Do the Colts want to try to run the ball against Chris Jones (center), Rob Ninkovich (right) and the Patriots' front seven?
In their heart of hearts, the Indianapolis Colts want to throw the ball. It's hard to blame them, with an uber-talented quarterback in Andrew Luck who can make all the throws, throw on the run and generally do it all for Indy's offense.
This week, however, the matchup dictates they should run the ball against a New England Patriots front seven that has yielded yards in bunches to any opponent willing to grind them out on the ground.
Now, the question becomes: Will the Colts seize the opportunity? Do they really want to take the ball out of Luck's hands? Does that play into the Patriots' hands?
The Patriots know it is a distinct possibility.
"They have so many weapons," said Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones of the Colts offense. "Not only do they have Andrew Luck, but they have the running backs Donald Brown and Trent Richardson that can run the ball, and then he has so many weapons to throw to, so there are a lot of ways they're really well-rounded. It's always tough when you have a team that can run and pass the ball."
There's one problem with Jones' statement: The Colts don't have much of a running game to speak of, and they don't commit to it.
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Sources: TeamRankings.com, Pro Football Focus
Across the board, the Colts were one of the league's worst teams at running the ball, and they have been less committed to it than most teams.
They tied for the league lead for most games with 15 or fewer rush attempts (four), per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and Luck dropped back for a pass on 65 percent of the Colts' total offensive plays, the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL, according to numbers obtained via email from Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus.
Despite the data, the Patriots are preparing for a balanced attack from the Colts.
"I think a team tries to have a balance within their offense," said defensive tackle Chris Jones. "I think they're going to try to work the run in and the pass. The more you can balance out your attack, the better off you are."
The Colts haven't needed to stay balanced to be successful, though. They are 7-4 when they run the ball for 115 yards or more and 4-1 when they run for less than 115 yards.
They haven't used the play-action passing game much, either, with Luck attempting just 19.5 percent of his passes off play action (25th out of 41 qualifying quarterbacks), though they might use it more if they had an effective running game.
Turns out they didn't need a running game badly enough to trade a first-round pick for Richardson—which is a good thing for Indy, because the deal has been an abject failure to this point, summed up perfectly by a fumble on his one and only carry against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round.
This run, in a way, summed up his time with the Colts thus far. He had a chance to hit the edge with conviction but instead tried to bounce the run away from the defender, losing the ball as he tried to change hands.
"You feel like you've got to redeem yourself for it," Richardson said, according to Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star. "You feel like you've got to make a statement. ...That's one thing that my brother has always told me: The fastest way to get yourself on the bench is fumbling the ball. And that replays in my head every day when I come out to work."
Richardson may be motivated, but he's going to need to be a whole new back on Saturday if he's to make an impact. This year with the Colts, Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Brown, on the other hand, averaged a solid 5.3 yards per attempt, the best on the team for any back with at least 10 carries.
As a result of Richardson's fumble, Brown earned the majority of the carries against the Chiefs with 11 totes. The Colts had a combined 13 designed running plays (three kneeldowns, three scrambles by Luck).
Despite that, the Colts coaching staff hasn't lost confidence in Richardson.
"No, I haven't lost any confidence in Trent at all," Hamilton said, via the Star." As a matter of fact, we're counting on Trent and Donald and even Tashard (Choice) because we only have a few backs to be ready to go out and play."
They may be counting on them to exploit the holes in a porous Patriots run defense, but as it turns out, the Colts' run personnel simply hasn't been very good this year.
The Colts haven't been able to count on tight end Coby Fleener as an in-line blocker, and he rated 46th out of 64 tight ends for his run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
On this play, the Colts were lined up in the shotgun as they were for 60 of their 65 offensive plays, according to Ben Fennell of NFL Network.
This was a power run out of the 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) with Fleener as the in-line blocker on the right side. He was asked to block Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston—not an easy assignment for anyone, but especially not for a tight end who's deficient as a blocker.
This was a walk in the park for Houston. He started by disengaging Fleener's hands and rushing inside, then bullrushing by getting his hands inside Fleener's chest plate. That allowed him to toss Fleener to the side and get in the backfield for the tackle-for-loss.
If Fleener is asked to block defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, he could have some trouble. Both have been solid in setting the edge against the run. It's the interior of the Patriots defensive line where there are questions and weaknesses.
Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have struggled against the run this year, but a newcomer has earned a lot of work at defensive tackle for the Patriots over the last month of the season: Sealver Siliga.
Siliga has played 71.4 percent of the team's defensive snaps in the last four games of the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus. In that time, he has proven more than capable of controlling the gaps on either side of his blocker (also known as two-gap technique). Siliga put on a two-gapping clinic against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, though, and finished with eight stuffed runs for his troubles.
One of those runs was a one-yard carry at the 2:16 mark in the first quarter. The thing is, Jackson was actually supposed to be running away from Siliga on this play, not toward him.
However, Chris Jones was able to get some penetration on the left side of the offensive line, forcing Jackson to bounce his run to the other side.
Some defensive tackles may have overpursued from the other side of the play, trying to do anything they can to help. However, Siliga was the embodiment of Bill Belichick's "do your job" philosophy, and as a result, he was there, ready and waiting to make the tackle.
In the four weeks since Siliga became a significant contributor, the Patriots run defense has gone from awful to average. If he plays up to the level he showed in the final month of the season, the unit could continue to improve, but Siliga won't fix its woes on his own. That's especially true now that linebacker Brandon Spikes has been placed on injured reserve and is done for the season.
In theory, the loss of Spikes shouldn't hurt the Patriots too much in this game—but that's because that "theory" involves the Colts' tendency to shy away from the running game.
Spikes was one of the team's top run-defending linebackers, but his was role was diminishing in recent weeks, due in part to him being slowed by his injury and the emergence of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins in an increased role.
Collins is an athlete, and his technique and awareness have improved, but he was used primarily in pass defense this year. While he hasn't been a liability against the run, he hasn't stood out there either.
Beyond the X's and O's, putting all the stats aside, one of the biggest factors in the Colts' strategy could be the weather. The forecast, per weather.com, calls for a 100 percent chance of rain and winds at 20 mph. Throwing the ball may not be as much of an option as it would if the Colts were playing in the comfort of their own dome, Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts would be wise to continue to test the Patriots run defense, as teams have done for the majority of the season, but Indy's tendencies point to a passing frenzy from the Colts.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.