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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Indianapolis Colts Answer Enough New England Patriots Riddles To Win 38-34

My good friend Mike Silver over at Sports Illustrated has observed that the New England Patriots focus and preparation is better than most teams. That the New England Patriots are a well-coached team and that they do this is is true but not well defined and doesn't adress why they lost to the Indianapolis Colts in one of the best games in NFL History. But few have deconstructed their game planning pattern and apparent philosphy which in my view led to their loss. I did that while watching the AFC Championship Game and came away with this observation.

Very simple, the Pats entire approach -- their strength -- is to focus relentlessly on your weakness. Or to put it another way, their strength is to focus on your weakness, but the very process causes their weaknesses to be exposed.

Pay attention to that.

Some teams emphasize their strength; not the Pats. Again, their advantage is only -- only to concentrate on your weakness. In the case of the Colts, the Pats game plan detail was obvious to me.

1) The Colts main weakness is in difficulty blocking blitzes out of Oklahoma - 3-4 style -- defenses. The Colts are known for throwing on first down out of play action. So, what does New England do? Use a PURE 3-4 set on first down.

2) The Colts weakness is an inability to recognize a coverage where two midle-linebackers exchange zone assignments with linemen on second down. (A specific type of zone blitz.) What do the Pats give the Colts, a rather exotic two-down lineman, five-LB, and five-DB defense, first created by the late Fritz Shurmer with the LA Rams over 25 years ago. Then they line up in a variation of this inside the 15 yard line.

3) The Colts defense has been "gashed" by the following kinds of run plays:

A) Weakside "slide" cutbacks off the tackle -- this is a seldom-used but effective approach. I remember seeing Dick Vemeil's Philadelphia Eagles use this against the Tom Landry-coached Dallas Cowboys. See, the Cowboys ran the Flex Defense, which is such that not only is each lineman assignd a gap -- a zone defense against the run -- but because of the design of the defense, the entire front essentially moves as one with the offensive line (thus no hole to run through). The weakside slide calls for the offensive line to (for example) block right, and the running back takes a step in that direction, but then gets the ball and waits for the line and defense to slide to the right, and just runs outside the tackle on the left side. Both Corey Dillon and Lawrence Mulroney got fair gains from this manuever.

B) Draw plays from 4-wide formations.

C) "Bounce" running plays -- this technique was created by Bill Walsh first with the Bengals in the 70s. It calls for the running back to first approach the off-tackle area as if a direct dive play, but then push off the inside foot and litterally "bounce" to the outside. Lawrence Mulroney did this five times in the first half.

D) Defensive End or Tackle "ISO Block" with the Tight End. -- What's refered to as "WHAM" blocking. This is where Dillon took off for a 41-yard gain.

What's the answer to these? Just have Colts Safety Bob Sanders watch the weakside, and keep the defensive ends outside for station-keeping (and altering this assigment with the outside linebackers), and not inside -- thus diminishing the effectiveness of the bounce run. For the draw plays, the old fashioned way of tightening the tackles in closer to the ball works, and having one defensive end between tackle and guard -- not outside -- to "catch" the running back. You have to vary this.

On defense, going without a huddle -- which the Colts did in the second half -- makes it harder to play the more exotic defenses as the Patriots have to get the right personel group in to do it.

I could go on in detail, but the bottom line is that once you've determined the answer to this approach, the Pats have no advantage to fall back on. It's not like playing the Seattle Seahawks where you know that they're going to run left with RB Shawn Alexader behind Offensive Tackle Walter Jones -- that's a strength and they've done it almost regardless of the situation. By contrast, the Pats specialize in being a kind of chameleon and that's their strength. But it's their only one. It's not that they don't have personel strengths, but they don't emphasize them. It's not their style. They'd rather throw a set of riddles at you.

Once you've figured out their riddles, they don't think "We'll just pound the hell out of the ball" or "We'll throw deep" which is what the Oakland Raiders teams do -- when Jon Gruden's not coaching them.

And that's why the game came out the way it did. The Colts found answers to enough Pats riddles to launch a comeback and eventually win. It also should put to rest those people who don't think Indy Coach Tony Dungy can match wits with New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichek. It's more to the pont to say that Dungy took Belichek's wits away from him.


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