INDIANAPOLIS – Divisional realignment might have occurred in 2002 but you wouldn't know looking at the frequency of the Colts/Patriots matchups over the years.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, along with his two coordinators, spoke to the media on Monday.
Here are their early thoughts on facing the Colts in Sunday's AFC Championship:
PATRIOTS HEAD COACH BILL BELICHICKQ: Can you revisit the thinking at the end of the game, with how you managed the end of the game situation? What was the mindset there and how did you feel that played out?
BB: It played out pretty much exactly the way we thought it would. We know they had one timeout. We expected to be punting the ball with about 15 seconds [left], which is pretty much what it was. We didn't want to go through any handoffs or take any chance on any exchanges and the penetration, like the play that happened on the goal line, anything like that. We felt we'd be able to secure the ball, punt it back to them in the neighborhood of 15 seconds. That would leave them probably at the most two, possibly one play depending on what happened on the punt, whether the ball was returned or went out of bounds or whatever. We'd have to defend one play. In the end, we felt like defending the Hail Mary was better than taking any chances at all handing the ball off, which I'm not sure how much more time that would have run off the clock anyway. Maybe a couple seconds, I don't know, but getting a first down and throwing the ball and all that wasn't really part of our thinking at that point in that game.
Q: What do you see from the Colts now that looks different from Nov. 16?
BB: I think they've improved in every area. [They've] gotten more production in their running game with the backs and [Donte] Moncrief's become more a part of the passing game. They've gotten a lot of production out of the tight ends, offensive line, even though they've had a couple moving parts in there, I think they're playing well. Defensively I think getting [Arthur] Jones back has definitely helped them. They're playing just good team defense. They've got [Josh] Cribbs in the return game, so he gives them an explosive player there. I think they're good in all three phases of the game. Obviously they've got a great kicker. They've improved the return game; excellent punter and kickoff guys. They do a good job on field position and those areas, so they've improved their return game and their overall balance offensively. They're playing well on defense.
Q: I know how much you know about Andrew Luck, but his running game – yesterday on the telecast Phil Simms alluded to the way they modified it somewhat is that they've been releasing a hot receiver when he starts to run. Have you seen or noticed that? He's a tremendous young quarterback. Also about their offense, they play with two and three tight ends. Is that something that's changed since the Nov. 16 game? Watching the film on Luck, when he rolls and obviously everyone is less effective when they're throwing off their back foot, but is he less effective when he's rolling left and then passing or right passing? Is that something you've also noticed?
BB: I think he throws the ball well on the run. He's definitely very dangerous. He makes big plays with his legs. He had the bootleg for the touchdown against Denver yesterday that got called back, but that's the kind of play that they were at about the eight- or nine-yard line, whatever it was, and those are the kind of plays he can make and make pretty easily, as well as getting out of the pocket and extending plays and all that. Yeah, I think he's good at those things. I think those are definitely a strength for him. The tight ends – no, they've used those personnel groups. The three tights with [Jack] Doyle, the two tight ends could be any combination there, however they do it. They do use all three combinations there between [Dwayne] Allen, [Coby] Fleener and Doyle. It could be any two of the three. The same thing when they go to three wide receivers. It's usually Fleener or Allen, but occasionally it's Doyle. Then there are some four-receivers with that third receiver being either Moncrief or [Hakeem] Nicks, but there are some four receivers where you could get both of them. Then there's quite a bit of empty in their offense as well where there's no backs in the backfield, whether that's a back split out or it could be some combination of receivers and tight ends that adds up to five that gets them into an empty set. They use a lot of different personnel groups and they make you defend it all. The tight ends are different, but they're all tight ends. So they have the ability to create bigger formations, but they can also spread out and Allen and Fleener in particular are good pass receivers. They can get downfield and they're big targets so the passing game is still a pretty serious concern even when they have three tight ends in the game because usually [T.Y.] Hilton is the other guy, too. I don't think you want to leave him. I don't think you just want to give him as much space as you can. You have to be aware of them packing everybody in but then leaving Hilton out there by himself.
Q: The last two games you played against Indianapolis you ran for over 200 yards both times. Why were you able to be so successful in those cases? What improvements have you seen in their run defense since then to make that tougher?
BB: Those games were what they were. There were a lot of things that happened in other games that we played. This is a new matchup, it's a new situation and we'll just see what happens this week. I don't know. That's why we'll all be watching the game on Sunday to see how it unfolds. I don't think any of us really have any idea. We'll just have to see.
PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/QUARTERBACKS COACH JOSH MCDANIELSQ: What looks different from the Colts defensively that you didn't see when you played them in the regular season?
JM: Arthur Jones is in there and I think healthy. They've incorporated [Jonathan] Newsome, who I know made a big play yesterday, on the edge. He played some in our first game, but they've incorporated him more in there. I know [Erik] Walden was injured coming into our game, and I think he's playing well. And now [LaRon] Landry is back in his spot alongside of [Mike] Adams in the back end. And then other than that, I think, like most good teams do as the season progresses, they just continue to get better. They've maintained consistency in terms of the things that they try to do. They've created negative plays and put people in some third-and-long situations, created some turnovers. They're very aggressive with, not only pressuring, but also man-to-man coverage. They'll get up there and play tight and jam and disrupt the passing game that way. And it's a physical group. [It's] not surprising that we would be playing them again. I know we had some success in the first game, but this is a totally different week, a totally different game, and I'm sure it'll be different on Sunday.
Q: How have you seen the Colts' run defense change since the last time you played them?
JM: Each team that's playing at this time of the year is, to me, they're getting better as the season goes on and improving as a football team, and I see no difference with this group on defense. A lot of times, it doesn't require a dramatic shift in philosophy or scheme or players to improve. Sometimes it takes consistency and staying with it and just working at it and at times getting some people back healthy to really arrive at what you hope you could be. There is no time like the end of the season in terms of trying to peak at the right time, and I think this group that we're getting ready to play has gotten better in all areas. They're certainly a team that ranks highly in more than a few categories in terms of the way they play. Like I said before, I would imagine that this group is playing the way they want to play, and we're going to have to play our best football game of the year against them on Sunday night.
Q: Real quick, two quick things: Is there a psychological thing that the Colts know how well you guys ran against them in the first game? Does that play into it at all? The other question is, are they economical in the way they blitz, because [Jerrell] Freeman had a key blitz against the Bengals, and as you said Newsome [had a key blitz] yesterday? Is that something that they do off of their base defense?
JM: As far as the first game goes, both teams have changed, both teams have grown [and] improved. They've gotten some players back; we've gotten some players back. I think we've tried to evolve as an offense; they've done it as a defense. I think this will be a totally different game. Whatever we had success with in the first game or didn't have success with, which there were plenty of those things too, I'm sure we're both going to look at things. They have a great coaching staff; have a ton of respect for them and the way they prepare and present the game plan each week. They create a lot of issues as you're getting ready to deal with them.
Q: Does Arthur Jones coming back play into it at all?
JM: Sure. Landry, Jones, like I said Newsome is playing more. I just think the whole group; they're a great example of a team getting better over the course of the year. They've got a great coaching staff that has done a great job of putting their players in the right position. They're aggressive, they're playing with confidence, they're physical, they're fast, they blitz, they play man, [and] they mix up their calls. You don't always know what you're going to get from them. They're playing the way they want to play, I'm sure, at the end of the year at the right time, and we're going to have to, like I said, play our best game on Sunday, and that's what we're going to try to prepare for. And then relative to the pressures, I think they do a great job of doing both. They mix it up – base, sub, third down, red zone – it's not always a blitz situation, but there's plenty of it. No matter what, you're going to have to be ready for it. They really test your protection systems, your ability to adjust. Your backs are going to need to be an important part of the blitz pickup game. Your line is going to have to pass off stunts and identify some different looks each week. From top to bottom, they test you in every area. Like I said, they're extremely well coached. I've got a ton of respect for these guys, and it'll be an incredible challenge on Sunday.
PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR MATT PATRICIAQ: As you start your preparations what is standing out to you as looking different from the November 16th game against the Colts?
MP: Just in general with their offense right now I would say they're doing a great job of getting the ball to a lot of different players. Certainly their running backs have come in to the game and have been able to roll through there; [they] have contributed to both the run game and the pass game. The quarterback's able to get him the ball, or get those guys the ball, quite a bit and they're able to do some things in space and gain positive yardage and really protect the ball. So along with obviously the deep threats that they have, T.Y Hilton, [Donte] Moncrief, [Reggie] Wayne, [Hakeem] Nicks, [they] do a great job of stretching the field both vertically and horizontally. The tight end situation is very difficult – Dwayne Allen going into our first game we knew he's an extremely good player, both in the run and the pass game. This guy is a big, physical, strong guy. You can see in yesterday's game where he also has the ability to post up against tougher situations like in the red area and be able to box out and catch touchdowns and situational plays. Obviously [Coby] Fleener, the dynamic element he brings and [Jack] Doyle being the third tight end who will line up in a bunch of different positions. I think they use the tight ends very well. I think they try to keep you moving as far as what the different looks are with those guys and along with their wide receivers. Like I said I think their running backs are really doing an excellent job, as far as within the system, of really being very productive.
Q: How is Dan Herron's style unique? The last time you played the Colts it was mainly Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw?
MP: Richardson and Bradshaw in the first game and obviously Herron now and [Zurlon] Tipton. I think both of these guys – Herron really does a great job of being very patient with the runs. He really waits for the blocks to develop. He'll find his creases and then does a great job of hitting those downhill very hard. He runs extremely hard, very powerful type of runner but has the ability to cut back into open spaces in the backside too. You'll see him take some jump-cuts and some plays where he has good vision on the cuts to the backside where he can get some positive yards. I think that's really what they're trying to do is make sure they don't take negative plays in the run game, they get the ball downhill, they get it hard into the line of scrimmage, fast and vertical into the defense where they're consistently gaining positive yardage. Obviously you want to give credit to the line up front; I think those guys have done a good job of trying to play together as a group. They've had some changes in there positionally but have done a good job of kind of coming together here as of late and working together. I think the offensive line is always a hard position to have changes in and out of but these guys seem to handle it extremely well.Q: You've seen a lot of quarterbacks who are mobile and can get out of the pocket and can scramble. It seems like Andrew Luck not only can scramble but can change his mind midstream and while he's scrambling and throw on the run very accurately. What kind of challenges does that present in terms of maintaining responsibilities downfield?
MP: I mean that's a huge challenge for us. This guy is not only mobile, has a very strong arm, but like you mentioned, can move out of the pocket and keep his vision and concentration downfield and really see the entire field where he might not just be locked into one player as he's trying to elude a rush or escape out of the pocket or even just move out of the pocket on their move out of the pocket plays. [He] does a good job of keeping the entire field open in his vision and finding pockets or seams or holes where his receivers are either uncovering or finding space to get open in their routes. Then obviously with the arm strength he can get the ball there. I think the other thing that's extremely difficult about Andrew Luck is how strong he is. He's a very big quarterback, he's extremely strong. You'll see a lot of guys that think they have him in the grass and think they can get him down and then he breaks free. As a full defense you're in a mindset where you're like, 'OK, well we got this guy wrapped up,' and all of a sudden he gets free and he breaks free and now the play is extended even longer. So it's definitely something where we have to concentrate and play all the way through the whistle and finish every single bit of coverage or finish every play all the way through to make sure that we don't give up something in a situation where he's been able to extend the play even longer. I think that's the added element to him that in the passing game that he really presents. I mean obviously in the running game he always presents an issue there so it's kind of a double-threat problem for us.Q: Is it almost a relief not to have to play Peyton Manning again? Is it tougher to prepare for Andrew Luck since you play him much him far less than Manning?
MP: I think in the National Football League you just prepare for your next opponent. I don't think you worry about who is hard or who's not. It's the National Football League, I think everyone is extremely difficult and I think everyone, when you get to this level, has earned the right to be here, especially at the quarterback positon. I think Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck – both of them present very difficult, extreme problems that you have to defend as a defense. We're just going to go out and try to do our best here against Andrew Luck and hopefully we can get him stopped for all of the things that he does that I was just talking about. It's the National Football League, it's the playoffs – every game is very difficult.
Q: Is there a difference with Andrew Luck when he's moving left or right in terms of his ability to get the ball downfield? Is he better now in second- and third-and-long?
MP: I think I spoke on Andrew Luck pretty extensively. I think the guy is a phenomenal quarterback. I think both in the pocket [and] out of the pocket, his decision making – they ask him to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage situations – whether it's check-with-me type plays or audible plays where they may change a play based on a defensive look or a particular set. He handles all of those situations very well at the line of scrimmage. He's able to stand in the pocket and throw the ball downfield extremely well and be able to take a lot of movement in there and he can get away from pressure and obviously I think he can scramble to either direction and throw extremely well and extremely far downfield. He's got a tremendously strong arm. I think this guy is a very, very good quarterback. He's an extremely tough competitor. He's a guy that enjoys the game; obviously he loves to play and loves to compete. It's a huge challenge for us to stop this guy and everyone on the Indianapolis Colts. I think they've done a great job of surrounding him with extremely talented players, both in the skill positions, at the tight end position, and obviously in front of him with the offensive line. I think that really transfers into whether he's in the pocket, out of the pocket, or down-and-distance or whatever the situation is, this guy is a tremendous competitor. He's a great quarterback and he'll be a great challenge for us this week.