AFC Championship Preview: Colts vs. Patriots

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The Indianapolis Colts are probably awfully sick of proving themselves by now. After they opened as six-point favorites at home against the Bengals in the wild-card round, the line shifted against Indy and moved all the way to three before bettors began to back the Colts, who ended up winning handily. Last week, the Colts were listed as seven-point underdogs for their game in Denver until Sunday morning, when a rash of bets knocked Indy back to 9.5-point underdogs. Andrew Luck & Co. won that one going away too.

Now they get the Patriots, who have had a virtually unprecedented mastery over the Colts since Luck arrived in Indianapolis. The Patriots have played the Colts three times since 2012 and beaten them down each time, winning by 21, 22, and 35 points. That just doesn’t happen. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, I can find only one other instance of a team with a winning record beating another team with a winning record three consecutive times across a maximum of three seasons by three touchdowns or more: the 1982-83 Washington teams, which stomped the Cardinals three times.1

If the Colts want to make it back to the Super Bowl this year, the road runs right through Foxborough. First, beat a desperate Bengals team. Then, turn away a win-now Broncos team and possibly send the best player your franchise has ever had into retirement. After that, for good measure, come up with a win against the team that has regularly beaten you like no good team has another in 30-plus years. You could argue that the Colts were lucky to make it to the conference championship just by winning the AFC South and beating a receiver-less Andy Dalton and a very limited version of Peyton Manning. If Indy can come up with a third win and beat Tom Brady and the Patriots, there won’t be any excuses attached.

Trouble Comes Running

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the Colts need to do first if they want to overcome their Patriots problem: stop the run. Although the Patriots are commonly a pass-first team, they make a special exception for their games against the Colts. In their three blowout wins over Indy, the Patriots have run the ball nearly 56 percent of the time. Against the rest of the league over those three years, New England has run the ball about 41 percent of the time. Some of that boils down to game situations and the fact that the Patriots were winning handily, but it’s unquestionably more of a factor in New England’s game plan against Indy than it is against, say, the Ravens.

Baltimore held New England’s rushing attack to 14 yards on 13 carries last week, which led the Patriots to go the entire second half without a handoff. When the Colts and Patriots have squared off in the recent past, there have been times when it felt like the Patriots were averaging 14 yards per carry. In those three games, New England has run the ball 115 times for 595 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) and scored an incredible 12 rushing touchdowns, with unlikely four-touchdown days for LeGarrette Blount (in the 2013 playoffs) and Jonas Gray (earlier this season).

Gray was one of the two notable figures from that Week 11 romp who were inactive during last week’s win over the Ravens. With the Patriots signing Blount off the street the week after Gray’s big game and the third-year back famously oversleeping for a practice, chances have been limited for Gray. After playing 57 offensive snaps in that win over the Colts, Gray has taken just 40 offensive snaps since, carrying the ball 20 times for 80 yards. Gray doesn’t offer much as a receiver or blocker, so Blount has taken his role in the offense.

The other missing figure is lineman Cameron Fleming, who played a quietly important role in the victory as a sixth offensive lineman. The Patriots, who use a sixth lineman on occasion as part of power sets, used Fleming for 38 offensive snaps in Week 11, almost surely more than any team has used a sixth offensive lineman in a single game all season. The six-OL look battered the Colts into submission, but it didn’t become a regular part of the New England offense. Fleming injured his ankle late in the game and didn’t return until Week 16, when he suited up as a sixth lineman and swing tackle against the Jets. He, too, was inactive against Baltimore.

Fleming and Gray will probably be featured in some form against the Colts this weekend, but I don’t know that the Patriots will go back to the six-lineman tactic as a core component of the offense. As much success as it had the last time these two teams played, inserting Fleming into the lineup didn’t give New England some decided schematic edge or play havoc with the way the Colts wanted to attack with their front seven. It just gave the Pats another big body to block with, and that’s what they will do regardless. Watching the coaches’ film of that game, I kept noticing a player who is sure to be on the field and sure not to get the credit he deserves for his blocking.

Most athletic tight ends who stretch defenses downfield can’t block a lick. Just to pick one, Julius Thomas — bless his heart — isn’t a blocker. Rob Gronkowski is not your typical pass-catching tight end. We don’t talk about his blocking because there are ridiculous catches and spikes and photo shoots and general Gronkery to discuss, but the man can hit. Gronkowski is an effective enough blocker for me to believe he would have an NFL career based on that skill alone, that he could be an in-line tight end for seven or eight years if he had hands of stone. Teams prepare for Gronkowski to run over their safeties or run past the linebackers, but they also get the Gronk who locks them up.

I found a three-play stretch in the first quarter of this year’s Patriots-Colts game that exemplifies a lot of what the Patriots did right on the ground, how Gronkowski helped, and what the Colts did to make it easy for New England. Let’s start with a second-and-10, with the Colts in a nickel alignment and two down linemen against a three-wideout look from the Patriots.

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This is a designed counter from Shane Vereen, taking advantage of Indianapolis’s aggressiveness up front, that hinges on Gronkowski. He has a difficult task here, but one critical to the play design. Gronkowski begins to motion across the field before the snap and then has to get all the way across the formation to kick out outside linebacker Erik Walden (93), whom the Patriots deliberately leave unblocked. If Gronkowski doesn’t get across quickly enough or doesn’t get enough of Walden to seal off a running lane, the play goes for a loss and we wonder why the Patriots didn’t bother to block the free linebacker at the line of scrimmage.

Because Gronk can make that sort of block reliably, the Patriots are in business. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (76) has the other key block, sealing off inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (52) from Vereen’s running lane. Jackson helps by overpursuing to where he thinks the ball is going; it looks like he’s plugged up Vereen’s running lane, but just as he’s about to make a tackle, Vollmer hits Jackson and Vereen cuts behind him for a nice gain. The Colts would do a better job against this in their base 3-4, but that also means pitting the slot receiver against a linebacker, which is an easy win for the Patriots every time.

On the next play, the Colts are back in their 3-4, and the Patriots bring in Fleming as a sixth lineman and line him up next to Nate Solder on the left side. As they would do more often than not, they ran the ball behind Fleming’s side and allowed the extra offensive lineman to maul the overmatched linebacker in front of him:

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Here, Fleming is matched up against Jonathan Newsome (91), the talented rookie pass-rusher who led the Colts with 6.5 sacks this year. Newsome is still rough around the edges as a run defender, as you’ll see in these two plays. Here, he tries to shoot through the C-gap to the interior to try to make a play in the backfield, and it fails miserably. He can’t get across Fleming, who easily engulfs him and pushes him into the trash in the middle of the field.

That gives New England a soft edge, and while Jerrell Freeman (50) might have been able to scrape around Newsome to reset the edge and prevent Gray from getting outside, the coast is so clear that fullback James Develin (46) has an easy path toward Freeman, whom he drives out of the play. Right guard Ryan Wendell (62) loops around the same edge to seal off Jackson, who isn’t exactly off to a hot start. That leaves safety Mike Adams (29), but his run fill is flat-footed; by the time Gray hits the hole, he shows enough vision to slightly cut his run to the sideline, forcing Adams to spin like he’s in The Exorcist at the exact moment when he should be hitting Gray. That adds another 12 yards to the run.

The third play might be my favorite. This is a handoff to Julian Edelman, who picks up 25 yards. It’s a brilliant combination of play design and play calling from Josh McDaniels that builds on the previous two plays the Patriots just ran. Watch the left side of the line (right side of the screen), where Newsome is lined up at outside linebacker.

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This is why football is so much damn fun. Poor, poor Jonathan Newsome. Unblocked at the snap, he immediately cheats into the backfield and abandons contain to try to make a play. He sees Gronkowski coming across the formation, likely for another wham block, and goes to shed the collision with the oncoming tight end by trying to skip past it … except Gronkowski is not trying to block him at all. Gronkowski feigns the block, taps Newsome aside, and then turns on the afterburners and wheels out as the lead blocker on the end-around by Edelman. By the time Newsome hits the halfback, Edelman is already in the clear.

The left side of the line has it easy. Dan Connolly has no trouble pushing backup Colts lineman Zach Kerr aside with a tiny bit of help from Solder, who then advances to the next level and seals Freeman off from the play comfortably. Gronkowski proceeds downfield to take out Adams, who would have probably been in position to make the play for a modest gain if Newsome had occupied Gronkowski. That ends up being worth about 15 extra yards.

You see a few common problems for the Colts among those plays. They’re getting overwhelmed physically at the point of attack, either by Gronkowski or Fleming. They’re overpursuing and struggling to stay disciplined in the hopes of making a big play, and when they fail, it’s leaving the Patriots with easy blocks to create hefty chunks of yardage. More than anything, you just don’t see anybody on Indianapolis winning a one-on-one matchup to create a tackle for loss or shedding a Patriots player to force anyone off his path. The blockers I’m not mentioning are putting together combo blocks and moving as a unit, mowing down the likes of Kerr and Ricky Jean-Francois. New England’s plays are being run the way you would draw them up on the whiteboard.

There are two reasons to think the Patriots might not be quite as effective running the ball this time around. One is the presence of Arthur Jones, the 5-technique end the Colts signed away from the Ravens partly in response to what the Patriots did in the playoffs last season. Jones missed a huge chunk of the season with an ankle injury, including the game against the Patriots in Week 11, and ended up playing only 34.5 percent of Indy’s defensive snaps all season. He didn’t return to the starting lineup until Indianapolis’s Week 16 loss to Dallas, and while the Colts were blown out in that contest, they did hold DeMarco Murray & Co. to 3.2 yards per carry.

Jones has been a regular ever since, but truthfully, the Colts run defense really hasn’t been all that great; they’ve allowed 340 rushing yards on 65 carries over the three ensuing games, an average of 5.2 yards per rush. Jones has the athleticism to beat opposing linemen one-on-one and, at the bare minimum, gives the Colts another body in their rotation to keep guys fresh, but there hasn’t been a clear relationship between his return and a massive improvement in the Indy run defense.

The other factor pointing in Indy’s direction is the likely absence of rookie Patriots center Bryan Stork, who suffered a knee injury during Saturday’s win over Baltimore that should keep him out until the Super Bowl. The New England offensive line was in disarray early in the season until Stork came into the lineup, helping to solidify three spots in the process. Stork settled in at center almost immediately, with veterans Wendell and Connolly fitting in better at guard than either had at the pivot. That three-man unit and the rise in Gronkowski’s snap count were the two things that turned the Patriots around.

The Pats went to Wendell as an in-game replacement for Stork last week and used Josh Kline at guard, but with backups like Fleming and Jordan Devey inactive, New England could choose to start another combination up front this week. Kline was erratic as a run-blocker, allowing Ravens players to shoot across his face and get into the backfield for losses on multiple occasions. It was probably telling that the Patriots were comfortable going into four-lineman sets and taking Kline out of the lineup in the process. I don’t think Stork will play, but I don’t know that Kline will necessarily be the one who replaces him. In any case, it should reduce New England’s effectiveness on the interior.

Nahs Trent

Another way to stop the New England ground game would be to keep everyone involved on the sideline, huddled next to the space heaters. The Colts held the ball for nearly 32 minutes per game this year, giving them the league’s fifth-longest average time of possession. That’s not a meaningful stat in terms of determining winners and losers, but it does tell us the Colts can hold on to the football when their offense is clicking.

To say that the Indianapolis ground game didn’t do very much the last time these teams played would be selling the concept of not doing very much very short. The Colts ran the ball 16 times in Week 11 and gained all of 19 yards. Most of that was Andrew Luck scrambling; the combination of Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw carried the ball 13 times for a, well, Trent Richardsonesque total of 4 yards. And while Indy was successful running the ball the first time these two teams matched up with Luck around in 2012, that was with Vick Ballard, two season-ending injuries ago.

The good news, I suppose, is that the vast majority of the personnel who might be involved in Indianapolis’s attempts to run the football on Sunday will be fresh faces. The running backs, as you already know, are both gone. Bradshaw broke his leg in that loss to the Patriots and was placed on injured reserve, while Richardson suffered from a mysterious illness at the end of the season that the Colts treated by moving him to the bottom of their depth chart. Richardson was a healthy scratch last week behind Dan Herron and the immaculately named Zurlon Tipton, and there’s little reason to think things will be different this week.

Indy will have an entire new side of its offensive line too. Right guard Hugh Thornton and right tackle Gosder Cherilus, neither of whom were particularly impressive in the loss to New England, are both on injured reserve. They’ve been replaced by Lance Louis and Joe Reitz, respectively, who have actually shown signs of improvement upon the previous core. Reitz, in particular, put in an impressive shift against the Von Miller–DeMarcus Ware combination in pass protection last week. Center Jonotthan Harrison, who nearly got Luck flattened by Vince Wilfork on the opening snap of the previous Pats-Colts game before forgetting the snap count for an early false start, has been benched and replaced by second-year player Khaled Holmes. The Colts should also get more reps out of blocking tight end Dwayne Allen, who played only 13 snaps the first time these two tangled.

None of that is proof the Colts will be able to run the football. Things have been slightly better for them, but if they want something to hang on to, it will be the drive they pieced together against the Broncos in the fourth quarter last week to make the contest a two-score affair. That drive lasted more than eight minutes, and while Indy’s nine carries gained only 25 yards, the Colts were running the ball against a defense that knew runs were coming and still managed to pick up three critical first downs with the ground attack. Herron and Tipton don’t need to look like Justin Forsett did last week to be successful, but if they can just do enough to slow down the pass rush and give the New England secondary something to worry about, that would be a huge boost for Indianapolis’s chances.

Luck or the Draw

That pass rush is probably New England’s biggest concern, because it went almost totally missing against Baltimore. Chandler Jones should have been a mismatch going up against rookie undrafted free agent James Hurst, but the Baltimore left tackle held his own in a disappointing day for Jones. It’s not good for New England when a team starting two rookies on its offensive line can go five-wide against you in big situations without fears of an immediate sack. New England got pressure on just 20 percent of Joe Flacco’s dropbacks last week, and the only team that got pressure less frequently in the divisional round was the Indianapolis Colts (12.8 percent), even though they blitzed 34 percent of the time, more than anybody besides the Packers (50 percent).

Indy’s much-maligned offensive line, meanwhile, did a great job of holding off Ware, Miller, and the rest of the Denver pass rush. The Broncos didn’t sack Luck and only had four quarterback knockdowns on 45 dropbacks, which is pretty remarkable. Luck can obviously scramble, but the Patriots have the athletes to keep up; they really like keeping Dont’a Hightower in a robber position over the middle of the field, where he can disrupt crossing routes and spy on the opposing quarterback.

It remains to be seen how the Patriots will actually target the various Indianapolis receivers in coverage. What they did in the past isn’t necessarily proof of how they’ll attack this time around, but it worked for them earlier this season. In that game, while the coverages naturally change, the overarching plan saw Darrelle Revis take on Reggie Wayne, Brandon Browner move around and stick with the big body of Coby Fleener, and the combination of a nickelback (usually Kyle Arrington) and a safety (often Devin McCourty) applying consistent double-team pressure to star wideout T.Y. Hilton.

I’m not convinced it will go the same way this time around. Sticking Revis on Wayne, to be frank, seems like sort of a waste at this point. Wayne has been dealing with various maladies over the second half of the season, most notably a torn triceps that will require surgery. Nobody doubts Wayne’s toughness for playing through the injury, but it’s gotten to the point where he might be a net negative for the offense. Wayne had an 80-yard gain against the Titans in Week 17 when a safety fell down, a 46-yard gain against the Patriots when New England blew a coverage, and seven other games in which he’s averaged 15 yards per contest.

Since returning from the bye, Wayne has dropped five passes, or 10.6 percent of the throws in his direction. The only wide receivers who dropped a higher percentage of their team’s passes over that time frame are Mohamed Sanu and Damaris Johnson. Even worse, Wayne isn’t getting the ball that much. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wayne has been targeted on only 18.6 percent of the routes he’s run this year. That’s right in the kisser. Donte Moncrief has been thrown the ball more frequently when he’s on the field than Wayne has.

Revis on Hilton seems like the more logical matchup, which is probably why Revis put a Revis vs. Hilton photo on his Instagram account this morning. (Or he just wants to throw off the Colts and well-meaning writers!) I’d be a little concerned if I were the Patriots that Hilton might be too fast for Revis one-on-one, but the Patriots can still roll safety help over to that side and hope that Arrington or Logan Ryan can handle Wayne.

The Colts will try to take advantage of New England’s aggressiveness by using pick plays and specific route combinations to run defensive backs into one another. In Week 11, they would motion Fleener inside into the slot to prevent Browner from getting a clean jam on him at the line of scrimmage, then use Browner’s attempt to run a pick off the tight coverage for an easy completion. Baltimore had some success stacking its receivers in the slot or with reduced width alignments, which prevented New England’s defensive backs from getting a jam or using the sidelines for leverage. The look below got Torrey Smith matched up against a safety on a deep corner route for a big first down on Baltimore’s opening drive:

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R.G. Spree

I expect the Colts to be better against the run than they have been. I believe that the Patriots won’t convert better than 68 percent of their third-down tries, as they have during the first three games of the Brady-Luck series, going 28-for-41. I doubt they will score a touchdown every time they get in the red zone, as they did the last time these two played and as they might have if they hadn’t fumbled and punted on their final drive up 21 points in the fourth quarter of the playoff game last year. I’m not convinced that Luck, who has thrown eight picks in three games against the Patriots, will continue to throw interceptions at a 6.2 percent clip when he throws them 2.3 percent of the time against everyone else. Some of that stuff is just a three-game fluke of small sample size that exaggerates its actual sustainability.

The one thing I can’t figure out is who covers Gronkowski. The Colts have a good pass defense, but their no. 10 rank in DVOA comes down to a lot of Vontae Davis, who has been excellent all season and had the game of his life against the Broncos. The Colts have the ninth-best DVOA against no. 1 wideouts, but against tight ends, they’re the sixth-worst team in football.

The Colts could move Davis to Gronkowski, as they did for a few plays after Edelman went down with a thigh injury that kept him out for most of the Week 11 matchup. Davis played relatively conservatively against Gronk, shading him over the top while trying to limit him to smaller gains. Indy eventually got away from the coverage, and while the game was out of hand, Gronkowski still caught four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown before throwing Sergio Brown “out of the club.” With Edelman back, I’m not sure what the Colts do. If they can’t stop Gronk, their best bet might be just to play along, try to get in a shootout, and hope Luck is feeling like having one of those games when he looks unstoppable. Unfortunately for the Colts, Gronk is having one of those lives when he looks unstoppable.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, AFC Championship Game

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell