AFC Championship Preview: Colts @ Patriots

brady luck

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been the blemish on Andrew Luck’s resume as he continues his journey to the upper echelon of NFL Quarterbacks.

In three career games against the Patriots, Luck is 0-3 with eight interceptions, with his worst outing coming in last year’s 43-22 defeat in the Divisional Playoffs. Luck was picked off four times, completed less than 50% of his passes and posted a 25 QBR. However, two of Luck’s interceptions in that contest came in the fourth quarter when Luck had to force the issue a bit more due to the large deficit. It’s also worth noting that the Colts were overly reliant on the likes of WRs LaVon Brazill, Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen. Whalen was productive underneath, and although Brazil stretched the field for two long touchdowns, Luck was just 2-11 when targeting Brazil and Rogers.

The improvements of Luck’s targets was evident in this season’s Week 10 matchup as Luck posted his best statistics of the three matchups going 23-39 for 303 yards with two touchdowns and one interception with a 74.7 QBR. He was also more effective throwing the ball downfield going 6 for 11 for 173 yards. Despite Luck’s improvement, the Patriot’s margin of victory basically remained the same as the Patriots won 43-22 in last year’s playoffs and 42-20 in Week 10. Thus one may conclude that despite the enormous burden the Colts have placed on Luck, his performance will not dictate the outcome of Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup. Yes, the Colts have almost no chance if Luck throws four interceptions again or on the flip side if he puts forth a masterful performance it will go a long way to securing his first Super Bowl appearance, but Indy has had issues with the Patriots that go far beyond Luck.

The Patriots obliterated the Colts on the ground in last year’s playoff matchup and this season’s Week 10 matchup. In last year’s playoff LeGarrette Blount delivered one of the greatest postseason rushing performances in NFL history amassing 24 carries for 166 yards and four touchdowns including a back-breaking 73-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter. The Patriots rushed for a total of 234 yards and SIX touchdowns on 46 attempts.

blount

Blount gashed the Colts for 166 yards and four touchdowns in last season’s Divisional Playoffs.

In Week 10, Jonas Gray briefly became a household name and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after going off for 201 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries, while the team rushed for a total of 246 yards on 44 attempts. The Patriots weren’t merely exploiting a single glaring weakness among Indy’s frontline as they had success off left end (5 rushes, 42 yards), off right end (4 -32), off left tackle (8-44, 1 TD), off right tackle (5-33, 1 TD) and up the middle (18-99, 2 TDs) when running the ball. The Colts run defense has shown improvement in the postseason as they yielded just 53 yards on 16 rushes to the combination of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in the Wild Card Round and held C.J. Anderson, who was nothing short of a run-away train since Week 12, to 80 yards last week. Also keep in mind the Patriots completely abandoned the run in the second half of last week’s victory in Baltimore as not a single running back had a rushing attempt after notching seven carries for 14 yards in the first half.

However, Bill Belichick’s calling card throughout his coaching tenure has been to target and take advantage of a team’s primary weakness. The Ravens were a formidable opposition in the run game ranking fourth in rush defense during the regular season, while its banged up secondary caused the pass defense to finish 23rd despite tying for second in the league in sacks. Tom Brady and the Pats particularly targeted cornerback Rashaan Melvin, formerly of the Dolphins’ practice squad, completing 12 of 15 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns in his direction. In other words, Bill Belichick will have Tom Brady handing the ball off in an attempt to take advantage of the Colts less-than-stellar run defense. Expect New England to be in close proximity to the 45 rushing attempts it has averaged in the past two meetings against Indy.

Another telling statistic about the matchup earlier this season was third down. The Colts’ finished 11th in total defense and 19th in scoring during the regular season, but its greatest strength was third down defense where the Colts’ finished first in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert just 33% of its third downs. However, in Week 10 the Patriots converted nine of 11 third downs for an astounding 82% conversion rate. In fact the Patriots punted only one time in the game. Of those nine conversions, one came via penalty, just two came on the ground despite the Pats success, and the other six were through the air. Brady accumulated 110 of his 257 passing yards as he completed six of his eight attempts on third down. How exactly did Brady manage his success on third down? Despite the difficulties the Colts had this season defending the middle of the field in the passing game, Brady’s third down success was found on the outside. However, those outside passes were not an exploitation of Colts’ cornerbacks Vontae Davis or Greg Toler, but instead exposed the Colts’ linebackers, safeties, and nickel corners in matchups with slot receiver Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Gronk caught three passes for 62 yards and this super-human Gronklike touchdown on third downs, while Edelman converted two third downs of his own. One of the primary reasons the Patriots finished sixth in the league on third down conversions at 44% was because of the mismatches posed by Gronk, Edelman and running back Shane Vereen on defenses as they were often matched up with linebackers, safties, and nickel backs. This spells bad news for the Colts as the most successful aspect of its third down defense is the success of its outside corners Davis and Toler.

Gronk caught four passes for 71 yards and a TD in the Week 10 matchup.

Gronk caught four passes for 71 yards and a TD in the Week 10 matchup.

There is one critical aspect of this Championship matchup that the Colts may be able to exploit; protecting Andrew Luck and allowing him to make reads and step into a clean pocket. The protection the Colts have provided for Luck this season has been inconsistent throughout the year. The Colts allowed just 32 sacks during the regular season, good for sixth in the NFL, but they allowed 109 hits on its quarterback! Those 109 QB hits were the third most in the NFL. That trend has continued in the Colts’ first two postseason games as they have given up only one sack, but have allowed Luck to be hit 11 times already or 5.5 per game a per game average ahead of just three other teams (Dallas, Carolina, Cincinnati). However, in last week’s victory in Denver, the Colts line, particularly tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz, did a good job of protecting Luck and made one of the league’s best pass rushing duos in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware into non-factors.

The Colts line didn't allow a sack in last week's victory over Denver.

The Colts line didn’t allow a sack in last week’s victory over Denver.

The Patriots pass rush has severely lacked consistency all season while also displaying an over-reliance on defensive end Chandler Jones, who missed six games due to injury this season. Jones returned in Week 15 against the Dolphins and had 1.5 sacks as the Patriots collected four as a team, but the Pats had just two sacks in each of its last two regular season games and zero last week against the Ravens who were forced to reshuffle their line and started an injured Eugene Monroe at left tackle. A pass rush that had only one sack in the Week 10 matchup against the Colts looms as a potential doom to New England’s Super Bowl chances. If Luck has time to throw and feels comfortable in the pocket even the terrific coverage and versatility of New England’s secondary and linebacking core may not be able enough to deter Luck.

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