Injuries will play a big role in Sunday night's matchup between the Patriots and Colts, but at this point it's tough to tell how big that role will be, or even which team will be most affected. A total of 25 players appeared on Thursday's practice participation and injury report, and more than few on both sides are key figures.
The news this week that Indy corner Marlin Jacksonwill miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL in practice is a big blow to a Colts defense that was hoping to return to full strength this week. Jackson is a solid corner and his versatility allowed him to play in the slot (quite effectively last year against Wes Welker until an injury slowed him in the fourth quarter) as well as on the outside.
Tim Jennings will replace Jackson in the starting lineup, but the Colts will suffer a drop-off whether the other starter, Kelvin Hayden, returns from injury or not.
"I feel sure that they will continue to play fundamentally the same coverages and stuff they are playing but you who will be in there – Hayden has played there in the past and Jennings has played there some in preseason," Bill Belichicksaid. "Sometimes even against three receivers on early downs they don't even sub they just leave their linebackers in because those guys are pretty fast and pretty active too. I think those are some of the options.
"So we will have to look at a couple different options because Jackson has basically been in there the entire season. When you look back to preseason you saw Jennings in there."
That's one area to watch Sunday night as it could very well be a spot the Patriots look to exploit. That's just one of the keys to this week's matchup.
Passing efficiencyObviously the Patriots will have some more opportunities in the passing game with Jackson on the sideline. Hayden is working his way back from knee and hamstring injuries that have kept him on the shelf the past few weeks. He practiced on Wednesday but was limited Thursday. He'll likely be a game time decision. Safety Bob Sandersmade it through both days of practice as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his knee. He targeted the Patriots game as his return date after missing the last five games. He gives the Colts secondary a presence it sorely lacks without him.Matt Casselis improving by the week and with the Pats running backs either still on the shelf or just coming off it, look for the offense to work that depleted Indy secondary with a bunch of short stuff. It's a formula Tom Bradyhas used to perfection against the Colts, and one that Cassel is becoming comfortable with.
Pass protectionIn order for that to work the Patriots must keep Cassel on his feet. Belichick praised Indy's bookend pass rushers at length during the week and Dwight Freeneyand Robert Mathisare capable of disrupting a game. Matt Lightand Mark LeVoir(assuming he remains the starter at right tackle) will probably get some help from the tight ends but the pass protection will need to be at the top of its game in order for the offense to put points on the board.
Avoid turnoversThe Colts defense is having a hard time repeating its tremendous 2007 performance when it allowed the fewest points in football. New England, even without Brady, should be able to move the football. However, the Colts speed on defense is evident and that speed can lead to big plays. Cassel has taken a lot of sacks, which can turn into turnovers if he's not careful with the football. Indy tries to speed things up and Cassel will need to slow down to avoid the kinds of mistakes that can turn games – especially playing in front of a hostile crowd inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Stop the big plays
Just because we say this is a point of emphasis every week doesn't mean the Patriots secondary has done a good job of eliminating them. The Colts offense hasn't resembled its predecessors very often in 2008 but Reggie Wayne(another of the Colts walking wounded), Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalezand tight end Dallas Clarkcan all get downfield. If the Colts offensive line gives Peyton Manningtime, he'll try to find them at least three or four times. The banged up secondary has to find a way to keep these guys in front of them. The biggest responsibility there falls on safeties Brandon Meriweatherand James Sanders. Look for the Pats to play plenty of two-deep zones.
With the Colts running game struggling in the absence of Joseph Addai, the Patriots have the luxury of dropping back in coverage and not worrying about the stretch play as much. Without that added responsibility, the defensive line should be able to generate some pressure on Manning. That means Manning will have to get rid of the ball quicker than he'd like, and he won't have the gaps in coverage that come from an opponent blitzing. But that's assuming Richard Seymour, Ty Warrenand Vince Wilforkcontinue to build on their performance from last week.
One troubling trend the Patriots defense has had this season (even going back to the preseason) has been starting slow. Opponents have moved the ball rather effectively on opening drives all year. Even when the opponent has scored (like the Jets and Denver), they have moved into scoring position. The Colts offense is struggling by its admittedly high standards. A three-and-out or two to open the game might just be the thing to keep the unit questioning itself. A long touchdown drive, on the other hand, could whip the crowd into a frenzy and have Manning & Co. clicking on all cylinders.