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Welcome to Season 10, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
This might seem a frivolous question regarding the Patriots’ chances of victory Saturday night against the Colts, at least compared to more obvious matters such as how to deal with Indianapolis’s game-breaking running back, Jonathan Taylor.
But I believe at least tangentially and perhaps more than that, this matters too: At what point in the game does Mac Jones surpass his number of passing attempts from the last time the Patriots played, when they prevailed over the Bills, 14-10, in a contest that looked like it was being played in a 100-yard wind tunnel?
That total was three, of course, an odd number in every way. Jones completed two of the throws, for 19 yards, in one of the most satisfying whatever-it-takes-to-win performances in recent Patriots lore.
So, back to the question: When will Jones surpass three attempts Saturday? The hunch here is that it happens on their first possession.
The Colts, who like the Patriots are coming off their bye week, have made it clear during the buildup to this game that they are going to dare Jones to beat them.
Most notably, linebacker Bobby Okereke, while acknowledging that Jones is confident and has command of the Patriots offense, said the Colts’ mission is to make the Patriots’ one-dimensional and to try to show the rookie quarterback looks with which he might be unfamiliar.
It may not be wise to make such a strategy known, given Bill Belichick’s knack for mining bulletin-board material out of even matter-of-fact proclamations, but the strategy itself is understandable on the surface. The Patriots rate higher running the ball (ninth in the NFL, 123.5 yards per game) than they do passing (18th, 223.0). The Colts are better at defending the pass (12th, 230.2 yards per game) than they are at containing the run (17th, 111.8).
They should want the Patriots to put the ball in the air, especially since they are the league’s most prolific defense when it comes to takeaways (29) and turnover differential (plus-13). Of the Colts’ 29 takeaways, 19 have come via the pass (15 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries after completions), 7 on running plays, and 3 on special teams.
The Patriots won’t get away from the run altogether. But if the Colts do dare Jones to beat them, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Patriots will trust him to do it. The three attempts thing is fresh on everyone’s mind, but this is a quarterback who threw for a career-high 310 yards and 2 TDs against the Titans in the game previous to the stampede of the Bills. Jones can beat them through the air if the Colts follow through on their dare.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Michael Pittman Jr.: It’s obvious Jonathan Taylor is Bill and Steve Belichick’s first concern when it comes to the Colts offense. The second concern is obvious, too. Pittman, chosen 34th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Southern Cal, has emerged as a genuine go-to receiver in his second season for quarterback Carson Wentz. He leads the Colts with 67 catches – 31 more than Taylor, who is next on the receptions list – and has accumulated 882 receiving yards, more than double the total of tight end Zach Pascal, the current runner-up (346). He has two 100-yard games this season (123 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Rams, 105 in a Week 7 win over the Niners). He had one of his best games of the season in Week 13, catching 6 passes for 77 yards and running twice for 33 more yards in the 31-0 rout of the Texans.
Pittman, listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 223 pounds, is a tough, physical receiver who can go up and get the ball. Patriots top cornerback J.C. Jackson never backs down from a challenge, but considering Pittman’s size advantage (Jackson is listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 198 pounds), it would not be a surprise to see safety Kyle Dugger involved in coverage.
Trent Brown: Saturday’s game should be a satisfying one for aficionados of offensive line play. Colts guard Quenton Nelson is a human steamroller who has been named All-Pro in all three of his full seasons. Dont’a Hightower paid him a compliment this week by revealing that he enjoys watching Nelson’s highlights on Instagram. While Nelson is probably the best offensive lineman in the league, the Patriots feature the better line as a whole, and it has been at its best since Brown, the massive right tackle, returned in Week 10 against the Browns from a calf injury he suffered in the opener against the Dolphins.
Since Brown returned, which allows for Michael Onwenu to be used as an extra blocker, the Patriots have averaged 348.8 yards of total offense and 161.3 rushing yards per game. When we mention all of the savvy personnel moves Belichick pulled off in the offseason, retaining center David Andrews and reacquiring guard/center Ted Karras and especially Brown cannot be overlooked.
Rhamondre Stevenson: The Colts revealed their intentions to make the Patriots offense commit to the pass, but that hardly means McDaniels will abandon what has become a strength, if not an outright identity. The Colts’ run defense ranks 16th in the league (111.8 yards per game) and allows 4.5 yards per carry, so it may not be equipped to stop the Patriots on the ground even if it emphasizes doing so. With Damien Harris ruled out with a hamstring injury, the relentless rookie Stevenson – who has emerged as the 1B to Harris’s 1A in the running game – could surpass the career-high in attempts (24, for 78 hard-fought yards) he set against the Bills.
Urban Meyer has always seemed like a colossal phony, a more pious, football version of Rick Pitino. Unless his mission was to make Bobby Petrino look like a competent NFL coach, he was an epic failure in Jacksonville. So here’s my grievance in the form of a question: What did anyone in the NFL ever see in this guy? At least there’s this: Bill Belichick – after getting burned by the likes of Jermaine Cunningham, Chad Jackson, Dominique Easley, and, yes, Aaron Hernandez from the University of Florida – hasn’t drafted a player who played for or was recruited to a school by the Urban Myth in a long time. The last Ohio State player Belichick drafted was Nate Ebner, in the sixth round in 2012. That was Meyer’s first season with the Buckeyes.
Colts running back Jonathan Taylor vs. the Patriots’ run defense
There hasn’t been a more apparent pick for a key matchup this Patriots season. With Titans workhorse Derrick Henry sidelined after suffering a foot injury against the Colts in Week 8, Taylor has emerged as far and away the most productive running back in the league this season.
Taylor has rushed for a league-best 1,348 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. The NFL’s second-leading rusher, the Bengals’ Joe Mixon, is more than 300 yards behind (1,036). Taylor has been even better as the Colts get deeper into their season. He averaged just 57 rushing yards in their first three games, all losses. Over the last eight games – six of which the Colts have won, with hard-fought losses to the Bucs and Titans the two blemishes – Taylor has gained 1,021 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
His tour de force was a 185-yard, five-touchdown (four rushing, one receiving) performance in a 26-point win over the Bills in Week 11. Overall, the Colts are second in the NFL with 151.7 rushing yards per game. Taylor alone accounts for 103.7 yards per game.
The Patriots defense’s numbers against the run are just adequate – they’re 19th in the league in yardage allowed per game (114.5). That number is somewhat skewed by the 270 rushing yards allowed to the Titans in a 36-13 win in Week 12, a game in which the Patriots permitted just 85 passing yards. In the other six games during their seven-game winning streak, the Patriots allowed a total of 541 rushing yards, or just 90.2 per game.
The fundamental responsibility for containing Taylor, who explodes through the line of scrimmage, will fall on defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore, and rugged linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Godchaux played his best game in his first season as a Patriot against the Bills (10 tackles), while Bentley is the leading tackler (81, one more than Kyle Dugger) and is perhaps the most unheralded member of the Patriots defense.
I’m so certain this is going to happen I can practically visualize it: Sometime in the second half, on third-down-and-gotta-make-a-play for the Colts, quarterback Carson Wentz will roll out to his right. With Matthew Judon closing in from behind, Wentz, just as he’s being hauled down, will sling the ball sidearm and make that big play … for the Patriots.
I don’t know who will pick it off. I don’t know how far he will return it. The crystal ball is hazy on those details. But it’s clear on this: The Patriots are going to force Wentz to make a fatal mistake – and that’s something their own quarterback will not do.
Wentz, a happy refugee with the Colts after five up-and-down seasons in Philadelphia, has limited his mistakes this season while being reunited with coach Frank Reich. Wentz led the NFL with 15 interceptions (in 12 games) last season with Philly. This season, he’s thrown just five. His interception rate, 3.4 percent last year, is down to 1.2 percent.
Wentz has been surprisingly efficient. But if the Patriots can offer enough resistance to Taylor, Wentz is going to have to make plays. That’s when the Patriots’ ball-hawking tendencies will come into play. They’ve intercepted 19 passes this season, second in the NFL to the Cowboys, who have 20.
The Colts can score (28.5 points per game, third in the NFL). But there’s one habit Wentz hasn’t shaken – he takes a ton of hits. Only Matt Ryan (71) has been hit more times than Wentz (60). The Patriots are going to get to him, he’s going to attempt a throw or two he shouldn’t, and those old Philly mistakes are finally going to catch up to him in Indy. Patriots 31, Colts 15.
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