Despite the most attrition and personnel turnover they've experienced in years, the New England Patriots are in position to fulfill their lofty annual expectations. For all the debilitating injuries and heart-stopping finishes, the Patriots sit just two wins away from the Super Bowl.
The postseason journey begins this Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts, a team who should cause concern primarily because of their game-wrecking playmakers. Everyone knows about Andrew Luck, but the Colts defense can be just as dangerous, having forced 12 turnovers their past six contests.
New England put up 59 points in a romp over Indy last season, and while matching that production is likely infeasible, here are a few offensive keys that the Patriots must execute to produce consistent results this Saturday.
Robert Mathis is the obvious threat on the Indianapolis defense, the player the Patriots must spend the most time game-planning against. Indy's All-Pro linebacker led the league with 19.5 sacks, and the onus will fall on the offensive line to contain the explosive pass-rusher.
And it's important to note that this task falls on the whole offensive line, for Mathis is versatile enough to line up everywhere. As his pass-rushing distribution demonstrates, Mathis can rush the quarterback from the right and left sides, with even a few middle pressures sprinkled in:
|Left Side||Right Side|
|Pass Rush Snaps||189||266|
via Pro Football Focus
Mathis is absolutely deadly when blocked one-on-one; his game-changing strip-sack of Alex Smith started when Smith had to break the pocket after Mathis abused tight end Anthony Fasano. Consequently, New England might give Mathis the "J.J. Watt" treatment, essentially directing the flow of the game away from the opposition's best weapon.
Watt is an irrepressible force, so the Pats have circumvented the system by simply minimizing his influence. In three games against New England over the last two years, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Watt has compiled a grand total of one sack, seven hits and three hurries.
That's a meager total by his standards, as the Patriots have focused on identifying him pre-snap and directing protection his way. Take this touchdown throw, where it looked like Watt (No. 99, lined up out wide left) was going to beat right tackle Will Svitek inside immediately. But right guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell did a fantastic job of blocking their man towards Watt's direction so they could provide help. The three actually briefly triple-teamed Watt, affording Brady eons of time to throw:
Like Watt, Mathis stands out as the singularly obvious pass-rushing threat on an otherwise benign Colts front seven. His 19.5 sacks represent nearly half of Indianapolis' 42 total sacks on the season, so it's not a stretch to say the Colts' pass rush lives and dies with No. 98.
The Bengals had the most success against Mathis this year, keeping him off the stat sheet entirely in Week 14. Besides double-teams, Cincinnati also had their running back chip Mathis out of the backfield on occasion:
New England often receives credit for neutralizing the opponent's top offensive threat, but the same philosophy holds when game-planning for the defense. Mathis is as good a pass-rusher as the Pats have seen all year, but their track record suggests that they can prevent him from sabotaging the passing game.
Run Between the Tackles
The Colts are not a particularly good run defense. Indianapolis conceded 4.5 yards per rush during the regular season, tied for 24th in the league, and the Chiefs gashed the Colts for 4.7 per carry despite losing Jamaal Charles on the first series and backup Knile Davis at the end of the third quarter.
And yet, the Colts are not filled with incompetent run defenders. Mathis himself is very solid, and left end Cory Redding actually graded out as the seventh-best 3-4 defensive end against the run. No, the Colts have a very specific area where the run defense is particularly soft, and it's not hard to identify (depth chart according to NFL.com):
|Position||Player||Run Defense Grade (Reg Season)|
via Pro Football Focus
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Kelvin Sheppard have not had much luck against the run, compromising the middle of the Indy run defense. Indeed, last week, Kansas City's running backs experienced their most success running between the center and the right guard, churning out 28 yards and a touchdown on five runs.
That news dovetails with the greatest strengths of the Patriots backs. New England attempted 79 rushes between the center and the left guard and 68 between the center and the right guard. Combined, the Pats averaged a whopping 4.9 yards per carry on those 147 attempts.
Thus, look for New England to try to impose the bruising duo of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley early. The Patriots have tilted towards the run anyways, with 77 runs to just 50 passes the final two weeks of the regular season. A similar commitment is not only necessary given the compromised state of the Gronk-less passing game, but favorable in this instance.
One more thing—the Patriots could probably take advantage of some Shane Vereen shotgun draws against Indy's sub defense. Kansas City did not try them very often, but on their last touchdown of the first half, the offensive line absolutely obliterated a Colts defense that came out in its dime package (6 DBs):
If New England can establish a rhythm on the ground, that opens up the play-action pass. Though that usually means a seam route to Julian Edelman (who is surprisingly effective in that regard), the Patriots might find a better matchup outside the numbers.
Dust Off a Rookie
In the passing game, the Patriots' bread and butter is well-established: short and intermediate routes to Edelman, Vereen and Danny Amendola, with the emphasis on creating enough space to let their speedy receivers rack up the YAC.
Tom Brady has not had a whole lot of success throwing outside the numbers this year, but he'll likely need to take a couple shots against Indy. As a former Ravens defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano has brought a physical press-coverage philosophy to the Colts secondary. Baltimore has given the Pats fits with their physicality in the past, and New England's bevy of smallish slot receivers could be vulnerable.
However, the Colts are a very small secondary themselves—no one is over 6'0"—and that leaves Indy vulnerable to bigger receivers. Dwayne Bowe constantly exploited his size advantage last week in compiling eight catches for 150 yards and would have set up the potential game-winning field goal had he not drifted towards the sideline after beating his man on the game's final meaningful play.
Aaron Dobson would be the most blatant candidate for the Pats, but a foot injury has stunted the rookie's progress in the second half of the year. He hasn't practiced since appearing to aggravate it against the Bills in Week 17; for what it's worth, ESPN Boston reporter Mike Reiss speculated that Dobson's injury was worse than that of fellow rookie Josh Boyce, who was placed on injured reserve last week:
Another area 2 consider is health of WR Aaron Dobson (foot). While Josh Boyce (ankle) seems closer to return, I sense more doubt on Dobson.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 2, 2014
If Dobson's unable to go, that would leave Kenbrell Thompkins as the most logical outside-the-numbers threat. Thompkins is certainly not a burner, but at 6'1", he's New England's biggest receiver. In fact, looking at the rookie's receiving chart, he's shown a sweet spot in the intermediate-to-deep left area, in addition to his typical work over the middle:
|20+ Left||20+ Middle||20+ Right|
|4 rec, 124 yds, 1 TD||1 rec, 26 yds||0 rec|
|10-19 Left||10-19 Middle||10-19 Right|
|3 rec, 54 yds, 1 TD||5 rec, 90 yds, 1 TD||0 rec|
|0-9 Left||0-9 Middle||0-9 Right|
|4 rec, 32 yds||13 rec, 125 yds, 1 TD||1 rec, 6 yds|
|Minus Left||Minus Middle||Minus Right|
|0 rec||1 rec, 9 yds||0 rec|
via Pro Football Focus
Thompkins has been more of a possession receiver, but he has demonstrated good ball skills in the past, using his size to snatch some difficult catches. During the early-season offensive doldrums, the Pats' best game came against Atlanta, when Thompkins made several big plays.
Make no mistake, nearly every one of Brady's passes will go to one of the aforementioned Edelman-Amendola-Vereen trio. But the Patriots will need a change-up at some point, both this weekend and going forward, if they are fortunate enough to advance. Every Super Bowl champion seems to unearth some surprise star during their postseason run, and offensively, Thompkins might be New England's best candidate.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).