WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
New England’s running game hasn’t been what people expected, primarily because of injuries to running backs Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead. Hill sustained a season-ending injury when he tore his ACL during a 27-20 victory over the Texans, and Burkhead was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury following the team’s Week 3 loss to the Lions. That means more work for rookie running back Sony Michel, New England’s first-round pick (31st overall) in this year’s draft. Michel was ordinary in his first two NFL games, when he rushed for 84 yards on 22 carries, but he had a breakout performance in Sunday’s victory over the Dolphins, when he ran for 112 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts. The offensive line was much improved against the Dolphins and will keep that momentum going against a mediocre Colts front.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The good news here is that Julian Edelman will return for this game after serving a four-game NFL suspension. Without Edelman, the Patriots have lacked the number of quality targets the team needs to move the ball through the air. Through the team’s first three games, New England had one pass play of at least 30 yards (a 30-yard pass from Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski in Week 1), which was tied for last among all NFL teams in that category. The Lions defensive game plan in Week 3 was to take away Gronkowski - sometimes with multiple defenders - and force Brady to throw to his other receivers. That showed how little respect Detroit had for New England’s wide receivers. James White remains a top receiving threat out of the backfield, and having Edelman in uniform could make a big difference..
WHEN THE COLTS RUN
The Colts employ a running-back-by-committee approach that features rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines, and second-year pro Marlon Mack. The inability to run the football has been a serious problem for the Colts, which is good news for a Patriots defense that has struggled against the run at times this season. Indianapolis was ranked 29th in the league in rushing offense (82.3 yards per game) entering last week’s game against Houston. The Colts were held to 75 yards rushing on 22 carries in a Week 1 loss to the Bengals, and things were even worse in a Week 3 loss to the Eagles, when quarterback Andrew Luck led the team in rushing with 33 yards on one attempt. The rest of the team gained 35 yards on 12 carries in that contest. Last week against Houston the Colts had Luck attempt 62 passes, so things haven’t improved for the Indy ground game.
WHEN THE COLTS PASS
Quarterback Andrew Luck is back in the saddle after missing last season with a shoulder injury, but some have questioned his arm strength since Indianapolis has gone largely to a short-passing game under first-year coach Frank Reich. The Colts do have a talented group of receivers that includes T.Y. Hilton and Ryan Grant but have been without tight end Jack Doyle for the last two games because of a hip injury. The health of left tackle Anthony Castonzo — the team’s best pass protector — has also been an issue. Castonzo has missed time since he re-aggravated a hamstring injury on Sept. 12. The Patriots didn’t generate much of a pass rush in losses to the Jaguars and Lions (one sack in those two games), but defensive end Trey Flowers returned last week after missing the Lions game with a concussion. Luck is dangerous but with Hilton banged up with a hamstring injury and no ground game to fall back on things could be difficult for the visitors.
The Patriots have two of the NFL’s most reliable kickers in punter Ryan Allen and placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, and Cordarrelle Patterson gives New England a proven big-play threat in the kickoff-return game. The Patriots had little success finding a punt returner during Edelman’s suspension, but Cyrus Jones showed some flashes last week in the win over the Dolphins. The Colts have an excellent punter in Rigoberto Sanchez but haven’t shown much in the return game (kickoffs or punts). The ageless Adam Vinatieri is still making field goals at a high percentage (nearly 90 percent since the 2013 season) and remains one of the most reliable kickers in the game.
Of all the Patriots problems this season, perhaps the most concerning one is the team’s performance on third down. Through its first three games, the New England offense ranked 29th among NFL teams in third-down percentage. The Patriots were 4 of 14 in third-down opportunities against the Texans, 4 of 12 against the Jaguars and 2 of 9 against the Lions. The offense converted on 10 of 15 third-down chances in last week’s victory over the Dolphins, however. In addition, the New England defense had a hard time getting off the field in losses to Jacksonville and Detroit. The Jaguars were able to convert on 10 of their 14 third-down opportunities, and Detroit moved the chains on 7 of 14 third-down situations. The Colts offense has been one of the NFL’s best at converting on third down this season at 51 percent. But given the spot with Indy having played a full overtime period last week and facing a road trip on a short week, it’s hard to find reasons to go against the Patriots.