NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
First overall pick Andrew Luck leads the 6-3 Indianapolis Colts into Foxboro for a matchup which may be repeated in the playoffs this January. Luck is the heavy favorite for offensive rookie of the year and has the type of skillset which has been successful against New England in the past: he’s smart, he’s accurate, he’s able to escape the pocket, and he’s willing to take chances downfield. Read on for ten keys to week eleven.
1. Future playoff seeding implications loom for both New England and Indianapolis
Both the Patriots and the Colts would make the playoffs if the season ended today; the two teams are each 6-3 through their first nine games and would occupy the third and fifth seeds, respectively. It appears fairly safe to predict that both teams will conclude the season with postseason eligibility; New England and Indianapolis each play four more games against teams currently below .500. In fact, aside from the six teams currently on pace to make the postseason – Houston, Baltimore, New England, Denver, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh – none of the AFC’s other possibilities (San Diego, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Buffalo) look like legitimate contenders at this point in the season. Various possible scenarios could cause New England and Indianapolis to meet again in January; the wild card appears the most realistic setting.
Denver’s schedule is easier than New England’s over the remainder of the season – the Broncos would end up with a 12-4 record by winning the games they’ll be favored in; doing so could help move them past New England in the conference standings. If New England retains the third seed, the Colts could potentially relinquish the fifth seed to Pittsburgh.
2. String of unhealthy games continues with 17 practice-deprived Patriots this week
New England’s depth at this point in the season is almost nonexistent. This week, Bill Belichick has listed 20 players on the Patriots’ injury report, with only three players –Julian Edelman, Kyle Love, and Jerod Mayo – listed as full participants in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is projected to miss his fourth consecutive game with a sprained ankle; Rob Gronkowski (questionable) will likely attempt to play through a hip injury. Other starters listed as questionable include wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (knee), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/knee), linebackers Dont’a Hightower (hamstring) and Brandon Spikes (knee), and safeties Patrick Chung (shoulder/hamstring) and Steve Gregory (hip).
Of the aforementioned players, all but Hernandez and Chung played last week; however, it is possible that any of the above players have aggravated their injuries and will be held out for precautionary purposes. Wide receiver Wes Welker and offensive guards Logan Mankins (ankle/calf) and Dan Connolly (back) all sat out back-to-back practices; Mankins and Connolly appear likely to miss Sunday afternoon’s game, especially with guard Mitch Petrus joining the team in mid-week.
3. How will coordinator Josh McDaniels tailor New England’s gameplan to Indianapolis?
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has brought an element of balance to New England’s playcalling which has been brilliant at times and maddening at others. Indianapolis has not enjoyed much defensive success this season; McDaniels’ occasionally quirky playcalling appears the biggest threat to offensive success this week. Tom Brady will have some mismatches to potentially exploit in the passing game, and Stevan Ridley should find plenty of room to run the ball. Personnel-wise, New England is well-suited to score 30+ points this week as long as the Patriots don’t outsmart themselves.
They should run the ball early and often, taking advantage of Indianapolis’ run defense, and attack all four members of the Colts secondary. This week may provide McDaniels with plenty of opportunities to get the ball into Danny Woodhead’s hands as well; McDaniels appears smitten with Woodhead’s ability to run the ball on draw plays, which may prevent Indianapolis’ pass rush from moving upfield so quickly. Thus far, the Patriots have maintained a ratio of roughly 55% pass, 45% run, and should continue down that path this week.
4. Tom Brady will be given the opportunity to pass against a patchwork Colts secondary
With cornerback Vontae Davis (knee) missing from Indianapolis’ secondary, the Colts will be even more ill-equipped to deal with New England’s receiving options. Jerraud Powers, Indianapolis’ second-most utilized cornerback, is currently on injured reserve. That leaves the starting duo of Cassius Vaughn and former New England Patriots second-round pick Darius Butler. Vaughn was victimized last week by the Jacksonville Jaguars, allowing nine catches on 16 throws for 117 yards and a touchdown; he has allowed opponents to score in three of the past four games. Butler fell out of favor in New England after being torched by Chad Johnson and Braylon Edwards in consecutive weeks to begin the 2010 season, but has enjoyed a surprisingly strong year with the Colts; he jumped a route in zone coverage last week against Blaine Gabbert and ran back the interception for a touchdown to seal the win.
Butler had two interceptions in the game, but New England is familiar with his tendencies and abilities and should test him often regardless. At safety, Indianapolis typically employs Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski in deep zone coverage; the Patriots may force either of them to match up against Rob Gronkowski in man coverage down the seam. With protection, Brady should have a productive day throwing the ball.
5. Colts pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis must be contained
Defensively, the most dangerous facet of Indianapolis’ team is their combination of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis; the two have combined for eight sacks on the season and must add more this week in order to disrupt Tom Brady’s timing. Fortunately, New England’s offensive tackles have continued to play well in 2012. Left tackle Nate Solder has allowed just two sacks on the season and has the athleticism to match up against Dwight Freeney; however, Solder has allowed 21 pressures on the season and must protect against inside moves in order to allow Brady to step up into the pocket. Sebastian Vollmer will primarily defend Robert Mathis; Vollmer has allowed only one sack so far this season and has been arguably New England’s best offensive lineman. T
he Colts have one other pass rusher of note: Jerry Hughes, a former first-round pick and the team’s third outside linebacker. Hughes is a fairly one-dimensional player who struggles against the run, but he has four sacks on the season, including two in Indianapolis’ last three games. Freeney, Mathis, and Hughes will be used almost exclusively as pass rushers.