Coming full circle? Patriots vs. Colts What To Watch For
November 4th, 2022
As the Patriots prepare to face the Colts this week, it’s a bit of a full-circle moment. Last year, the Patriots had a strong start to the season and were rolling heading into their bye week, only to come out of the bye with a 27-17 loss to Indianapolis. That kicked off a 1-5 ending to what began as a promising season.
This year, the Patriots have stumbled out of the gate, and now face that same Colts team before their bye week. Now, they’ll be using the matchup against the team that derailed them last year as an opportunity to spark a turnaround.
“Last year, that was obviously a good football team. A lot of those parts are still in place, a lot of the players,” Bill Belichick said to begin his Wednesday press conference. “I have a lot of respect for them. They all do a good job. We need to be ready to go here.”
There were very specific areas where the Colts dominated the Patriots last year in that game. How can they turn those weaknesses into strengths for this matchup, and what new elements on both sides of the ball need to be addressed? Let’s get into it in this week’s What To Watch For…
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – OCTOBER 30: Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts rushes for yards and dodges a tackle from Rachad Wildgoose #37 of the Washington Commanders in the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
There’s some uncertainly about the availability of Colts All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor for this game. He injured his ankle in last week’s loss, and has missed two days of practice this week.
Still, he’s worth highlighting on the chance he plays. After all, Taylor was the story of this matchup last year, when he gashed the Patriots’ defense to the tune of 170 yards on 29 carries. That included a back-breaking 67-yard run at the end of the game.
What allowed Taylor to be so effective in that game was how often he got into the second level untouched. At 5-foot-10, 226 pounds, Taylor is a bowling ball back who can become very difficult to bring down when he gets into his top gear. When he goes untouched across the line of scrimmage, which happened often in that game, Taylor can build up a head of steam by the time he reaches would-be tacklers in linebackers and box safeties.
In last year’s game, 104 of Taylor’s 170 rushing yards came before contact. The Patriots aren’t the only team to struggle against Taylor in that regard – those 104 yards were about 61 percent of his total offensive output, which is the same rate he’s picking up yards before contact in six games this season.
Slowing Taylor down goes beyond the man himself, and applies to the Colts’ other backs if Taylor doesn’t play. The Patriots’ defensive line needs to win at the point of attack, creating opportunities to hit the ball carrier as he crosses the line of scrimmage. That’s not to say they’ve failed if they don’t bring him down for no gain, but it will make a major difference if they can at least impede his progress as he breaks through the line, making it just a ‘clean up’ job for the second level tacklers like Ja’Whaun Bentley.
That’s all easier said than done. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the league, anchored by four-time All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson. That line will is also expected to have center Ryan Kelly in the lineup, after he missed last year’s game.
It will be a tough test for the Patriots’ defensive line, especially if they’re still without Christian Barmore. The unit showed significant improvement last week against the Jets, but this test goes to the next level and puts players like Matthew Judon, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Daniel Ekuale, and rookie Sam Roberts in the spotlight.
Still, the effort in stopping Taylor or any of the Colts’ power runners goes beyond the offensive line. On Wednesday, cornerback Jalen Mills said one lesson he and the team learned when facing Taylor last year is that “he [Taylor] can bounce that ball – whether it’s from the ‘A’ gap – all the way outside. Everybody is at the point of attack when he gets the ball in his hand, as far as tackling.”
“It has to be all 11 guys to the ball,” Mills added. “Can’t just be one guy, because he’s good enough to make one guy miss and go the distance.” Stopping Taylor will be a team effort, and for a Patriots team that has missed 48 tackles this year – which is tied for the third-most in the league – wrapping Taylor up and getting him to the ground should be a major point of emphasis this week.
Make Sam Ehlinger make plays with his arm
Oct 30, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) runs the ball while Washington Commanders defensive end Montez Sweat (90) defends in the first quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
When the Colts beat the Patriots last year, they did so with very little impact from the quarterback position. Carson Wentz completed just five of his 12 pass attempts last year, throwing for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
This year, Carson Wentz is out and Sam Ehlinger is in. Ehlinger was a sixth round pick last season, but didn’t attempt a pass as a rookie. In fact, he’ll be making his second NFL start in this game, having replaced Matt Ryan as the team’s starting quarterback last week. In his first NFL start, he completed 17-of-23 passes for 201 yards, while rushing for 15 yards on six carries.
Stylistically, Ehlinger is a much different quarterback than Ryan. At Texas, he was a dual threat option who found more success making plays with his legs than his arm. That’s right, it’s time for the Patriots to face another rushing quarterback.
“They’ve added some quarterback running type plays in there, which obviously we haven’t been great against this year,” Belichick noted on Wednesday. The Patriots have allowed 206 rushing yards total to just quarterbacks this year, the second-most in the NFL behind the Chicago Bears.
Given that, expect Ehlinger to run the ball more than he did last week. Of his six carries, three were designed runs, two were scrambles, and then an end-of-game kneel down. Look for those numbers to increase this week.
Complicating the preparation process for Ehlinger running is there’s only one game of tape to go off of to prepare. Asked about what kinds of runs the Colts broke out in Ehlinger’s debut, Belichick explained, “that was only one game. So, I don’t know if that was for Washington [the Colts’ Week 8 opponent] or if that’s something they’re going to do.”
One concept it would make a lot of sense for the Colts to call – and they did a bit last week – are read options. That’s a play where the quarterback identifies an unblocked edge defender, and depending on that defender’s placement can either hand the ball off or keep it. If and when they go to those plays, the Patriots should look to take away Taylor as the handoff option, which means stopping Ehlinger with the ball.
The good news for the Patriots here is Ehlinger isn’t the same kind of runner as Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields. At 6-foot-1, 222 pounds, he’s more of a power ball carrier that will initiate contact. He won’t run away from many defenders, and in many cases will try to run over them instead of around them.
For the Patriots, that means bringing him to the ground when they get to him as a ball carrier. Once again, their tackling issues mentioned above will be tested.
If they can limit Ehlinger on the ground and force the Colts into passing situations, they should be able to take advantage of his inexperience the same way Belichick does with most young quarterbacks – like they did with Zach Wilson last week.
Slowing down the tight ends
MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 03: Mo Alie-Cox #81 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates with Kylen Granson #83 of the Indianapolis Colts after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter in the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Once again, the Patriots’ coverage of tight ends is in the spotlight. Kyle Dugger returned to practice this week and seems to be trending towards playing. That’s encouraging for the Patriots’ defense, given Dugger has been their best option when it comes to playing man coverage on tight ends so far this season, and it’s looked much different when he’s not on the field.
The Colts don’t throw to their tight ends very often, but once again, that was in Matt Ryan’s offense. With Ehlinger now under center, it feels like anything is on the table.
Mo-Alie Cox is the Colts’ most used tight end this season, playing just over 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this year. However, Kylen Granson is the most involved in the passing game, with 20 catches on 26 targets for 176 yards in eight games. Cox and rookie Jelani Woods have been used more red zone threats. They’ve caught a combined five (three for Cox, two for Woods) of the Colts’ nine receiving touchdowns this year.
This group doesn’t bring the combination of size and athleticism the Patriots have faced at the tight end position in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean the Patriots can disregard them entirely. They nearly let Tyler Conklin take over last week’s game, and can’t afford to give Ehlinger a similar break to the one Wilson had at times last week.
Another test for the Patriots’ offensive line
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 30: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts at the line of scrimmage during the first half against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 30, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Last week was the worst performance the Patriots’ offensive line has had in some time, as they allowed Mac Jones to be sacked a career-high six times. Some of the uncertainty that allowed that performance to happen is still in play – center David Andrews hasn’t practiced all week, and the right tackle position remains a mystery. If anything it’s only gotten more complicated, as Marcus Cannon showed up as a non-participant on Thursday’s injury report with a concussion.
At the same time, the Colts’ defensive line is one of the biggest strengths of the roster. As a team, the Colts rank 12th in the league in pressure rate, getting in the opposing quarterbacks face 23.7 percent of the time.
The group is anchored by DeForest Buckner, who Belichick had high praise for this week. “Buckner is as good as there is,” Belichick noted on Wednesday. “He’s up there with all the [Aaron] Donald, [Cameron] Heyward, Chris Jones, just whoever you want to talk about. He’s statistically right there, and he plays that way.”
For the most part, Buckner will be rushing up the middle, where the Patriots had most of their issues last week with Andrews out and Cole Strange struggling. Getting help to the middle won’t be easy, as the Colts have bracketed Buckner with a pair of strong edge rushers in Yannick Ngakoue and Kwity Paye. Paye in particular will be a player to watch, as he’ll be primarily working against whoever is in the game at right tackle.
When Bailey Zappe was playing earlier this year, the Patriots made a point of designing plays that featured an extra blocker – whether it be a running back or tight end – staying in to help in pass protection. They didn’t do that as much with Jones at the beginning of the season, and didn’t keep it going last week. Against a zone-heavy team in the Jets, that made some sense since having fewer players in the pattern makes zone assignments easier for the defense, where in man coverage it’s more about one-on-one matchups. Against a team in the Colts that runs significantly more man coverage concepts, that extra blocker should come back.
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 18: Matthew Adams #49 of the Indianapolis Colts blocks the punt of Jake Bailey #7 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
When the topic of ‘Colts special teams’ comes up, most people immediately think of their disaster of a fake punt attempt against the Patriots in 2015. However, the Colts’ special teams units have come a long way since, especially in the five seasons since former Patriot Bubba Ventrone was hired as the team’s special teams coordinator.
Last year’s matchup between these teams was a perfect example, as special teams played a huge role in the Patriots’ losing that game. Indianapolis blocked a punt that led to an early touchdown, limited the Patriots in the return game, and on multiple occasions used the kicking game to flip the field.
“It was probably our worst game of the season from top to bottom,” captain Matthew Slater said when asked about the Colts on Monday. “They just flat out dominated us in the kicking game. I think for us to avoid a repeat of that we’re going to have to understand that this is a team that – they can return the ball well, they can block kicks, they’re going to cover well. They do a lot of things well, and I think we have to understand it has to be a team effort.”
“They’re flying around, they’re hitting people, they’re playing physical,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord noted on Tuesday. “They’re a physical matchup, and they compliment each other well.”
One player to watch if the Patriots want to make an impact on special teams is rookie cornerback Jack Jones. Jones has come incredibly close to blocking a field goal in each of the Patriots’ last two games. While it’s tough to tell if he got a finger on Greg Zuerlein’s 45-yard miss last week, his presence definitely seemed to impact the play. Is this the week he gets one flush? If so, it could end up being a pivotal play, just as the punt block was last year.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.