3 ways the Patriots can avoid being ‘one-dimensional’ against Colts

The Colts have said they want to force the ball into Mac Jones's hands on Saturday. Can the Patriots' offense counter that strategy?

Kendrick Bourne Patriots
New England Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) runs against the Buffalo Bills on Monday, Dec. 6. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
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It’s worth noting that Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke had good things to say about Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones when asked about the New England offense on Monday.

But all anyone is going to remember about the Indianapolis defender’s early-week presser is this quote about how his team intends to deal with New England’s offense: “We’re really gonna try to make the game one-dimensional and see what (Mac Jones) can do…It’s right in our wheelhouse.”

As Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux put it earlier this season: “Stop the run, have fun.”

The Colts’ defense boasts the fifth-best efficiency against the run in the NFL, according to’s advanced data. So they certainly have the chops to back up that strategy, even against the Patriots’ physical rushing attack.


But they won’t be the only teams hoping to implement that plan. The Tennesse Titans did the same thing, and the Buffalo Bills tried it as well (without success). Bill Belichick’s crew won both games, but the questions about how far Jones can take them with his arm certainly haven’t abated as the win streak piles up.

This weekend, and the rest of the season more broadly, gives the Patriots’ offense time to answer a crucial question ahead of the playoffs: how will it function when teams try to force the ball into Mac Jones’s hands?

Here are a few things New England can do to keep from being as one-dimensional as teams like the Colts want to make them.

They should throw more on early downs.

Heading into Saturday’s game, the Patriots rank 26th in the league in early-down passing frequency at just 46.9 percent. Buffalo leads the pack in this number, throwing the ball 65.2 percent of the time on first and second down.

New England also hasn’t been terribly efficient throwing it in those situations, sitting at just 21st overall in estimated points added per play (EPA/play).

But if the Patriots want to throw a wrinkle into their game plan against opponents, this is a prime way to do it.


First of all, as noted, it goes against their clear tendencies, and Belichick has experimented with switching things up on both sides of the ball this season with marvelous effects.


Secondly, it’s not as if running the ball on first and second down has been that successful for New England’s offense. They rank just 19th in rushing EPA/play on early downs.

Basically, the Patriots’ early-down offense needs work in general, but some quick, safe throws on first down can make life easier on Jones while keeping New England from getting behind the sticks.

They should keep mixing in play-action.

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point to an extent.

When the Titans loaded up against the run in Week 12, the Patriots countered with a heavy dose of play-action to keep them off-balance. Jones responded by completing all 11 of his attempts on play-action throws for 169 yards on a day he set his personal record for passing yards in a game (310).

The only thing hampering the rookie’s overall play-action numbers, especially early in the season, was poorer pass protection. He’s taken 11 of his 24 sacks on play-action throws despite those types of plays making up just about 29 percent of his dropbacks. He’s also thrown three of his eight interception on play-action, including this recent one against Atlanta.

But, whether it was fumbles or interceptions, most of Jones’s turnover-worthy plays came prior to the Patriots’ seven-game win streak. He has thrown only two interceptions and lost one fumble since it began. He also followed that Atlanta pick up with his sterling play-action performance against Tennessee.


The obvious threat of the Patriots running the football on first and second down could open up big-play opportunities against an aggressive Colts defense. But the same can be said of using play-action in short-yardage situations and in the red zone.

Catch the Colts (or other teams) leaning too hard on the run, and make them pay. New England has proven it can do that throughout the year, and the strength of their rushing attack with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson makes it even more imperative going forward.

They should keep the running game creative.

Watching the Patriots bludgeon the Bills to death repeatedly with crack-tosses and power runs felt like the ultimate show of force from Belichick and the offense.

But that style of play isn’t always going to yield those kinds of results on the ground against good teams.

That’s why keeping Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne involved as ball-carriers is so important.

Smith only has six carries on the year, but he’s averaging 4.7 yards on rushes (28 yards total). Bourne, meanwhile, has been a revelation for the Patriots with his ability to run in space. New England has given him the first seven rushes of his career, and he’s responded with 81 yards (11.6 yards per carry) on those attempts.

One key point about their rushing attempts: they tend to go outside the tackles, which stretches defenses and forces them to defend sideline-to-sideline rather than just run into the arms of, say, big Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner up the middle.

Plus, the mere threat of using them as runners gives opposing teams something to prepare for and react to even when they’re not getting the football.


Then, of course, Bourne’s touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor back in Week 7 is also something other teams have to remember when he’s coming around the edge with the football, too.

If there’s one team in the league that can make opponents pay for trying to take away what they do best, it’s the Patriots — the team coached by the master at making teams one-dimensional.


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