This weekend, the 2-7 Patriots take on the 4-5 Colts on the other side of the world in Frankfurt, Germany. This will be the third time these teams have met in as many seasons, with Indianapolis winning 27-17 in 2021 before losing 26-3 last year with an overmatched Sam Ehlinger at quarterback.
New England is coming off one of its toughest losses of the season, falling to a Sam Howell-led Commanders team in another performance plagued by a lack of discipline, mental errors, and poor execution. The game was lost in all three phases, as even the special teams units were called for key penalties.
Despite finding a fieldable offensive line configuration three weeks ago and Rhamondre Stevenson returning to form, a slim margin for error became microscopic with Kendrick Bourne out for the season and Trent Brown and DeVante Parker being inactive due to injury. Though Mac Jones struggled with some of the same issues, like being skittish in the pocket and missing downfield windows, wide receivers not named Demario Douglas did him few favors.
The defense held up well against Brian Robinson and the Commanders’ run game, but Howell lit up their coverage for big plays throughout the game. J.C. Jackson was already slated for a smaller role due to poor performance, but he and Jack Jones were benched through the first two series’ for missing curfew the night before. Jackson also had some bad moments in the game and will reportedly not make the trip to Germany due to reliability concerns.
The Colts are coming off a big win against the Panthers, who, like the Patriots, haven’t put much respectable offensive football on tape. They largely stuck with a basic Cover 2 defense against Bryce Young, who ended the game with a 48.3 passer rating and 3 interceptions. A pair of those interceptions came courtesy of former Patriots corner Kenny Moore, who always seems to play well against his old squad.
Offensively, Indy’s no longer the juggernaut we saw before Anthony Richardson’s unfortunate injury. But Jonathan Taylor’s return and Zack Moss’ ascension have complemented a solid receiving corps led by 2024 free agent Michael Pittman.
Here are my keys to New England snapping its two-game losing streak.
Contain the Colts’ Run Game
Jonathan Taylor almost single-handedly beat the Patriots when they last met two seasons ago. Taylor ran for 170 rushing yards, the most New England has allowed to any player since that game, including a 68-yard touchdown to ice the game.
Taylor missed time in 2022 due to injury and started this season on PUP due to a contract dispute. But since returning in Week 5, only Tyler Allegier (90.0%) has a higher rate of rushing yards after contact than the former Pro Bowler (85.0%) among players with 40+ carries over that span. He doesn’t have the same top-end speed, but his vision and elusiveness are still among the best in the league.
This will be a matchup of strengths, as the Patriots are in a three-way tie with the Colts and Jets for the league lead in run stops. They’re also the only defense in the NFL with a missed tackle rate below 10%. Christian Barmore’s third-year jump has been a big factor in the defense’s success. Since Week 6, Barmore’s 10 run stops are tied for the 3rd-most among interior defensive linemen, and he’s even flashing on reps where he isn’t padding the stat sheet.
Few teams are better equipped to slow down Taylor than New England, but the running back will have help in this matchup.
Former Bills running back Zack Moss became Indy’s bell-cow while Taylor was out, and he turned that opportunity into a breakout season.
Only Christian McCaffrey (653) has more rushing yards this season than Taylor (615), and he’s been even better with Taylor back in the mix. Since Week 5, Moss (5.1) trails only Raheem Mostert (5.8) in yards per carry among running backs with 40+ totes. And both Moss (3.7, 3rd) and Taylor (3.5, 4th) are top-5 in yards after contact per rush behind Mostert (4.5, 1st) and Rhamondre Stevenson (3.7, 2nd).
New England sometimes bent in their two games against Mostert, but the defense rarely broke, especially in their second meeting. They’ll need an even better effort against the Colts’ two-headed monster, which could be their biggest test of the season. Expect a lot of heavy boxes so the Patriots can have bodies in the run game and force Gardner Minshew to beat them by throwing the football.
Feed Rhamondre Stevenson and Contain DeForest Buckner
After a slow start to the season, Rhamondre Stevenson is starting to look like his old self. He’s averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in three of four games since a rough stretch from Weeks 4-5, which saw him average fewer than 3.0.
Part of that credit goes to New England’s reworked offensive line, which kicked Mike Onwenu out to right tackle and plugged Sidy Sow in at right guard during Week 7’s upset of the Bills. But things haven’t been perfect upfront as the group adjusts to a new configuration. And while Sow’s been exceptional in protection, his run-blocking is a work in progress.
Stevenson has managed to overcome these hiccups, finding daylight late in reps, running through tackles, and creating much of his own yardage.
A lot of the third-year back’s recent production came on his 64-yard touchdown run against the Commanders, but his improvement can be seen consistently over the past few weeks.
Before the game against Washington, David Andrews and Hunter Henry touched on movement from opposing fronts as an area they wanted to improve. They accomplished that goal last week, and it helped spring Stevenson’s long score while keeping pockets clean for Mac Jones. If that chemistry continues to grow, Stevenson could have his best performance of the season against a Colts ground defense that’s been boom or bust.
As I mentioned in the previous section, no team has more run stops than Indy, and they have ten more tackles for loss or no gain against the run than the next closest team. But they’ve also been one of the league’s leakiest units since elite nose tackle Grover Stewart was suspended six games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances in Week 6. Over that span, the Colts have allowed more 10+ yard runs than any other team. As disruptive as Indy’s front can be, losing Stewart as an anchor has made it easier for offenses to make them pay for their aggressiveness.
While Stewart is a big loss, the Colts still have game-wrecker DeForest Buckner inside, and New England’s success will hinge on not letting him wreck their game plan.
The Patriots successfully used double teams against Buckner in the run game, but he couldn’t be handled 1-on-1, recording 4 pressures (1 sack, 1 hit, 2 hurries) and 3 run stops (1 for loss). Cole Strange will look to bounce back after being benched when the Colts visited Gillette Stadium last season. He had trouble handling Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne’s power last week, so this could be another tough matchup for the second-year guard.
I would expect this to be a run-heavy plan to pinch an exposed nerve in Indy’s defense, but the offensive line will have to hold its own when obvious pass situations inevitably strike. Sliding protection toward Buckner should be a priority in this plan, so others must hold up their end of the bargain 1-on-1, especially if Trent Brown misses a second consecutive week. With New England allowing the league’s 5th-lowest pressure rate since Week 7, they should be in solid shape, but it will also be incumbent on Mac Jones to capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves.
Create and Capitalize on Turnovers
The Patriots’ defense has struggled lately, giving up 10 plays of 20+ yards over the past two weeks. But they’ve done a much better job generating turnovers after a three-game drought, forcing at least one in each game since Week 6. Jabrill Peppers, Jahlani Tavai, and Kyle Dugger have been the driving forces behind this turnaround, and their hot streak should continue against Gardner Minshew.
Despite becoming the Colts’ starter until Anthony Richardson went down in Week 5, Minshew leads all quarterbacks in turnover-worthy play rate, and only Mac Jones (17) has as many turnover-worthy plays. He’s committed at least one in the past four games, including 12 from Weeks 6-7. Three of Minshew’s four fumbles came in one game, and some of his misfires came in comeback attempts, but his lack of arm strength and poor accuracy have made for some easy takeaways. If New England can get off to a fast start and force the Colts to throw, these chances could come in bunches.
For all of its issues, the Patriots’ offense has done a solid job capitalizing when its defense steals possessions, turning at least one turnover into a touchdown in three straight games.
Jones and company have also won the turnover battle in their past two games but lost because of stalled drives and missed opportunities. Jones must capitalize on shots when they present themselves and keep the ball out of harm’s way if he wants to help end New England’s losing streak.
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