When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley continues to run with reckless abandon and infectious energy. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is not only an effective in-line runner, he also has the quickness to hit the edge, spot cutback lanes, and reach the second and third levels. He may not be the most powerful runner to come down the pike, but he will aggressively challenge tacklers; running out of bounds is just not in his nature. Danny Woodhead continues to make the most of his touches. Woodhead has great quickness and instincts (and you can tell Bill Belichick just loves the little fella). He runs low and shows the ability to slip off — and past — defenders and make extra yards. Shane Vereen has good quickness, agility, and body control. His carries are sporadic, so it has been hard for him to get into a rhythm. Center Ryan Wendell has become a steadying force on the offensive line. He is smart and strong and has adjusted well to the merry-go-round of guards the Patriots have had to employ because of injuries. The Colts have some big bodies in tackles Antonio Johnson (he has great strength) and Fili Moala (ditto), who can clog the middle. Inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman (he’s a tackling machine) and Kavell Connor (he’s explosive and always around the ball) are adept at sifting through the bodies and locating the ball carrier.
New England offense: 146.0 (fifth)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady, who has probably seen Colts standouts Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in his sleep many nights, will see them plenty Sunday. Both elite pass rushers are listed as linebackers but they still bring it off the edge the same way they did when they were listed as defensive ends. Freeney uses lethal first-step quickness to get into the backfield while Mathis has a nice blend of power and moves to collapse the pocket. Luckily for Brady, tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder continue to play at a high level. Brady, who processes information as quickly as any quarterback in history, will find favorable matchups and move the chains. Wes Welker is the quick option. He has quick feet and great hands. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (he’s huge) and Aaron Hernandez (he’s versatile) own the middle of the field. The Colts will struggle to contain these terrors. Deion Branch is coming off his most productive game and the wily veteran still has Brady’s trust. Brandon Lloyd has the speed to stretch the field and the body control and hands to make acrobatic catches. Indy’s secondary is in shambles (New England fans can relate). Ex-Patriot Darius Butler mans one corner and is playing his best football. Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy are the other corners. Safeties Antoine Bethea (he’s rangy and has good instincts) and Tom Zbikowski (he’s a big hitter who lacks speed) provide decent support.
When the Colts run
Donald Brown and Vick Ballard have been sharing the load at tailback for an offense that clearly prefers to throw first and ask questions later. Brown is a well-built (5-10, 210) back with decent initial speed and excellent acceleration. Brown was a real workhorse at UConn but has yet to develop into a true bellcow in the NFL. Part of the reason for this is nagging injuries. Brown is rarely at 100 percent. He also lacks vision. Brown has a tendency to stutter-step too much in the backfield waiting for creases to open (think Laurence Maroney). If he picks the right gap, Brown will use his acceleration and shiftiness to make yards. He won’t break a lot of tackles but he won’t shy away from contact, either. Ballard, a 5-10, 217-pound rookie out of Mississippi State, is an effective between-the-tackles runner with great instincts and patience. Ballard thrives on contact and will burst through arm tacklers and finish his runs hard. He’s not a burner. Center Samson Satele (6-3, 300) is large and strong. He delivers a nice initial pop but will wear down. Guards Mike McGlynn (6-4, 327-pounder is strong and smart) and Joe Reitz (6-7, 322-pounder is huge but a little stiff) are underrated. Vince Wilfork continues to be a beast against the run. He’s so strong and so quick, it almost seems unfair. Linebackers Jerod Mayo (great instincts) and Brandon Spikes (big hits are a specialty) will make their presence felt.
When the Colts pass
Ordinarily, a rookie quarterback facing a Bill Belichick defense is a mismatch of epic proportions. There’s nothing ordinary about Andrew Luck. The 6-foot-4-inch, 234-pounder is exceptionally smart (Stanford, duh) and deceptively athletic (he’s averaging 4.7 yards on 34 rushes). Luck has tremendous instincts and great recognition skills. He runs through his progressions seamlessly, and nearly always makes the right decision. Luck spins beautifully tight, textbook spirals and is exceptionally accurate — particularly inside 20 yards. Luck has great touch (he leads his receivers beautifully) but can also zip it into tight windows. He displays an unflappable confidence. Having Reggie Wayne as a go-to receiver hasn’t hurt. The two have developed a quick rapport. Wayne is smooth and smart and knows how to get open. Donnie Avery is an explosive receiver who can gain separation with his speed but too often rounds off his routes and will drop catchable balls. Rookie T.Y. Hilton (5-9, 183) is quick and slippery and will make people miss after the catch. Rookie tight end Dwayne Allen (6-3, 255) has excellent athleticism, great instincts, and good hands. Aqib Talib (excellent quickness and agility) could draw Wayne but the newcomer is bound to be rusty and he’ll need help from safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory. Corners Kyle Arrington (he’s athletic) and Alfonzo Dennard (he’s muscular but raw) continue to struggle.
Colts’ key player: Reggie Wayne
A smooth operator. After spending many years teaming up with Peyton Manning, Wayne has forgotten all about his former favorite pitchman and has hitched his wagon to Andrew Luck’s star. It has been a very productive relationship.
How he beats you: With speed and strength. Wayne is very quick off the line and uses his powerful arms to gain separation. He runs excellent routes and gives full effort on every play.
How to shut him down: By beating him down. Giving him a clean break at the snap is a mistake. Jam him at the line and prevent him from getting into a rhythm.
COLTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Pocket protector: Andrew Luck can move this offense and put points on the board. But not if he’s continually on his fanny. Keeping him clean is a must.
2.Rush chairmen: Use Donald Brown and Vick Ballard to try to wear down the Patriots defense and keep it honest. You can’t be one-dimensional against the Patriots.
3.Kids’ stuff: Explosive rookie T.Y. Hilton has big-play potential. Get the ball in his hands (catches, reverses, returns) as much as possible and let him go to work.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Confusion reigns: Andrew Luck already has a reputation as one of the smartest and most well-prepared QBs in the league. But you still have to test him by showing multiple looks.
2. Screen tests: The Colts will come after Tom Brady. So throw bubble screens and let Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker use their quick feet and excellent vision to rack up the yards.
3. Take some shots: Darius Butler can be rattled. Test the former Patriot early and often and see if he can keep his head in the game for a full four quarters.