Red zone key to matchup

High-powered Colts offense to meet stingy Patriots defense

November 05, 2006|By Alan Greenberg | Alan Greenberg,Hartford Courant

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You know things have changed when there's new sod on the NFL's worst field and the New England Patriots want Adam Vinatieri to miss every field goal.

Although tonight's Patriots-Indianapolis Colts game at Gillette Stadium is one of the most compelling matchups of the season, it marks only the midpoint. That's why Colts coach Tony Dungy says he'll view his team's performance against the Patriots as "a measuring stick," one the 6-1 Patriots no doubt would love to ram down the throat of the 7-0 Colts.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning may be buddies who hang out in the offseason, but as long as Brady has the Super Bowl rings and Manning the awesome stats, there is probably unspoken envy to go with that mutual admiration.

"I always e-mail Peyton after he throws for, like, 450 yards," Brady said, "and I go. ... `You're just tossing one here and there and you make it look so easy.' He's incredible to watch."

But this is football, not the Wimbledon men's singles final, and Manning will look a lot less incredible if the Patriots' defense, healthier and better than the one he shredded in the Colts' 40-21 victory a year ago at Gillette, plants his face in that nice new sod.

Even if they do, and the Colts' top-ranked AFC passing offense falters inside the New England 35, the Patriots face the likelihood that Vinatieri, their former ace kicker, will get three points for his new team every time.

Brady jokes that Vinatieri looks ugly in his new uniform, but for the Colts, accustomed to the few untimely chokes of their former kicker Mike Vanderjagt, the results have been beautiful. Vinatieri hasn't missed a kick this season, with five of his 14 field goals coming from beyond 40 yards. His 37-yarder with two seconds left beat the Broncos last Sunday in Denver.

"I don't want to put him in a position to kick a game-winning field goal," Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said. "Obviously, we want to keep Adam out of those situations because the odds aren't in our favor if he has an opportunity."

Edgerrin James, the Colts' two-time NFL rushing champion, left for the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent. LSU's Joseph Addai, the running back the Colts drafted in the first round after the Patriots grabbed Laurence Maroney nine picks earlier, is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

But with Marvin Harrison (44 catches, 553 yards, three touchdowns) and Reggie Wayne (38, 642, five) catching everything and Manning's touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-2) at an all-time high, opponents aren't exactly massing to stop the Colts' running game.

The Colts rank fourth in the NFL in red zone offense, having converted 63.3 percent (19 of 30) of their possessions inside the 20 into touchdowns. And they get inside the 20 more than any team in the league. But the Patriots' defense is the league's third stingiest in the red zone, having allowed only three touchdowns in 10 trips.

"It's guys just doing their job and not overplaying and doing someone else's job," said Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison, a linchpin of the defense who, like Seymour, missed last season's game against the Colts because of a knee injury. "It's just not getting overanxious. Everything happens at a faster pace [in the red zone]. You have to be more aware. The routes will be quicker and the runs are more downhill."

Although fans -- and TV cameras -- love to focus on Manning and Brady, the main reason the Patriots lost to the Colts last season is the same reason they beat the Colts the previous five times: defense.

As great as the Colts' offense is, their defense has been nearly as bad. The Colts rank last in the NFL in run defense, allowing 5.4 yards per carry. The Colts allow an average of 21.9 points per game, while the Patriots allow an average of 12.4.

When the Colts beat the Patriots here last season, the Patriots' offense was heavily reliant on the pass because while Corey Dillon (12 carries, 40 yards) was severely banged up, the Patriots had little choice but to play him because Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass were unavailable with even worse injuries.

Now the Patriots alternate a healthy Dillon (85 carries, 333 yards, 3.9 average) with Maroney (94, 395, 4.2 average), and the two should be able to run against the Colts' quick but smallish front seven.

Alan Greenberg writes for the Hartford Courant.

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