Indianapolis Colts fans who have been critical of Jerraud Powers this season might be missing him this afternoon when the Colts take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. I say that not out of a lack of confidence for Cassius Vaughn or Darius Butler, but for the "trickle down" effect Powers' injury will have in the Colts' secondary.
The Colts came into 2012 with only one proven NFL caliber starter, Powers. GM Ryan Grigson traded for Vaughn and Vontae Davis. With Davis also out due to injury, Vaughn has been thrown into the starting role for most of the season. He's acquitted himself fairly well with the exception of having a penchant for drawing flags. Still, his play has been more than capable thus far.
Darius Butler, meanwhile, came to Indianapolis a little over a month ago knowing that this might be his last shot at making it in the NFL. The former second round pick of the Patriots had already been cut in New England and Carolina. Getting his first start for the Colts last week in Jacksonville, Butler turned in a performance that earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He had three turnovers, including a key pick six that put the Colts comfortably out in front. Heading back to New England, Butler is sure to be motivated to redeem himself against the team that let him go.
For their part, the Patriots come into today's games banged up at receiver. Wes Welker will miss the game with an injury. That leaves only Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman as healthy regulars. The Patriots cut injured veteran Deion Branch on Saturday to bring up Greg Salas from the practice squad. Tight end Aaron Hernandez will also be a scratch for New England, so Tom Brady's targets are limited.
But then there's "Gronk." Rob Gronkowski is redefining the tight end position in the NFL. He possesses the speed and agility of a slot receiver and the size of a tight end. Try to cover him with a linebacker and watch him beat the coverage deep. Put a corner or safety on him and he just boxes them out like a power forward and feasts on the underneath passes.
The Colts have struggled this year covering in their nickel package. Despite being short bodies, the Patriots' offensive M.O. is to spread teams out and let Tom Brady take whatever is available. For the Colts, that means a lot of snaps for Josh Gordy and maybe even newly signed cornerback Teddy Williams. In any case, these players are going to have to defend Edelman in space on a lot of crossing routes, something they've not done well to this point.
As for Gronkowski, the Colts would be wise to bracket him with a linebacker and a defensive back and force Tom Brady to beat them with his limited receiving corps. Neither Pat Angerer or Kavell Conner can cover Gronkowski down the field and Tom Zbikowski at safety doesn't have the size to stay with the big tight end. Greg Manusky should dedicate two players on every snap to follow Gronkowski and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course stopping RB Stevan Ridley has to be a priority as well. He's got the ability to dominate on the ground, but isn't much of a threat out of the backfield, having caught only six passes all season. That further strengthens the case for dedicating a linebacker to bracket Gronkowski.
The Colts have more than just a puncher's chance today. The New England defense is struggling and Andrew Luck should be able to put some points on the board. As we've mentioned, the receiving corps is limited and unspectacular. Still, there's a Hall of Famer in their huddle and Tom Brady make the Colts pay for any lapse in coverage. Unlike Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Tannehill in the past couple of weeks, Brady won't miss if the Colts give him a window.
If the Colts can get to Brady and force him into some early throws and possibly a turnover or two, they could come out of Foxboro with the win. That's a tall order though.
Final score: Patriots 31, Colts 27
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