The Patriots and Colts both were coming off their bye weeks to face each other in what had shaped into a pivotal AFC matchup. It was clear from the onset that the two teams were playing with different energy levels.
The Colts came out playing fast and motivated. The Patriots came out looking like they had just awoken from a long winter’s nap. After winning seven straight games, the Patriots of the first six weeks had returned. They played flat, were careless with the football, and committed penalty after penalty. Essentially, they didn’t play “Patriots football.”
Pats Can’t Make Crucial Stop
With two minutes left to play, the Patriots were somehow still in the game. They even had a realistic chance of at least forcing overtime if they could get one more stop. The Patriots had just scored to make the score 20-17, in favor of the Colts. The defense came out in need of forcing a three and out to give the offense a chance to extend the game.
The defense played an end-around to Ashton Dulin, the same play that gashed them for 37 yards earlier, beautifully; holding it to a 2-yard gain. The defense needed to make two more stops to force a punt. Everyone knew the Colts were going to run it. Jonathan Taylor had been successful the entire game up to that point, but it wasn’t because the Pats were getting dominated in the trenches.
The Patriots often met Taylor early in the progression of plays, only to have Taylor churn 3-5 more yards out after contact. And now with the game on the line, the Pats needed to meet him in the hole, and drop him without letting yards after contact.
Pats Play Scheme Perfectly, Don’t Finish Play
The Colts ran a zone to the left side, behind the strength of their offensive line. They did a great job of collapsing the Patriots’ defensive line down, leaving a huge hole for Taylor to run through. Jamie Collins engaged the left tackle and at least created some semblance of an edge. Taylor veered towards the hole only to see Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty waiting for him.
McCourty plays down from his safety spot, playing outside in. McCourty plays this technique because the linebacker, in this case, Hightower, should be flowing over the top from inside out. If McCourty is going to miss, he has to force Taylor back to his help.
Hightower is flowing over the top, coming from an inside linebacker alignment, meaning he must play his run fit from the inside out, if he misses, Taylor should bounce to McCourty’s waiting arms. Hightower over pursues, allowing Taylor to make a quick cut to the interior of the defense. Him and McCourty both end up on the outside shade of the hole, leaving no one home to clean it up.
This play, which broke the Pats’ back, was emblematic of the entire night for the Pats. A “close, but no cigar” type of effort. The Pats had no business being in the game at that point and yet they were. It was only fitting that two of the Patriots’ most trusted defensive players would be in a perfect position to make a key tackle and simply couldn’t.
Punt Block Example of “Doing Your Job”
The punt block was another case of the Patriots not executing simple aspects of their assignments. The Colts did not scheme anything up to befuddle the Patriots punting unit. It was a simple 8-man rush, with no overload on either side. Four punt protectors, four punt blockers. On punt block assignments, the protection counts the blocking scheme from inside out. Someone near the long snapper is number 1 in the protection, and out to number 4 or 5 over the end man.
Depending on the particular assignment, the long snapper may lean one way or the other to help in the blocking scheme. On the Colts punt block, the number two and three men line up extremely close to one another. The outside man, or fourth in the blocking scheme, is outside the tackle.
In this scheme, Brandon Bolden, the end man, is responsible for number 4 in the blocking scheme, the outside man. Jamie Collins is responsible for number 3, Jakob Johnson, number 2. On the snap Johnson plays down to the number 1, leaving E.J. Speed, the number 2, unblocked to the punter. Nothing complicated, just a lack of execution of the assignment. That makes the third punt blocked against New England this season. Belichick had never had more than one as the Patriots head coach.
The Colts stated their desire to make Mac win the game earlier in the week. Through two and a half quarters, the Colts looked to be backing up their talk. Trailing 17-0 with just under two minutes left in the first half, the Patriots put together their most promising drive to that point in the game. They faced 3rd and 3 from the Colts’ 15-yard line. The team needed to come away with points. Getting the ball back after half, they could get a double-dip and cut the deficit to a one-possession game.
Instead, Colts’ linebacker Darius Leonard baited Mac into an easy interception. The Colts were playing a zone defense with four underneath defenders flooding the short area of the field. Leonard initially pushes to widen, but with no threat to that side, he can keep his eyes on the QB.
When Mac takes his hand off the ball, something defensive players are told to key on to get a jump on the pass, Leonard immediately shifts his momentum back towards the interior of the field. His great read and immediate response put him in the passing window for an easy interception. The play negated any chance the Pats had at scoring before half.
Not All Hope is Lost
Despite the poor play on multiple fronts, the Patriots still put themselves in a position to potentially win this thing. They didn’t deserve to win the game, and ultimately didn’t, but didn’t really deserve to have it that close either. A loss like this can be extremely important for a young team like the Patriots. There was a lot of teaching tape available after this one, but perhaps most importantly, it showed that the Patriots C+ effort is not good enough to beat opponents in the NFL.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Pats as they now must win out and hope for help to reclaim the number 1 seed in the AFC. That quest starts Sunday with a HUGE game against the Bills. A win here sets the Patriots up to be in the driver’s seat for the division down the stretch run of the season. A loss means they’re playing for a wild card and hoping for help to get the division back.
Most importantly, the Patriots of the seven-game win streak must return and not the group that started the season 2-4. In the loss to the Colts, it was many of the same issues that were evident early in the season. It’s probably a safe bet Belichick gets his boys back in order.