With the Colts facing the New England Patriots this Sunday in the AFC Championship game, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with Pats Pulpit's Alec Shane about the Patriots and this Sunday's matchup. The questions are in bold and then Alec's responses follow.
1. I've heard some people say that this is the best defense that Bill Belichick has had in New England, which is saying a lot considering some of the defenses he had a decade ago when the Patriots won their Super Bowls. Do you think that's an accurate statement about the defense, and what is it that makes them that good?
I'd make the case that the defense under Belichick during the 2003-2004 Super Bowl years was better in terms of the caliber of talent on the field, but I'll buy that this is the most versatile defense Belichick has ever coached. He is able to get much more creative with his coverage and pass rush schemes due to the presence of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and their ability to take away the outside routes, and the highly underrated Devin McCourty allows the Patriots to play a lot of Cover 1, freeing up the strong safety to lurk closer to the line and mix up his looks. There is just a lot that this defense can throw at you, so while the defenses of the early 2000s may have been more talented units, this current one's versatility makes them extremely dangerous.
2. So, Jonas Gray - he rushed for 201 yards against the Colts and since then really hasn't done much. What's up with him? Why hasn't he been playing as much, and do you expect that to change this weekend against the Colts or not?
Gray has been hampered by an ankle injury as of late, so that helps to explain his more recent absences. Regarding his disappearance after the Colts game, I point to two things: one, he overslept for a practice the following week and thus didn't see a snap against the Detroit Lions - a big no-no for anybody, let alone a practice squad callup - and two, the Patriots offensive strategy is extremely gameplan specific and the string of opponents following that Colts game - Lions, Packers, Chargers, Dolphins, Jets, Bills - were all teams that were mostly stout against the run, so it made more sense to skew more back to the passing game against those specific defenses. Furthermore, the Patriots brought LeGarrette Blount back into the fold on November 20th after he was released by the Steelers, who represents the same style of physical, power running, and so there simply haven't been as many carries to go around. I still do think that Gray brings something unique to the table, as he has a great first step and knows how to follow his blocking assignments, but New England has other weapons right now that are a little more versatile.
As for whether we can expect to see a repeat of the Jonas Gray show this weekend, I know that whatever I say here is going to be the exact opposite of what the Patriots do, so...no. We won't see any of Gray at all.
3. One of the things about Bill Belichick that really stands out is that his game plans can be completely different from week to week, depending on the team he's facing. Last week we saw the Patriots reach into their bag of tricks with a receiver pass and four lineman formations, but do you expect that to be the case again this week?
Obviously nobody every knows what Belichick is going to do at any given time, and I'm sure he has a few more plays up his sleeve that he's saving for a rainy day (which, based on the forecast, is going to be Sunday), but I think this matchup will see a return to the run game and a string of plays based off the playaction. With heavy rain expected and what is likely going to be a slippery ball, it makes more sense not to get too fancy; run the ball, stick to the high percentage plays, and exploit the coverage mismatches that the offensive weapons represent.
4. This appears to be an offense that can beat you a number of ways. If you were the Colts' defense, how would you gameplan to stop the Patriots' multi-faceted offensive attack?
The easy answer is "pressure Brady," but that's a cop-out; everyone knows that pressuring Brady is the key to stopping the Patriots offense. So I'll offer up something different here and say the Colts needs to play extremely physical at the line and disrupt the timing of the receivers. Getting a hand in a receiver's face and throwing him off his route before he gets a release is going to mean Brady has to spend more time with the ball, which gives that defensive line more time to manhandle New England's inconsistent offensive line - which is more than likely to be without starting center Bryan Stork and thus forced to move Ryan Wendell over to center and use weak link Josh Kline at guard. If Indy can get to the quarterback early and cause Brady to hear footsteps, his throws won't be as crisp as they usually are, which combined with jamming receivers at the line, could make for a long day for the offense.
It's also extremely important for the defense to maintain it's snap count discipline. Brady loves to vary the snap count in order to goad a defender into making the move that will allow him to diagnose the coverage; if Brady knows what you're throwing at him, he's unstoppable. They need to be sure they give absolutely nothing away pre-snap and stick to their guns.
5. If you were the Colts' offense, what would you do to take advantage of some of the Patriots' defensive weaknesses, so to speak?
It's easy to forget, based on the final outcome of the first matchup, that this was a one score game heading into the fourth quarter, and Indy was actually doing a very good job moving the ball with passes to Fleener over the middle. New England has struggled against tight ends this year; we saw it the first time these teams met, and we saw it last week against the Ravens with Owen Daniels. The Colts have two very strong TEs in Fleener and Dwayne Allen, the latter of whom went out early in the game last time. But Allen now appears to be back, healthy, and an extremely reliable target for Luck, and so I'd utilize these two tight ends as much as possible if I were Indy, establishing the run behind Herron before unleashing the ends up the seam and using Fleener as a move receiver. I expect one of the two tight ends to have a huge game on Sunday - probably Fleener - and Allen will get his touches as well. If Herron can get the running game going and the tight ends can get inside the secondary's heads, the Colts will be successful.
And of course, Luck can't afford to turn it over. Interceptions have been a problem for him all season, and he can't try to force a pass in there when the smarter play is to either take the sack or take off and run. INTs doomed the Colts in the divisional round last year, and Luck needs to bring his A game to the AFCC and continue making the wise decisions he made against the Broncos.
Thanks again to Alec Shane of Pats Pulpit for taking the time to answer these questions!
Editor's Note: FanDuel is hosting a $1,000 fantasy football league for SBNation for the Conference Championship round. It's $5 to join and first place wins $100. League starts Saturday 4:30 PM ET. Here's the link.