Preparing for Colts head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system this week probably brings Bill Belichick back to one of his worst football memories as the Patriots’ head coach.
Reich was the offensive coordinator and co-architect of the 2017 Eagles, who stunned the Malcolm Butler-less Pats defense for 41 points in their Super Bowl 52 win over New England.
Although he wasn’t the quarterback for Philadelphia’s postseason run, Reich now has Carson Wentz under-center again in a scheme that Wentz finished second in MVP voting in 2017.
“They run their offensive system. It’s very similar to what they did at Philly when Reich was there under Pederson. Wentz was there. I don’t think they’ve changed their system too much,” Belichick said this week.
Like that Eagles offense that ran for 161 yards and threw for 374 yards in Super Bowl 52, Indianapolis is a well-balanced offense that features the league’s best rushing attack.
Led by a tremendous offensive line and MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor, the Colts lead the NFL in both rush DVOA and expected points added per rush attempt this season.
However, stopping Indy’s offense isn’t as simple as slowing down Taylor. Since Week 9, they’re also tenth in EPA per pass, and Wentz’s career is back on track, ranking sixth in QBR in 2021.
“This is a balanced offense. It doesn’t matter quarterback under (center), quarterback in the gun, they can get to their bread and butter through a lot of different ways,” inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo told CLNS Media.
For Belichick, this week’s defensive game-plan is a pick your poison scenario: load up on big-bodies to stop the run or execute bend-don’t-break by taking away the pass?
Two weeks before their bye, the Colts went down to the wire with the defending champs in a 38-31 shootout with Tom Brady’s Bucs (Tampa won on a late TD by Leonard Fourntette).
The Bucs defense stood tall against Taylor and the Colts’ running game by playing out of their base defense, holding Indy to -0.02 EPA per rush on 11 first-half attempts.
Eventually, Reich threw Tampa Bay out of their base defense with empty sets, play-action, and RPO concepts. Wentz threw for 302 yards, three touchdowns, and added 0.20 expected points removing two interceptions that weren’t on the quarterback.
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles answered Reich with more nickel defense, and that’s when Taylor started rolling, averaging 7.4 yards per rush against five-plus defensive backs.
In short, the Colts will attack defenses based on their personnel; if you play base, they’ll throw. If you play nickel, they’ll run against lighter personnel. What kind of game do you want to play?
Although it sounds backwards to worry more about Wentz than Taylor, the Patriots are better suited to limit the Colts’ offense out of their three-safety nickel package than stopping Indy’s passing attack out of base.
New England’s linebackers on the Colts’ running backs and tight ends is a mismatch. Plus, Reich will scheme up stressful coverage assignments in the middle for zone-droppers and put Hightower, Bentley, and company in run-pass conflict with play-action and RPOs.
This season, the Pats defense is holding opponents to -0.08 expected points added per rush with five defensive backs on the field (third-best in the NFL). New England allows a league-high 0.40 EPA per pass in base defense on the other end of the spectrum.
If the Patriots keep the rushing damage to between the 20s and shut down Indianapolis through the air, they might get gashed some on the ground, but they’ll keep Indy out of the end zone. Although the Colts are better of late, they’re 22nd in red zone scoring efficiency this season while the Pats are number one in red zone defense.
In other words, don’t let Taylor house one from 20-plus yards out and make Indianapolis score in the red zone.
As we hinted at earlier, the ideal game script resembles the win over the Titans in Week 12, where Tennessee ran for 270 yards but only scored 13 points because Ryan Tannehill had just 93 passing yards.
Even if Indianapolis is healthier offensively, making them put up points solely on the ground will eventually allow New England’s offense to pull away on the scoreboard.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Another reason why we are confident in the Pats’ chances even if they allow a huge yardage total to Taylor and company is that New England’s offense matches up well with Indy’s defense.
The Colts defense, which is fifth in rush DVOA, is already talking about how they’re planning on loading up against the Patriots’ rushing attack to put the game in Mac Jones’s hands.
“We’re really going to try to make the game one-dimensional and see what he [Mac Jones] can do,” Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke said on Tuesday.
Our response to Okereke is to be careful what you wish for, especially based on Indianapolis’ tendency to play primarily zone coverage. Sure, the Colts can turn you over (15 INTs, tied-fourth most), but there are a lot of vulnerabilities in their pass defense which ranks 17th in DVOA.
Stopping the pass with zone coverage plays right into Patriots offensive coordinator Josh Mcdaniels’ hands, who is notorious for being a zone-buster as a play-caller.
In his rookie season, Jones ranks tenth in total EPA (20.5) and averages 7.8 yards per pass against zone coverage. If you play man against the Pats, Mac’s total EPA plummets (-12.9).
McDaniels makes it easy for the quarterback by flooding zone coverages and putting the off-the-line defender with the most responsibility (likely Colts LB Darius Leonard) in run-pass conflict.
The Titans went with a zone-heavy coverage plan against the Patriots in Week 12, and Mac threw for a career-high 310 passing yards. Above, the Pats flooded the left sideline for a shot play by running three receivers into a quarters structure on a sail concept that gained 20 yards.
McDaniels will also use play-action to influence linebackers out of their zone drops to play the run, which was the case here when the Pats ran Mac on boot-action to hit Jonnu on the crosser.
The Pats also like to clear out short zones by running one receiver on a vertical route to push the coverage upfield as a short route (crosser/under) fills into the vacated area.
Along with their bread-and-butters to bust zone coverages, McDaniels will likely study the Bucs’ tape closely to see a passing scheme that resembles his own against the Colts defense.
“Any time you prepare for an opponent, you try to pick the teams that they’ve played that most resemble your scheme and/or personnel,” McDaniels told CLNS Media this week. “You get a little bit more out of that tape based on formations you might be using that they are using and so on.”
Although the Pats will probably see fewer two-high safety shells than Tom Brady’s explosive passing attack, it’s notable how the Colts defended Tampa’s 12-personnel grouping.
Here, the Colts match the Bucs’ two tight end set with a single-high, cover-three structure. Brady attacks it with a post-wheel combination with Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski, putting the deep-third defender on the outside in conflict. The CB can carry Brate’s route or fall over the top of Gronk’s vertical, but he can’t defend both. Based on the corners’ movement, Brady makes a decision and throws to a wide-open Gronk for a big play.
When the Colts were in their two-high shells, the Bucs gave Brady leverage reads by spacing the field and sitting receivers down in the soft spots against Indy’s zone coverages.
In this play, they get Brate isolated on the middle linebacker, and the Bucs’ tight end breaks outside with Leonard sitting inside of him.
This time, they put Okereke in a high-low conflict on the levels concept. When Okereke attaches to the shallow crosser over the middle, it opens a passing lane to Gronk on the high crosser.
Gronk, who had a massive game against Indy (7 catches, 123 yards), also found success against two-high structures by splitting the deep safeties up the seams for big gainers.
The Colts are allowing an NFL-high 70.8 receiving yards per game to tight ends and are 26th in DVOA against passes to the middle of the field, a product of offenses attacking middle-of-the-field defenders in zone coverage.
An offense with two skilled tight ends and wideouts that win in the middle of the field catching passes from a QB who thrives between the numbers against zone coverage? Sounds like a good matchup for the Patriots.
Although ball security will be critical with the Colts leading the league in total takeaways (29) and fumble recoveries (14), the openings will be there in the passing game for the Patriots.
1. Pats DT Davon Godchaux vs. Colts C Ryan Kelly
Honestly, we could make this matchup the entire Pats D-Line versus Indy’s offensive line. With New England potentially going a little lighter, they’ll need a monster performance from the big bodies up front. Focusing on Kelly, though, the Colts are primarily an outside or mid-zone rushing attack, and the key block in those schemes is by the center. Kelly’s job is to reach the nose tackle, turn him into Quenton Nelson’s block, then climb to the second level. If Godchaux can occupy Kelly and limit his ability to displace two players (NT, LB), it’ll make it challenging for Indy to run the ball.
2. Pats Interior O-Line vs. Colts DT DeForest Buckner
If there’s one player who can single-handedly ruin New England’s passing game, it’s Buckner, who is a long and explosive interior rusher. Buckner currently ranks eighth among interior defenders with 41 quarterback pressures this season, featuring a deadly swim move that is the basis of his rush plan. The Pats will have their interior trio prepared for Bucker’s signature move.
3. Pats DBs Kyle Dugger & Adrian Phillips vs. Colts TE Jack Doyle & RB Nyheim Hines
With Dugger returning from the COVID list, he’ll rejoin Phillips in the Pats’ three-safety package and have a significant role in the game. Along with holding up against the run in the box, Dugger and Phillips will be out there to match up against Doyle and even Indy’s running backs in the passing game. Hines, in particular, feels like a big X factor in this one. He is way too dynamic as a receiver for New England’s linebackers, while Doyle is a go-to security blanket for Wentz in an offense that features the tight ends heavily. Doyle and Hines will be centerpieces of Belichick’s game plan.