Indianapolis (6-3) hosts New England (7-2) on Sunday night, and the Colts defense will try to slow down the Patriots passing attack. Mark Schofield has reviewed the film 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.
Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano uses some unusual coverage schemes and is not afraid to bracket the opposition’s favorite target with a corner and safety. But how will the Colts attempt to defend the Patriots most dangerous offensive player, Rob Gronkowski, given the Colts’ struggles covering tight ends this season?
In Week 1, Denver’s Julius Thomas caught 7 passes for 104 yards and 3 touchdowns. Baltimore’s Owen Daniels hauled in 5 passes for 70 yards in Week 5. Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller snagged 7 for 112 yards and a touchdown in Week 8. The Giants’ Larry Donnell caught a TD in Week 9. Overall, according to Football Outsiders, the Colts are allowing 60.8 receiving yards per game to opposing TEs, and their DVOA against the position (36.2%) ranks 29th among the NFL’s 32 teams.
Indianapolis avoided having to contend with the injured Gronkowski in January’s divisional playoff, but one play from that game is illustrative of a slight change in their defensive approach from last season. Tom Brady is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. With TE Michael Hoomanawanui in a wing alignment to the right of the offense, the Colts defense does this:
Defensive end Robert Mathis gets an initial jam on the TE and then the LB hits Hoomanawanui as well. This is most definitely not a free release. But the Colts have not used this tactic much in 2014, as evidenced by several examples.
On this play from Week 1, Peyton Manning is in the shotgun and the Broncos have 12 personnel on the field. Thomas (#80) is lined up to the right of the offense with the second TE, Virgil Green (#85), in a wing alignment next to him:
In their 3-4 alignment, outside linebacker Erik Walden walks up over Green:
The OLB tries to jam Green. Meanwhile Thomas comes untouched off the line of scrimmage.
Next, the Broncos face 2nd and 5 and once more use 12 personnel against the base 3-4 defense. Thomas is on the left side of the formation with Green in a wing position to his outside:
Again, the Colts give Thomas a free path off the line of scrimmage.
Their decision to allow Thomas off the line freely finally catches up with them, as the Broncos face 1st and 10 at the Indianapolis 35-yard line and (stop me if you’ve heard this before) Thomas is on the end of the line with Green in a wing position outside him:
Mathis jams the wing TE, but #80 gets off the line of scrimmage without any resistance. Between the play action and the free release, inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has no chance of handling the TE in man coverage. 35 yards later Thomas is dancing in the end zone:
This approach was not limited to Julius Thomas. Owen Daniels also found it easy to get off the ball against the Colts:
As did Heath Miller:
So, too, did Larry Donnell of the Giants, who is on the end of the line of scrimmage for this play with another TE in a wing alignment outside him:
Donnell is free off the line and able to again beat the LB in man coverage.
As we have seen this season, the Patriots and Rob Gronkowski convert big plays when the TE is allowed the freedom to move off the snap of the football. You can be sure that Josh McDaniels will try and exploit their reluctance to jam the tight end off the line of scrimmage. Positioning Tim Wright or another TE on the wing to the outside and moving the Colts OLB over the other TE likely guarantees a free release for Gronk. Given the film and numbers to date, expect another big night from #87. Patriots fans might be in store for a night full of Gronk Spikes.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.