It doesn't have the allure of the old Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchups from a few years ago, but this weekend's playoff game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts still has plenty of storylines.
The Patriots overcame significant injuries this season and still earned the AFC's No. 2 seed, while the Colts just overcame a significant second-half deficit in the Wild Card Game last week, beating the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 behind a gutsy performance from quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Colts trailed the Chiefs 38-10 early in the third quarter before storming back for the victory.
While Luck's performance may have been the story last week, all eyes are on the Colts defense heading into this game. The Colts will face a Patriots offense that might not have the same star power it's had in the past, but with Brady at the helm, there's still plenty to worry about.
|New England Patriots: Top Receivers in 2012|
|TOTAL PERCENT OF TEAM||84%||81%||82%||n/a||85%|
As you can see from this chart, there isn't a player who finished in the top five in receiving last year for the Patriots who's still on the team. Brady had to find new weapons, which he did. The Patriots finished the season as the third-highest scoring team in the NFL, averaging 27.8 points per game.
Before we talk about the Colts defense and what it needs to do to keep Brady and the Patriots in check, let's take a look at what makes the Patriots offense so difficult to defend.
The Patriots do a fantastic job of putting pressure on the opposing cornerbacks and making them stay disciplined. They like running rub and pick routes while making defensive backs make plays out in space.
In this first play against the Miami Dolphins from Week 15, the Patriots lined up with trips to the left with LeGarrette Blount in the backfield.
Right after the snap, you can see all three receivers immediately look to block their respective men. Blount swings out to the left, and Brady goes through his five-step drop.
One thing that's interesting from this view is that you can see the nickel defender was looking into the backfield (green line), but because Brady hadn't opened his shoulders up yet (picture in corner) to throw the swing pass to Blount, the defender couldn't be sure that's where the ball was going.
If the defender had recognized a split second sooner, he might have been able to disrupt the play. But as it stood, the Patriots picked up six yards on first down.
This is just one of the ways the Patriots create pressure in space with their passing game to the running backs.
On this particular play, it was Blount, but Shane Vereen has become a legitimate weapon for Brady this season out of the backfield as well.
Vereen is third on the team with 47 catches and has 427 yards receiving, adding three touchdowns.
But where the Patriots do the majority of their damage is with short passes across the middle.
This chart shows the percentage of pass plays for the Patriots this season and which area of the field they went to the most.
As you can see, the majority of the passes (54 percent) are thrown in the range of zero to nine yards, with the middle (31 percent) being the highest of any particular area.
Here's another play against the Dolphins from Week 15.
Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola goes into motion, and it gets the attention of the defensive end.
The Dolphins blitzed the weak-side linebacker (black circle), and it created a wide-open area of the field across the middle.
The Dolphins obviously knew this was going to be a vulnerable area of the field for them to defend, so they asked the defensive end to disrupt anyone coming across, namely Amendola.
The defensive end checked on Amendola's motion pre-snap because it was his responsibility to disrupt him from getting a clean release to the inside and across the middle.
The problem for the Dolphins is the defensive end whiffed on Amendola, who eluded the defender and flashed across the middle for Brady.
Amendola was able to take the pass across the middle and get upfield for a big gain for the Patriots offense.
These are just a couple of ways the Patriots offense likes to attack in the passing game.
This diagram below is an example of how they like to stretch the defense and give Brady some easy level reads.
The tight end lined up in the slot to the left is solely looking to occupy the safety so the backside deep post could open up.
The receiver brought in tight on the closed side of the formation runs a shallow cross, or drive route, and the running back follows the deep post and gets into the flat on the same side of the field.
Brady has the deep post, shallow cross and flat all at his disposal on this three-level read.
Shoring Up the Colts Secondary
The Colts don't have a strong secondary outside of Vontae Davis, who is having a terrific season.
In fact, Davis is ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 cornerback in the NFL. But the rest of the Colts secondary has been suspect.
There are a lot of similarities in the way the Patriots and the Denver Broncos run their offensive passing games. Both teams like to run rub and pick routes, and the Patriots run a lot of the shallow crosses and wheel routes that the Colts faced with the Broncos earlier this season.
That should help them going into this game, at least a little bit. While the Colts may have beaten the Broncos in the regular season, that didn't have a lot to do with the Colts defense. Manning still shredded it for 386 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
One of the other ways you can slow down these crosses is to use jump techniques, where the safety crashes down to cut off the passes across the middle. The safety essentially trades places with the cornerback as they fall off from their trail technique to take over the top responsibility.
However, as the Colts try to game-plan against Brady and the Patriots offense, the most important thing they could do is take away what they Patriots are most comfortable doing.
The short passes across the middle between zero and nine yards seem to be where the Patriots live. That should be the focus of the Colts' defensive game plan.
That would be the easiest way to keep the Brady and the Patriots offense in check.