3TFO: Colts @ Patriots, Divisional Round
After last week’s dramatic come-from-behind win against the Chiefs, the Indianapolis Colts will travel to Foxborough on Saturday. Though there are more talented rosters, last week’s game proved, yet again, that no opponent’s lead is safe with Andrew Luck under center.
The New England Patriots find themselves in familiar territory after winning their division for the fifth straight season. A brutal season of injuries continued this week, as linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve. The team’s success this season is even more impressive given both the quantity and quality of players on IR, and the mental toughness they have shown should serve them well in the playoffs.
Cannon and Solder vs. Mathis
While he tailed off somewhat after an excellent start to 2013, Nate Solder finished eighth among tackles with a +25.6 grade. Though he surrendered 10 sacks this year, Solder allowed just 35 total pressures and finished the year 15th at his position with a 95.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency. Solder missed some time due to a concussion suffered in week 15, but he showed no ill effects in Week 17 when he earned a +4.1 grade and did not allow a single pressure against an excellent Bills defensive line.
On the other side of the line, Marcus Cannon has done a nice job filling in for the injured Sebastian Vollmer. Contrary to his scouting report coming out of TCU, Cannon has had a much better season in pass protection than as a run blocker. He has not allowed a single sack and his PBE of 96.0 would rank in the Top 10 among tackles had he played enough snaps to qualify.
Robert Mathis led the NFL in sacks this season, and is garnering consideration for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Though he did not crack the Top 4 in our list, it is undeniable that Mathis enjoyed an excellent season. Finishing second among 3-4 outside linebackers in both overall grade (+31.4) and pass rushing grade (+21.8), Mathis proved that he is effective in all phases of the game by also finishing with positives in run defense and in coverage. The veteran also finished seventh among his position peers in Pass Rushing Productivity. Equally potent coming from each side it seems likely that he will spend the majority of his snaps on the left this week, matching up against the inferior tackle in Cannon.
Patriots Running Offense vs. Colts Front Seven
New England’s offense looks completely different than it did this time last year. None of Tom Brady’s top five targets from 2012 will take the field on Saturday, and the typical offensive game plan has morphed from an up-tempo spread passing attack into a slower-paced, power running one. The Patriots finished ninth in rushing yards in 2013, racking up more than 2,000 yards on the ground and used a share-the-load approach with its backs — 2012 starter Stevan Ridley led the way with 341 snaps, but none of the team’s five most-used backs finished with fewer than 276.
LeGarrette Blount has enjoyed an excellent year and has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to him by the coaching staff, due in no small part to Ridley’s recurring fumbling issues. Blount has averaged 2.73 yards after contact and ranks ninth among running backs with a +7.8 rushing grade. New England’s success on the ground is even more impressive given the team finished 18th in our cumulative run blocking grades. Indianapolis will need to tackle effectively to slow down this rushing attack, and force the Patriots balanced offense to become one-dimensional.
Indianapolis’ run defense has changed drastically since the Peyton Manning era. Those defenses were undersized and fast, built to defend a lead by rushing the passer. Though he still has work to do, coach Chuck Pagano has been building a more stout and physical defense since the day he arrived.
Defensive end Cory Redding, who followed Pagano from Baltimore, is the Colts’ best player in run defense. Redding finished 10th among 3-4 ends with a +17.1 overall grade, almost all of which came from his work against the run. Indianapolis’ linebackers will have to be at their very best against a physical Patriots offense this week, but inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Kelvin Sheppard have struggled against the run at times this season. Freeman is undersized for his position, and missed 13 tackles. Though he was a more sound tackler, Sheppard also struggled, earning a -10.7 overall grade highlighted by a -7.7 run defense score.
New England does its best work running between the tackles, meaning that the spotlight will shine brightly on these two Saturday night.
Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes did not struggle against the run this year. His +11.6 run defense grade led all inside linebackers, and the former Gator missed just four tackles all season. Spikes saw his role in sub-packages increase greatly after Jerod Mayo was lost for the year, meaning that New England will have significant production to replace now that Spikes’ season has ended.
Donta Hightower has struggled at times this year, especially in pass coverage, but his work in run defense has been strong. Hightower’s +10.8 grade in that area ranks third among 4-3 OLB’s, and the Patriots will be counting on him to continue that level of production for the rest of the season. Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins will likely see their playing time increase after playing sparingly this year.
While each has done their best work as pass rushers in 2013, their greatest impact may come in pass coverage. Both players are smaller and faster than Spikes or Hightower, and limiting the effectiveness of backs and tight ends will be especially important this week against a Colts team that is far more effective at throwing the ball than running it.
This has been a trying year for the Colts on the ground, especially for Trent Richardson. However, the team may have an opportunity to turn things around this week against a Patriots run defense that has been completely decimated by injuries. While much of the criticism has been centered around Richardson, the Colts’ offensive line has not made things easy for any of their running backs.
Of the linemen that have played at least 150 snaps for the team this year, only Anthony Castonzo has a positive grade as a run blocker. While Richardson still excels at breaking tackles, ranking seventh in Elusive Rating, he has really struggled to pick up yards. His 1.90 Yards after Contact ranks near the bottom of all backs, and is certainly not what the Colts were looking for after trading a first round pick for his services.