One fact sticks out this week for the Indianapolis Colts' defense: They're not facing Alex Smith anymore.
Smith played a tremendous game for the Kansas City Chiefs last Saturday. In fact, his passer rating was the best of any quarterback who played in the wild-card playoff round. He threw four touchdown passes, no interceptions. It might have been the best game of his life. The Colts were pushed to the limit.
But he's not Tom Brady.
Smith made some mistakes late, such as missing a couple wide-open receivers and taking a grounding penalty. With all due respect to coach Andy Reid, Smith didn't have Bill Belichick designing a game plan to protect a surprisingly surmountable 28-point lead.
The New England Patriots' Brady and Belichick have had two weeks to prepare for this game, to assume they'd be facing the Colts and to analyze vulnerabilities in the Colts' defense.
Brady doesn't have the depth of talent around him that the Patriots' greatest teams possessed. In a way, that makes him even more dangerous. An impressive running game sets up the pass, and the man can still pass.
The Colts play the Patriots in their AFC divisional-round playoff game at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Brady is one of the most pivotal performers in the game.
“We know how potent that offense is,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We know the signal caller is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. With (LeGarrette) Blount running the ball the way he is and (Stevan) Ridley, they've got a stable of backs. (Shane) Vereen on third down. They are very balanced.
“You can't just go in and say, 'Hey, you got to get after Tom and put pressure on him and get him off the spot and try to frustrate him.' ”
Brady has been sacked 40 times, so pressure is possible as well as necessary. When Brady has time, and his receivers find openings, it's usually a long day for the defense.
The key problem areas for the Colts' defense:
Winning protection chess match
Brady can be, and has been, sacked. There's some vulnerability there. But the Patriots also know that the Colts' quarterback pressure stems almost entirely from the lead and play of Mathis.
Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks. The Colts move him around on defense, so it's not like the Patriots can simply make it the left tackle's responsibility to slow him down.
More likely, the Patriots will have a number of blocking schemes set up where the line and a back makes sure to anticipate and slow Mathis' moves.
It'll be up to the Colts to find ways to allow Mathis to reach Brady, or else have Erik Walden or Cory Redding take advantage of the emphasis on slowing Mathis.
“You try to put guys around him and double-team him, but he still seems to be making all the plays,” Brady said of Mathis. “I just know I don't have a lot of time back there in the pocket to sort things out. We've got to try to get the ball to our guys as quickly as we can.”
Slowing Brady's passing game
Brady is one of the best — if not the best — at his job in the business. His numbers this season aren't “Manning-like” in terms of yards or touchdowns, but circumstances have dictated that. Brady has had the challenge of playing with a relatively new group of receivers, having lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to injury and favorite receiver Wes Welker to the Broncos in offseason free agency.
Early in the season, Brady garnered some attention for yelling at his young receivers, reacting to their drops and generally showing frustration. Guess what? The chemistry between Brady and his receivers developed.
He has found a Welker replacement in Julian Edelman (105 receptions, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns) and also uses Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Those may not be household names, but Brady's confidence in them has increased this season. Dobson is banged up and might not play, so Thompkins could be more pivotal.
Brady will seek to take advantage of a Colts secondary that has been hobbled and didn't play especially well against the Chiefs.Safety LaRon Landry was still awaiting clearance Thursday to come back from a concussion.
Tackling the three-headed monster runner
Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 1,554 yards rushing this season and third-down back Shane Vereen can churn out yardage, too. They're all also threats in the short passing game.
The Patriots' running game developed a bit out of necessity, with the depletion of Brady's receiving options, but now it's a great way to set up Brady's play-action and vice versa.
Blount rushed for 189 yards and two scores against Buffalo two weeks ago after churning out 76 on Baltimore a week earlier. The Patriots' ability to hit a defense with three backs can produce a wear-down factor.
“Some of our best playmakers are in the backfield and our offensive line has really taken a lot of pride in establishing a certain level of physical play,” Brady said. “All the backs we have are capable and they all run hard. Really smart. They know how to set up blocks. They know what they're looking for in the run game, so it's been a great strength of our team.”
There's three major tasks for the Colts defense, all interwoven in pressuring Brady, knocking his receivers off their game and slowing the three-headed running back.
Expect the Patriots to include some strategic moves and plays that didn't appear on the last film the Colts studied. The Colts aren't in Indy anymore, and they aren't facing Alex Smith.