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 coasted to an easy 31-20 win followed by Detroit cruising 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 with 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 offense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski left in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Wide receiver Josh Gordon has been slowed by a hamstring injury and tight end Jacob Hollister missed last week’s game with a chest injury.
The win over Miami moved the Patriots’ offense that moved up from 25th in the NFL in points scored to 15th (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). Coming in ranking 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs, the Patriots converted 10 of 15 third downs to move up to 17th in the league converting 40% of third downs for the season.
Keep the Running Game Going
After rushing for just 283 yards combined in the first three games of the season before pounding out 175 yards against the Dolphins. Rookie Sony Michel led the way with 25 rushes for 112 yards. James White also kicked in with 44 yards on eight carries as both running backs found the end zone.
The Patriots had expected to lean on Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill as the one-two punch in the backfield but injuries have decimated their depth. Hill tore his ACL in week one and is out for the year. Burkhead had a neck injury landing him on injured reserve although he could potentially return for the last quarter of the season if healthy.
Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has already had a defense full of nobodies overachieving after last year’s unit was gashed through the air and the ground repeatedly. Last year the Colts were 30th allowing 404 points and 26th in rushing yards allowing 1,927 yards.
This season are 17th in rush defense having allowed just 437 yards in four games. Other than Philadelphia grinding out 152 yards in week three, the Colts have been solid holding the line with second round draft pick Darius Leonard leading the way with 38 solo tackles in the middle of the defense. Leonard is the leading tackler in the NFL and has been a find for the Colts.
New England’s offensive line turned in a standout performance last week against the Miami Dolphins and need another such performance. Trent Brown has made everyone forget Nate Solder already at left tackle and right guard Shaq Mason looks poised for a Pro Bowl selection this season. Joe Thuney and David Andrews have been solid and getting Marcus Cannon healthy was a big part of their success last week.
Old friend Jabaal Sheard will be looking for payback and his other pass rushing complement Margus Hunt has been excellent after being written off after never getting on track in Cincinnati. Both will need to set the edge as Michel had success getting outside for big gains.
In the middle, the Colts have Denico Autry and Al Woods with youngster Grover Stewart and Hassan Ridgeway (who has missed the past two games due to a calf injury)for depth. Although not household names, they have held their own so far in 2018. Thuney and Andrews must be strong at the point of attack for the Patriots on Thursday night.
With Rob Gronkowski’s status unknown due his ankle injury and the short turnaround, the Patriots are going to need to run the ball effectively.
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Put Pressure on the Cornerbacks
Those are the cornerbacks for the Colts who along with impressive second-year free safety Malik Hooker and the steady duo of strong safeties Clayton Geathers and Matthias Farley have turned around a pass defense which was dreadful last year finishing 28th in the league in yards allowed.
The pass defense struggled on Sunday against Houston as Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins teamed up to light up a unit which had been excellent in weeks one through three. Hopkins was going to get his yards but the big game from Keke Coutee was what was painful for the Colts.
Indianapolis did lose their slot cornerback Kenny Moore to a concussion joining last year’s second round draft pick cornerback Quincy Wilson on the sidelines. If Kenny Moore sounds familiar he was one of the undrafted free agents who flashed in training camp in the summer of 2017. He lost out in the cut-downs and was quickly snatched by the Colts last year (Note: Moore and Wilson are expected to miss Thursday night’s game).
Coutee’s biggest play was actually in coverage by Nate Hairston. Hairston was a fifth round draft pick who has impressed this year. Although on the injury report with an ankle injury, Hairston played all 86 snaps on defense on Sunday.
Pierre Desir is the veteran of the unit and although he did not play in week one he stepped in against Washington in week two and made a big play to break up a touchdown and help the Colts to their only win of 2018.
The Colts’ new defensive scheme put in by Eberflus allows for the younger and athletic players in the secondary to take advantage of those skills. The scheme is not overly complicated but it allows them rely on their athleticism and instincts. This allows them to play instinctively and make plays on the ball.
For the Patriots, the wide receivers have not held their own so far in 2018. This week, the Patriots get top target Julian Edelman back from suspension. His taking over in the slot pushes Dorsett and Hogan back to their more familiar roles. With Josh Gordon having a successful first game (two receptions and–by my count–three times freeing Gronkowski for a key reception by drawing coverage away) he and Edelman should occupy the top cornerbacks.
If the Patriots can slow the surprising Colts pass rush, the wide receivers need to take advantage of a young secondary which is banged-up coming off a short week. A few connections early can put the young unit on their heels.
One statistic that jumps out for the 2018 New England Patriots is turnovers: seven turnovers in first four games. Even more surprising, Tom Brady has accounted for four of those turnovers via interceptions. Last season he had eight interceptions in 16 games. In 2016 he had just two interceptions in a dozen games.
For Brady, some of those interceptions are due to unfamiliarity with his primary receivers but the other turnovers have hurt. Brady had one fumble and so did Rob Gronkowski. The other two fumbles were from Rex Burkhead (now on injured reserve) and Riley McCarron (released).
Most surprising was the Patriots had just two turnovers in their two losses and five in their two victories. Last year the Patriots had just five turnovers in their first ten games. It is strange to watch Tom Brady turn the ball over five times in four games and the team giving the ball away again and again.
The turnovers kept the Texans in the game in week one and while not a major problem last week, the Brady strip-sack fumble against Jacksonville killed any fourth quarter momentum and signalled the end of the game. The attempt to comeback versus Detroit ended with the fourth quarter ill-conceived heave into heavy coverage despite nine minutes to play after that turnover.
The Patriots have historically taken care of the football and prevented turnovers with Brady and head coach Bill Belichick running the show. That is something that must be cleaned up with an opportunistic defense of the Colts.
Indianapolis has forces six turnovers and the defense has 17 sacks in just four games in 2018. Rookie Darius Leonard leads the way with four sacks and defensive end Margus Hunt has added another four. Former Patriot Jabaal Sheard has a pair, as has interior pass rusher Denico Autry. The linebackers piled up another five as the Colts bring pressure from anywhere on the field.
For the Patriots to win at home on a short week, the offense has to take care of the ball. This young, aggressive and opportunistic defense in Indianapolis is ready to make big plays to help their offense as they have through four weeks.