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Inside the Game

Surprise package delivered big-time

Patriots beefed up secondary

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 5, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS - So much for the shootout.

The Patriots and Colts entered yesterday's game with two of the NFL's most explosive offenses and two top quarterbacks pulling the trigger, which is why many figured it would be a game of points.

Check the scoreboard lights. Tell the chain gang to be ready to move quickly.

Yet somewhere on the wind-blown streets of Indianapolis, that script was lost, and the Patriots' 24-20 victory over the Colts turned into a situational-style, make-every-possession count, razor-thin-margin-for-error type of game.

Go figure.

The change was mainly a result of a significant change in defensive tactics by the Patriots, who employed five-defensive back packages - which included four down linemen - for the majority of the action. For a team that regularly plays a physical, assignment-sound 3-4 alignment on early downs, it was a major alteration for such a high-stakes game.

"I think it kind of shocked them," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said.

In subbing an extra defensive back in place of a sturdier linebacker, the Patriots were showing tremendous respect for the Colts' lethal passing attack, specifically tight end Dallas Clark. They essentially were daring the Colts to run by lightening their personnel in their front seven.

That, in turn, slowed down the game. Instead of a shootout, it became a game in which possessions were drawn out. Consider that in the first half, the Colts had the ball four times, the Patriots just three (not including a final kneel-down).

"It was unique, but with their offense they kind of put you in that situation," safety James Sanders explained. "Luckily we have the players that we could somewhat match up with them with the package we had out there virtually the whole game. That's what we had to do to be successful."

Clearly, Clark was a target for the Patriots' approach, as safety Rodney Harrison spent the majority of his day hammering him at the line of scrimmage.

Clark, who is a tough matchup because he runs like a receiver but also is physical enough to play more of a traditional tight end role, entered the game with 32 receptions for 388 yards and six touchdowns. Yet with Harrison harassing him and blanketing him in man-to-man coverage, Clark managed just two catches for 15 yards yesterday.

Peyton Manning noted this wasn't the first time Harrison has helped erase a tight end from a game plan. Harrison also played close to the line in the Patriots' Oct. 14 win over the Cowboys, helping limit the production of Dallas tight end Jason Witten. Yesterday, his target was Clark.

"With Dallas [Clark], you have to be alert because teams are going to play him different ways," Manning said.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick lauded Harrison's work, which included an interception, saying he's a versatile player who gives the team options. Teammates also felt Harrison's work was exemplary.

"He can play anywhere," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "He can go up there [at the line], and I think he made some great plays against the run. Then he's back there covering tight ends man-to-man. I'm happy we have a player like him."

The Patriots have pulled similar switches in the past, perhaps most notably in their last Super Bowl victory, over the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2004 season. In that game, the Patriots unveiled a rush-based 4-3 package that caught the Eagles by surprise because they spent two weeks preparing mostly for the 3-4.

Yet even the best schemes mean little if the players can't execute them, and for those who haven't noticed, the Patriots have quite a few of them.

"That just shows you the smarts of this ball club, the versatility of this ball club," Wilfork said. "Our primary goal was to line up in a four-man front and beat one-on-one blocks, which we did. We can line up in different fronts and still get the job done; we have enough weapons in this locker room to game plan. We like that."

Not that the Patriots' defense didn't have its low moments, as there was a major breakdown at the end of the second quarter - mainly some poor tackling - that led to Joseph's Addai's 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Belichick, however, felt that overall the team "played competitively on defense. The players played hard and I thought the matchups we had were the best ones for this game."

The approach was mentally taxing for the New England defenders, who made big plays in critical situations.

"They might get yards here and there but we [bent] but didn't break," Sanders said. "That's what you have to do against a team like this. They're one of the best in this league."

In limiting the Colts to 20 points, their lowest output of the season, the Patriots also showed they had a few tricks up their sleeve with their defensive switch.

"To line up every day the same way it can get kind of boring," Wilfork said with a smile. "Throw a little twist out there, it makes you a little happier to play."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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