The New England Patriots face-off against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday in Foxboro, MA. The Colts come in on the heels of their historic comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Patriots have a tough matchup on their hands as they face a young, hungry team with playmakers on both sides of the ball. For New England to win, there are a few key match-ups that need to be won to have success and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Below is a look at three key matchups of the Colts’ defense versus the Patriots’ offense that will will be indicators to which side comes out victorious on Saturday night.
COLTS DEFENSE VS PATRIOTS OFFENSE:
1. First off, Indianapolis defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Mathis is a difference maker on defense. Without a doubt he stands as the best player on the Colts’ defense and has been a consistent disruptive force. Often lining up opposite the right tackle, Mathis showed his prowess with 19.5 sacks to go along with 39 regular season quarterback hurries. Last week he harassed Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith and his third quarter sack and forced fumble keyed the Indianapolis comeback.
The Patriots had the highest graded right tackle per ProFootballFocus.com’s exclusive grading at mid-season as standout Sebastian Vollmer (+14.5 at the time of his gruesome injury) formed a potent one-two punch with left tackle Nate Solder. Marcus Cannon has not been as dominant as Vollmer, but has been solid in the pass protection. Expect the Patriots to devote considerable attention to helping Cannon block Mathis with assistance from fullback James Develin, any running back on the field on passing downs, and tight end Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui.
2. The Colts secondary is hardly full of players of the reputation of some of the All-Pro cornerbacks and safeties the Patriots have faced during the regular season. However, cornerback Vontae Davis deserves much more national attention than he has received. A former Miami Dolphins first round pick, Davis is best known for having been told of his trade to the Colts during the pre-season HBO program “Hard Knocks”.
Davis was slowed by injuries in his first season in Indianapolis in 2012, but has rebounded in 2013 with a stellar season. His best game of the season came on the biggest stage as he played a key role in slowing down Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in week seven of the regular season. Only Philadelphia’s Brandon Boykin was rated higher than Davis in cumulative pass coverage rating for the regular season (per PFF).
How the Colts deploy Davis against the Patriots on Saturday night will be interesting. Keeping him outside on Kenbrell Thompkins may be a waste of his talent if slot cornerback (and former Patriot) Darius Butler has to chase New England’s top wide receiver Julien Edelman. With matchup nightmares like running back Shane Vereen and attacking defenses with multiple slot receives like Edelman and Danny Amendola concurrently, the Colts could neutralize their best coverage cornerback just by keeping him outside the numbers all game.
3. Finally, there has been much discussion of the Patriots’ running game in light of two straight strong performances against Baltimore and Buffalo to close the season. While Indianapolis allowed 4.5 yards per rush (same as the Patriots defense) and an average of 125.1 yards rushing per game (New England allowed an average of 134.1 yards per game) veteran defensive end/tackle Cory Redding was a standout in stopping the running game.
Well known to New England running backs during his tenure in Baltimore after originally being a key cog in Detroit, Redding has been a consistent 3-4 defensive end for many years. Redding is no slouch in the pass rush department and his matchup against the interior linemen of the Patriots should be a key component of the game.
As great as outside linebacker Robert Mathis has been as an edge rusher, the key to slowing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has long been the inside pressure collapsing the pocket. Outside rushers often get a handful of air as Brady adroitly steps up in the pocket and delivers a strike if there is no pass rush inside. For the Patriots to establish the running game and freeze the Colts defenders with play-action they must stop the strong inside presence of Cory Redding.
To be fair, defensive end Robert Mathis, cornerback Vontae Davis, and defensive tackle Cory Redding are all excellent players who can be slowed, but seem to at minimum contribute at least one big play each in every game. They are all simply too talented to be completely shut down for 60 minutes by any team. New England has to focus on limiting their big plays Saturday night to be drive-stalling rather than game-changing plays.
If the New England offense can neutralize these three key Indianapolis defenders, the Patriots are likely looking at a third straight AFC Championship Game appearance.