Monday, October 19, 2015

Patriots Top Colts, 34-27

The Patriots destroyed decimated pounded slaughtered man-handled pummeled beat the Colts 34-27 last night, running their record to 5-0. The win kept the team in first place in the AFC East, and also helped them keep pace with the other AFC undefeateds (6-0 Broncos and Bengals). Next Sunday it's a showdown with the 4-1 New York Jets in Foxboro.

This game was closer than most though it would be, owing to better offensive play by the Colts. Well, at least for the first half. Indianapolis actually led at the half: 21-20, on the strength of a pick-six (trivia question: what year did the Colts last lead the Patriots at the half? Answer below). But in the second half, it was 14-0 when it counted, with the Colts tacking on a meaningless touchdown late to make the final look respectable.

The Patriots defense shined brightly in this game, nearly pitching a second-half shutout. Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia and his staff made great adjustments, sending mostly a three-man rush and flooding zones with defenders to confuse and frustrate the Colts. They must have figured that running back Frank Gore couldn't beat them on the ground, so why not just load up to stop the pass. (Note: it couldn't have worked better -- Gore was out-rushed by his own quarterback in the second half, 28 yards to 25 yards.)

Defensive lineman Chandler Jones was close to the Colts QB most of the first half, but his 2.5 sacks (for 17.5 yards) came in the second half, along with most of his 4 QB hits and 4 tackles (2 for a loss). Not bad for a guy the announcers said was being neutralized. The rest of the defensive line was nondescript, but each man made a play or two to contribute to the overall performance.

Linebacker Jamie Collins starred again, not only with five tackles, but by "spying" quarterback Andrew Luck all game, mostly shutting down his running and escaping the pocket. Collins also did a nice job in pass coverage and, when called upon, in getting after the QB. Jonathan Freeney also did a nice job, finishing with seven tackles.

However, middle linebacker Jerod Mayo continues to struggle in his return from injury. He couldn't get off blocks to make tackles, was nowhere to be found in pass coverage, and for perhaps the first time in his career, he was shut out of the stat sheet. If Dont'a Hightower's injury keeps him out for a while (he missed yesterday's game), the Patriots better hope newly acquired Jon Bostic can contribute soon.

Before you kill the secondary for giving up too many yards, consider that the coverage was just a tick late on many throws. Malcolm Butler is no Revis, but his coverage was pretty good most of the game, and he battles on every play like the long, lost Kyle Arrington. He also ended up with 8 tackles and 2 passes defended. For all the slurping Logan Ryan got, he was beaten early and often, forcing the Pats to switch from man-coverage to zone, just to protect him. They also had to drop more people into coverage -- which worked against the Colts but probably won't be good enough against better teams.

The Patriots used three safeties a lot, with Duron Harmon at free safety, Patrick Chung at strong safety, and Devin McCourty in a pseudo-safety/corner combo. Harmon did a decent job making sure nothing got behind him, Chung was quite good in coverage, not so great against the run, and even though McCourty was exposed once or twice, he was good for a guy moving back and forth between positions.

On offense, quarterback Tom Brady was sharp as usual. Indy got decent pressure on him about 1/3 of the plays, which is more than usual. Some of that pressure was immediate; yet Brady went 23-37, 312 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception -- good for a 104.8 rating. Although he did fail on a third-and-one QB sneak; first time in a long time that happened.

His rating would have been even better if receiver Julian Edelman had hung onto the ball with his usual skill. Edelman took a big hit on a touchdown reception, and it apparently affected him, as he dropped at least three passes, knocking one of them up where it was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Danny Amendola was the receiving star of the game, making 7 tough catches for 105 yards and 4 first downs. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was absent the first half, but nabbed 3 passes for 50 yards (and a touchdown) in the second half. Indy was beating up Gronk off the line, and I'd like to see the Patriots go to the running game in situations like that. Defenders trying to jam Gronk are distracted defenders, and having the tight end block them is nearly a guaranteed win on every down.

It was also nice to see tight end Scott Chandler contribute (2 catches for 39 yards, and a called-back touchdown), and Keshawn Martin (1-39) could be the deep threat they need until Brandon LaFell returns. Also, running backs Dion Lewis (3-18) and LeGarrette Blount (1-11, for a touchdown) had key moments in the passing game.

Speaking of running backs, this wasn't nearly the run-run-runfest that the previous meetings were. Blount did most of the damage, 15 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown. And Lewis spelled Blount when necessary (4-21). But a pedestrian total of 116 yards and 1 touchdown owed mostly to improved interior defensive play by Indy.

Problems along the offensive line were the rest of the story in the Patriots running difficulties. They started out short-handed, moving long-time whipping boy Marcus Cannon to left tackle to replace IR-bound Nate Solder. But when Cannon went down, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer moved to left tackle, and signed-two-minutes-ago Cameron Fleming went in at right tackle.

All that shifting around, along with the commensurate drop in talent, meant a tougher time running the bal. If the Patriots get to the playoffs and end up playing Indy again, they might go right back to running it down their throat. But their current O-line just doesn't have the talent or time together to do that. Not in October.

The Patriots made three key special teams plays. First, they recovered a semi-surprise onside kick (reviewed by officials, and upheld). Second, they had the right call for an attempted Colts fake-punt (one that blew up in Indy's faces). And third, Collins leaped over the snapper and blocked the Colts last extra-point attempt (which made it a seven-point game instead of a six-pointer).

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski also hit six of seven kickoffs so deep they weren't returned. And punter Ryan Allen had a 44.8 net average and two kicks ended up inside the 20 yard line. One concern is a potential injury to special teams captain Matthew Slater. He was hurt on an illegal block in the first half, and had to be helped off with a leg injury late in the second half. This bears watching.

The coaching was a complete mismatch. The "surprise" onside kick was telegraphed and showed desperation on the part of the Colts. The "fake punt" was actually a shift into an illegal formation and then a snap into a defense ready to stop it. (Even Colts head coach Chuck Pagano couldn't understand why they snapped it.) Also, the undisciplined Colts had over 100 yards in penalties, and their coaches never properly adjusted to the Patriots second-half defensive changes.

So where does that leave us? 5-0 sounds pretty good. The next game will be difficult; the Jets always play the Patriots tough and they are doing very well under new coach Todd Bowles. The Jets lead the league in takeaways, so protecting the ball will be key.

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: I'm going with Amendola, who starred at receiver and also returned some punts to give Edelman a break after his injury.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady broke Bruce Armstrong's record for most games started for the Patriots: 212 and counting. Since both players were on the team in 2000, that means the last time the Patriots had neither Brady no Armstrong on their roster was 1986!

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Closer than we wanted but a win is a win."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: the Colts last lead the Patriots at the half on November 2, 2008, when they led 7-6 (and won the game 18-15).

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