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Colts vs. Patriots: Five questions with Pats Pulpit about the Patriots and this Sunday's matchup

Stampede Blue talks with Pats Pulpit's Rich Hill about the Patriots and the upcoming matchup against the Colts.

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With the Indianapolis Colts facing the New England Patriots this Sunday, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with Pats Pulpit's Rich Hill about the Patriots and this Sunday's matchup.  The questions are in bold and then Rich's responses follow.

1.  How do we start anywhere other than Tom Brady?  Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said the other day that he's never seen Brady playing better, and I've heard many say the same thing.  Do you agree with that?  And how much of it do you think is a result of a sort of "Deflategate revenge tour," so to speak, vs. how much of it is just him being a great quarterback to begin with?

Personally, I think Brady was better in 2007, but that's an impossible standard. Those Patriots scored a stupid 3.5 points per drive and they felt like a threat to score on every single play, regardless of the line of scrimmage. But I would definitely put Brady back in the conversation with his 2010-2012 versions. While this offense seems to be more productive than those versions (the 2015 Patriots are also scoring a dumb 3.5 points per drive), the fear of a threat just isn't the same as with the 2007 team.

But I will say that this team has separated above and beyond the 2010-12 teams because the coaching staff seems to be on a different plane of existence. I've never seen a Patriots coaching staff with such a great understanding of the talent on the team, and how to maximize their value based upon the team lining up on the opposing sideline. 2007 was Oh, just throw it to Randy Moss or Wes Welker. This season has a lot more nuance where the entire offensive line-up changes based upon opponent.

I think the Patriots 2013 season cleansed the palate of perception because that offense brought back less than 30% of the prior season's receiving yards, and that's including Rob Gronkowski who barely played. I think Brady hasn't really changed from the years before that season, but the big difference is the return of Josh McDaniels and his transcendent offensive play calling.

2.  So, Dion Lewis.  He's seemingly come out of nowhere.  How have the Patriots been using him, and why has he been so successful?  Is it simply another case of Bill Belichick finding talent and getting guys to play well?

Lewis is an interesting player because he was just supposed to replace Shane Vereen in the offense. That's still a pretty big role where he would see roughly 50% of the snaps over the course of the season, but when LeGarrette Blount was suspended in the opening week and eased back into the line-up, Lewis performed well and didn't look back.

Even though he's small (5'7, 200 lbs), he's used as a runner between the tackles. The run him to the outside. They throw swing passes to him in space. They're likely biding their time for a great match-up against a poor coverage linebacker to try and throw another wheel route. He's a playmaker that uses his quickness and low center of gravity to squirt underneath defenders for an extra four yards after the catch, so he just needs the ball in the flat to become productive.

He's honestly a better version of Danny Woodhead and I think this is a diamond in the rough move. Bill Belichick doesn't deserve full credit for the signing- Mike Lombardi, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns who signed Lewis early in his career, is now a part of the Patriots and is one of the driving forces behind the move.

3.  The loss of Darrelle Revis obviously hurt, yet it seems like the Patriots just kept on rolling.  How has the team dealt with that loss and compensated for it?

The loss of Revis can't be understated because he's still playing at an All Pro level. The Patriots also lost Brandon Browner (CB2), Kyle Arrington (CB3), and Alfonzo Dennard (was the CB2 prior to signing Revis and Browner, but doesn't play special teams and fell down the depth chart).

The Patriots elevated Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler into the top role and he's actually surprised. He's been competitive on every snap and he absolutely shut down the Brandon Weeden to Terrance Williams connection while defending on an island. Of course that was Weeden and Williams. When Butler lined up against the superstar duo of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, he allowed 8 receptions on 9 attempts for 133 yards and a touchdown. Since that game, he's faced Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles, and Weeden.

There's no mistaking that the secondary quality has decreased compared to 2014, but the Patriots spent their offseason boosting their defensive line to improve their ability to generate pressure. Former Browns edge defender Jabaal Sheard has been the team's best defensive lineman, and he joins veterans Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in a quality rotation. Jones and Ninkovich used to play 95+% of the defensive snaps, and now they're playing closer to 75%, which keeps them more energized over the course of the game.

At defensive tackle, the Patriots drafted Malcom Brown who struggled over the first three games, but had a fantastic game against a top tier Cowboys defensive line. He's improved every week and he looks to be a valued contributor. Dominique Easley is a versatile threat from the interior, and then there's just a lot of beef with Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch, and newly acquired Akiem Hicks to compensate for the departure of Vince Wilfork.

The whole defense works as a single unit, so the Patriots invested where they could on the defensive front to make up for whatever decrease in talent on the defensive backend.

4.  This week, the Patriots placed Nate Solder on injured reserve.  Just how big of a loss is that for the Patriots?

Losing your starting left tackle will always be a big loss, but it won't be as big as it is for some other teams. Solder is a great tackle, but he was having a difficult year and he always seemed to struggle when he was playing next to inexperienced players, and the Patriots are rotating four really inexperienced players on the interior.

His replacement will be Marcus Cannon, who actually played 48% of the offensive snaps prior to the game against the Cowboys. Cannon has been a Patriots starter in the past, jumping in and playing well when Solder or Sebastian Vollmer were injured and needed a day off.

The reason Cannon had played nearly half the snaps is because the Patriots coaching staff was really expecting an injury. The odds of an offensive line going through an entire season without an injury are very slim. So the Patriots rotated their top back-up tackle and their top back-up guard into the line-up at intermittent drives to get them experience within the unit.

So when Cannon stepped on the field, the Patriots weren't putting someone green on the line. He had actually already played that game and was ready to go.

While Solder was pretty good at both run blocking and pass blocking, Cannon is a better pass blocker and a worse run blocker. He's a different player that the Patriots will need to adjust to use, but the drop won't be as big as it could be for other teams.

5.  Knowing what you do of the Patriots, how would you attack them both offensively and defensively if you were the Colts?

If I were running the Colts offense, I would try to put the defense on their heels by using the same offensive plan the Patriots use- quick passes to negate the pressure, don't run up the gut too often, try to spread them out. I would field Hilton, Moncrief, Fleener, Allen, and Gore. Use rubs to generate quick separation and let them YAC up the field. Clear out the underneath and attack the linebackers in coverage.

Teams have had their most success against the Patriots by getting their receivers open space underneath and moving the chains. The defense doesn't usually allow big plays or scores, so the Colts have to show a commitment and willingness to attempt 10+ play drives.

The Colts defense needs to use their defensive linemen to ensure that the Patriots don't establish the run up the middle. If the Patriots are able to run the ball like they have in the past, then the game is over from the opening drive. But if the Colts can deter the interior run game, then they'll have to be able to field a minimum of six viable coverage players. Man-cover Rob Gronkowski with a high safety, but trail a linebacker underneath. Put a defender to the inside and outside of Julian Edelman. Put your fastest linebacker in coverage of Dion Lewis and hope he doesn't pick up YAC. All coverage has to be tight.

And then you have to hope that your defensive front can generate pressure on Brady in under two seconds. The Patriots draw up plays for Gronkowski, Edelman, and Lewis, but the pressure has to get home before he gets to his second or third read. If there's no pressure, then Brady will move down the field with Danny Amendola and Jim the Superfan from Section 221.

Thanks again to Rich for taking the time to answer these questions, and be sure to check out Pats Pulpit for complete coverage from the Patriots side of things!