The Colts’ coaching staff does know it’s allowed to switch up the game plan occasionally, right?
Re-watching Sunday night’s AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Colts felt like a flashback. “Am I really watching the Pats-Colts game from November? Or maybe this is the playoff win from 2014?”
Because all three games were strikingly similar. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower wreaking havoc blitzing through the “A” gaps? Check. Cameron Fleming being used frequently as an extra lineman? Check. Andrew Luck forcing throws that result in interceptions? Check. The Colts’ blitzing frequently but not getting to Tom Brady? Check once again.
Brady and Bill Belichick have faced Luck and Chuck Pagano four times, and all four have resulted in blowout wins for the Patriots. Either Pagano has thrown in the towel and conceded the fact that the Patriots are too physically dominant for his team to compete with, or he is incapable of finding new ways to attack the Patriots on both sides of the ball.
I really expected more out of the Colts Sunday when facing the Patriots for the second time this season, and third time in 12 months. It’s not like the Patriots had some exotic new game plan that the Colts didn’t expect. The Patriots told the Colts exactly what they were going to do, and the Colts were helpless to stop it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Pagano or his staff.
Other observations from the Patriots’ 45-7 win:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ LeGarrette Blount was simply a beast. Of his 148 yards, a whopping 85 came after contact as he ran over and through the defense. He had 21 yards after contact on one run in the third quarter, 10 yards on a run in the first quarter, and grinded out some tough yards that simply weren’t there, such as when he was hit 2 yards in the backfield on third down and still rumbled 8 yards for a first down.
The number of broken and missed tackles he forced was also impressive. He completely broke Shaun Phillips’s ankles on one 10-yard run, barreled through five defenders to convert a third and 1, and broke three tackles on his second touchdown of the game, late in the third quarter.
Blount doesn’t always hit the hole decisively, but he’s incredibly nimble and has great footwork for a 250-pound back.
■ The offensive line was also pretty beastly. The Colts’ front seven was totally incapable of getting off blocks, a sign that either they were overpowered by the Patriots’ offensive line, or weren’t giving a full effort on a miserable night in Foxborough. The Colts missed DE Bjoern Werner, but I doubt he would have made much of a difference. The Colts did try a couple of minor adjustments — using LaRon Landry down in the box as an extra run defender, and the middle linebackers to crash through the gaps when the Patriots ran trap plays, but neither was very effective. The Colts blitzed Brady 13 times in 39 dropbacks, and only mustered one sack when Cory Redding beat Ryan Wendell with an outside move.
RG Josh Kline, who took a lot of heat with bad games against the Jets and Bills at the end of the season, deserves a special shoutout for dominating Redding and Josh Chapman, who were horrible in the run game.
■ Brady was off his game a little bit in the first half, as he seemed to lock onto his target before the snap. His interception on a pass down the middle was inexcusable, especially because it was the exact same INT as the week before. He forced the ball to Rob Gronkowski in double coverage even though Shane Vereen was open for an easy checkdown. Also in the first half, he completed a difficult sideline pass to Julian Edelman to convert a first down — a play in which Edelman injured his right hip when he was slammed to the ground — but the much easier play would have been to throw to Brandon LaFell, who was wide open over the middle.
But much like in the Ravens game, Brady was a maestro in the second half of taking all the underneath throws the Colts were giving him with their relaxed coverage, and he made all of the right reads after halftime.
■ The Nate Solder touchdown was a thing of beauty. After running five straight run plays to Blount, the Patriots ran a play-action pass, Solder held his block, then bounced off, caught a high pass, rumbled 12 yards after the catch, and went flying into the end zone.
■ Fleming was used as a sixth offensive lineman 26 times (it was 38 in the November game), and the Patriots ran 24 times for 77 yards, including a 22-yard run and all three Blount touchdowns. They also hit Edelman with a 22-yard play-action pass with Fleming as the extra blocker. The Patriots telegraphed their intentions to the Colts and still couldn’t be stopped.
■ The deflated ball controversy is funny, because the Patriots struggled with drops. Edelman, Gronkowski, and Danny Amendola each had bad drops on very catchable balls over the middle.
■ Note to defensive coordinators: If the Patriots are on the goal line, and Gronk is alone on one side of the field with a one-on-one matchup, he’s going to get the ball on a quick slant. Every time. This isn’t even debatable. Yet the Colts couldn’t stop it (again).
■ I think it’s matchup-based, and not an indication that he’s in the doghouse, but it’s interesting that tight end Tim Wright played only five snaps against the Colts after playing three against the Ravens. The fact that he doesn’t block much probably has kept him off the field.
■ Great concentration by Vereen on his 30-yard catch while getting clotheslined by Jerrell Freeman. Sometimes, games just come down to execution. Vereen caught his deep pass, and Dan Herron didn’t. The Patriots capitalized on their opportunities, and the Colts didn’t.
When the Colts had the ball
■ Collins has blossomed into a great young player in his second NFL season, but for whatever reason he absolutely terrorizes the Colts. He had a sack and an interception last year in the playoffs, eight tackles and a forced fumble in November, and an interception Sunday night. And the Patriots use Collins and Hightower the same way every time — lined up over the “A” gaps, with the potential to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage on any play.
Collins’s best play of the night, though, came in the first quarter, when he shed tight end Dwayne Allen with one arm and took down Herron with the other. Doing either with one arm isn’t easy, let alone at the same time.
■ The Patriots did a lot more zone rushing against the Colts than they had against the Ravens, Jets, and Dolphins in recent weeks. Rob Ninkovich seemingly dropped into coverage on every other passing play, and Chandler Jones dropped into coverage a healthy amount, as well. We only counted two passes in which the Patriots sent more than four rushers, but they did a great job of disguising where the rush was coming from. In fact, the Patriots more often rushed three and even two defenders, dropping their ends and linebackers off into zone coverage as a way to contain Luck’s scrambling ability.
■ Luck hit only one pass of more than 10 yards — the beautiful 36-yarder to T.Y. Hilton on the sideline — and a lot of it had to do with the consistent pressure the Patriots got up front.
■ Ninkovich completely owned RT Joe Reitz, busting him for nine hurries and a quarterback hit, plus two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Ninkovich earned a whole helmet’s worth of stickers for his play. Just an awesome performance by the veteran, who clearly studied the Colts’ tendencies and had their number. Chandler Jones also did a nice job against LT Anthony Castonzo, getting several pressures and a quarterback hit.
■ The Colts went away from their three-receiver sets — Reggie Wayne played only 21 snaps and looked old and slow — and instead used plenty of two- and three-tight end formations with Coby Fleener, Allen, and Jack Doyle. To counter this, the Patriots used Jonathan Casillas as a third linebacker on a dozen plays.
■ Darrelle Revis missed only two plays after getting kicked in the head by Hightower, and had one of his best games of the season against Wayne and Donte Moncrief. Revis pitched a shutout — he was targeted just twice, didn’t allow a reception, and beautifully undercut a route to swipe a lob pass from Luck for an easy interception.
■ Brandon Browner wasn’t perfect, committing another bad defensive holding penalty, but Fleener caught only three balls for 30 yards on him after having a 100-yard game in November. Interesting to see the Patriots have Browner play tight bump-and-run coverage on Fleener, even when Fleener was lined up in-line. It also gave the Patriots an extra run defender in the box.
■ The Colts tried a few surprise onside kicks earlier this season, so the Patriots kept seven defenders up near the line of scrimmage on kickoffs, just like they did in November. This game felt like a serious case of déjà vu.
■ The game turned on the Patriots’ first punt of the game. It could have been a disastrous play, with a low snap from Danny Aiken and a short punt from Ryan Allen, but the ball doinked right off Josh Cribbs’s facemask and into Darius Fleming’s arms for an easy fumble recovery. The Patriots scored their first touchdown six plays later, and the rout was on.
■ Tremendous blocks from Fleming on Edelman’s first punt return for 20 yards, and Brandon Bolden absolutely destroyed Andy Studebaker on Edelman’s 45-yard return at the end of the third quarter.