Attempts to move nose tackle Vince Wilfork out of the middle have been
ineffective since 2004, though Jeff Saturday has had some success against the
mammoth tackle since he came into the league. Given the fact that the
Patriots allow only 3.07 yards per attempt up the middle — which is fourth in
the league — and the Colts have averaged just 3.47 yards per attempt up the
middle (25th in the league), it is probably in their best interest to avoid the
middle of the defense in the running game altogether.
When you add in the
fact that their two best inside runners — Mike Hart and Joseph Addai — have
yet to participate in practice this week and likely starters Donald Brown and
Tavarris James have not been effective running between the guards, that makes
the argument for avoiding Wilfork all the more compelling.
New England is currently ranked 18th in the league in run defense, but they
don't have an obvious weakness in any direction that would tend to offset the
obvious advantage they have up the middle. Teams have averaged 5.54 yards
per carry running at right end Mike Wright and Indianapolis has averaged six
yards per carry running behind left tackle Charlie Johnson, so that is the most
favorable matchup the Colts have in the running game.
Where Johnson needs to worry is in pass protection, as Wright is a far better
pass rusher than he is a run defender, leading the team with 5.5 sacks.
Johnson has struggled against speedy right ends, but Wright is more of a power
rusher that relies on leverage and a fairly good repertoire of moves.
Johnson should be able to handle Wright one-on-one, but he is the more likely of
the two tackles to need help, as Ryan Diem draws journeyman Gerard Warren.
Warren is a fine run defender, but his days of harnessing his potential as a
premiere pass rusher are past him, so Indianapolis should generally avoid his
side of the field in the running game, but not concern themselves too much with
giving Diem extra help.
The primary issue for Saturday and Peyton Manning will be identifying where
the fourth pass rusher is coming from. Manning had issues identifying the
mystery fourth rusher in the past — especially against the Patriots — but has
familiarized himself with the 3-4 defense enough over the years to be able to
properly diagnose who will be applying the pressure.
linebacker Tully Banta-Cain will have his hand on the ground and will be coming
at Manning, but New England has shown a tendency to bring pressure from all
angles and all positions this season, as evidenced by the fact that ten
different players on defense have at least half a sack.
Bill Belichick does not have the flexibility and interchangeability on
defense that he enjoyed in the past, but he still has enough moving parts with
this group to make Manning work.
The Patriots linebackers — once the pride of their defense — have gotten
younger and faster over the years, but are not yet as savvy as they were in the
early-to-middle part of the decade. Jerod Mayo is the star of this and is
a tenacious run defender that has improved significantly against the pass.
Mayo and rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes are a formidable duo against
the line, but Manning should be able to target Jacob Tamme and (hopefully)
Austin Collie over the middle, both in the short area and in the seam.
Indianapolis has averaged 6.82 yards per attempt to the short middle, which is
there best area in the short passing game. The Patriots are yielding an
average of 5.7 yards per attempt to the short middle, which is their worst
average in pass defense in the short area, but they are also fourth in the
league in that category. If Manning can properly diagnose the New England
pressure packages, he should have enough time to strike deep, where the Patriots
are more vulnerable.
Banta-Cain and fellow outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich are fairly
interchangeable and often switch places from the strong side to the weak side.
Whichever man shows the best ability to chuck, redirect, or force Tamme to block
will win a spot on the strong side for the balance of the game. Banta-Cain
is not as skilled a run defender as Ninkovich, so the Colts will probably
isolate to his side and run in that direction depending on who wins the spot
Overall, the linebackers will enforce the passing lanes in their areas of the
field and will generally hold up against the line. The key will be whether
or not Tamme, Collie, and the Colts receivers can get to the next level and
attack the New England secondary.
Reggie Wayne was held out of practice this week, but should be able to go
since he hasn't missed a start since 2002. He will draw rookie first round
pick Devin McCourty. McCourty has two interceptions on the season and
eight passes defended. He has been solid in man coverage, but he is still
a rookie and is susceptible to missing out on the small details that Wayne
thrives on. Wayne has fared exceptionally well when facing a rookie
cornerback the past two seasons and Sunday should be no different.
McCourty is allowing 12.27 yards per attempt to the deep left, so there will be
opportunities for Wayne in the short area as well as down the field.
Manning has leaned on Wayne and Tamme in particular the past three weeks, so
having Collie back full time will give him another target to utilize.
Collie should be available and will draw an adequate amount of attention
from Manning and the New England defense.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington draws Pierre Garcon, who has possibly lost the
confidence of Manning. Since Arrington is allowing 12.56 yards per attempt
to his side of the field in the deep passing game, it may be time for Manning
and Garcon to get back on track, as they are currently averaging only 9.65 yards
per deep attempt to Garcon's side. It's possible that Manning has lost
faith in Garcon's short arms and inconsistent hands, particularly if Collie is
available to him, but he needs to give Garcon a chance on Sunday, given the fact
that he will need all the weapons he can muster in the passing game facing a
potent offense and a generous defense.
Collie, Garcon, and Wayne — possibly even Tamme — should be able to take
advantage of safeties Brandon Meriweather and Pat Chung in the deep middle, as
Indianapolis has attempted the most passes in the league to the deep middle with
26 and are averaging 12.31 yards per attempt. The Patriots are yielding
11.93 yards per attempt to that area of the field, so there should be plays to
be made there.
New England has had the lead in a number of games this year and has eased up
on defense, so their rankings in points allowed per game (23.8, 24th in the
league) and passing yards allowed per game (277.8, 30th), so the stats are
slightly skewed, but this is still a defense that gives up big chunks of yardage
in the passing game.
The Colts have passed the ball over 64 percent of the
time on offensive snaps and have come under fire for their reliance on Manning
and his talented skill position players — with a great deal of that fire being
provided by yours truly — but Sunday's game is a situation where they should
pass as much as they are able. The Patriots have actually allowed more
passing yardage than they've gained, with a 2,500 to 2,088 margin and have given
up almost as many touchdown passes as they've scored, by a 17 to 16 margin.
They are allowing an average of 7.6 yards per pass attempt, while only gaining
7.1 yards per attempt on offense. Opposing quarterbacks have a 93.1 passer
rating against New England, which is surprisingly close to the 98.8 rating that
Tom Brady currently holds.
The difference in the respective passer ratings is that Brady has thrown only
four interceptions, while the Patriots have ten interceptions on defense.
Part of the reason New England leads the league in scoring is that they've also
scored four touchdowns on defensive returns and two touchdowns on punt and
kickoff returns. If Manning is smart with the football and avoids critical
mistakes, the opportunities against this pass defense far outweigh the risks.
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