Thursday, November 15, 2012
Updated: November 16, 8:45 AM ET
New-look Colts deserve attention
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's home game against the Colts (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: This is a good reminder of how fast things can change in the NFL. This Patriots-Colts game wasn't initially viewed as a marquee type of matchup, but with the Colts (6-3) as one of the league's best stories this year -- a surprise team -- the game has been moved from 1 p.m. ET to 4:25 p.m. ET. Furthermore, CBS has re-routed its top broadcast team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, to call the game.
Tedy: It's a little different this week, talking about the Patriots and Colts with some different players. But still, when these teams get together, they know it's a key clash in the AFC playoff picture, and that's still true to form with the success that the Colts have been having. They've captured America's attention. Their head coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukemia and he's given the team inspiration. Players have shaved their heads to show support. Football teams are different than baseball teams and basketball teams -- when you have such a bigger group of guys, and they have a motivation and a drive with all of them, it makes them a dangerous team.
Mike: You hate for it to be something as serious as this and we both wish Chuck Pagano good health; that's bigger than the game. At the same time, as you mentioned, players have rallied around it. When you played, how did you see that type of situation manifest itself?
Tedy: I think it's unique in football because of how difficult football is, and how physical and aggressive it is, and how many injuries players go through. They know about adversity, and coming back from injuries, and anything that may be going on in their lives. It's such a tight group -- a football team. I haven't been part of a team in baseball or basketball, other sports at the professional level, but it's a certain bond that men go through when what they're doing is so difficult. You only have 16 games and every one of them is such a struggle -- you build up the entire week to play that one game, and when you win and have success, or come up short with a loss, you get close. You form families. In this case, when one of the heads of your family, Chuck Pagano, goes through something like this, to see the team rally around him is powerful.
Mike: With Pagano unable to be on the sidelines in his first year as head coach, they've had offensive coordinator Bruce Arians -- the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator -- as interim head coach. So they've brought in a new style of play on offense under Arians, and also on defense with Pagano and coordinator Greg Manusky adopting a Baltimore Ravens-type 3-4 approach. Add it all up and the 2012 season has been one in which the Colts have established a new identity and direction.
Tedy: This has been a culture change from the way the Colts played football in the past, especially defensively, where you're trying to play a more physical style. Offensively, it could have been viewed as more of a finesse approach in the past -- score some points and play from ahead. It's difficult to change mentalities like that, to become a team that is physical and will hit you in the mouth.
Mike: It has helped that the Colts have struck it big with their top draft choice, quarterback Andrew Luck. He was billed as a franchise quarterback.
Tedy: You heard all the things coming out of the draft last year, and everybody talking about how this was the best prospect since John Elway. He's lived up to all of the hype so far this year. He's completing 57 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. You look at those statistics and nothing really jumps out at you, except the victories. He shows toughness in the pocket. He stands in there and moves a bit like Tom Brady to avoid pressure. The Colts have to be ecstatic, because they went from one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL in Peyton Manning to one of the best rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL in Andrew Luck.
Mike: If you're looking at this from a Patriots perspective, what concerns you the most with Luck's style of play?
|The Colts have rallied around coach Chuck Pagano, who is out after being diagnosed with leukemia. The players' new motivation and drive has made them a dangerous group.|
Tedy: He doesn't necessarily "wow" you with his ability to scramble, or his strong arm -- he'll often use touch over velocity -- but I think he wins you over with his consistency. Over and over again, making the right read, the good decision, such as taking a sack instead of forcing the ball somewhere. Maybe it's shrugging off a rush with his exceptional lower-body strength. The Colts have been excellent on third down and he's obviously a big part of that. He steadily gets better as games go on, and hasn't made the big mistakes that have cost his team a victory. And probably most impressive is the way you rarely see him make the same mistake twice.
Mike: The Colts rank 22nd in the NFL in points per game (20.6), while the Patriots rank first (33.2), so you wonder if the Colts will be able to keep up with them. But it looks like part of what makes Indianapolis so effective is winning the critical situations. As you mentioned, the Colts rank seventh in the NFL on third down, converting 43.6 percent of the time, while the Patriots' defense ranks 31st in the NFL on third down. You look at the Colts' turnover differential (minus-9) and wonder how they're 6-3, and it's probably because they've made the big play at the critical moment, such as third down.
Tedy: Let's get to the Patriots' defense. There have been a lot of questions this week about the defense, and my feeling is "this is what you have" and you just have to accept that. They are going to give up yards; you're going to see quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick and possibly Andrew Luck going up and down the field against them. You're going to see some miscommunications in the secondary, like what happened in the end zone last week against the Bills. So what they have to keep doing is making big plays. That's what has been saving them, things like a Brandon Spikes forced fumble, or a Devin McCourty interception. That's a sign of a defense that knows when to step up and make a big play. It's tough to live this way and bank on making the big play, but it seems like that's what their forte is.
Mike: That's what Arians, the Colts' interim coach, said this week when discussing the Patriots' defense. "I would throw the statistics out because they've got 23 turnovers," he opined. "When you lead the league [with a plus-16] turnover [differential], you're going to be in first place. They've always been a bend-but-don't-break group and feasted off turnovers ever since I could remember." A big part of the Patriots' defensive game plan this week figures to be centered on receiver Reggie Wayne.
Tedy: It's amazing what Reggie Wayne has done. He's leading the league in receptions, he's leading the league in targets, and it's different what they're doing with him now with Luck at quarterback. In the past, you used to know that Wayne would be on the defense's right side, or the offense's left side, and there wasn't going to be much motion, and there wasn't going to be many formation adjustments. The reason that was the case was tied to how Peyton Manning liked to run the offense -- he'd get them lined up in the formation, see the picture the defense was giving him, and then he'd pick the play he wanted to run and communicate that along the line of scrimmage to his tight ends, backs and linemen. Peyton couldn't have done that if he had motion and formation shifts, because if you have those, the defense is going to shift, too. So Peyton liked them all stationary, which is not what you see when you watch the 2012 Colts offense.
Mike: Bill Belichick said that he views Reggie Wayne in the Hines Ward type of role. The Colts obviously have a Steelers-type approach offensively because of Arians' background in Pittsburgh, so it was an interesting comparison. The statistics, provided by ESPN's Stats & Information, reflect the change with Wayne as his receptions and targets are about a 50-50 split between the left and right side of the field. You listen to Bill Belichick speak glowingly about Wayne and it's a reminder that the Patriots wanted to sign him as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but Wayne decided to stick with the Colts, the only NFL team he's ever played for.
Tedy: You have to respect that. It would have been easy for Wayne, after last year when they got the No. 1 pick and were the worst team in the league, to go anywhere he wanted to go. To possibly come to the Patriots and play in a place where you knew you'd be in the playoff mix and possibly the Super Bowl; that could have been real appealing to him. But for him to stay and be part of trying to fix things with Andrew Luck is a testament to why the Patriots were courting Wayne in the first place. It's the type of person he is, the type of player he is. It's more of a challenge to right the ship where you are than jump ship, and I respect what he did tremendously.
Mike: Could be an intriguing matchup with cornerback Aqib Talib potentially making his Patriots debut and spending a good part of the day on Wayne. In your view, what is a reasonable expectation for Talib's contributions?
Tedy: This will really reflect how Bill Belichick views the secondary. I think it should probably be spot duty -- Talib coming in for a series here, or a series there, and making it simple for him so he doesn't get caught up in a lot of communication adjustments where he could make a mental error. But if Bill views the problems as bigger than that, he could throw him right into the fire and try to get things right as quickly as possible. Either way, it will be something to watch. You can make things simple for a cornerback, which is usually the position that is the last level of communication within a defense.
Mike: The old Colts offense was pretty straightforward in the sense that it was Peyton Manning and three receivers, or Manning with the two receivers and Dallas Clark as a third receiving option. What is it now?
|Rookie phenomenon Andrew Luck doesn't 'wow' you with his arm or ability to scramble, but his consistency and smarts make him special. Can the Patriots' defense slow him down?|
Tedy: It's mainly based around Andrew Luck and the passing game. I wouldn't characterize their running game as power-based, one that you really need to stop and it needs to be your main focus. Vick Ballard (fifth-round pick, 2012) has run hard for them. Delone Carter (fourth-round pick, 2011) has done some positive things. So it comes back to Luck.
Mike: The Colts will be without rookie tight end Coby Fleener, which will put Weslye Saunders into an elevated role. But I know it's the other tight end, Dwayne Allen (third-round pick, 2012), that has caught your eye.
Tedy: I liked him coming out of the draft. He was the John Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in college football. He ran a little bit slow at the combine, and he's only about 6-foot-3 and doesn't have the size and speed that Fleener has, but I think he's a better football player. Judging by the weaknesses that the Patriots have over the middle, with play-action, attacking the middle of the field, I think besides Reggie Wayne, this guy could give the Patriots some problems. He has 25 catches for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns. They also have some speed on the outside with TY Hilton (third-round pick, 2012) and Donnie Avery, who has been around for a little while. If they go deep, those are guys to keep an eye on.
Mike: We'll also keep an eye on the offensive line, where former Boston College standout Anthony Castonzo is entrenched as Luck's blindside protector at left tackle. As for the defense, what have you seen from Tom Brady's nemesis, Dwight Freeney?
Tedy: This has been a tough year for Freeney. He had an ankle injury early on, he came back from that, and he has just two sacks. With this new 3-4 scheme -- we talked to him at the Super Bowl and asked him about the change and possibly having to drop in coverage -- watching him in the preseason, it didn't look comfortable with him. This is part of the situation the Colts are in, transitioning to a new style of play and having players that maybe don't perfectly fit the role. Freeney is not used to this type of production. The culture shift has him in an interesting spot.
Mike: The Colts also have Robert Mathis (6 sacks) as a pass-rusher to contend with, and 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes is showing up more as a pass-rusher. So while the numbers maybe aren't what they'd expect, I still view it as a significant challenge for Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. The Colts are also thin at corner, with former Patriot Darius Butler slated to start in place of the injured Vontae Davis.
Tedy: This is a beat-up defensive unit, especially in the defensive backfield, where Jerraud Powers was just placed on injured reserve. They'll be hobbling in here and the Patriots have to be viewing this unit as one they can exploit.
Mike: Kicker Adam Vinatieri is 18 of 24 on field goals this season and 16 of 16 on extra points -- not the stellar numbers we're used to seeing, but his presence is always notable on the other sideline. His misses are from 36, 37, 37 (blocked), 48, 53, 54 (blocked). It's always good to see Vinatieri as it brings back memories of how he helped contribute to three Super Bowl championships in New England.
Tedy: Yes, but I still don't like seeing him in a Colts uniform! When you think about kickers, it's what is under that helmet. If this game comes down to a field goal and Vinatieri trots out on the field, I know what he's thinking, I know that mental toughness he has. The chances of him making that kick are very, very high.
Mike: Let's get to some predictions, Tedy. I'm anticipating a stronger tackling performance from the Patriots' defense, and a game plan against Reggie Wayne that could have shades of what the team has done against Antonio Gates in the past. I think the much-maligned Patriots defense will be able to create enough resistance and then I think the offense -- as long as it can protect Tom Brady -- should have its way. Patriots 42, Colts 17.
Tedy: I do think the Patriots' offense will have success. This Colts defense is beat up in the secondary and Tom Brady will have a big game. However, I also see Andrew Luck having a big game, and with the way they now move Reggie Wayne around it's going to be tough to take him away. Look for Chandler Jones to make an impact this week. Patriots 34, Colts 27
|Even with the Colts' new offense, Reggie Wayne has continued to produce for Indy. He's leading the league in receptions and targets, and has drawn glowing praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. |