Five Things Learned

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5 Things Learned: Colts vs. Patriots, Week 15

The Colts beat the New England Patriots, 27-17, on Saturday to improve to 8-6 on the season. Get inside the Colts' resounding, three-phase victory with this week's installment of 5 Things Learned. 

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1. The Colts stuck with the run against stacked boxes until Jonathan Taylor broke free.

Eighteen of Jonathan Taylor's first 28 carries came with eight or more Patriots defenders in the box, per Pro Football Focus. Bill Belichick's defense, as expected, was set up to limit Taylor's impact while trusting its playmakers in the secondary to defend the pass.

In a sense, the strategy worked – the Colts had 13 points on offense just before the two-minute warning.

In another sense, though, the Colts got the better of the Patriots' strategy. Taylor still had over 100 rushing yards late in the fourth quarter, and players and coaches believed if they kept pounding the run, the best running back in the NFL was going to break off an explosive play.

"With a guy like JT, that's always something that's on the table every time he touches the ball," center Danny Pinter said.

And just before the two-minute warning, Taylor popped what may be one of the most memorable running plays this franchise has ever seen.

The Patriots had nine defenders in the box at the snap, knowing the Colts were going to run the ball with a three-point lead late in a game (Frank Reich, though, said he was thinking about calling a pass at that point, but decided to stick with one more run to see if Taylor could break free).

The Colts blocked the play up perfectly: Kylen Granson took care of linebacker Jamie Collins to set the front side edge, and on the back side, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Braden Smith and Mark Glowinski made sure Taylor didn't have to worry about any Patriots defenders coming at him from the right.

But the first key to springing Taylor's 67-yard touchdown was some outstanding communication between Quenton Nelson and Pinter. Nelson's assignment was to work up to linebacker Kyle Van Noy after starting with a combo block on defensive tackle Christian Barmore with Eric Fisher. But Nelson saw Van Noy loop toward the A-gap, and in a beautiful bit of offensive line play, he told Pinter "go! go! go!" to pick up Van Noy.

Nelson switched to block defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who Pinter initially engaged, and Pinter picked up Van Noy's run blitz.

"Great job by Q first," Pinter said. "They were running downhill trying to stop the run, Q communicated it and we shut it down and he bounced off."

Between the blocks of Granson, Fisher, Nelson and Pinter, a huge hole opened for Taylor – but two Patriots defenders filled it. Safety Devin McCourty drove down fit the hole in case Taylor tried to bounce outside, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower shuttled to his right to fill the rest of the opening.

The Colts have had so much success against loaded boxes this season because, when they're able to get seven blockers on seven defenders, it leaves a one-on-one matchup for Taylor – and, time and time again, the NFL's leading rusher makes those guys miss.

Hightower, on this run, was his latest victim.

And 67 yards later, the Colts sealed their biggest win of the season.

2. Frank Reich's fourth down decisions were key in the Colts' win.

Reich went for it on all three of the Colts' fourth-and-one plays, with Carson Wentz picking up first downs with QB sneaks on all three. Here's how those impacted the game:

Second quarter, 11:13 left, ball on Colts' 44-yard line: The Colts drove for a field goal and took an additional 7:42 off the clock after the conversion.

Third quarter, 6:33 left, ball on Patriots' 38-yard line: Michael Badgley missed a 49-yard field goal and the Colts took an additional two minutes off the clock after the conversion.

Fourth quarter, 5:38 left, ball on Colts' 43-yard line: Rigoberto Sanchez punted to the Patriots' 18-yard line, but the Colts took an additional 1:50 off the clock and forced the Patriots to call two timeouts after the conversion.

The net gain from those three calls was three points, 11 minutes and 32 seconds of additional time of possession and two Patriots second half timeouts. In a tight game against the AFC No. 1 seed, those three calls – and conversions – were massive factors in the Colts' win.

"I was feeling like we got the offensive line and the quarterback to do it and you have to be aggressive," Reich said. "Have to be aggressive. I know it's only half a yard but we were in minus territory, I think, on two of those. Just felt like - we talked about it with George Li and John Park, our analytics guys. We talk these scenarios through all the time. I just kind of had my mind made up that if it was a half-yard or less, we were going no matter what, no matter where it was. Just thought that's what it would take to win the game."

To Wentz's credit, too, picking up those first downs is hardly as simple as just falling forward. The 6-foot-5, 237 pound Wentz has a tremendous feel for QB sneaks – he has 21 first downs on fourth-and-one since 2017, easily the highest total in the NFL (Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott is second with 15; former Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett is fifth with 11).

"It's just having a knack," Reich said. "There was one if you remember that he went from like two gaps over almost (in the third quarter) but the other two he didn't do that. So, when do you do that? When do you slide? When do you slide over one more gap than normal? When do you just take the first gap and just give the extra surge and think you can get it that way?

"He's just always had a knack. ... You just have a lot of trust and confidence in him in those scenarios that he's going to find a way to get it."

3. The Colts played a clean, sound game on defense.

Interceptions by Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke led the Colts to win the turnover battle, and the Colts were only flagged three times on defense – with one of those being an offsetting penalty. The Colts were not flagged for pass interference or defensive holding by Carl Cheffers' crew despite Mac Jones dropping back to pass 49 times.

"We always say, we play clean football, we can be a tough team to beat and that's what we did," Leonard said. "We protected the ball, no penalties and we got off the field when we needed to."

The Colts shut down the Patriots' run game – Rhamondre Stevenson gained 36 yards on 10 carries – and did a good job in coverage to make sure Jones wasn't consistently able to get the ball out quick. Jones took three or more seconds to throw on 21 of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, his highest total since Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints (the only other game in 2021 in which he's thrown multiple interceptions).  

Also: Kenny Moore II had another fantastic game, with two teach-tape pass break-ups in the second half while holding Jones to a 66.3 passer rating when throwing his way.

What the Colts were able to do on defense reinforced that group's belief that it's good enough to win against anyone as long as it avoids self-inflicted mistakes like penalties or turnovers.

"As long as we don't beat ourselves, we're going to win the ballgame," Leonard said. "It's no arrogance, it's no cockiness, it's just confidence."

4. It's no coincidence that the Colts made another huge play on special teams.

Belichick, as you'd expect, was matter of fact when asked about Matthew Adams running free to block Jake Bailey's punt, which E.J. Speed recovered for a touchdown: "We didn't block that guy," Belichick said.

Usually, it's the Patriots winning games through a dedication to and emphasis on special teams. Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone would know – he played for Belichick for two years and was the Patriots' assistant special teams coordinator from 2015-2017.

The Patriots hadn't allowed a touchdown on a punt – blocked or returned – since 2015. Speed's touchdown was his second on a blocked punt this season and the Colts' third on a punt in 2021 (Ashton Dulin had the other against the Rams in Week 2).

We'll see if "Hard Knocks In Season" has another clip of Ventrone calling a big special teams play, as we saw on the show with Ventrone calling Zaire Franklin's blocked punt against the Jaguars and Isaiah McKenzie fumbling a kickoff in the Colts' win over the Bills a week later. But on-camera or off-camera, Ventrone's special teams units have had a tremendous impact on the Colts this season.

"What makes Bubba a great coach is he knows the game – he knows how to coach the detail, he knows how to help the players with their matchups, help them understand how to win their matchups," Reich said. "He knows how to develop the right schemes and how to attack, how to keep our scheme simple and sound and then how to attack their schemes. I just think he gets the most that he can out of players. He's that way. He's dynamic in meetings, he's dynamic on the field, he's dynamic when he's teaching. He's a great coach."

Speed has two touchdowns, Dulin is a deserving candidate to be a Pro Bowler and All-Pro special teamer and Isaiah Rodgers came incredibly close to a game-tying kickoff return with 20 seconds left against the Buccaneers in Week 12, among other big plays from Ventrone's group.

"You've got a lot of responsibility to it, you've got to stay focused playing for him because that's what (Ventrone) demands," Speed said. "The way he sets it up and the way he coaches and the things he preaches, you always want to do that for him and for the team. It's actually great, I love playing for him."

5. The Colts' offensive line depth shined, again.

One last thought here: The Colts have now had strong next-man-up contributions at right tackle (Matt Pryor in for Braden Smith), left guard (Chris Reed in for Quenton Nelson) and center (Pinter in for Ryan Kelly). A ton of people deserve credit here, starting with Pryor, Reed and Pinter – who've filled in, respectively, for one of the league's best right tackles, an All-Pro left guard and a Pro Bowl center in multiple games.

General manager Chris Ballard and his front office deserve credit for bringing in Pryor (via a cut-down day trade with the Eagles) and Reed (via free agency) this year to address the Colts' offensive line depth. Offensive line coach Chris Strausser and assistant offensive line coach Kevin Mawae have done a tremendous job getting those guys ready to play. And then the other guys on the offensive line – like Nelson in communicating that blitz pick-up to Pinter on Taylor's touchdown – have helped make sure there the line's standards are still met every week.

"They've done an excellent job, just being able to step in and it's not a drop-off at all," Taylor said. "Those guys are coming in and they're playing at a high level, and I think that's what's been allowing us to be successful down the stretch is everyone that's been able to step up has been able to step up big."

See the best images from the Indianapolis Colts Week 15 win over the New England Patriots in primetime.

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