Depsite the fact that the Colts moved out of the AFC East when the NFL re-aligned its divisions upon the arrival of the Houston Texans franchise, it still seems like the Patriots have faced Indianapolis every year over the past decade or so, a stretch in which the two have been amongst the most successful franchises in football. In fact, the Pats and Colts have played each of the last nine regular seasons and three times in the playoffs over that span.
While Indianapolis made its name during that time with Peyton Manning leading its offense, a staple of their success was a pressure-oriented defense that featured strong defensive end play out of a 4-3 front and a heavy dose of cover 2 from the secondary. It was brought to Indianapolis by former head coach Tony Dungy, and remained largely in tact following his retirment.
When the Colts hired Chuck Pagano, then the Ravens defensive coordinator, as their new head coach this offseason, he brought along a new defensive system. It features more three-man defensive line fronts, which has caused players such as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- longtime defensive ends -- to adjust to new positions.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spoke about the defensive changes in Indianapolis during a Tuesday conference call.
Belichick: "I’d say it’s quite a bit different than what they’d been playing the last decade. Similar to the Baltimore system with kind of a 3-4 base but I think Baltimore has [Terrell] Suggs and Indianapolis has [Dwight] Freeney – those guys are linebackers but they’re really not linebackers. Of course when they get into their sub defenses, all the outside guys become defensive ends so it’s back to [Robert] Mathis and Freeney on the edges and all that. They do a lot of the Baltimore things: combinations of man and zone and pressure and as I said, base it out of a 3-4 look but it’s really not a true 3-4, like Pittsburgh and some teams like that play it. Chuck brought [Tom] Zbikowski with him so I’m sure that helps some of the adjustments and familiarity with their defensive scheme, what they did in Baltimore. Similar to when Rex [Ryan] brought [Jim] Leonhard with him to the Jets. So, Zbikowski and [Antoine] Bethea are, well Bethea is a pretty experienced guy, [seven] years in the league, but Zbikowski having four years in that Baltimore system, I’m sure that helps some of their defensive adjustments with him out there. I’d say it’s definitely the Baltimore basis for defense. They of course change it up, it’s different then Baltimore but that’s, I’d say, the genesis of it."
McDaniels: "Yeah, there’s no question that we’ve played them a lot. Some of the players are the same, but there’s definitely a difference in terms of the scheme that you’re seeing from them this year and the way that they’re utilizing some of their players. It’s not new in terms of having to face some similar players that are adapting to a new scheme, but they had played such a good scheme for so long and now it’s definitely new and different for us. Locating their front, making sure we’ve identified the two outside rushers in particular that now are playing in more of a 3-4 type of a scheme on first and second down. Different scheme, different challenge, a lot of really good players, a lot of really talented players. I’ve had the opportunity to coach against Coach [Chuck] Pagano and Coach [Greg] Manusky multiple times and I think they do a great job. I would say that’s definitely the case this year in Indianapolis."