Patriots can't let Colts capitalize
FOXBOROUGH -- BIG plays are a BIG part of the Colts' BIG-time offense. Most of their BIG plays involve their BIG Three of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison. On the other hand, not allowing many BIG plays is a BIG reason why the Patriots have a top-10 defense (seventh in the NFL). Thus BIG plays, producing and defending them, figure to be a BIG factor in Sunday's BIG game between 9-2 New England and 9-2 Indianapolis.
The Patriots, thanks mostly to the BIG Dig-like construction job Bill Belichick did on his secondary, have given up only 15 plays of 25 yards or more this season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That ties them for third-fewest in the league with Carolina, Dallas, and Philadelphia. Baltimore and Chicago have yielded 13 such plays.
The Colts, meanwhile, have 30 runs or passes of at least 25 yards. They had four 25-plus yarders against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville and six two weeks ago against the Jets.
"That's going to be the key to this game," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "Because that's what they thrive on, is big plays. Taking shots with Marvin Harrison down the field and having their little guys make plays. That's the key, making them earn everything and not giving up that one 55-yarder or 65-yarder."
Manning long has been regarded as one of the better quarterbacks in the league when it comes to executing play-action fakes. He also throws the deep ball well. Combine the two and you often get BIG problems for the defense.
"A lot of their big plays come off play-action," Belichick said. "That displaces the defense, creates some separation in there, and they're able to get the ball down the field to a number of different receivers."
Marvin Harrison is a man who needs no introduction. In past years, though, the receiver opposite him usually did. But this season, third-year man Reggie Wayne and tight ends Marcus Pollard and (first-round draft pick) Dallas Clark are doing BIG things and are on their way to becoming BIG names themselves.
Harrison has been bothered by a hamstring injury in recent weeks yet still leads the team with 62 receptions. Wayne has 53, and Clark and Pollard have combined for another 50 catches. Troy Walters has 26 grabs. Used to be the Colts "weren't getting that kind of production consistently," Belichick said. "They tried a number of different guys over there opposite of Harrison through the years, and I would say this is probably the most productive group."
It should make for an intriguing matchup, Indy's receivers vs. New England's secondary. In starters Harrison, Ty Law (the lone remaining regular from last year), Tyrone Poole, Eugene Wilson, and nickel corner Asante Samuel, New England not only has a more productive but a more instinctive group than it had last season. You won't catch them slipping too often. (Figuratively speaking, that is. Harrison did slip on Billy Miller's TD catch last Sunday.)
"Overall our secondary has been fairly disciplined on that in terms of not taking the cheese on play-action passes and halfback passes and flea-flickers, stuff like that," Belichick said. "Also, our corners have done a good job on the deep ball."
Poole in particular. It seems every week the opposition is trying to exploit the Patriots' shortest corner, a former first-round pick of the Colts whom New England signed in the offseason. And every week, the 5-foot-8-inch Poole is coming up BIG.
"You're taking a guy that wasn't in our system and putting him into it, you don't know exactly how that's going to turn out," Belichick said. "But it turned out well. He's played well. He's been tested every week, like every corner is. He's played solidly both in the running game and in the passing game."
There's obviously a BIG difference between Poole and his predecessor at right cornerback, Otis Smith: speed. Same goes for Harrison/Wilson as opposed to Lawyer Milloy/Tebucky Jones. New England is better equipped in 2003 to run with the Colts' horses.
"We had to be one of the slowest teams in the league in terms of secondary last year," Belichick said. "We're faster than we were last year, but that wouldn't take much."
It doesn't take a whole lot for a short gain to turn into a BIG play. One missed tackle of any of the Colts and they've got a long gain. That means tackling, as always, will be BIG Sunday.
"If you don't tackle well in the secondary, you're going to give up big plays," said Belichick. "If one guy misses in the secondary, it could be a while before someone else gets there. Tackling, that's a big key to not giving up plays. That, and judging and playing the deep ball."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.