Patriots at midweek

What’s new for Colts?

Familiar opponent has changed little

Randy Moss snags the 2-point conversion - just as Bill Belichick expected him to, considering how Miami was defending. Randy Moss snags the 2-point conversion - just as Bill Belichick expected him to, considering how Miami was defending. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
By Albert R. Breer
Associated Press / November 11, 2009

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To a certain degree, a game like this Sunday’s doesn’t need to be broken down.

Peyton Manning has faced the Patriots 17 times, 13 times since Bill Belichick has been coach, 10 times head-to-head with Tom Brady, and three times in the playoffs. Tom Moore has been Indianapolis’s offensive coordinator all those years, and New England’s system may have evolved, but it has done so without wholesale change.

Bottom line: These guys know each other, and the wheel isn’t getting reinvented here, on either side.

“There’re only so many things you can do in football,’’ Belichick said. “It’s not unlimited. You’ve got to be able to run something that your defense is comfortable running.

“We’re not going to go in here and install a new defense in the next couple of days and think that would be a good way to defend one of the best offensive teams, not only this year, but really in the last decade.’’

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moving parts to these games. With the help of three NFL pro scouts, here’s a look at five factors that could play into the way this one plays out:

■No-huddle Colts: All year, the Colts have stayed with personnel groups for entire series and gone no-huddle - both to quicken the tempo of the game to incite shootouts, and also to limit what a defense can do. They kicked the fast break up a notch against Houston.

This is key against a team like the Patriots that substitutes so much situationally.

“[The Patriots] are going to have to keep guys out there and, from what I’ve seen on tape, that’s not what they want to do, they like to sub to the formation,’’ an AFC scout said. “Bill always has things up his sleeve with different groups, and with the no-huddle, they’re going have to choose to stick with their base defense, or their nickel or dime. It might make them have to put more DBs out there.’’

One thing that could help the Patriots here is their own offense. Another AFC scout said, “They see that in practice, and they’re familiar with it. New England’s more effective when they can specialize, but these two are very familiar with each other, the schemes have been in place for a while, and it’s not like Indy’s running 50-60 plays. It’s 15 plays. They just execute.’’

■Indianapolis’s personnel turnover: Marvin Harrison is gone, and Anthony Gonzalez is on the shelf, with second-year pro Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie in their places at receiver. But if you want to know who’s really replaced the veteran production, look to Dallas Clark, leading the team with 60 catches.

“Collie’s played well in the slot - the timing’s not there like it was with Gonzalez, but you can tell Peyton’s really pleased with him,’’ the second AFC scout said. “But you want to look where Marvin’s catches have been distributed, it’s to Clark. If you ask me, I think he’s lost weight to become even more of a hybrid guy in the slot, and he’s such a solid route runner.

“Go back to that Miami game, you see the 80-yard touchdown he caught and ran there and you can see that athleticism. Scheme-wise, nothing’s changed. They don’t change.’’

As for Garcon, the first AFC scout said that you can see he “is fast, he’s just young. Overall, they look faster than they have been.’’ Despite that, the second scout said, “They’ve gone to the screen game. They’ve always been a rhythm passing team, but now they’re going underneath more.’’

■Inside game: Rookie running back Donald Brown went down with a shoulder injury in Week 7, and his status is iffy for Sunday. The last two weeks, the Colts have rushed for just 133 yards on 39 carries (3.4-yard average).

Brown’s injury has put more of the load on the inconsistent Joseph Addai, and the offensive line has been shaky. Guard Mike Pollak, a second-round pick in 2008, was benched in favor of Kyle DeVan, who was playing for Boise in Arena League2 earlier this year, a move that shows what kind of issues Indy has had.

“Teams are taking away those deep shots, making them beat them underneath, and hoping they get pressure with four,’’ said the second AFC scout. “And Peyton’s playing at a very high level, but their inability to run has hurt them. He threw 40 passes in the first half against Houston.

“They’ve had issues with their line, and blocking in general. Peyton’s still Peyton, but they’ve almost given up on the ground game altogether. That stretch play, with play-action off it, is almost nonexistent.’’

■Scheme and situations: With former head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks gone, Larry Coyer is running Indy’s defense, and that hasn’t hurt anything. The Colts rank eighth in total defense, and while they’ve been suspect in spots against the run, they’re coming up big when it matters most.

“Things in New England go through Brady, he finds a way, but Indy has won with their defense,’’ an NFC scout said. “They’re coming up big in big situations. You know they can put up points, and their defense is bending but not breaking. Say what you will about the [Texans] kicker missing the field goal, but the Colts kept them from getting close enough to get in the end zone.’’

Part of that is that the defense is a little more malleable. The Colts are still Tampa-2 at their core but are more flexible now.

“It’s not as much cover-2,’’ said the NFC scout. “They’re going with some things disguise-wise they didn’t before. It’s still the same basic look, but they’re doing it differently. And you’re also seeing a little more blitzing; they’re not afraid to bring five or six.’’

■Painting the corners: Rookies Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey will start at cornerback, but the challenge for the Patriots will be different than it was against Miami’s neophyte DBs, judging by how Powers and Lacey did against the capable Texans offense.

“They don’t get tested, because the front four is so successful putting pressure on the passer,’’ said the second AFC scout. “Houston just didn’t have the time to take them deep.

“Can the Patriots do it? I don’t know. Teams can’t seem to get five- or seven-step drops against them. Their front four is successful for a reason; they don’t ask their corners to cover for six and seven seconds.’’

Pretty basic, then: If you can’t deal with Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis & Co., you can forget about picking on Powers (who’s playing like a starter) and Lacey (who looks like a backup, long-term) on the perimeter. Plus, in this defense, they often get help over the top with safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt (a capable Bob Sanders fill-in). So the better matchups for the Patriots might be inside, against nickel back Tim Jennings and the outside linebackers.

“I’d actually look at Ben Watson and Wes Welker on the slots,’’ the second AFC scout said. “They could have their way, if you have them working on nickels and outside linebackers.’’

There were various points to consider
The situation: Randy Moss reels off a 71-yard touchdown, the Patriots go up, 22-17, with 1:36 left in the third quarter.

A successful 2-point conversion makes the margin 7. A kick makes it a 6-point game, protecting against the possibility that Miami can retake the lead with two field goals if you miss the 2-point conversion.

The decision lies in a gray area. There’s enough time for Miami to go on two scoring drives. But a 7-point margin might force them to reach for the end zone late.

Belichick let the play he had for the 2-pointer make the decision - and he had one he thought would work, based on how the Dolphins were playing. Moss got a free release to the left, crossed Wes Welker’s route, and it was over.

“They were in an all-out blitz, everybody was single-covered,’’ Belichick said. “They had some guys that basically, blitz coverage, they are all playing inside technique and Randy had an outside route, so he got a step on [Vontae] Davis there and Tom [ Brady] put it out there.’’

Still, there was enough uncertainty about the call that Stephen Gostkowski had to be stopped on his way to the field after Moss’s touchdown.

“If it’s later in the game and we kind of know a 2-point conversion will put us up by 7, or by 3, we’ll get the head’s up,’’ Gostkowski said. “But in that situation, it happened so fast, there’s no time to tell us.

“Worst thing you can do is run out there before the coach sends you. I got right past the sideline and as I’m getting out there, Bill and our special teams coach are waving us off the field.’’

If you could see things like the final snap of the third quarter on Sunday coming, they wouldn’t be called trick plays. It only looked like Adalius Thomas had it sniffed out from the snap.

On the play, you can see Thomas working the right edge of the offensive formation, so as not to get turned and sealed in the inside, seeing Chad Henne sneak behind Ricky Williams, who got the handoff on a Wildcat speed sweep. So the reverse pass was shot out of the air before it ever got off the ground.

The Patriots defenders said they didn’t practice specifically for that to come up. But against Miami, disciplined, team-oriented play was at a premium for the defense, and that served them well in this spot.

“Everybody’s antennaes were up, especially playing Miami,’’ said Tully Banta-Cain. “There’s nothing you can really pinpoint, or say they’re gonna do, or how they’ll do it. Regardless of how a play is designed - I mean, you call it a trick play, but really if it’s a pass play, somebody’s responsible for a guy in coverage. If it’s a run play, somebody’s responsible for their gap. It’s really coming down to reading your keys and not chasing ghosts.

“That’s why they’re called trick plays, because they’re designed to tempt you. You’re unblocked, you feel like you’re free, but there’s a reason for that. It’s a matter of being patient, and reading keys.’’

While it never got to the back end, it’s also a matter of guys in the secondary resisting the same type of temptation, and coming out of their zones.

“You don’t prepare for trick plays,’’ said cornerback Leigh Bodden. “You just got to play your technique and do your job, and hopefully things go well. That’s all you got to do - do your job, do what you’re supposed to do. If you got contain, you got contain. If you got the pitch, you got the pitch. It’s just doing your job. You’ll make the play, if things happen like that with everyone.

For players on the back end, Bodden says, “You can’t put your eyes in the backfield. Do your job. As a DB, it’s stay on your man, or in your zone, and not get caught looking.’’

Kickoffs were covered
Ted Ginn’s two touchdowns against the Jets in Week 8 made kickoff coverage an emphasis all last week for the Patriots. But Gostkowski said Ginn’s presence didn’t change much for him during the lead-up to the game.

“Sometimes you can get away with a bad kick, against a lesser returner, but there really aren’t many bad returners, most of them are among the best athletes in the league and on their teams,’’ Gostkowski said. “It may just be more of a conscious effort on good direction, good height, that kind of thing.’’

Gostkowski’s two booming touchbacks got most of the attention, but he was just as proud, after watching the tape, of a pair of third-quarter kicks against the wind that helped hold Ginn to returns of 27 and 13 yards.

“The two short ones I had against the wind were really good hang time, helped get guys in position to tackle,’’ he said. “A bad kick in that situation might be a low line drive to the 5-yard line, to where the guys are 10 yards back, giving them more time to set up the return and the blocks down the field.’’

Johnson will be discussed as an option
Since no team put in a waiver claim on exiled Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, the embattled tailback is free to sign with any team.

Johnson was released by Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli after the former All-Pro called out coach Todd Haley - another former Belichick co-worker - and used a gay slur on Twitter following the team’s blowout loss to San Diego in Week 8.

Belichick said Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI that he “would doubt’’ the Patriots would add Johnson. Yesterday, he softened that stance a bit.

“We will discuss that organizationally here this afternoon and decide what, if anything, we want to do,’’ he said. “To be honest with you, right now, we’ve just been concentrating on Indianapolis. Our pro [scouts] are doing that. We kind of do that every week at this time.’’

Johnson averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in seven games for the rebuilding Chiefs, and was suspended without pay after the Twitter incident.

Maroney’s spirits lifted
Patriots tailback Laurence Maroney participated in the NFL’s “Take a Player to School’’ program at Duxbury Middle School yesterday with 12-year-old student Tyler Hutchinson.

Maroney was encouraged by his 20-carry, 82-yard effort against the Dolphins. It was only the third 20-carry game of the former first-round pick’s four-year career.

“I think I played very well. I can always get better,’’ Maroney said. “I always find ways to get better and try to improve from week to week. It was definitely a great weekend for me, a great game, just great overall for my spirit. You see I’m in a great mood.

“Coming out here and seeing the kids and seeing everybody, like the fans, still in my corner and just excited to see me actually just makes me feel that much better that fans in New England still love me and still want me here and are still in my corner.’’

Quick change
Against the Texans, the Colts went no-huddle plenty, and that brings a defense’s ability to substitute into focus.

The NFL has a rule that allows defenses to match an offense’s substitutions, outside of two-minute situations, but enforcement of the rule has been difficult. The problem isn’t so much getting players on the field as it is getting them in position.

“The issue, in the official’s mind, is whether you get the proper number of players on the field,’’ Belichick said. “From a coaching standpoint, it’s not just getting a proper number of guys on the field, but it’s getting them to get lined up in whatever you’re playing and everybody knows and understands what that is.

“Whether an official can figure that out or not is arguable, but I don’t think they really care about that. As long as they’ve got 11 out there and you’ve got 11, I think they’re OK with it.’’

Praise for Vollmer
With Sebastian Vollmer likely to start his third consecutive game at left tackle Sunday, director of player personnel Nick Caserio has taken notice of the rookie. “He has a good skill set, he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s athletic - for a taller player - he’s long,’’ Caserio said. “He’s being coached by arguably, in our opinion, the best offensive line coach in the league. He takes to coaching and he’s a very coachable kid. He understands what we’re trying to do. He’s gone in there and he’s done his job.’’ . . . The Patriots filled the final spot of their practice squad, vacated when Kyle Arrington was promoted to the active roster, by signing linebacker Thomas Williams. Williams was a fifth-round pick of the Jaguars in 2008, and played in six games for Jacksonville last year. He’s spent time on Houston’s and Seattle’s practice squads this year.

Appeals court backs judge’s Vick decision
A federal appeals court yesterday backed the judge who ruled against the NFL and let quarterback Michael Vick keep more than $16 million in roster bonuses from the Falcons.

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge David Doty’s order, saying Vick already had earned the bonuses before his dogfighting conviction, so the money wasn’t subject to forfeiture.

Vick served 18 months in prison and is now with the Eagles.

Doty long has handled matters arising from the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. After he ruled in the Vick bonus case, the NFL accused him of bias and sought to end his oversight of its contract with the players union.

The appeals court said the contract should remain under Doty’s oversight.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello did not say whether the league planned a further appeal, but he said the 8th Circuit upheld Doty’s ruling on Vick’s bonuses in large part because it found the contract’s forfeiture language ambiguous.

“That is something that we will seek to change at the bargaining table to ensure that bonus payments are paid to players who comply with their contracts and perform on the field,’’ Aiello said.

The Eagles signed Vick to a $1.6 million contract for 2009, with a team option for the second year at $5.2 million, but he has not played much.

Barton out for season
Browns linebacker Eric Barton will miss the rest of the season with an unspecified injury. In announcing that Barton was being placed on injured reserve, the Browns did not reveal his injury or a timetable for their leading tackler’s recovery. Barton is Cleveland’s second inside linebacker to be sidelined with a season-ending injury. D’Qwell Jackson underwent shoulder surgery last month. Barton, one of 10 former Jets brought to Cleveland by coach Eric Mangini, started all eight games. He was injured in the first half of a Nov. 1 loss at Chicago. Mangini would not comment during the team’s bye week about reports that Barton had a bulging disk in his neck and may need surgery . . . The Browns are not making an official announcement regarding their quarterback situation until today, but two sources told the team likely will name Brady Quinn the starter for Monday night’s game at Baltimore, replacing Derek Anderson . . . The Eagles-Bears matchup Nov. 22 will remain the Sunday night game even though NBC had the option of picking another contest. The NFL’s flexible scheduling policy goes into effect that week. But the league announced that the network decided to stick with the original matchup, which could have NFC wild-card implications. Philadelphia is 5-3 and in second place in the NFC East entering this weekend’s game at San Diego. Chicago is 4-4 heading into Thursday’s game at San Francisco.

Steelers are coming
At the same time the Colts and Patriots are looking ahead to their pivotal game in Indianapolis Sunday night, they might be tempted to peek over their shoulders at the Steelers. The Super Bowl champions are gaining on them. Winners of five in a row, the Steelers are looking again like a team no one would willingly play in January. Or February. The Broncos might pass along this message to the Bengals: The Steelers aren’t much fun in November, either. The Steelers (6-2) appear to have long since moved past their last-minute losses to the Bears and Bengals that occurred with star safety Troy Polamalu injured and out. Their defense-driven 28-10 victory in Denver Monday night put them in position to take over sole possession of the AFC North lead if they beat Cincinnati (6-2) Sunday. In their last two games, the Steelers have been dominant defensively and effective offensively in defeating teams that were unbeaten only a couple of weeks ago, the Vikings (7-1) and the Broncos (6-2). “We pride ourselves on being a great, dominant road team,’’ said receiver Hines Ward, who made two touchdown catches in Denver. “For us to get to where we want to go, we need to win on the road and not just at home. I feel like us, along with the Colts and the Patriots, have established ourselves as great teams on the road.’’

Monique Walker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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