Indianapolis Colts vs New England Patriots

The Pats have evened their record at 2-2 after destroying the Dolphins 38-7 Sunday, and are finally getting whole again with the return of wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has not played since 2016. The Colts are coming off a heartbreaking 37-34 overtime loss to the division-rival Texans. Coach Frank Reich’s aggressive decision-making in OT has drawn some criticism this week, but that same aggression is part of the reason he was hired in the first place and should not necessarily be held against him.

Reich will presumably need to be aggressive for the underdog Colts to take out the Pats in New England on Thursday night, especially with his team entering the game incredibly banged-up. Does Indy have what it takes to pull off the upset? We’ll have to wait to find out. In the meantime, here’s what we should be looking out for when the teams take the field at 8:20 p.m. ET on Fox and NFL Network.

This week, the Patriots will be at (sort of) full strength offensively for the first time not just this season, but in nearly two full years. Thursday night’s game against the Colts figures to be the first time that Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman have played in the same game since November 2016. Gronk missed the end of the 2016 season with an injury. Edelman missed all of last season with an injury and has been suspended for the first four games of this year as well. There was initially some question about whether Gronkowski would be ready after suffering an injury last Sunday, but the latest reports have him being ready to suit up.

So, that’s a good sign for the Pats. It’s especially good news because prior to last week’s destruction of the Dolphins, New England’s passing game was off to a really poor start. As we wrote last Friday:

Brady was pretty good, but not necessarily great, against Miami, completing 23 of 35 passes for 274 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He still failed to connect with Hogan on any meaningful level, but the explosion of New England’s ground game (40 carries, 175 yards, two touchdowns) kept him in good situations all afternoon and he was able to repeatedly find James White (8-68-1), Dorsett (4-55-1), and Gronkowski (4-44), while also turning to Patterson (3-54-1) for a big-play touchdown.

The return of Edelman should mean the return of option-route football and the Patriots’ dynamite short passing game. Edelman has been Brady’s favorite target on quick-breaking routes for years, and their mind-meld allows the Pats to carve up defenses with easy throws that eat up clock, move the sticks, and minimize the risk of Brady himself taking hits in the pocket when he has to hold onto the ball for two long. Defenses then have to commit to shutting down that element of the passing game, freeing up Gronkowski in the seams, White, out of the backfield, and whichever of the other receivers (it’s looking like Dorsett and new acquisition Josh Gordon) man the perimeter.

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Considering the Colts have already allowed 45 catches for 593 yards to players lined up in the slot, per Sports Info Solutions, it’s very easy to see Edelman having a strong impact right away. According to Football Outsiders, the Colts have also struggled against deep passes (28th in DVOA) and passes to the right side of the field (29th), the latter of which has always been Brady’s greatest strength. Both of those signs point to Dorsett making an impact, assuming he remains on the perimeter rather than Hogan, who has failed to make any meaningful impact this year.

Perhaps the more interesting battle in this matchup will be in the run game. The Patriots had almost no success running the football prior to last week’s win over Miami, when Sony Michel racked up 25 carries for 112 yards and a score, and White chipped in with eight carries for 44 yards and another touchdown. Indianapolis, meanwhile, has been surprisingly pretty good containing opposing running backs. The Colts are allowing just 3.9 yards per carry, tied for eighth-best in the NFL. They’ve missed just six tackles in the run game and have been excellent at shutting down runs in the backfield, which they’ve done on an incredible 28 percent of carries, per Football Outsiders. That’s the fourth highest rate in the NFL. The Colts will also be without at least three defenders in this game, though, putting pressure on the remaining players to keep up the strong performance.

So the Colts offense we’ve seen through the first four weeks of the season may not bear much resemblance to the one we’ll see on Thursday night. Star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton will miss the game with an injury, as will tight end Jack Doyle and running back Marlon Mack. Plus, tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly are both listed as questionable.

In the absence of Hilton, Andrew Luck will be throwing to a crop of receivers who have combined for 168 catches in their respective careers. Ryan Grant has 102 career grabs, while Chester Rogers has 58 and Zach Pascal recorded six of his eight career catches just last week. The inexperience of his perimeter targets and the construction of the New England defense leads one to believe that Luck will once again lean on two of the pass-catchers he’s come to rely on most this season: tight end Eric Ebron and rookie running back Nyheim Hines.

Hilton leads the Colts with 38 targets from Luck this season, while Ebron is second at 30 and Hines is third at 26. New England’s pass defense has been struggling against running backs, yielding 18 catches (on 23 targets) for 163 yards and a touchdown to players who began the play aligned in the backfield and four more grabs for 45 additional yards to running backs who aligned either in the slot or on the perimeter. Hines has taken on increasing prominence in the Colts’ passing game over the past few weeks, and appears to have earned Luck’s trust.

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With Mack out, Jordan Wilkins struggling, and Robert Turbin only returning from suspension this week, it would not be at all surprising if the Colts leaned on short passes to Hines as an extension of their running game, rather than actually attempting to pound the ball against the New England front. (Especially because it’s reasonable to expect the Colts to be trailing for much of this game, necessitating that they throw the ball fairly often.) After all, their run game has been nothing short of atrocious this season. The Colts rank 29th in the NFL in rushing yards and 26th in yards per carry. They’ve had 20 percent of their runs stuffed in the backfield and have broken exactly two runs longer than 15 yards — and one of those two was a 33-yard scramble by Luck.

Luck himself is likely to work the short-to-intermediate game with Hines and Ebron a whole lot because that’s what coach Frank Reich’s offense calls for, but he did finally do some downfield throwing last week against the Texans after spending the first three games in almost exclusively check-down mode. Through the season’s first three games, Luck threw just 12 passes that traveled 15 or more yards in the air, completing five of them for 116 yards and a touchdown. He then threw 12 such passes in Week 4 alone, completing seven for 180 yards. He’s still not necessarily slinging it like the Andrew Luck of old, but being able to push the ball downfield at all is a good sign, especially as it relates to opening up the defense for the underneath passes he and his coach have come to depend on so much.

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