Improved Colts Bring New Look, Challenges Since Their November Whoopin’
Every dedicated New England Patriots supporter who vividly recalls the sting of their September defeat against the Kansas City Chiefs can empathize with how inconsequential that game now seems in the grand scheme of the team’s journey.
Similarly, the Indianapolis Colts have distanced themselves from the humbling loss they suffered at the hands of the Patriots in mid-November.
It’s true that we often hark back to the commanding ground game performance that saw Jonas Gray and his teammates amass a remarkable 246 yards that day.
However, the Colts have shown a remarkable turnaround in their ability to thwart opposing rushing attacks, successfully limiting Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray, and Jeremy Hill to more modest gains.
The Patriots, on the other hand, have veered away from their run-centric strategy since that memorable day.
Indianapolis appears to have addressed the vulnerabilities that New England had expertly exposed, while the Patriots seem less inclined, or perhaps less willing, to rely on a run-first approach in recent games.
This dynamic presents a challenging dilemma for both teams as they prepare for the upcoming clash.
Do they stick with a game plan that yielded success against their opponent two months ago, even if it hasn’t proven as effective against other teams since?
Or should they opt for the strategies that have been delivering positive results in their more recent outings? It’s a timeless quandary of whether to capitalize on one’s strengths or exploit the perceived weaknesses of the adversary in the realm of game planning.
Yet, when we fast forward two months, it’s not entirely evident from an outsider’s perspective if these once-dominant strengths and weaknesses still hold for each team.
Adding an intriguing layer of uncertainty to this matchup is the undeniable fact that the offensive strategy of the Indianapolis Colts is poised for a significant overhaul compared to what the New England Patriots encountered back in November.
While the indomitable Captain Neckbeard, Andrew Luck, remains at the helm, his role as the catalyst of big plays and the team’s unwavering leader continues to be a constant.
However, as the Patriots’ defensive unit embarks on their week of preparation, several pivotal developments are poised to reshape the dynamics of this impending clash.
The primary shift comes in the form of Dan “Boom” Herron taking the reins as the Colts’ primary ball carrier, replacing the likes of Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson.
Herron has been a central figure, amassing 53 total touches in the Colts’ two playoff games. He is now heavily integrated into the Colts’ offensive scheme, serving not only as a reliable pass-catching option out of the backfield but also as a formidable ground attacker.
Every Patriots defensive lineman must be vigilant in their efforts to disrupt Herron’s path as he navigates through the line of scrimmage.
He has proven himself invaluable to Andrew Luck, not only as a safety valve when downfield options are scarce but also as a primary read in specific scenarios, such as setting the tone for drives, re-establishing momentum, or securing intermediate conversions.
In the previous encounter, Reggie Wayne was a focal point of attention, drawing coverage from Darrelle Revis.
However, Wayne’s role within the offense has significantly reduced since then. While he still serves as a dependable leader and a substantial presence on the perimeter, contributing with effective blocking to spring catch-and-run plays, he has been targeted a mere three times in the course of two playoff games.
This diminished role no longer justifies expending the defensive resources of someone like Revis, prompting a shift in strategy.
The spotlight now shifts to the agile and elusive TY Hilton, who, with his small and quick stature, may become a focal point of attention for the Patriots’ defensive schemes, potentially drawing double coverage—something not typically associated with Revis.
The choice of who to double-team will likely evolve based on the game situation, with Coby Fleener or, at times, Dwayne Allen warranting extra attention, particularly in low-red zone scenarios.
The Patriots are also expected to employ a blend of zone defenses, introducing an element of versatility to their approach in countering the Colts.
One direct consequence of Wayne’s reduced involvement is the emergence of Donte Moncrief, a youthful, physically imposing wide receiver targeted 11 times during the playoffs.
Additionally, former New York Giants wideout Hakim Nicks has stepped up, showcasing his red-zone prowess with a touchdown reception against the Broncos last week.
The decision-making process regarding coverage assignments for the Patriots’ defense is more complex than in recent memory.
Rather than having a single “must-stop” element within the Colts’ receiving corps, the Patriots face a diverse array of role players who have adeptly seized their opportunities.
It’s a week that demands a collective effort from the Patriots’ defense, emphasizing situational awareness.
Understanding that each of these receivers adapts their role based on field position and the evolving game circumstances is paramount for the Patriots in their quest to stifle the Colts’ aerial attack.
Dwayne Allen emerges as the wildcard in the Colts’ offensive arsenal, boasting a knack for making plays in limited opportunities, particularly as the Colts advance into the red zone. The Patriots, for the most part this season, haven’t encountered an offense with two legitimate pass-catching threats at the tight end position. A minor exception would be the preseason matchup against the Eagles and, to a lesser extent, the Jets and Lions during the regular season.
It’s worth noting that Allen was sidelined early in the November contest, so his return introduces fresh questions regarding defensive matchups.
This includes not only how to contend with the dual tight end threat but also whether the Colts’ newfound reliance on a 12-personnel grouping (featuring one running back and two tight ends) might prompt them to explore a ground-based attack, similar to what Baltimore executed.
The response to this query hinges on whether the Patriots opt to defend against the 12 personnel formation with their standard defensive alignment, renowned for its effectiveness in stifling the run, or choose to counter it with a sub-defense involving the substitution of a linebacker with a defensive back for enhanced pass coverage (nickel formation).
The use of sub-defense formations, primarily designed to thwart passing plays rather than rushing attacks, proved to be a core issue in the Patriots’ recent struggles against the run.
Typically, these choices boil down to a matter of trade-offs. Are the Patriots willing to compromise their run-stopping capabilities by employing a softer approach in exchange for reduced risk in the passing game?
The prevailing assumption would lean towards a “yes.” Yet, it remains to be seen whether this philosophy will undergo significant alteration in response to the Colts’ unique offensive challenges.
The return of defensive end Arthur Jones, who happens to be Chandler Jones’ brother, to the lineup is a substantial enhancement that the Patriots did not contend with in their November matchup.
Arthur, like his sibling, possesses a wingspan that serves him well, but what sets him apart is his imposing 340-pound frame, making him an anchor in the Colts’ overhauled run defense.
His ability to assert himself at the point of attack makes him a formidable obstacle for opposing offenses, adding a significant dimension to the Colts’ efforts to stymie the run.
This formidable presence bolsters the Colts’ defense and represents a factor the Patriots must reckon with in this impending encounter.
The presence of Arthur Jones and the potential absence of Bryan Stork at the center, which would necessitate offensive line reshuffling, adds further uncertainty to the New England Patriots’ offensive strategy.
Jones’s return strengthens the Colts’ run defense, while the Patriots may have lost an integral run-blocking component.
This alone raises doubts about whether the Patriots will replicate their previous game plan, a practice they infrequently adhere to anyhow.
While the Patriots are likely to emphasize their running game more against the Colts than they did versus the Ravens, it’s worth noting that their ground game was nearly nonexistent against Baltimore, accumulating a mere 14 yards.
They are expected to enter the game with a plan to establish a running attack. Still, they remain open to adapting their approach if the Colts demonstrate that they have indeed rectified their defensive issues.
The ability to pivot in response to in-game developments is a hallmark of the Patriots’ approach, ensuring their game plan remains flexible and adaptable.
In the final analysis, this impending showdown will involve two well-acquainted teams, each introducing fresh and unfamiliar variables to the game-planning process.
The outcome of the AFC Championship hinges on the intricate nuances and subtleties within the broader contest. What is unequivocal is that this won’t be a mere replication of the events that transpired in November.
The path to the Super Bowl will be illuminated by the novel decisions and adaptations in response to these evolving circumstances.
Ultimately, one of these teams will emerge victorious, propelled by their ability to navigate the ever-shifting terrain of this high-stakes battle.