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Saturday, November 20, 2010
10 things for Patriots-Colts

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are 10 top areas to monitor in Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium (4:15 p.m. ET):

1. Patriots handling edge pressure. Quarterback Tom Brady said this week that he's had sleepless nights while preparing to face Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and it's easy to understand why. Freeney is the Colts' career sacks leader (90), while Mathis is second in club history with 70.5. This is a big test for Patriots tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer, who should get help from tight end Alge Crumpler and chip blocks from running backs.

Reggie Wayne
Reggie Wayne could present big problems for the Patriots if they're not careful.

2. Randy Moss-type plan on Reggie Wayne. The Patriots devoted considerable resources to defending Randy Moss when he returned as a Viking, with a safety often shaded over the top to negate the deep ball. Look for the Patriots to do the same thing with Wayne, who scorched them last year with 10 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns. There might not be the same hype around Wayne as there is with Moss, but he's just as lethal. Overall, the Patriots will look to get physical against the Colts' pass-catchers.

3. Responding to the Colts' no-huddle attack. Bill Belichick says the Colts run the no-huddle attack as well as anyone, especially inside the red zone. That makes it difficult for an opponent to substitute, which means defenses have to settle on one group of 11 players and be prepared for the run or the pass. It's likely that the Patriots will be in a nickel defense, with five defensive backs, for much of this game.

4. Patriots' running game creating balance. Play-action produced some big results last week in Pittsburgh, highlighting how getting the running game going can create opportunities for big plays in the Patriots' passing game, too. The Colts rank last in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (5.0) and 29th in rushing yards allowed per game (133.2), so there should be opportunities for production on the ground. Veteran Fred Taylor's potential return would create a boost in that area for New England.

5. Jermaine Cunningham as an edge rusher. With the Patriots waiving Shawn Crable during the week, it creates an opportunity for Cunningham, a rookie, to play more as an edge rusher on a four-man defensive line. The Patriots don't figure to be in their base 3-4 defense much in this game, so Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich may be the top options as pass rushers. They know it's hard to get to Peyton Manning -- the Colts rank first in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play -- but they'll do their best to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game as much as possible.

6. The return of Aaron Hernandez. After playing a season-low 11 snaps last Sunday in Pittsburgh, rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez figures to see more action this week against a smaller, quicker Colts defense. The first thing the Patriots figure to look for is whether the Colts match up with a cornerback or linebacker, as that figures to dictate the team's offensive play calling.

7. Darius Butler and third cornerback spot for Patriots. With slot cornerback Jonathan Wilhite potentially out with a hip injury, the Patriots might have some moving parts at cornerback, which could affect the dime package (six defensive backs). This could create more playing time for Butler as a slot option.

8. Monitoring Tom Brady's foot injury. It obviously didn't hurt the quarterback to miss Wednesday's practice last week, while also being limited in Thursday's and Friday's sessions. He was excellent against the Steelers. Brady is careful when discussing injuries -- he always mentions how everyone is banged up -- but he did acknowledge that adrenaline helped him last week. So this is a situation to monitor as long as Brady is being held out of practice.

9. Special teams tweaks with Pierre Woods. Coaches are seeking improvement on special teams, which explains why the Patriots signed Woods to a two-year deal this week and waived Shawn Crable. One area that has been a concern is kickoff coverage, where the Patriots are too often losing containment and allowing returns to get outside. The Colts are not necessarily explosive in this area, but the Patriots have shown vulnerability of late.

10. Shayne Graham and Patriots' kicking game. In his first game replacing Stephen Gostkowski, Graham converted two field goals last week in Pittsburgh (31 and 36 yards) but also missed an extra point. The veteran is still getting into the groove, and in a game in which every possession could be crucial, his accuracy could play a big role for the Patriots. The Colts, with Adam Vinatieri returning to Gillette Stadium, have the edge in this area.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.