Here are the 10 matchups we’ll be looking for in Sunday’s Patriots-Colts game at Gillette Stadium:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Matt Light against Dwight Freeney: The New England left tackle and the Indianapolis defensive end have engaged in some memorable duels over the years, dating all the way back to 2002 when Freeney was a rookie out of Syracuse and Light was a second-year left tackle out of Purdue. Neither of them is the force that they used to be (Freeney is on pace for just the third season of his career with less than 10 sacks, while Light has given up a team-high 22 quarterback pressures this season), but should go up against each other for much of the game on Sunday. The best chance for the Colts to get some disruption on Brady is to get pressure from their defensive ends -- if Light can keep Tom Brady clean on Sunday, it will go a long way toward ensuring another successful afternoon for the New England passing game.
Nate Solder against Robert Mathis: With Vollmer on the shelf (for what some believe will be an extended stretch), the right tackle job falls to Solder for the foreseeable future. New England’s Rookie of the Year at this point, he has been asked to play more snaps than the Patriots are likely comfortable with this season (538 of a possible 799 offensive snaps), and has done well. He’ll get one of his sternest tests of the season Sunday going against Mathis, who is second on the team behind Freeney in quarterback hits and pressures. Both Solder (and Light, for that matter) will get some help from tight end Rob Gronkowski as a blocker. One point: the Patriots were able to get help from Solder the last few weeks as an extra tight end helping Vollmer and Light against the Kansas City and Philadelphia pass rushes. With Solder expected to go wire-to-wire at right tackle, we’ll see who (if anyone) the Patriots press into service as an extra tight end to help serve as a blocker.
Wes Welker against Jerraud Powers: Powers has probably been the Colts most consistent defensive back over the last month, and will likely draw Welker when Indianapolis is in man coverage against the pass. (Powers has six passes defensed and two interceptions on the season) After two weeks where Welker was held relatively in check (he had a combined eight catches for 68 yards and no touchdowns against the Jets and Chiefs), he busted out again last week against the Eagles with eight catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
BenJarvus Green Ellis against Philip Wheeler: We talked about it here, but this would appear to be a very good week to be a New England running back. The Colts are one of the worst teams in the league at shutting down the run, while Green-Ellis and the rest of the Patriots’ running backs appear to be rounding into form at the right time. (Good things happen for the Patriots when Green-Ellis runs the football: in New England’s three losses, Green-Ellis averaged 26.3 yards rushing. In the Patriots’ eight wins, he’s averaging 63.3 yards.) Wheeler is Indianapolis’ best linebacker when it comes to stopping the run (according to our pals at PFF, he grades out as +7.4 against the run, and has been in run defense for almost 2/3 of his total snaps this season), and will likely be asked to be one of the primaries in helping slow down the New England running game.
Rob Gronkowski against the Indianapolis pass defense: In much the same way that the Patriots should be able to run the ball consistently against the Colts, if Light and Solder keep Freeney and Mathis away from Brady, New England should be able to throw the ball without much problem against Indianapolis ... considering that the Colts do not have a single linebacker or defensive back that grades out positively in pass coverage, according to PFF. As he has been all season long, Gronkowski remains a matchup problem for opposing defenses -- he is too big and physical to be covered by a defensive back, and too fast to be checked by a linebacker. The two likeliest candidates to get after Gronkowski are defensive back Antoine Bethea and linebacker Pat Angerer, two of Indy’s best defenders not named Mathis or Freeney. (Angerer has been a pleasant surprise this year for Indy -- the second-year linebacker out of Iowa leads the NFL tackles.)
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots’ pass defense against Dan Orlovsky: Since arriving in the NFL out of UConn, it’s almost like Orlovsky -- by all accounts, a nice guy -- has been cursed. He ran out of the back of the end zone. He was the starting quarterback on the only 0-16 team in NFL history. He forgot his helmet. Along the way, he’s never won a game as a starting quarterback in the NFL -- seven starts, seven seasons, seven losses. Orlovsky has completed 14 of 21 passes for 122 yards in mop-up duty this season. It’ll be the third straight week the Patriots will be going against a backup/non-starter at quarterback, and the second time in two weeks they’ll face a quarterback they’ve never seen. Expect a variety of looks for Orlovsky, as New England will try and make the career backup as uncomfortable as possible.
The Patriots’ run defense Donald Brown: These days, Brown is likely the most consistent thing about the Indianapolis offense. The former UConn Husky has 356 rushing yards this season -- not the most impressive total, but it’s important to remember he has only recently taken over the starting job, and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, one of the best totals in the league. The Patriots’ run defense remains in the upper half of the league when it comes to stopping the run (New England allows an average of 102.4 yards per game on the ground, 11th best in the league), and will likely spend much of their afternoon keying on Brown.
Devin McCourty against Pierre Garcon: It looks more and more like the second-year corner out of Rutgers will return to the lineup Sunday after injuring his shoulder three weeks ago when he was drilled accidentally by teammate Sterling Moore in a win over the Jets. While the Patriots will likely mix their coverages, expect McCourty to see a healthy dose of Garcon, who is emerging as the Colts’ No. 1 receiver. (He has 46 catches for 655 yards and four touchdowns, with the yardage and touchdowns surpassing the totals of veteran Reggie Wayne.)
Andre Carter against Antony Castonzo: Carter, who is tied for second in the AFC with nine sacks, was held without a sack last week for the first time in three weeks in the win over the Eagles, but will be looking to turn things around this week when he goes up against the rookie out of Boston College. Castonzo has been a bit of a mixed bag this season when it comes to working as the Colts’ left tackle -- according to our pals over at Pro Football Focus, he’s performed well against the Texans, Browns and Panthers, but has struggled against the Jaguars and Steelers, two teams with better than average pass rushes. PFF says Castonzo has yielded two sacks, three quarterback hits and 10 quarterback pressures this season.
Julian Edelman against the Colts’ offense: The wide receiver has earned a spot on the New England defense the last three games, getting serious snaps in nickel and dime coverage the last two weeks against the Chiefs and the Eagles. (He had some very good moments last week against Philadelphia, including an impressive open-field tackle on Vince Young in the third quarter, keeping the Eagles quarterback out of the end zone. In addition, he nearly sacked Young before delivering a well-executed -- and legal -- hit to his midsection.) It will be interesting to see if he gets any more reps this week, especially in the wake of the recent release of Phillip Adams. (Patriots coach Bill Belichick hinted that Edelman could see more time on defense going forward.)