The New England Patriots bounced back after a 1-2 start to the 2018 season by crushing the Miami Dolphins and reasserting their AFC East dominance with a 38-7 win on Sunday. The Patriots outplayed the Dolphins on both sides of the ball moving the ball methodically, making big plays and stifling both the Miami rushing and passing attack.
There was nervousness in New England after the Patriots lost two straight after defeating the Houston Texans 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one. In weeks two and three the Patriots struggled on offense and defense as the Jacksonville Jaguars cruised to an easy 31-20 win followed by Detroit barely breaking a sweat as they rolled to a 26-10 win completely shutting down the offense.
This week the New England Patriots have a short week as they get ready to face the Indianapolis Colts in Foxboro. The Colts are 1-3 under new head coach Frank Reich. If he sounds familiar, he was the offensive coordinator who made Nick Foles into a Super Bowl MVP in Philadelphia last year. The Colts lost by four points to the Eagles and then in overtime on Sunday by a field goal.
This week’s game will be broadcast by FOX and can be seen locally on WFXT Channel 25 in Boston and WNAC Channel 64 in Providence. The game will also be aired nationally on the NFL Network and available to stream on Amazon. Joe Buck will handle play-by-play duties with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and former Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman as the color analyst. Erin Andrews and Kristina Pink will work from the sidelines.
On the radio, Thursday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Ian Eagle will call the game with Tony Boselli providing analysis Jeff Darlington will work from the sidelines. The New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York, and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The Patriots are having to deal with a number of injuries piling up so far in 2018 and with a short week there is concern about key contributors on defense. Cornerback Eric Rowe is still trying to get back on the field after suffering a groin injury. He is joined on the injury list by second-year defensive tackle Adam Butler (knee), third-year linebacker Elandon Roberts (Elandon Roberts), and defensive tackle Danny Shelton (elbow).
The win over Miami moved the Patriots’ defense which was ranked 19th in the NFL in points scored and 28th in total yards coming into week four to 12th in yards and points allowed (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). New England was ranked 30th in the league on third down percentage allowing opponents to convert on 48.7% of their third downs until Miami went three for 11 on third down and bumped up to 23rd in the league.
Third Down Pass Defense
The Patriots turned around their third down problems on defense against Miami, but that needs to carry-over to the Thursday night game versus the Colts. Indianapolis is tops in the league through four games converting 51.6% of their third downs. A big part of that is the precision passing attack of Andrew Luck.
Scratch that, it is almost all on Luck.
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He has completed 67% of his attempts and has nine passing touchdowns in four games. The Colts have five receivers with 16 or more receptions through the first quarter of the season as Luck has distributed the ball to the open receiver. With tight end Jack Doyle slowed by injury, free agent acquisition Eric Ebron has been a godsend with 17 catches and three touchdowns.
T.Y Hilton is banged-up, but he again leads the way for the Colts with 294 receiving yards on 21 catches. Rookie running back Nyheim Hines has been the Indianapolis version of James White with 22 receptions. Hines played some wide receiver in college and it shows as he can line up anywhere on the field and get open.
Behind Hilton, it has been Ryan Grant (18 catches for 188 yards) and Chester Rogers (16 receptions for 134 yards) stepping up in the second and third wide receiver role. While Andrew Luck has not been attacking downfield as he used to, his short-to-intermediate passing attack has been successful so far.
The Patriots need to continue to get pressure on the quarterback to help out their secondary. It is no surprise that the Patriots have two strong games on defense with Trey Flowers in the lineup and two stinkers without him. He may not pile up sacks at a gaudy rate, but his consistent pressure and presence on the edge transform the defense.
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Stuff the Run Early and Often
The Colts’ running game has been stalled all season. Indianapolis has rushed the ball just 80 times in four games and has just 288 yards on the ground. They rushed for 100 yards as a team just once, in their week two win over Washington.
Marlon Mack was expected to be the lead back in Indianapolis but foot and hamstring injuries have limited to just one game and he is not expected to play. That puts pressure on the duo of rookies: Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines.
Wilkins is the primary back who leads the team with attempts (38) and yards (136). Hines is the receiving back and has a team-leading 22 receptions for 119 yards. Wilkins is not much of a threat to catch the ball and Hines not much of a threat to run (making the Colts one-dimensional based on which running back is in the game).
New England finally got a strong performance from the run defense last week against Miami. The Texans (167 yards rushing), the Jaguars (104 yards rushing), and the Lions (159 yards rushing) all gashed the New England front seven. The Dolphins gained just 56 yards on the ground, much of it with New England ahead by more than 30 points.
Lawrence Guy has been the most consistent defender in the middle of the defense so far. Last week against Miami had five tackles. According to Football Outsiders, is currently leading all defensive linemen with 19 combined run tackles and allowing only an average gain of 1.6 yards so far this season.
Improved play from Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton has helped as well. Most important were the return of Trey Flowers on the edge and Dont’a Hightower back at his customary middle linebacker spot. Flowers set the edge in the run defense and set the tone for the defense.
Hightower had been moved around into different roles in the first three weeks and did not look comfortable in some of those roles. With Ja’Whaun Bentley on injured reserve, Hightower moved inside and took over the communication role. In his best role, he had his best game of the season.
Stopping the run puts Indianapolis one-dimensional and allows the pass rush to pin their ears back and rush Andrew Luck. The best bet to stop the Colts offense is to take away their options and get after Luck. To do that, first, they have to stop the run.