Indianapolis (6-3) hosts New England (7-2) on Sunday night, and the Colts defense will try to slow down the Patriots in-form passing attack. Mark Schofield has reviewed the tape and breaks down how the innovative coverages, willingness to double-cover wide receivers, and struggles against tight ends form the basis of a game plan for Tom Brady.
The New England Patriots can solidify their position as the top seed in the AFC playoffs with a road victory Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts. While Andrew Luck and company have put up big numbers offensively, the Indianapolis defense has struggled at times this season, particularly against the pass. The Colts have allowed 7.4 yards per passing attempt and an average of 264 yards per game through the air, 6th-most in the league. We reviewed film from 2013 and 2014 to see how this unit plays pass defense.
Like other defenses in the NFL, the Colts employ a number of different coverage schemes in the secondary, including Cover 1 and Cover 3. They also roll coverages prior to the snap to cause confusion in the minds of offensive skill players, as discussed in my “How to Throw on Cover 2” primer earlier this season. One aspect of their defensive mindset that stood out from last season’s playoff game was when Indianapolis used Cover 2.
We start with two examples from the 2013 Divisional Playoff game against New England, which illustrate how the Colts aligned their personnel in this coverage when faced with an empty backfield look. First, the Patriots put Tom Brady in the shotgun with 11 personnel and shift Shane Vereen out of the backfield and into the left slot:
They add a slight wrinkle to their Cover 2 look later in the game. The Patriots again have Brady in the shotgun and shift Vereen into the right slot. This time, the Colts take outside linebacker Robert Mathis off the edge and walk him out over the RB:
Given the weaknesses of this coverage scheme, look for New England to empty the backfield early on Sunday to see how the Colts respond. If the defense relies on Cover 2 against such a formation, the Patriots should be able to exploit their soft spots.
The Colts also used a fair amount of Cover 6 in their matchup with New England last post-season. On this play the Patriots face 2nd and 9 with 10:02 remaining in the 1st quarter. Brady is in the shotgun flanked by Vereen and Brandon Bolden with the offense using 21 personnel. The nickel defense initially shows Cover 2, but as Michael Hoomanawanui comes in motion from the outside to set up in a stack-slot on the right, the Colts adjust their coverage:
The defense rolls into Cover 6. The two defensive backs circled in white utilize Cover 2 concepts on their side of the field, with a cornerback in the flat and the safety covering a deep half of the field. On the other side of the defense, the players circled in black play Cover 4 with each responsible for a deep quarter:
The Colts play man coverage with their two linebackers on this play, and they fail to properly switch on the underneath crossing routes, leaving Julian Edelman wide open.
Indianapolis continues to use Cover 6 in 2014. Against Baltimore their nickel defense applies this coverage against an empty backfield. RB Justin Forsett splits wide to the right (circled in purple). In response, the nickel defense displays Cover 6:
The two defensive backs to Forsett’s side of the formation implement a Cover 4 alignment, while the two defensive backs on the other side of the field utilize Cover 2.
The Colts also used Cover 6 out of their base 3-4 look against the Ravens. On this play Joe Flacco is under center and Baltimore has 12 personnel on the field with a tight end and receiver to each side of the field. The base defense uses Cover 6 for this play:
The defensive backs at the top of the screen align in Cover 2 positions while the safety and cornerback to the other side of the field utilize Cover 4.
The Colts mix and disguise their coverage schemes, rolling efficiently between different looks and combining coverages on opposite sides of the field on the same play. Expect the Patriots to try and dictate coverage early in the contest by emptying the backfield and forcing Indianapolis to use Cover 2 against New England’s 11 personnel. In Part 2, we will look at how the Colts defense has defended the opposition’s favorite targets.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.