1. Antoine Bethea still looks like a good player on tape, but how are are the Colts going to cover the Patriots with Darius Butler, Tom Zbikowski, Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy?
PW: “Good question. Colts beat writers have been asking each other the same question this week. My best guess is to rush five with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at OLB and drop the rest back into coverage, giving up the underneath stuff and trying to force Tom Brady to take what’s given as opposed to throwing it down the field for larger gains. Dink and dunk typically translates to death by paper cuts, based on what we’ve seen of pass defense cushions given in the past, but perhaps the Colts can catch a break with the old Tony Dungy philosophy that an offense might make a mistake if it has to manufacture scoring drives of 10-to-15 plays. TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker are one-on-one mismatches. It doesn’t make sense to challenge them all the time. The other school of thought, though, is to mix and match coverages and keep the Patriots guessing what they will see. Sometimes, you press. Sometimes, you drop back. But Brady is so smart and has seen it all, I don’t put much stock in confusing him too often.”
2. Who is the one Colts player most Patriots fans don’t know right now, but will by the end of the game on Sunday?
PW: “Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. He’s the Colts’ leading tackler with 73 total stops (NFL.com), but some even in Indianapolis are still asking who he is. He played the last three years in the Canadian Football League. The first-year pro was thought to be a backup linebacker, possibly used as a nickel linebacker, but 2011 leading tackler Pat Angerer broke his foot on the very first play of the preseason opener and Freeman got promoted quickly. That sure seemed like an obvious hole that could not be filled, but Freeman has been solid in making stops and generating a few turnovers. The Colts have just eight takeaways, but Freeman is responsible for two of them with a pick-six TD return against Chicago’s Jay Cutler in the opener and a forced fumble on a sack of Minnesota QB Christian Ponder. Freeman always has a knack for being around the ball and holding this defense together. He’s led the Colts in tackles in every game but one, according to NFL.com.”
3. What’s the biggest weakness on the Colts’ offense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
PW: “Protecting QB Andrew Luck has been an on-and-off concern. He’s been forced to show his mobility too often because a blitzer didn’t get picked up off the edge or on a surprise stunt inside. Luck has poise beyond his years for a rookie QB, but he’s taken 19 sacks. He’ll be the first to admit some are his fault, for holding the ball too long, but the line has leaked consistently against the better opponents. Chicago got to him with relentless pressure. Green Bay did, too. Even the woeful N.Y. Jets had several shots on him. The Colts will expect the Patriots to mix it up defensively, sometimes blitzing and sometimes dropping back into coverage to try to confuse the young passer. But the biggest concern should be pass protection on the edge, after that rusher has dropped back so many times into coverage, but then comes unexpectedly when least expected.”
4. What’s the biggest weakness on the Colts’ defense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?
PW: “Without a consistent pass rush, any secondary is exploited. But the Colts have a lot of no-name guys back there and if there isn’t pressure on Brady, they won’t be able to cover the Patriots’ pass catchers. Too many times, also, safeties Antoine Bethea or Tom Zbikowski have been caught rotating to other spots to shore up openings and that has created opportunities elsewhere. The last-minute home loss to Jacksonville is a prime example as Cecil Shorts III (who?) burned a nickel cornerback for a game-winning TD pass. So the corner gets beat on a seam route. Sure, it happens. But protecting a lead late, it boggled the mind how both safeties were out of position to plug the gap and limit that pass to a 20-yard gain. If the safeties play back and split the field, in a classic cover-two look, Brady will be patient and wait for his chances to catch them out of position. If the Colts try to be aggressive and role these safeties to sides, look out. That’s when big plays happen. Counting on these cornerbacks to play too much tight man-to-man will lead to some game-deciding gains.”
5. Finally, Colts win on Sunday if …
PW: “They get pressure on Brady, force enough turnovers to enjoy at least a plus-two advantage and Andrew Luck gets enough protection to pick apart the Patriots secondary with WR Reggie Wayne, TE Dwayne Allen and WR T.Y. Hilton, among others. Yeah, a lot has to go right for the Colts to pull off an upset. Luck is gifted, but he’s one man, there’s only so much he can do by himself. Rookie RB Vick Ballard has been effective, but the run game can’t carry this offense. Balance is ideal, sure, but Luck and the passing game is this team’s strength. When he gets the chance to make plays, he’s got to be on target and his pass catchers can’t drop those balls.