Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.
Offensive line remains the constant in Patriots offense
So much has changed about the Patriots offense from last year to this year -- and even from the beginning of this year to now -- but one constant has been the offensive line. There have been some lapses in pass protection, with the Patriots allowing Brady to be sacked 40 times this year, the second-most of his career, but they've been mostly solid there, and have been dominant in the ground game.
For the second straight game, the offensive line played a key role in springing the Patriots running backs loose on long gains. Their work in pass protection was equally commendable, although not as necessary as years past; Brady only dropped back to pass 27 times compared to 46 rush attempts for the Patriots as a team.
This is a power run to the right, with right guard Dan Connolly (63) and right tackle Marcus Cannon (61) double-teaming the defensive tackle off the snap; Cannon would come off the double-team to get downfield on a linebacker.
Left guard Logan Mankins (70) pulled to the right side to clear out linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50), who scraping down behind outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98), who rushed inside and was eventually blocked to the ground by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47).
Four impressive, and key, blocks on the play.
This is around the time Landry knew he was toast.
He was the last line of defense, and he may have been able to make a play, but he took a poor angle and Blount took a nice angle. Blount cut directly behind Hoomanawanui and Cannon, narrowing the angle he would then have to cut to elude Landry in the open field.
It also helps to have backs that can improvise and make something out of nothing.
On this play, for example, running back Shane Vereen was able to get eight yards despite early penetration from nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois. Center Ryan Wendell lunged at Francois, but the young defensive tackle was ready, and never fully engaged the blocker.
Vereen was able to sidestep him, though, and continued to follow the blocks of Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder before putting his head down and covering the ball as he fell forward.
An offensive line works as a unit, and while a whiffed block can ruin a play, solid blocks can save a play.
The Patriots will need to make plenty of plays on the ground against the Denver Broncos, in a game where they will most likely need to control the clock and try their best to keep quarterback Peyton Manning off the field. The Broncos lost the time of possession battle in two of their three losses this year, so an efficient running game and long drives may be a key in the AFC Championship game.
You can't run the whole game, though -- at some point, you have to throw it down the field.
Of course, as it usually does, the run sets up the pass, and the play-action pass specifically.
On this play at 9:59 in the third quarter, the Patriots had just six blockers and four receivers running routes (if you include the running back leaking into the flat off the play-action fake). That meant there was added stress on the offensive line to hold their blocks to give Brady time to carry out the fake and then find an open receiver.
Brady might have been able to hit wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on the in-cut, but instead, he saw safety LaRon Landry (circled in black) trip over his own two feet as he bit on the run fake, then tried to change direction too quickly, allowing wide receiver Danny Amendola (yellow) to get behind him on the seam route.
This was as easy a decision as Brady has ever made, and it was all thanks to the Patriots' previous success on the ground.
In the past three games, Brady has been pressured on just 24 of his 80 dropbacks (30 percent) and the Patriots have run the ball 123 times for 643 yards (5.23 YPA) and 10 touchdowns. With the offensive line playing this well, there's little opponents can do to slow down the offense.
Defense gets picky, four interceptions on Andrew Luck
The Patriots have long been known as an opportunistic defense, and they intercepted four passes off Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Saturday, the most by them in a single game all season.
These were achieved a number of ways, whether it was sticky man coverage, a good read on a route, an athletic play, a poorly thrown ball, or a tip-drill.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard got the party started with his first-quarter interception on Luck's second pass attempt of the game. Colts wide receiver LaVon Brazill was running a slant route on the outside, but Dennard did a fantastic job of getting a jam on Brazill at the line of scrimmage, not allowing him to get into his route.
Luck stared down the receiver, having decided he was going there before the snap of the ball. Brazill never got open, with Dennard winning inside leverage immediately off the jam. That allowed him to wrestle the ball away for the interception.
One of the keys to slowing down the Broncos offense is to jam the receivers at the line to disrupt the timing element of their offense. The Patriots will need sticky coverage like this from Dennard and all their corners in the AFC Championship game.
They could also use a few balls bouncing their way.
That's exactly what happened when linebacker Dont'a Hightower earned his first career interception. Fullback Spencer Havili, the intended target on the pass, came out of the backfield after making sure there were no extra rushers to block. As Luck looked downfield and found no one open, Havili became the obvious choice as he ran from right to left with Hightower in trail technique.
The pass, however, was thrown a bit too far behind Havili, bouncing off his shoulder and up in the air. Hightower didn't have to do much more than put his hands out for this one, although his ability to stay with Havili step-for-step was what ultimately allowed him to make the play. Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good, but it's always best to be both.
The Patriots may not get that lucky against the Broncos, but if they do, they have to capitalize.
The final two interceptions were on forced throws by Luck, as he tried to lead another thrilling fourth-quarter comeback, but both were still great plays on the ball, especially linebacker Jamie Collins's first career interception.
Fleener ran a post route over the middle of the field, which was supposed to get behind the coverage of Collins. The Patriots were in Cover 4 with both safeties and outside corners dropping into deep zones. The extra help over the top allowed Collins to aggressively play the routes over the middle.
Initially, Collins wasn't in position to defend the route; he had to do a 180 to stay with Fleener. Luck saw Collins facing the wrong way, and one of two thoughts went through his head: either he thought he could fit the ball in to Fleener before Collins could get his head around, or he thought Collins wasn't going to drop as deep as he did.
Instead, the athletic linebacker flipped his hips quickly enough to stay with Fleener in stride.
It would be hard to blame Luck, whether he forced the throw or simply misread the coverage. Collins was near the line of scrimmage at the snap, giving no indication that he'd be dropping so deep into coverage.
He saw Luck's eyes locked on Fleener down the seam, and simply shadowed the tight end from that point. The ball was thrown directly into his chest.
Luck's final interception was nothing more than a last-minute desperation play.
He took a chance on a backshoulder throw down the sideline, but Dennard was able to get his head around in an instant and tracked the ball in flight. Brazill barely even tried to make a play on the ball; instead, he just kept running downfield.
Manning isn't going to serve up many easy ones like this, and the Patriots probably won't finish with four interceptions again, but they will probably still need at least one or two to come away with a victory.
The author is solely responsible for the content.