By Christina Rivers
Andrew Luck said what everyone was thinking after beating his former mentor, Peyton Manning, and the Denver Broncos following the 24-13 win in Denver; that the Indianapolis Colts were playing good team ball. For the first time this season, the Colts appear to have the pieces and personnel necessary to put the full package on both offense and defense and get them clicking at the same time. A win over the Patriots will be a test of their fortitude, but if they can dominate in key areas, it should translate into a Super Bowl berth and AFC title.
Following the Broncos game, Luck said of the Colts team, “We’re feeding off each other. Offensively we’re making enough plays to put some points on the board.” A lot of that success could be due to offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s willingness to adjust his mindset of creating a one-two offense mixed in perfect balance between run and pass. Luck struggled under the system, so Hamilton re-evaluated and retooled the offense around Luck in the second half of the 2014 regular season.
Some of the changes came following the injuries to rushers Ahmad Bradshaw and Dwayne Allen and an ineffective Trent Richardson. After moving Daniel “Boom” Herron and Zurlon Tipton to the top of the depth chart, the offense has had bursts of ground attacks that have allowed Luck to get back to what he does best; find open receivers, even if it includes a running back or tight end. This has allowed Luck to focus not only on deep receivers, but be comfortable relying on checkdowns. Herron has the second-most targets for the Colts in the postseason, catching 18 of 19 targets for 117 yards. If the Colts offense can convert critical third down situations against the Patriots defense utilizing this system, they could very well repeat the type of successful fourth quarter they had against Denver.
New England’s defensive secondary (including Darrelle Revis) are a formidable force, but the Patriots linebackers have not done well in pass coverage. New England ranks 12th in covering running backs and 30th against tight ends in the passing game. Colts wideout T.Y. Hilton in the slot abused the Broncos secondary and could allow for mismatches against the Patriots. Luck has good field awareness and if given an opportunity to hit a receiver being covered by a linebacker, he’ll pick apart the Patriots defense one play at a time.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday that Luck is “like a sixth receiver you have to cover,” admitting that the Colts quarterback is similar to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in how elusive he can be. “He can run, but if extends the play, then he has the ability to create big plays, and we’ve seen him do that multiple times throughout his career already.”
The Colts defense has to come into the game ready to shut down Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but keep their eyes on Julian Edelman as well. A former Kent State quarterback, Edelman has plagued the Colts by catching 16 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, returning seven punts for 153 yards and a touchdown and rushing three times for 78 yards – all during the Luck era. Against the Ravens, Edelman threw his first NFL career pass; a 51-yard touchdown.
Belichick loves the trick play, but he also enjoys allowing his rushers to gash the Colts. Undrafted running back Jonas Gray out of Notre Dame tore up Indianapolis in Week 11 by rushing for 201 yards. Gray was inactive against the Ravens, but finished the regular season with 412 yards and five touchdowns. Without Gray, New England ran for a measly 14 yards, instead opting to go with a confusing offensive line setup that allowed the Patriots to rattle the Ravens defense.
On three plays, the Patriots lined up four offensive linemen but had a fifth come onto the field and declare himself as the fifth ineligible player, meaning he could not be utilized as a receiver. In what many in the NFL are saying was a highly deceptive move on the part of Belichick, the Patriots hid which receivers were eligible. Before one play, running back Shane Vereen ran onto the field and told the referee he was ineligible causing the official to announce him as such over the public-address system just seconds before the snap. Vereen then lined up in the slot position, a typical receiver location. At the same time, Michael Hoomanawanui lined up at the left-tackle position as an eligible receiver. Hoomanawanui was Brady’s target. Three times the Patriots ran a similar play and each one earned them a first down.
Belichick insists that he didn’t create the formation, instead varying a similar situation to what the Detroit Lions used in Week 6 against the Minnesota Vikings. “What they did wasn’t [what we did], but it sparked some ideas, so we did what we did.”
Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will have watched tape of the play and was able to help Indianapolis’ defense apply necessary pressure to the Broncos. He has been able to earn the respect of his players, and general manager Ryan Grigson says it comes down to the way Manusky challenges them. “He’s learned that fine balance of being funny and loose…and to put the serious hat on,” said defensive end Cory Redding. “(Manusky) drew up a great plan, a great game plan,” Redding added when talking about the win over the Broncos. “He said, ‘We gotta do this. We have to do that in order for us to win…How every player works is how hard you guys play’…That’s what we did. We played hard.” Manusky will need to get every player involved on defense to seal the AFC Championship.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on