The Patriots are back on the right track following a much-needed divisional road 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 get significantly more challenging. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have the ninth-hardest remaining strength of schedule, while other prognosticators say they've got the toughest remaining slate in the league.
With two games against the Bills and home tilts vs. Miami and the reigning AFC Champion Bengals, Sunday's more mundane matchup against the Colts is a near-must-win at Gillette Stadium.
Although 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 last 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 has also fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, traded receiving back 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 win 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 horrible 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 that win a year ago. The Colts are a better running team than the stats indicate and now have a QB who can keep defenses honest with his mobility. Indy also has big wideouts capable of winning at the catch point downfield, is sixth in DVOA against the run, features one of the NFL's best interior D-Line tandems, and has good team speed on defense.
"I think for us, kind of start with last year, that was obviously a good football team. A lot of those parts 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 added some key players like [Yannick] Ngakoue and [Stephon] Gilmore, guys like that. 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 in 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, there'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 finish 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 moving forward. Plus, run-pass options gave them an early-down wrinkle to stay ahead of the chains in the second half.
Finding their groove is critical, and they'll try to do so 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 of the Seattle-3 defense. As you'd expect, the Colts are a four-down line even 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 up front, this is another week where taking a profit 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 overall pressure rate and got to Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke on an alarmingly high 43.6% of his drop-backs. This is a tough 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 when Indianapolis mixes in their man coverages on just over 17% of their opponents' passing plays. In man coverage, the Colts allow a completion rate of 61.5% 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 took advantage of Indy over-correcting at times.
Washington started by calling a delayed "return" route for Terry McLaurin working from the backside. With the clear-out routes taking the three-receiver side up the field, it left acres of space for McLaurin to work underneath for a smooth catch-and-run explosive.
Then, the Commanders started dialing up mesh concepts where the crossing routes intersect to create traffic over the middle of the field. Above, Washington gets another chunk gain with the deep mesh design, where they once again beat man coverage on a crosser.
Determined to cover the crossers, later on, Indy started using "cut" coverages to leverage receivers running across the field. This time, the inside linebacker takes the inside slot receiver on the mesh play from a favorable leverage position while the slot defender carries the vertical. By using the linebacker to cut off the crossing pattern, it vacates the middle of the field and takes away the underneath help for the outside corners, so Washington fills in the vacated area with the dig pattern against an out-leveraged man corner for another completion.
Although it would be nice to see an efficient passing game against all coverages, the state of New England's aerial attack and offensive line suggests they'll need to pick their spots. Over the last two seasons, Mac has thrown more crossers than any other pattern on the route tree, and the Colts have struggled to keep up with receivers working across the field in man coverage.
Keeping the offense on schedule on early downs so that Jones can take advantage of the Colts struggles in man coverage on third down is the key to success for the Patriots on Sunday.
When the Colts Have the Ball
Due to several reasons, the Colts rushing attack has plummeted from the league's second-best rush offense in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric to dead-last in rushing efficiency this season.
Last season, running back Jonathan Taylor was a unanimous first-team All-Pro after leading the NFL in rushing and finished second only to Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp in Offensive Player of the Year voting. Taylor also ran for 170 yards and a game-sealing 67-yard touchdown in the win over the Patriots late last season.
The Colts are not the same team they were on the ground last season because their offensive line has taken a step back, and Taylor is nursing an ankle injury that has limited his explosiveness. Still, the Patriots are fully aware of what Indy can do when they get rolling.
Plus, naming second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger as their starter for the rest of the season adds a quarterback run element that they didn't have with Matt Ryan, and head coach Frank Reich is known for having exotic play designs, especially when he's an underdog.
"The play calling and scheme, they do a good job attacking. The quarterback, they've added some quarterback running type plays in there which obviously we haven't been great against this year, so we'll see how that goes. Again, a well-balanced offense," Belichick said.
With an upset on his mind, we fully expect Reich to try to exploit the Patriots run defense's weakness against designed QB runs and test the Pats team speed on defense; get ready for option runs, motion at the snap, moving pockets, and quickly changing the point of attack.
For example, the Colts had this split-zone read with jet motion design on repeat against the Commanders last week. With Ehlinger reading the unblocked defensive end on the backside, the sift block by the tight end coming across the formation, along with the jet motion, is a lot to digest for the defense at the snap. In this instance, the edge defender stays outside to account for the quarterback, so Ehlinger hands the ball off to Taylor for a 27-yard run. If Taylor is fully healthy, that's probably a house call.
The Colts also called designed quarterback sweeps, different motion plays out of their two-back sets, and moved the pocket for Ehlinger off play-action to make things easier on him.
With the Patriots struggles against quarterback runs and option plays, the question for the Pats this week is who would you rather have the ball in their hands? New England's issues with the option runs are coming with teams attacking downhill at the C-Gap, with the outside run threat more designed to hold the backside rather than run the ball in that direction.
Obviously, Indianapolis is trying to design these runs to get the ball into Taylor's hands, not Ehlinger, who is a physical runner but not a dynamic ball carrier like Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields. Ehlinger is not particularly athletic, with a 4.84-second 40-yard dash, which is actually a tenth of a second slower than Mac Jones was at the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine.
The Patriots have to like their odds in space with Ehlinger as the ball carrier rather than Taylor, so forcing the quarterback to keep the ball on option runs might be the plan. Last week, Ehlinger only had 15 rushing yards on six carries and was stuffed multiple times on designed runs.
One of the ways Belichick could force Ehlinger to keep the ball is by utilizing a scrape exchange against the Colts zone-read package. Scrape exchanges are when the unblocked end that the quarterback reads automatically triggers downhill at the mesh point while the off-ball linebacker replaces the defensive end on the edge. Usually, that forces the ball to the perimeter or leads to a blown-up run in the backfield when executed perfectly.
If Ehlinger beats the Patriots with his legs and throwing the football on third downs, then the Colts quarterback played one hell of a game, and you tip your cap to him.
1. Patriots Interior Offensive Line vs. Colts DTs DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart
As we mentioned, this is as good a tandem on the interior as the Patriots will face this season. Currently, PFF has Buckner and Stewart at 15th and 16th in their interior D-Line rankings. Buckner is a long, bursty three-technique that loves using an arm over-swim to get between gaps and penetrate the line. Stewart is a stout nose tackle with good technique, block anticipation, and snap reaction. The nearly 40% pressure rate Mac Jones was under last week is not sustainable. The Pats need to block better, and they'll have their hands full again.
2. Patriots DT Davon Godchaux vs. Colts LG Quenton Nelson
Big Q hasn't graded out as well over the last two seasons due to a flurry of injuries limiting his effectiveness, but you can never underestimate a sleeping giant. The Colts zone-based rushing attack likes to use Nelson on the backside of runs, where he can set up cutback lanes through the middle of the field for Taylor. That interior combination block, where Godchaux typically lines up, is the key to shutting down Indy's rushing attack.
Other than the designed QB runs and Reich specials, the other advantage the Colts have on Sunday is their size at receiver. Pierce (6-3) and Pittman (6-4) are explosive big-bodied wideouts who can make plays on jump balls downfield, as Pierce did last week on a 47-yard catch. The Pats are at a size disadvantage here. The Colts will throw one up at some point.
4. Patriots Special Teams vs. Colts Special Teams
According to special teams captain Matthew Slater, last season's matchup with the Colts was the worst game of the year for the Pats in the kicking game. New England had a punt blocked for a touchdown, struggled to gain yards on returns, and is facing special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, who used to play for the Patriots. With the current state of the offense, the Patriots need to play a clean game on special teams to avoid putting the team behind schedule.