INDIANAPOLIS – Defenses facing the New England offense meet with multiple challenges.
Quarterback Tom Brady is among the best ever to play the position. The two-time MVP has directed New England to 119 victories in his 154 regular-season starts, a .773 percentage that tops the NFL during the Super Bowl era (since 1966).
His supporting cast has changed through the years, but he always has had effective targets. This year's top three receivers pose problems for every opponent.
Wide receiver Wes Welker has 82 receptions for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns. Welker is averaging 7.5 receptions per game this season. He averaged 8.8 per game in 2009, the second-highest seasonal average in NFL history, second only to the Colts' Marvin Harrison, who held an 8.9 average in 2002. He has 12 career games with 10 or more catches, among the league's top 10 career performers in that area. Welker set the club mark with 217 reception yards at Buffalo this season, plus he and Brady connected on a 99-yard scoring play at Miami. He has receptions in 89 straight games and is joined by other talents like Deion Branch (45 receptions, 628 yards, four touchdowns) and Chad Ochocinco at the position.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265) and Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245) rank second and third respectively on the club in receptions. Gronkowski has 60 snares for 864 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Hernandez has caught 47 passes for 480 yards and five touchdowns. The 16 combined touchdown receptions account for more than half of Brady's seasonal total (28). They are the first NFL tight end duo to record five or more touchdown receptions in consecutive seasons.
Gronkowski's scores eclipse the seasonal franchise position record of 10 he set in 2010, and he is two scores shy of tying the league seasonal record by a tight end. He reached 20 career touchdown receptions in the fewest games (26) ever by an NFL tight end.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell is aware of the explosive nature of the attack, and he knows the club must be on details to counteract the attack.
"They are highly-explosive, highly-efficient and (they have) a great quarterback," said Caldwell. "Obviously, they put points on the board, they've been scoring a lot of points and they can strike from everywhere. You saw (Tom) Brady throw a 99-yard touchdown pass a couple of weeks ago, so these guys are a very talented group. They don't need any help, that's for certain."
The production of the tight end duo is something Caldwell says will push match-up issues, and it could do so all over the field.
"They are probably the best in the league, just in terms of a very, very talented group that not only can handle the line of scrimmage in terms of blocking, but are really great pass threats down the field," said Caldwell. "(Rob) Gronkowski is pretty effective, just in terms of getting after you a little bit there on the line. (Aaron) Hernandez is a talented guy, and (Tom) Brady uses everybody. He sprays that ball around, particularly down in the red zone. Those guys are tall targets that can jump and run. They are a very, very difficult match-up problem.
"That's the thing that they know, and one of the things that you do with those guys, particularly guys that can run at that position, is that you have the two tight ends in the ballgame, and you have to make a determination from a defensive standpoint (of), 'Okay, what do we do? Do we leave our base personnel in there with a regular linebacker, and then he's matched up with a guy who presents a real challenge in the pass game, or do we change it and put a little bit more of a fleet-footed guy, who may lack some size.' Then they're a threat to run the ball at you. So they do give you some problems in that regard."
New England has feasted on tight end production much like Indianapolis has in past seasons with Dallas Clark. It looks familiar to Caldwell since he has created those issues for opponents, too.
"That's, obviously, what they're doing, because that was one of the things that we've always done is felt that we had a critical match-up situation there," said Caldwell. "(We) made it tough for teams to game plan against us, because you literally could never be right. If it was a situation where we felt we had a run advantage, we could run it. If it was a pass advantage, we could throw it. Our guys have always been able to give us that match-up, and they have it now at this point in time."
With Gronkowski and Hernandez being threats all over the field, Caldwell says Welker can provide strategic problems, too.
"They do a good job of moving him around for a number of different reasons, I would suspect," said Caldwell. "You can't just settle in and say, 'Hey, we're going to double-team him here or there,' because they can keep the doubles off of him. Also, they move him around due to match-ups as well. They try to get him matched up on your linebackers. Depending on what kind of coverage that you're using, whether you're nickel or your dime, how does he get isolated on your (middle) linebacker, how do they isolate him on your outside linebacker away from your nickel and things of that nature. They do a lot of creative things to give him an opportunity to do what he does best. He's so quick that he's really tough to handle."
New England Head Coach Bill Belichick acknowledges his trio is playing well and has made great contributions to the 8-3 start.
"Rob's (Gronkowski) done a good job for us this year," said Belichick. "He did a good job for us last year. He's got good size and he takes a lot of pride in his blocking. He's a tough guy to match up with down the field because he can run. He has good hands, and (he) has good body control. He's a tough size match-up and a tough speed match-up for some of the linebackers, so he's done a real good job for us. Aaron (Hernandez) has made a lot of plays, too. He's doing excellent. He's got excellent quickness and hands, and he's got a good receiving skill set. (He's) a big guy that can also compete in the running game, too. They've done a good job and they've given us a good balance in our passing game that we, prior to the 2010 season, haven't had quite that much production out of our tight end position.
"Wes is a good player. He primarily plays in the slot, like (Austin) Collie does for the Colts. Wes has had a very productive career. … He has good 'run-after-catch' skills. He's quick and has good hands. I think any receiver, whether it's Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker, (Pierre) Garcon or whoever they are, those guys all have the ability within their own personal athletic characteristics to get open, catch the ball, create separation and run after the catch."
Indianapolis used cornerback Jerraud Powers to cover Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith last week. Wherever Smith went, Powers went with him, too. While Caldwell will not talk strategy, Powers will do what is asked of him.
"If that's the case (being assigned to Welker), I'm more than up for the challenge," said Powers. "I'm going to do whatever they ask me do to. I had done it (shadowing a receiver) in college a few times. Here (in the NFL), that was my first time. I don't have a problem with that, it was fun (against Carolina)."
Powers may be counted among the players in the league who regard Welker as a dangerous threat.
"I think he plays the game the way it should be played," said Powers. "Every play, he plays as if it's his last play. He blocks when it's (a) run, he's blocking his tail off. When it's (a) pass, he's going 100 miles an hour, even if he's not the number one target or the first read. He plays every play like it's his last (one), and I think that's why he separates himself from the other receivers.
"(He's) definitely a guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder. It's obvious he knows he's not the biggest guy. He knows he's not the fastest guy, but hard work can overtake all those attributes. He does a tremendous job in working his craft, doing whatever he can to get better. He proves it on the field every Sunday."
Powers will be playing in his third Colts-Patriots game and he is aware of Brady's talents as a trigger-man. As for the series, Powers says this year's game retains the same meaning as the previous ones in which he has played.
"He's (Brady) a phenomenal athlete. He's got the stats to prove everything he's done. He's another guy who plays the game the way it should be played. He shows a passion for it. He's arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the league, if not the (best).
"I don't think it's (the series) lost anything. We're still trying to come around that corner, win a few games, get a few wins under our belt, turn this thing around. Guys are still coming to work, trying to work hard to get that done. The Patriots definitely have a lot to prove. They're trying to fight for the best seeding they can in the playoffs. I think both still have a lot to play for. I think the rivalry is not going to lose anything."