Last weekend, the Chiefs lit up the scoreboard with 44 points against the Colts defense, and marched up and down the field to the tune of 513 yards. Both are season highs for Indy. That Chiefs offense was led by game-manager extraordinaire Alex Smith; this Patriots offense is led by all-world quarterback Tom Brady.
Although Brady will not have his full complement of weapons, there are enough weapons in the arsenal that the Patriots should have success moving the ball against the Colts, and the recipe is rather simple.
Run The Football
The Patriots have utilized a balanced attack on offense all season, and that should be no different against the Colts. If anything, we may see an uptick in the Patriots' focus on running the football against a Colts front seven that has struggled to get off blocks.
Source: Pro Football Reference
The Colts finished 2013 ranked in the bottom 10 in nearly every major rushing category; on the flip side, the Patriots were one of the league's best and most efficient rushing attacks, ranking in the top 10 across the board.
"It's a heck of a challenge," said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano of the Patriots running game. "What LeGarrette [Blount] is doing and [Stevan] Ridley and certainly with Shane [Vereen] coming in, and [Brandon] Bolden is no slouch. I mean, they've got a stable of guys that are all more than capable, and you look at the one-two punch LeGarrette and Rid[ley] have been, and you look at almost identical numbers across the board, it's a huge challenge."
The Colts spend a lot of time in their 2-4-5 defense, a nickel defense that gives the team extra speed at linebacker to defend the pass but leaves them light when defending the run.
The Patriots would be smart to run the ball on those merits alone, but an efficient running game can have a dramatic effect on a defense. The Patriots have used the running game to set up play action this season, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 24.6 percent of Brady's pass attempts have come on play-action passes. He has a 99.8 passer rating on those throws, which is far better than his 2013 regular-season passer rating of 87.3.
For purposes of attacking the Colts front seven, and giving the offense the balance it needs to run effectively, the running game will be vital to the Patriots' success on Saturday.
Neutralize Robert Mathis
If there's one thing the Patriots do well, it's take away an opponent's biggest threat. That applies on both offense and defense. For the Colts, that weapon is rush linebacker Robert Mathis.
"He's a good place to start," Brady said of Mathis. "He's a great player and been a great player for a long time. We've played these guys a bunch over the years. We kind of know what we're up against. He's having one of the best years of his career."
Mathis has had some great years as a 4-3 defensive end for the Colts but has switched to outside linebacker over the past two years, and has thrived in that role. His 19.5 sacks lead the NFL this season, and are the most in his career by eight more than his previous career high.
That said, he's not impervious to being neutralized. He was held without a sack in four games this year, and created two or fewer pressures in three games. The only team to hold him without a single pressure was the Cincinnati Bengals.
Quarterback Andy Dalton had all the time he needed to find wide receiver Marvin Jones on this 29-yard touchdown toss for the Bengals' first score, and it was thanks to a nice job of picking up blitzes, and a blocking scheme that completely wiped Mathis out of the play. Right tackle Andre Smith pushed Mathis into right guard Kevin Zeitler, effectively creating a double-team on Mathis.
"You have to understand where he's at," Brady said of Mathis. "He really has a sense of urgency. It’s one thing to sack the quarterback. It’s another thing to strip-sack him and the ball’s flying all over the place. You have eliminate those types of plays. They've had a lot of those types of plays this year which have been a big benefit to their team where he runs the edge, the quarterback’s standing back there, here he comes and strip-sacks him. We just really can’t let that happen."
Mathis has lined up on both sides of the line, but it hasn't mattered; his production has been nearly identical regardless of his alignment.
|Pass Rush Snaps||189||266|
|Rushes per pressure||7.3||7.4|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Overall, he is the sixth-most productive pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
Other than Mathis, what do the Colts have? Their next-leading sack artist is inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman with 5.5; with 42 sacks as a team, Mathis accounts for nearly half the team's total production when it comes to bringing down the quarterback.
It's not just enough to know where he's at. Brady must also get the ball out quickly. There will be times when Mathis gets the better of either left tackle Nate Solder or right tackle Marcus Cannon, and when that happens, Brady's going to have to get rid of the ball before Mathis gets rid of it for him (nine forced fumbles in 2013).
If the Patriots are able to neutralize Mathis' pass-rushing productivity, Brady should have enough time in the pocket to find open receivers, which leads oh-so-smoothly into the final area the Patriots should look to exploit against the Colts defense.
Find Favorable Matchups in the Secondary
The Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee) as they have been for the past several weeks. They may also be without wide receiver Aaron Dobson (foot), who left the season finale against the Buffalo Bills and did not return; Dobson has not been spotted at practice this week, which casts some doubt on whether he'll be available for this game.
Aside from Vontae Davis, though—who is a shutdown quality cornerback at times and a third-degree-burn victim at other times—the Colts don't have much to write home about in the secondary. Darius Butler has shown up in spots, but they will be without starting cornerback Greg Toler (groin), who left Saturday's game against the Chiefs and was placed on injured reserve.
For many of the same reasons that Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton is not a favorable matchup for Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman is not a favorable matchup for Davis. His short-area quickness could prove to be difficult for Davis, who is known better for defending bigger receivers, and struggled with former Patriots receiver Wes Welker when Davis was with the Dolphins (2009-2011).
The Colts have two high-priced safeties, but they are not without their weaknesses. LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea have both allowed over 66 percent of passes thrown in their direction to be completed. The two safeties love attacking the football, and can get jumpy in that respect. Along with play action, there are methods Brady can use to exploit that weakness when possible.
Alex Smith had success using shoulders to cause #Colts SAFs Landry & Bethea to jump low part of high-low route combos. TB12 does that too— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) January 6, 2014
If Brady can use deception to get the Colts safeties out of position, the Patriots could set off some fireworks at Gillette Stadium.
In that respect, Landry and Bethea have been exposed as recently as this past weekend.
They were not fooled by the play-action fake on the 79-yard touchdown bomb from Alex Smith to Donnie Avery, and there was no noticeable shoulder fake from Smith on this throw. The Colts safeties, instead, were beaten by the route combination.
They were both defending the long ball in Cover 2. The Chiefs ran Avery (circled in yellow, bottom of screen) on a 12-yard post pattern. Against the Cover 2 shell, this throw should not be open. If Bethea had played this right, Avery would have run directly into coverage.
Instead, he and Landry are both coming downhill on the shorter routes—Bethea on the out route from Dexter McCluster; Landry on the curl from Dwayne Bowe. As a result, no one was anywhere near Avery as he scampered free through the secondary.
Of course, the Colts would later give the Chiefs a taste of their own medicine with the same route from Hilton on the go-ahead touchdown, but the point stands: The Colts safeties can be had in coverage.
The Patriots game plan is probably much more detailed than what I've laid out here, but these are just some of the reasons it seems the Patriots could simply be too much for the Colts to handle, even without some of their most prominent performers.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.