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On Football | Midweek report

Pressure from Patriots defense may be short-lived

Colts QB Andrew Luck (12) tries to get off a pass Sunday while under pressure from Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes.

CJ GUNTHER/EPA

Colts QB Andrew Luck (12) tries to get off a pass Sunday while under pressure from Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes.

The Patriots certainly changed some things up defensively in their 59-24 victory over the Colts Sunday.

It was certainly more exciting to watch as the Patriots flew around the field and tried to make things happen.

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There were 17 true blitzes (more than four pass rushers sent), their second-highest total dating to the start of the 2010 season.

There were seven zone exchanges, which is a pressure concept in which a normal pass rusher drops into coverage and is replaced in the rush by a linebacker or defensive back. It’s a way to generate pressure without actually taking players out of coverage — a staple of the Jets and Ravens.

There were also more straight run blitzes than the Patriots usually employ.

The result was a feeling of constant pressure, not only for fans watching at home, but also on quarterback Andrew Luck, who constantly was being moved off his spot in the pocket, which is the goal of any pass rusher. If a quarterback has to move, it decreases the chances of him completing the pass.

About time. People love to rail against the Patriots secondary when the lack of a consistent pass rush was actually the biggest problem.

The big question is, will it continue?

Unfortunately, the answer to that could be no, unless Bill Belichick turns over a new leaf.

The rise in pressure likely had little to do with the arrival of Aqib Talib or anything else in the secondary; the Patriots played largely the same concepts — Cover 3, Cover 2, and Cover 1 with a robber wrinkle thrown in. There was not an uptick in man coverage.

That the Patriots suddenly blitzed their highest percentage of the season (30.9 percent of the dropbacks) and had their most total pressure concepts (43.6 percent) can be attributed to the coordinator the Patriots were playing against (Bruce Arians), and also the opponent themselves.

Dating to the start of the 2010 season, of the six games with the highest number of blitzes, Arians was coordinator of three of those teams: 2010 Steelers (23 blitzes), 2012 Colts (17), and 2011 Steelers (14).

Why the need to throw so much at an Arians offense? Likely for two reasons: because quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (especially) and Luck don’t make a lot of mistakes unless forced into them; and Arians’s offense lives off deep drops from center by the quarterback and a lot of deep routes. If the quarterbacks aren’t rushed, there could be big trouble down the field.

Mix in that Luck still plays like a rookie, and that the Colts rely on one target (Reggie Wayne), work almost exclusively in the middle of the field, lack the outside threats to keep defenses honest outside the numbers (think the Patriots in 2010 and ’12), and have an offensive line that is unathletic, and you have a perfect scenario for the Patriots to get more aggressive.

And while the defense showed only modest improvement over the Bills game over the span of 81 plays (even after the Talib interception, the Colts still averaged 6.2 yards per play on the next six drives), the pressure concepts helped make the defense more effective.

When the Patriots used a blitz or zone exchange, Luck completed 52 percent of his passes for 134 yards (5.36 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 51.1.

The Patriots generated 13 (sack, seven hurries, five knockdowns) of their 17 quarterback pressures on those plays (76.5 percent).

When the Patriots sent three or four rushers, Luck completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 217 yards (8.4 YPA), two touchdowns, and two interceptions for a rating of 81.7. The Patriots generated just two hurries and two knockdowns on those plays.

It’s a perfect example of how the ability to generate pressure on a quarterback increases the effectiveness of the secondary exponentially.

We’d love to see the pressure concepts continue for exactly that reason, but they probably won’t. The Patriots are who they are: a defense that will play the percentages that most teams can’t go on long, sustained drives against them without turnovers. It’s a formula that has been very successful for a long time.

The positional ratings against the Colts:

Quarterbacks (rating: 5 out of 5)

Well, somebody was tired about hearing about Luck. An obviously motivated Tom Brady was stellar from the start. Give him protection against an overmatched secondary, he’ll annihilate you all the time. That opening drive for Brady (5 of 6, 74 yards, touchdown) was one of his best of the season. No throws held longer than 2.7 seconds. He was decisive, throwing the ball with authority and into tight windows.

Running backs (4 out of 5)

Thanks to some really nice work by the offensive line, the running backs didn’t have a high degree of difficulty and got what was blocked. Danny Woodhead only played 18 percent of the snaps. Most of his low snap counts have come against the worst defenses (Titans, Bills twice, Broncos). The bigger the game and defense, the more the Patriots like Woodhead.

Receivers (3.5 out of 5)

Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman (drop), despite a couple of miscues in the running game, were both terrific in the air and on the ground. Everyone else, including Wes Welker (two drops), was average. You could tell that Welker was not 100 percent. He just didn’t play with his usual confidence and precision. Edelman was so involved in the pass game because he appeared to be playing Aaron Hernandez’s spot in a scheme we hadn’t seen in weeks. Perhaps it was greasing the skids for Hernandez’s return. A guess as to why Brandon Lloyd played by far his lowest percentage of snaps (55 percent): The team realizes he’s not physical enough for the quick screens they run — he leaves yards on the field — so he’s going to split time with Edelman there.

Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)

This unit allowed just eight quarterback pressures (22 percent of the dropbacks) despite the Colts trying to bring pressure on a quarter of the snaps. No reason to put them in order of performance because besides Sebastian Vollmer once again being the standout, Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, and Nick McDonald all played in the “very good” range. The left side of Solder, Thomas, and Wendell really did some work in the run game. McDonald had a sweet one-arm pancake of linebacker Nigel Bradham on the opening possession.

Defensive line (4 out of 5)

Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich played terrific from start to finish. Wilfork had two quarterback hurries (including the one that forced Luck’s terrible overthrow that Talib picked off and ran back), a half-knockdown, and a stuffed run (1 yard or less outside short yardage) and two shared stuffs. Wilfork also batted down two passes, and has now become the player that the Patriots are running more and more end stunts off of. He’s really freeing up guys such as Jermaine Cunningham (hurry, knockdown) to get after the quarterback. Ninkovich (sack/fumble, two half-knockdowns) factored into four of the Patriots’ nine stuffs of 23 Colts runs (39.1 percent was season high). Kyle Love’s pad level was way higher than normal and he was getting shoved around. Wonder if there’s an injury there or a little back tightness. Overall, neither Cunningham nor Trevor Scott impressed after Chandler Jones (half-stuff in 11 snaps) went out with a right foot injury. If he’s out, that’s a huge concern.

Linebackers (3.5 out of 5)

Combined, Brandon Spikes (three hurries, 1.5 knockdowns, two half-stuffs) and Jerod Mayo (knockdown, three half-stuffs, pass breakup) probably had their most impact of the season. They each had a few miscues, and Dont’a­ Hightower’s struggles continued. He’s still having problems reading his keys in the run game — he’s occasionally late or just missing from his gap — and making his proper drop against the pass, though he did get his hands on one. Hightower really misplayed Vick Ballard’s 5-yard run on the play before the Colts’ first touchdown. He ran into the back of Jones and got blocked himself, which allowed Ballard to easily bounce it outside. And then on the touchdown, Mayo guessed wrong and Delone Carter ran right through the exposed gap. Belichick made some tweaks after the second touchdown. It appeared that he took High­­­­tower off the line against the tight end, and left the re-route responsibility to one of the ends. That would make the zone exchanges more effective, especially because the Colts’ backs were so poor in pass protection. And Belichick likely drew up some more stunts against an offensive line that was slow of foot.

Secondary (3 out of 5)

There were still a lot of issues in the back end, but there was more good play as well, which directly can be attributed to the Patriots getting pressure on 30.9 percent of dropbacks instead of the usual 21 percent when the secondary struggles. Kyle Arrington was demoted from starter to nickel corner after his pass interference against Donnie Avery down to the 6-yard line before the Colts’ first score. I have a hard time believing Arrington wasn’t supposed to get help there. It appeared the Patriots were in Cover 4 (the cornerbacks and safeties each responsible for a quarter of the field). Devin McCourty rightly jumped Wayne when he got inside Talib, but why did Steve Gregory also jump Wayne? Gregory likely should have run with Avery and defended the inside. Outside of a shared pass breakup with Mayo and his final block on Talib’s touchdown, Gregory continued to be ineffective, even as the Patriots allowed him to roam the middle of the field in a robber role. Outside of that penalty, Arrington played very well as he often drew underneath coverage against Wayne and was able to get more involved with the rush. Alfonzo Dennard had a big bounce-back game, and McCourty gets better with every game at free safety. If Talib wasn’t new and rusty from his suspension, he’d be criticized for a pedestrian performance in which he gave up two touchdowns and would have given up a third if McCourty hadn’t saved him. But Talib will get some rope, especially with a terrific touchdown.

Special teams (5 out of 5)

Edelman returned a punt for a 68-yard touchdown (thanks to a poor 3.9-second hang time) and another return went for 49 yards with some terrific blocking from Talib, Niko Koutouvides, and Tracy White. McCourty had a 29-yard kickoff return. Zoltan Mesko had two outstanding punts. Stephen Gostkowski (missed 31-yard field goal) and the kickoff unit held the Colts to a 14.9-yard average on seven kicks hung high on purpose. What else could you want? Take a bow, Scotty O’Brien.

PLAY OF THE GAME

Situation: The Colts, who had gone right through the Patriots on their first two scoring drives, ran for 9 yards on first down and then faced second and 1 at their 31-yard line with the score tied, 14-14, and 11:17 left in the second quarter.

What happened: The Patriots had linebackers Brandon Spikes (55) and Dont’a Hightower (54) crowding the line. The Patriots only blitzed Spikes between the center and left guard, to free up Vince Wilfork (75) and end Jermaine Cunningham (96) on single blocks. Both Colts running backs picked up Cunningham, leaving Wilfork to beat right tackle Winston Justice. After quarterback Andrew Luck (12) took a deep drop off a play-action fake, Wilfork’s presence made Luck throw off-balance and high. The Patriots had both corners and safety Devin McCourty deep in Cover 3, and Aqib Talib (31) easily picked off the ball. He took it back 59 yards, getting a great block from Steve Gregory, for a score that gave the Patriots their first lead, one they would not relinquish.

ON HIS GAME

Julian Edelman, receiver/punt returner

Caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, scored another TD on a 68-yard punt return, set up two more scores with a 49-yard return and 47-yard rush, forced a fumble on special teams, and threw the key block on the final touchdown. I’m tired typing that.

OFF HIS GAME

Kyle Love, defensive tackle

Registered one assisted tackle in 35 snaps and was easily shoved out of his gap on two big runs. Basically a total nonfactor, which is not typical.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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