Commentary

Matchups to watch in Pats-Colts clash

Updated: November 13, 2009, 2:28 PM ET
By Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots visiting the Colts on Sunday night.

Mike: All right Tedy, you have a tough act to follow after last week. You called that Dolphins rookie Pat White could be a big factor and also mentioned Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski would be instrumental in the outcome. That's how it unfolded. Should we look back at last week's game and address some of the lingering issues before getting to this big one?

Tedy: Absolutely not. No way. No one cares about the Dolphins this week. That's over with. It's all about the Colts. That's what everyone is talking about, that's what everybody is excited about. So let's move right on to this big game.

Mike: Let's do it. You can speak from a unique perspective on what it means to be a part of this game and this rivalry.

Tedy: As a player in the Patriots' locker room, and I could never say this back then but I can now as an analyst for ESPN, when the schedule came out one of the first things I did was take note of the Colts game. You always knew it would be one of the biggest games of the year. I always looked forward to it. Now some of the young players can start to experience some of the hype of the best rivalry in the NFL today and the magnitude of whether you win or lose it. There will be electricity at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mike: I wrote a piece on the rivalry earlier this week and picked the 2003 regular-season game -- when Willie McGinest made that tackle on the goal line -- as the time that the rivalry was truly born. I also heard Troy Brown mention that game this week. Since 2003, this will be the 10th meeting between the teams.

Tedy: To me, this rivalry has just been sparked within the past five years. Early on, as a member of the Patriots, we looked at the Colts as a soft team, a finesse team, a team that didn't want to be physical and always came in with clean white jerseys and never wanted to get them dirty and play football. If you hit them in the mouth, played physical, they would fold. Early on, they did. The Patriots were able to confuse Peyton Manning and disguise coverages, and you remember his mannerisms -- the faces you'd see him making in his facemask, his arms in the air. I think it became a true rivalry when they beat us in the 2006 AFC Championship game. They proved they could beat the Patriots when it counted and beat us at our own game. At the end of the game, they didn't try to be fancy. They ran it down our throat and played physical. Joseph Addai finished off the drive with one minute to go, 38-34 Colts, and they won the game the old-fashioned way -- running the ball into the end zone. I think that's when respect was created, that's when you looked at the Colts and said "This team is for real, they could beat the Patriots when it counted." Now the Colts have won four of the past five in the series, so they have had the upper hand. I think it took the 2006 AFC Championship to open the eyes of Patriots players that the Colts were for real.

Mike: One image I remember from that game was you on the field after the game, going up to Peyton Manning, Tarik Glenn and a few other veteran players on the Colts to congratulate them. I remember asking you specifically about that after the game at the RCA Dome and if I recall, you said that you almost grew up in the NFL competing against those guys and you just wanted to wish them well in the Super Bowl, telling them to represent the AFC well. To me, that's part of what makes the rivalry so great. That respect, and the fact a lot of the games were played with high stakes, which you often called "hat-and-T-shirt" games. I think Bill Belichick feels the same way. As a former player, did you notice anything with Belichick during the week of a Colts game?

Tedy: If you look at Bill Belichick and his coaches, they always treated it the same. They never accentuated one game over another. If they did, it would lessen the importance of a future opponent. That's something Bill would never do. He'd coach just as hard against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London, a team that hadn't won a game at that point, as he would against the Indianapolis Colts. That's the type of coach he is. What you did feel was a sense of urgency from the coaching staff because there are different schemes and concepts to stop this team.

Patriots defense vs. Colts offense

Mike: With that in mind, let's get a bit deeper into the X's and O's aspect of the breakdown. Where do you start with the Patriots' defense?

[+] EnlargeDallas Clark
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDallas Clark is second in the NFL in receptions with 60.

Tedy: You have to start with Colts tight end Dallas Clark. He wore out Brian Cushing last week, and Cushing is one of the most athletic young linebackers in the NFL today. The Texans tried to put Cushing on Clark man-to-man and Peyton Manning made them pay. Every time Peyton sees that mismatch, and Clark gets separation from a linebacker, the ball will be there. The Patriots need to counter Clark with Brandon McGowan. I say that because that's what they did early in the year going up against formidable tight end threats Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow. I expect McGowan to shadow Clark all over the field. The Patriots have to believe this is their best matchup.

Mike: McGowan has been a great free-agent pickup, Tedy. The Patriots signed him to an under-the-radar two-year deal on May 5. At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, he is their hardest hitter in the secondary and often plays closer to the line of scrimmage, which is a nice complement to Brandon Meriweather, who is closer to 200 pounds and is a bit faster. Based on coaches' film review, McGowan is second on the team with 46 tackles. Meriweather is first with 49.

Tedy: Still, when you go a little deeper into the matchup against Clark, a player like McGowan is going to need help because Clark is craftier than Winslow and utilized more in the Colts' offense than Gonzalez is in the Falcons' offense. Clark is second in the NFL in receptions (60) as a tight end. So how can the Patriots help McGowan in coverage? They could have a defensive lineman, outside linebacker or inside linebacker jamming Clark at the line, and after that jam, the defensive player will have other responsibilities to take care of, whether it's rush the passer or pick up a running back in coverage. But the first responsibility will always be to jam Clark. That may affect the pass rush, but honestly, how often does Peyton get sacked?

Mike: Just seven times this year. The Colts rank first in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play.

Tedy: Right, so by taking one of your rushers, or a linebacker who might be man-to-man on a running back, you're making him more useful if you can help throw off the timing with Clark and Manning. The other thing I'd say is that zone coverage should not be utilized in this game. Peyton Manning is too good. It seemed like he always knew what we were playing -- Cover 3, Cover 2, whatever it was -- and always found the right receiver to throw to.

Mike: So you'd play more man-to-man coverage? It seems like the Patriots have done more of that this year anyway, and have the personnel to do so.

Tedy: Yes, I think man coverage should be played a higher percentage of the time over zone coverage. There were plays last year when Jerod Mayo had Clark in man-to-man, and Adalius Thomas, on his way to the quarterback, would jam Clark. A similar concept could be utilized. Once in a while, McGowan will have to cover one-on-one, and that's a battle he'll have to win when that comes up.

Mike: Here's the one problem I see. For all this talk about Clark, what do you do about Reggie Wayne? He has 59 receptions, third best in the NFL.

Tedy: Hey, it's pick your poison. I think you play man-to-man with your cornerbacks and have a safety over the top. You just make sure there is help over the top in some form. Overall, I think you look at what you think is the biggest mismatch on the inside defenders and that's Dallas Clark. I think the young Patriots corners can hold up against Reggie Wayne and those other young receivers this week.

Mike: In terms of personnel, if they treat Clark like a receiver, it wouldn't surprise me if they play most of this game with six defensive backs on the field.

Tedy: That's a possibility. Or you could see the base 3-4 set with McGowan as an outside linebacker. He would have Clark. And if they run it against that, you just anchor down.

Mike: Didn't the Patriots do that one year with Rodney Harrison?

Tedy: Exactly, and if you look closely, McGowan is being asked to do similar things to what Rodney did. He's shown so much potential this year, where did it come from? The Patriots couldn't have known that they'd get this production from McGowan when they signed him. He's wrestled a starting spot away from James Sanders, who the coaches felt good about. That's how highly they feel about McGowan.

Mike: We shouldn't move on to the other side of the ball without touching on Peyton Manning. It looks like he's having an MVP-caliber season.

Tedy: I've seen him play better than he has the past two weeks. I thought he struggled versus San Francisco, and versus Houston it was the Dallas Clark show. He focused on that matchup with Cushing and took what they gave him. If there is a mismatch on Clark, he's going to hit it all game. But the one thing I'll say, he'll be ready for this game. He circles this one also. An additional thing the Patriots have to get ready for is the new Indianapolis hurry-up. Watching them play the Texans last week, the pace was quicker. Usually the Indianapolis hurry-up is one where they line up at the line of scrimmage and there is plenty of time for the defense to see the formation, make adjustments, Peyton does his gyrations at the line, and you settle in. Last week, it was a true hurry-up. The tempo was faster and you could see the Texans were not prepared for that tempo. After they scored, you could see Cushing and some of the other defenders were a little fatigued.

Patriots offense vs. Colts defense

Mike: Here is an interesting statistic: The Colts are No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points allowed (13.5), while the Patriots (14.3) are ranked second. Both teams are known more for their offenses, but they are keeping points down.

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vollmer
Colin Read/Icon SMISebastian Vollmer could have his hands full Sunday against the Colts.

Tedy: I think the Colts are an example of playing great defense through their offense. The Colts' defense plays its best when the Colts are ahead. They get ahead by a few scores and those pass-rushers just tee off, and they have the best pass-rushing duo in football in Dwight Freeney (9.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (6.5 sacks). The biggest matchup of the game is undoubtedly Nick Kaczur/Sebastian Vollmer and Mathis/Freeney. The Patriots will put those tackles in advantageous positions by their play calling. Don't expect a lot of five- and seven-step drops where they are asked to hold up in protection. You try to negate the pass rush with the quick passing game and players who have to come up big are Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk. Welker should be able to do his usual damage underneath and Faulk is going to be looked upon like he was last week when he ran various tear screens, draws and quick passes out of the empty set. That is a way to counter the aggressiveness of pass-rushers and just when they think that's the game plan, that's when you selectively go deep to Randy Moss. For the Patriots, it's a factor of the game that must be exploited. The Colts have two huge injuries, to Bob Sanders and Marlin Jackson, two of the best players in the secondary. The Patriots will test that secondary, they just have to set it up first.

Mike: The Colts are expected to start two rookie corners, and Jerraud Powers, their third-round draft choice out of Auburn, has been impressive. The other corner is Jacob Lacey, an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State. The Colts are very high on Powers and he had the interception last week early against the Texans. But you still have to like those matchups if you are the Patriots.

Tedy: They're going to be tested. Powers had the pick last week, but listen, this is Randy Moss. There is going to be a time when the ball is in the air, and it's a rookie on Moss. Or there could be a rookie on Welker in the slot. Good luck, buddy.

Mike: It seems pretty straight-forward. The big question, as you pointed out, is if the protection can hold up long enough to get to those matchups. I can't imagine the Patriots will leave Vollmer on his own too often against Freeney.

Tedy: You can do different things to help him, putting a tight end over there to slow Freeney, have running backs in the backfield, maybe tight ends in the backfield, to give him different looks. You want to make him think a little bit and hope it takes away some of the aggressiveness.

Mike: We saw some of that last week with Sam Aiken, as well. One play, I remember him motioning toward the line of scrimmage and striking a heavy blow on Joey Porter, whose play on the field couldn't back his mouth. One other thought is that if center Dan Koppen (knee) doesn't play, that's a tough spot to put Dan Connolly in for his first career start. Even though Lucas Oil Stadium isn't as loud as the RCA Dome was, it's still going to be noisy. The Patriots have been practicing with loud music to prepare themselves. Think the running game could help negate some of that?

Tedy: Judging by the way Laurence Maroney had one of his best games against the Dolphins, aggressively running the ball, I think they give him his chances. That's another variation of taking aggressiveness away from those dangerous pass-rushers.

Mike: Anything else you want to hit on with this highly anticipated matchup?

Tedy: There is nothing else. You can boil this game down to the matchups we talked about -- Vollmer/Kaczur against Freeney/Mathis, how you deal with Clark, Brandon McGowan holding up in man-to-man coverage. This is also the game in which you have the speech from Coach Belichick where he tells the front seven: "You have to stop the run. You won't have any help from safeties or defensive backs. There will be no run blitz because there is a bigger job to be done back there against the pass." I think that's it. That's how this game is going to be. The last thing I'd repeat is that you just can't sit back there and play zone. Manning is too good. He knows. He's too smart.

Mike: Let's wrap it up by picking one X factor that might be flying under the radar at this time.

Tedy: My difference-maker is Stephen Gostkowski. Yes, the Patriots have to start doing better in the red zone and converting those opportunities into touchdowns. But this game, every point is going to be valuable and Gostkowski is going to have to make every field goal. If they have red area struggles, he may have to win this one. I see this game coming all the way down to the wire. These quarterbacks are just too good, they always find the right answer to the question when it comes to coverages with in-game adjustments, and that equals points. Is it going to be who has the ball last? Maybe. It may be a field goal and that's where Gostkowski comes into play.

Mike: Gostkowski had a great week against the Dolphins, both with field goals and kickoffs. He was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. I'll stick on special teams and say my X factor is going to be whoever is returning kickoffs, whether it's Laurence Maroney, Julian Edelman (if healthy), Brandon Tate (if healthy), Terrence Wheatley, Matthew Slater or someone else. One of the most electrifying plays I remember from the Patriots-Colts rivalry was Bethel Johnson's big return for a touchdown right before the half in 2003. The Colts are tough on those kickoffs this year, as they make opponents drive the length of the field.

Tedy: Both of these teams are well coached and they know what to do. So it's going to come down to this question: Did you make the play or not? That's what will win this game. There are no fancy concepts or anything like that. With Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, they are just too good. Did you block them? Did you tackle them? Did you cover them? Did you catch the ball? It's simple. That's what this game will come down to.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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