Colts vs. Patriots: 10 Keys to the Game for New England
The Indianapolis Colts will join the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts Sunday afternoon for a battle of 6-3 teams. The Colts may be without All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning now, but No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck has Indianapolis competing hard for a playoff berth in his rookie campaign.
What was perhaps the greatest rivalry of the past decade will start a new chapter Sunday as Luck faces off with Tom Brady for the first time. The game may have two big-name quarterbacks going at it, but Patriots vs. Colts has more to it than Brady vs. Luck.
Here are 10 of the biggest keys to the game from a New England standpoint.
No. 1: Feed Ridley Early
Establishing the up-and-coming Stevan Ridley on the ground early in the game will help keep the Colts' Robert Mathis, Jerry Hughes and Dwight Freeney from getting overly comfortable with solely rushing the passer all day.
If the Patriots come out and go pass, pass, pass, this trio will be able to pin its ears back and get after Tom Brady. For an offensive line that could be missing both of its starting guards on Sunday, this is not something it will want to be worrying about every down.
A strong output from Ridley early on will keep the defense guessing all evening and help keep Brady off of his back.
No. 2: Dare the Colts to Run
The Patriots may have had one of their worst days stopping the run this past Sunday vs. the Bills, but that is in part because C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are just a very talented duo.
The Colts committee of Vick Ballard, Donald Brown and Delone Carter cannot hold a candle to Buffalo's running backs. If the Patriots stay in sub-packages with extra defensive backs all day long, they will still have a decent chance of holding these backs to minimal gains.
If the Colts want to run instead of allowing Andrew Luck to throw against the abysmal Patriot pass defense, Bill Belichick will be extremely happy to see it.
No. 3: Beware Reggie Wayne
Reggie Wayne is on the downside of his career. No one will debate anyone who states that. However, even now, Wayne is an extremely productive receiver.
Some, myself included, were surprised when he re-signed with the seemingly rebuilding Colts this offseason instead of going to a contender. He and Andrew Luck quickly silenced those questioning Wayne, as the two had an almost instant connection.
Through nine games this season, Wayne has 69 receptions for 931 yards and three scores. He may not be a speed-demon, but he will help Luck methodically march down the field if the Patriots do not give him plenty of attention.
You would think Bill Belichick would, simply based on his respect and past praise for Wayne:
" That guy is the best receiver we cover every year and it seems like he just keeps getting better."
No. 4: Don't Forget Avery
Donnie Avery was a promising prospect, running a 4.27 40-yard dash pre-draft in 2008 before being the first receiver selected in the draft, going to the Rams in the second round.
Avery was a productive receiver for the Rams for two seasons before blowing out his knee against the Patriots in the 2010 preseason. Two years and two teams later, Avery has re-emerged with the Indianapolis Colts.
If there is one weakness the Patriots have, it is giving up the big play. A speedster like Avery could have some luck (no pun intended) getting behind whoever may be lined up deep for New England. He and fellow receiver T.Y. Hilton may not be household names, but they are helping Luck make some plays and win some games as a rookie.
The Patriots—whether it is Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty lined up at safety—need to make sure that they are always the deepest men on the field. If they fail at that, they will give up a cheap score of two, just as the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams both illustrated.
No. 5: Ease Talib into Secondary
Aqib Talib is not currently a member of the active roster in New England, but it is fair to say his activation is a likely move between now and Sunday. Assuming he is a part of the game and the game plan, the Patriots need to be careful to not ask too much, too soon.
Talib has not played in a month due to his suspension for violating the league's policy on controlled substances. Additionally, he will literally have had less than a week of exposure to the Patriots' schemes and personnel.
To expect him to instantly be the savior for the struggling defensive backfield is a bit of a reach. He will be an upgrade over a player like Kyle Arrington, but how much better he can be immediately remains to be seen.
I would expect to see Talib in the starting lineup but not go wire to wire. Conditioning is always a question for a player who has not had to go at game speed in a decent amount of time.
No. 6: Get Welker Going
Wes Welker was on fire for a month stretch earlier this season in which he topped 100 yards in four straight games and silenced all questions of his playing time and role in the offense. However, in the last three games he has just six receptions in each game and has not topped 74 yards.
Welker has not done himself favors, especially last week vs. Buffalo, dropping an inordinate amount of balls.
In a game that could come down to who outscores who, getting a chain-mover like Welker involved is a must. He needs to get out of the tiny funk he is in and show people once again why he is a favorite target of Tom Brady.
No. 7: Pick on Butler & Co.
Due to a number of injuries to the Colts secondary, Patriot-sendoff Darius Butler is now the featured member of a cornerback corps that has been depleted.
Butler had himself a day last Thursday as he was awarded AFC Defensive Play of the Week, following his two interception—including a pick-six—performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Butler flashed as a rookie, but then lost his starting job early in his second year to Kyle Arrington, leading to his release in 2011.
Since then, he has been claimed and released by the Panthers, and eventually found his way to Indianapolis. Butler is obviously a talented athlete, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have to be anxious to test out just how much better Butler really is than the player they used to see every day in Foxborough.
Brady could be ripe for a big day against Butler and the rest of the Colts' patchwork secondary.
No. 8: Hold Back Gronkowski Less
The Colts may have a few notable pass-rushers for the Patriots to worry about, but the Patriots also have two tackles in Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer who are playing at a high level. Rob Gronkowski is a terrific blocker, no doubt, but the Patriots should give Solder and Vollmer a chance early on to show that Gronkowski can be cut loose from the offensive line.
Gronkowski is one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL for defenses to deal with each week, and if the Patriots can let him run routes most of the day instead of holding him back as extra protection, their passing game should take off for a big day on Sunday.
Gronkowski found the end zone twice last season against the Colts; it would not be a shocker to see a similar result Sunday if Josh McDaniels gives him the opportunity.
No. 9: Start Building a Cohesive Secondary
One of the keys to this game and the rest of the season will be the development of the secondary now that recently acquired cornerback Aqib Talib is no longer suspended.
The flip-flopping of players needs to end and a decision needs to made once and for all of a unit moving forward. For the corners and safeties to succeed, they need to get a feel for one another and become one unit.
A major question regarding this group will be where Devin McCourty is going to play for the foreseeable future. McCourty sealed New England's win last Sunday with an interception of Ryan Fitzpatrick while playing safety, but that was in the absence of Patrick Chung. If Chung comes back, a decision is going to have to be made about where McCourty will play and who ends up on the bench as the result.
The Patriots have already lost to a rookie quarterback much less talented than Andrew Luck in Russell Wilson, so putting what Bill Belichick sees as his best group out on the field is very important.
No. 10: Bring Back the Pace
The Patriot offense went through a phase earlier this season where it was working like a buzz saw, running plays at an Oregon-esque fast pace. It was extremely successful with this, especially when mixing in Stevan Ridley runs with the passing game.
The Patriots could put Andrew Luck and the Colts at an uncomfortable deficit if they can re-enact their earlier success of keeping defense exhausted and scrambling. Against the Colts No. 22 run defense and a group of backup corners, the Patriots have a chance to demoralize the Colt defense and build a lead that even a young quarterback as talented as Luck will have a difficult time coming back from.