Three Key Questions for the AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots vs Indianapolis Colts

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THREE: How Have the Colts transformed their defense?

Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Arthur Jones (97) before the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Five times in 2014 the Indianapolis Colts defense has allowed 30 or more points. The Patriots hung 42 points on the Colts defense in week eleven with 503 total yards of offense and gaining 246 yards on the ground. Since then, no team has topped 150 yards on the ground and the Colts have held three teams under 100 yards rushing–including Denver last week. Since the New England game, the Colts have had two games where the defense struggled: a blowout win against the Redskins in week 13 when Colt McCoy threw for 392 yards and against Dallas in week 16 when Dallas jumped out to a 28-0 lead and the Colts lost 42-7.


Last week against Denver the Colts got superb performances by cornerbacks Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler. They dared Peyton Manning to throw short and the cornerbacks (along with the linebackers and safeties) locked up the receivers for short games. Manning attempted 8 passes over 20 yards in the air and completed just one for 32 yards on their first drive of the game. Manning was simply unable to attack the sidelines vertically against the Colts.


Nov 30, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell (19) catches a touchdown pass in front of Green Bay Packers cornerback Davon House (31) during the second half at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 26-21. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

In reviewing the game tape of the week eleven Patriots-Colts match-up, what jumped the screen was the big plays on the sidelines the Patriots found in the passing game. The Patriots had two long completions to Brandon LaFell on back shoulder throws for big gains (26 and 22 yards). The Patriots had a big play third down conversion to Gronkowski on the sideline for 20 yards, and even Julian Edelman  was running routes on the sideline and making a big first down conversion.


The Colts have improved with two key pick-ups paying dividends on defense: former Baltimore Ravens defensive end (and brother of Chandler Jones) Arthur Jones who returned in week 12 after playing just three games early in the season; and fifth-round draft pick outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome out of Ball State.


Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Jonathan Newsome (91) forces a fumble from Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the second quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Newsome has been credited with 6.5 sacks in the regular season while picking up another sack last week in Denver. As a pass rush specialist, he slowly carved out a role by coming on with veteran Shaun Phillips to give the Colts a one-two punch at the edge rush spots. While Phillips has struggled to get pressure (outside of last week against his former team), Newsome has been getting more and more snaps as he has generated steady pressure in the backfield.


Jones has teamed with fellow veteran Cory Redding to give Indianapolis two big bodies inside who can clog running lanes and push the pocket. Ricky Jean-Francois had been pushed into regular service and the undersized defensive end was targeted by New England in the running game and pushed around by veteran Dan Connolly. Having Jones (six-foot-three and 305 pounds) on the line gives the Colts a young, physical veteran who has experience in going into New England twice in an AFC Championship Game as a Raven.


Oct 26, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) catches a pass in front of Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darius Butler (20) during the first half of their game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The wild cards for the Colts have been cornerbacks Darius Butler and Greg Toler. Toler had a target on his jersey in the worst of the blow-outs for the Colts as he was torched by Pittsburgh in week eight, New England in week 11, and Dallas in week 16. The same applies to Butler who struggled against Pittsburgh and New England as well. Mike Adams at free safety and top cornerback Vontae Davis have had Pro Bowl caliber seasons for Indianapolis, both being consistently excellent (remember, Adams had both interceptions of Brady in week eleven.). The addition of LaRon Landry at strong safety for Sergio Brown has been a big upgrade as well.


The Colts need Jones and Newsome to make an impact rushing Brady in order to get the New England passing offense out of rhythm. They were able to get pressure on Peyton Manning last week and need to force underneath throws for the secondary to keep in front of them and force punts. It will be an interesting test for young guard Josh Kline and veteran Ryan Wendell moving back to center to keep Jones and Redding out of the backfield. Tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder both were effective keeping Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil off of Brady last week, this week they need to replicate that performance as they face face Philips and Newsome.