the toughest in the NFL when a defense is at full strength, but is absolutely impossible to stop when a team has to employ a safety in run support.

That said, the watchword for New England's offense in this latest installment is "balance" - for which the Patriots have a different definaition than most other teams in that Belichick feels that there is balance between the running and passing games if either one is effective enough to take the opposition out of their game plan...

...which, given the hole that the Colts are in before the game even starts, means going all in with multiple blitzers against both the run and the pass, clogging the rushing and passing lanes in hopes of getting to Brady and stopping running plays before the have a chance to get started.

Of course if they can't, Edelman, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler and receivers Danny Amendola and Keyshawn Martin will hurt them in ways that haven't even been invented yet.

In the end, the Colts have no other choice. If they lay back and play the pass, Blount and Lewis will rack up serious yardage up the middle, and if they stack the box to stop the run, Brady will easily pick apart their overwhelmed secondary - so bringing everything they have in a desperate attempt to stop both is really the only hope they have...

...with desperation being the key word.

Next up, Part 3: Patriots' defense vs, Colts' offense

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