3TFO: Colts @ Patriots, Week 11
Indianapolis versus New England. The Midwest meets The Northeast. Tony Dungy against Bill Belichick. Marvin Harrison collides with Rodney Harrison. And of course, the two greatest quarterbacks of our generation…
Ok, maybe the Colts and Patriots rivalry no longer has the instant drama that NFL marketers salivate over. Now that Peyton Manning is in Denver, this annual matchup has gone from Game-of-the-Year theatrics to simply Game-of-the-Week giddiness. And that’s fine, because today’s NFL provides enough made-for-TV drama on its own (or did you miss the Chiefs and Steelers on Monday night?).
With the Colts surprising and Patriots thriving in a top-heavy AFC, this has become a possible wild card playoff preview. After quality wins over the Vikings and Packers and curious losses to the Jaguars and Jets, the Colts have settled into a groove. They’ve won their last four games as Andrew Luck has thrown his hat into the Rookie of the Year conversation. After some agonizing close losses to begin the season, the Patriots’ three-game winning streak has put them in their usual AFC East driver’s seat.
Will Luck’s hot hand renew this old rivalry? Or will Belichick and Tom Brady put the rookie in his place? Here are three matchups to focus on when these two teams meet on Sunday:
Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne vs. Patriots Defensive Backs
As a rookie top draft pick replacing a Hall of Fame franchise quarterback that was still in his prime, Luck walked into a historically unprecedented tough spot. Nevertheless, he’s succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations and has some analysts already calling him a top-tier QB. I won’t go that far, as Luck’s 86.48 PFF QB Rating and 69.2 Accuracy Percentage rank 13th and 28th in the league, respectively. But the rookie is playing beyond his years and has rejuvenated the career of another possible Hall of Famer, Reggie Wayne. Wayne leads all receivers with 106 targets, 69 receptions, and a +20.9 overall grade, and he’s second only to Calvin Johnson with 103.4 receiving yards per game.
The Patriots’ pass defense has once again struggled, allowing the sixth-most passing yards (285.3 per game) and third-most passing touchdowns (19) in the league this season. Against the Buffalo Bills, Alfonzo Dennard became just the latest underachiever on New England’s defensive back merry-go-round. So does that make this matchup that will reap rewards for the Colts? Not so fast. Luck targets Wayne on 29.2% of his throws, and has at times forced the ball to his top wideout. Going back to his gameplan against Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick has shown an ability to take a team’s top player out of the game. In Week 2 of this season, the Pats maligned secondary held Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for 4 yards. The Cardinals found a way to win that game by going to their other players, but does Luck have that luxury? Coby Fleener is injured, T.Y. Hilton hasn’t earned a positive grade since Week 3, and Donnie Avery has an awful 66.0 WR Rating. If the Patriots can even slow down Wayne, perhaps with the reinvigorated Devin McCourty (+10.0 pass coverage) or newcomer Aqib Talib, then Luck may have trouble adjusting.
Chandler Jones vs. Anthony Castonzo
If you ever looked beyond the Brady vs. Manning hype that dominated this series, you may remember some epic battles between Matt Light and Dwight Freeney. On Sunday, we may see a similar one forming between second-year left tackle Anthony Castonzo and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones. Jones announced his presence to the NFL quickly with four pressures and a forced fumble in a Week 1 blowout of the Titans, and he hasn’t slowed down since. He not only leads all AFC rookies with six sacks, but also ranks seventh among all 4-3 DEs with a +11.4 overall grade. The vast majority of his pass rushes have come from the right side, where his 31 total QB pressures are the fifth-most in the league.
Those are troublesome stats for Castonzo, whose 92.4 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranks near the bottom of offensive tackles. The young left tackle particularly struggles against top-tier pass rushers, noted by the combined 17 QB pressures he surrendered to Jared Allen, Clay Matthews, and Kamerion Wimbley earlier this season. But when the Colts run the ball, Castonzo transforms from liability to asset, and his +5.3 run block grade is a team-best. Jones has made some plays in run defense, but his poor 4.6 Run Stop Percentage indicates that he has yet to find consistency there. Take your eye off Luck for a bit Sunday and watch these two youngsters, as you may see a rivalry in the making.
Patriots Running Game vs Colts Front 7
Halfway through the 2012 season, the Patriots’ offense is at its typical position atop the NFL. New England’s 33.2 points and 430.3 yards per game lead the league, and they’ve been even better lately with 111 points combined in their past three games. However, what makes this Patriot attack different from those of recent years is its strength in the running game. Stevan Ridley is sixth in the league with 817 rushing yards, and his 15 rushes of over 15 yards are second only to Adrian Peterson. He’s given New Engand a ground weapon that they haven’t had since Clock Killin’ Corey Dillon. After all the fretting in the preseason, the Patriots’ offensive line has overcome turnover and injuries to remain one of the best in the league. Center Ryan Wendell leads the way with a +11.6 run block grade, and Rob Gronkowski is again proving that his run blocking is as frighteningly devastating as his receiving skills.
The Colts’ defense struggled at the start of the season, which is to be expected from a squad transitioning to a new defensive scheme without a lot of new talent. It has shored up lately, however, surrendering an average of just 14 points over the past four games. Yet none of those opponents had as powerful of a running attack as New England, and Indianapolis still gives up an average of 4.7 yards per rush, fourth-highest in the league. Cory Redding leads the Colt defensive line by default with a 5.6 Run Stop Percentage, a number that doesn’t even put him in the top half of 3-4 DEs. And on the second-level, we find former All-Pro Dwight Freeney floundering in his new outside linebacker position, where his 2.1 Run Stop Percentage ranks dead last. The lone bright spot for the Colts’ run defense is Kavell Connor, who leads all inside linebackers with a 16.2 Run Stop Percentage. Many opponents fear being torched by Brady when facing the Patriots, and rightfully so. But if the Colts front seven isn’t up to the task against the run, it may be Ridley who brings their demise.
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