6. Patriots’ running backs have another appetizing matchup against 22nd-ranked unit
Stevan Ridley leads an array of Patriots running backs which have combined to form the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack; the ground game’s success has been just as vital to New England’s success this season as the Patriots’ aerial attack, and they will have an opportunity to capitalize on injuries and inefficiency in Indianapolis’ defensive front. Starting defensive end Drake Nevis is on injured reserve, leaving the Colts with four regular rotational players: nose tackle Antonio Johnson and defensive ends Cory Redding, Ricardo Matthews, and Fili Moala.
This group of linemen has struggled to hold the point of attack thus far; Indianapolis has been relying primarily on their inside linebackers, Jerrell Freeman and Kavell Connor against the run. Freeney, Mathis, and Jerry Hughes are focused on getting upfield rather than setting the edge; the Colts’ outside linebackers may be susceptible to draws. New England should be willing to challenge Indianapolis inside even if guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly are inactive.
7. Defensive front given a golden opportunity against Indianapolis’ inconsistent line
First overall pick Andrew Luck has been battered behind an offensive line which has had constant issues in pass protection; Luck has been sacked 21 times thus far, and has been forced to scramble out of the pocket repeatedly. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has allowed six sacks on the season, and the rest of the Colts line – left guard Joe Reitz, center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn, right tackle Winston Justice – is composed of journeymen.
The Patriots must get consistent pressure against these players in order to prevent Luck from throwing the ball downfield; New England must also prevent Luck from escaping the pocket and making throws on the run, which the Patriots have traditionally struggled to do. Luck’s mobility may be overwhelming for a player such as Brandon Spikes, so New England may be wise to use a linebacker such as Jerod Mayo as a quarterback spy. The Patriots may also attempt to overwhelm Indianapolis’ blocking schemes with additional rushers such as Mayo or Brandon Spikes; defensively, New England must be creative and show Luck more than he has already learned from through studying New England’s rush on tape.
8. Run defense will be tested following last week’s struggles against Buffalo’s backs
The Colts have split 177 of their 255 carries this season between Donald Brown (88) and Vick Ballard (89); Indianapolis is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, with only one run longer than 20 yards. New England’s run defense is ranked eighth in the league, but last week they were exposed by Buffalo’s two-back combination of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 246 total yards and two touchdowns.
Patriots defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love struggled to solidify the interior of their defense, Jackson and Spiller were frequently allowed to get to the edges of the defense, and New England’s entire team was plagued by missed tackles. A second straight performance could reveal an additional weakness in the Patriots’ middling defensive unit. The Colts’ weak interior line may provide Vince Wilfork with an opportunity to have his first dominant defensive performance since the season opener; Wilfork’s struggles in New England’s 4-3 defense have escaped scrutiny for the most part this season. Wilfork has not looked as effective as he did at nose tackle in the Patriots’ three-man fronts.
9. Reggie Wayne headlines a versatile Colts receiving corps with game-changing speed
Back in March, the Boston Globe’s Greg A. Bedard reported that New England initially courted wide receiver Reggie Wayne this past offseason before Wayne opted to re-sign with Indianapolis. Although Wayne turned 34 yesterday, he remains among the league’s top receivers; he currently leads the league in both catches (69) and targets (106). Despite his age, Wayne is a dangerous deep threat; he has caught a staggering 50% of his 20 targets beyond 20 yards.
Andrew Luck has been unafraid of taking chances downfield early in the season, and he should test New England’s deep coverage early and often, whether he’s throwing towards Wayne or one of the Colts’ young wideouts; complimentary options Donnie Avery (13.7 yards per catch), T.Y. Hilton (14.8), and LaVon Brazill (13.2) are all vertical options as well. The Colts frequently line up with three wide receivers (typically Wayne, Avery, and Hilton), and may be more inclined to do so based on New England’s struggles in the secondary. Luckily, rookie tight end Coby Fleener is recovering from a shoulder injury and will be unable to assist the Colts; New England will only be forced to contend with 2012 third-rounder Dwayne Allen.
10. New England must rearrange their secondary again to accommodate Aqib Talib
Indianapolis is expected to depend primarily upon their eighth-ranked pass offense on Sunday; luckily, reinforcements have arrived. Aqib Talib is expected to appear in his first game with the Patriots after concluding a four-game suspension; defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may immediately position Talib in New England’s starting lineup as one of the Patriots’ two boundary cornerbacks. Belichick’s decision will be mandated by whether or not safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are able to play; Gregory and Devin McCourty started at safety last week, and that appears to be the most likely combination against Indianapolis as well.
That leaves Talib and Alfonzo Dennard as the starting cornerbacks, with Kyle Arrington in the slot. If both Gregory and Chung are active, New England can start the pair at safety and shift McCourty to cornerback opposite Talib. In three games as the Patriots’ starting free safety, McCourty has yet to allow a deep completion (20 yards or more); his versatility may allow Chung an additional week to recover. Then again, Kyle Arrington has been torched regularly in 2012 (31/39, 481 yards, 4 TD) and would play a significant amount of snaps in that scenario.