The Patriots are back on track after a much-needed division win over the Jets last week.
New England’s defense once again turned Jets quarterback Zach Wilson into a turnover machine, while the offense was far from perfect but did enough to earn a 22-17 victory and snap New York’s four-game winning streak.
However, the long road back to the playoffs will be considerably more challenging. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have the ninth-toughest remaining strength of schedule, while other prognosticators say they have the toughest remaining roster in the league.
With two games against the Bills and home games against Miami and the reigning AFC champion Bengals, Sunday’s more mundane game against the Colts is a near-must-win at Gillette Stadium.
While it’s a stretch to call an early November game at 4-4 a must-win, given that wins will be hard to come by after the bye week, it’s certainly a take-care-of-business week against an Indianapolis – team in a transition period offensively. Over the past ten days, the Colts have pulled the plug on veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. The team acquired Ryan via trade this past offseason, but has already turned to second-year QB Sam Ehlinger after a turbulent start to the season for the former Falcons star. Indy also fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, traded receiver Nyheim Hines to Buffalo at the deadline, and blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead at home to the Commanders last Sunday.
To say Indy is in transition is putting it kindly, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots can sleep on a Colts team that controlled a 27-17 victory over the Pats at Lucas Oil Stadium last season. Indianapolis led 20-0 heading into the fourth quarter before the Pats made it interesting late. The Colts handled the Patriots in all three phases and won despite a terrible performance by former quarterback Carson Wentz, who only needed to throw for 57 yards to get the W.
On paper, Indianapolis is a tough matchup for Bill Belichick’s team with many of the same pieces still in place from the win a year ago. The Colts are a better running team than the stats indicate, and now have a QB who can keep the defense honest with his mobility. Indy also has big wideouts capable of winning at the catch point downfield, is sixth in DVOA against the run, has one of the NFL’s best interior D-Line tandems, and has good team speed on defense.
“I think for us, in a way from last year, it was obviously a good football team. A lot of those pieces are still in place, a lot of the players. Changed the defense a little bit, but still the defense is pretty good, and they’ve put to some key players who [Yannick] Ngakoue and [Stephon] Gilmore, boys like it. So overall they took the ball away from us last year, they ran the ball, and they made plays in the kicking game. It’s a well-balanced team, Belichick said at his weekly press conference on Wednesday.
For a Patriots team that has struggled with the designed QB run game and blocking along the offensive line, it’s a formula for the Colts on Sunday.
Let’s get into how the Pats avoid another home upset to finally climb above .500 for the first time this season:
When the Patriots have the ball
With Mac Jones back at the helm full-time, the Patriots offense struggled to complete drives in the end zone in a bumpy performance last Sunday.
But Jones and the Pats found a passing script that focused more on their bread-and-butter short passing game rather than the vertical approach that should be the plan going forward. Additionally, run-pass options gave them a wrinkle early down to stay ahead of the chains in the second half.
Finding their groove is critical, and they’ll try to do that this week against a system that will look familiar under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley, of course, is Jets head coach Robert Saleh’s mentor and one of the architects behind the Seattle-3 defense. As you’d expect, the Colts are a four-down front defense that plays cover-three on 51.1% of their passing plays.
With a formidable four-man rush and New England’s recent struggles leading the way, this is another week where taking advantage against Indy’s zone structures is the best approach. The Pats will need to grind out yards on the ground against this group, with DTs DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart anchoring the sixth-ranked rush DVOA defense.
Despite ranking near the bottom of the league in blitz rate, the Colts are a respectable 12th in total pressure rate and got to Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke on an alarmingly high 43.6% of their drop backs. This is a difficult front to block.
The Colts will likely try to replicate the Jets’ two-high spin zone defense with a four-man rush to force Mac and the Pats offense to chip away.
However, the Colts are more vulnerable defensively than the Jets as Indianapolis mixes in man coverage on just over 17% of their opponents’ passing plays. In man coverage, the Colts are allowing a 61.5% completion rate and nine yards per pass attempt. When the Colts play man coverage, primarily on third downs, that’s when Mac attacks.
The Commanders exposed the Colts in man coverage by using crossing routes at different levels and at times took advantage of Indy overcorrecting.