COLTS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
The Patriots enter this game with an ultra-aggressive team total of 30.75, on a short week, with a potentially hobbled Rob Gronkowski. But while this total leaps off the page at first glance, we would realistically have called anything shy of this a “low total,” making this a sharp line — and a fair expectation for this game.
There are a lot of things the Patriots will be able to do against the Colts’ upstart defense, and the big question on the other side of the ball will be whether or not the Colts are able to keep pace without their best offensive player in T.Y. Hilton. The Colts are dealing with a slew of injuries in other areas on their roster, making this a spot in which A) we can expect the Pats to exploit some of these weaknesses, and B) we can expect the Colts to turn to a pass-heavy game plan in order to keep pace.
COLTS PASS OFFENSE
A pass-heavy game plan will be nothing new for the Colts, as they currently rank second in the NFL in passing play percentage, at 71%. To put that number further into perspective: Miami led the NFL in passing play percentage in 2017, at 63.8%. With a poor offensive line and no run game to speak of, Indy is relying on short, quick passes in lieu of a run game — though last week, for the first time this season, Indy started getting their deep ball going as well.
The starting point for this offense is Andrew Luck, who still does not look right, in spite of some glossy stat lines. In Week 4, his short-area ball placement was concerning, with plenty of passes falling short of receivers or going behind receivers — which serves as a reminder that Luck has missed a ton of football, and is still settling back into his rhythm. We should be able to expect him to continue improving each week, but this week will be a difficult task with no T.Y. Hilton, who currently accounts for almost 30% of the Colts’ air yards this season.
In addition to Luck’s woes as a passer, he dealt with a number of soft drops from his receivers — with Eric Ebron and Zach Pascal especially standing out in this area. This will be a difficult spot for Indy from an efficiency standpoint.
With all of that out of the way, volume should be a big plus for this offense. We cannot expect them to run 91 plays every week, of course; but coming into last week, they did rank eighth in the NFL in plays per drive, and the pass-heavy nature of this attack should still lead to around 45 pass attempts this week — a lofty projection, but likely not far off from what the reality will prove to be. The Patriots quietly rank fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt, and it’s not as if the Colts can really test them downfield without Hilton; but Luck is good enough to sustain drives and rack up PPR and half-PPR points for his pass catchers.
Without Hilton, the work on this passing attack should be spread fairly evenly among Eric Ebron (Week 4: 83.5% snap rate; 10 targets), Ryan Grant (79.1% snap rate; seven targets), Chester Rogers (80.2% snap rate; 11 targets), Nyheim Hines (68.1% snap rate; 11 targets), and Zach Pascal (49.5% snap rate; 10 targets).
As those numbers show: the ball gets spread around fairly evenly in this offense, and that should remain the case with Hilton out of action.
Ebron is being used almost exclusively as a receiver, with 50 snaps in the slot last week (and another six out wide), compared to only 20 inline. He has 21.1% of the team’s air yards to date and should remain a reliable volume piece.
Grant is used as a possession receiver and will likely need a touchdown or two in order to go for ceiling, against a Patriots team that tackles well, but the targets should be there for respectable floor.
Rogers saw his route tree expand last week, seeing a pair of targets more than 20 yards downfield, after working almost exclusively within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage through the first three weeks (he did still have nine targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage last week, including a couple behind the line of scrimmage). This actually gives him some decent floor/ceiling, as the short-area targets should be locked in for PPR and half-PPR points, while the downfield looks will provide opportunities for spiked production.
Pascal came closest to taking over the Hilton role last week during the time Hilton missed, and the touchdown pass he caught was on a play designed to go to him — speaking to the faith this coaching staff has in his abilities. As a route-runner and player, he looked solid.
Hines is a true force as a mismatch weapon, with the way the Colts are using him out of the backfield and out wide as a multi-purpose back. He has exactly four or five carries every game, to go with target counts of nine, one, five, and 11. With Hilton out and the Colts likely to fall behind in this one by the second half, Hines should be in line for around eight looks once again.
With so many guys involved, volume is obviously a concern if things in this game turn poorly, and we will need the Colts to sustain drives in order for all these guys to perform; but with the Patriots likely to take a lead and the Colts missing Hilton, at least four of those guys could top nine FanDuel points and 12 DraftKings points, and at least a couple of them should spike for really nice scores.
Jordan Wilkins continues to operate as an ineffective two-down thumper, and his ability to read blocks still needs serious work (he set up Pascal’s touchdown this last week when he turned upfield too quickly and failed to bounce his run outside for what should have been an easy score). As we saw on Monday night with Royce Freeman: a guy like this can post a nice game with a score…but he’ll need a score.
(Note: Marlon Mack will not play in this game. Give the biggest boost to Hines, with locked-in work in the pass-catching role.)
The big wrinkle in this spot — which makes all of these guys scarier than they otherwise would be — is the return of Marlon Mack. Mack could soak up as many as 20 to 40 snaps of his own, with six to eight runs and maybe even six to eight targets. This could lower the target expectations on all the guys above. The Colts will want to get the ball into Mack’s hands; but the same can be said of Hines, at this point, so I don’t expect him to be as directly impacted by Mack’s return as their position designations would imply. Mack should take targets away from the rest of the team in a “group effort” manner. If Luck throws 45 times, a fair expectation for targets would look something like this:
Eight :: Ebron
Seven :: Rogers
Seven :: Pascal
Seven :: Hines
Six :: Grant
Five :: Mack
With the remaining five targets spread across random players from there (Marcus Johnson soaked up three targets last week, and will likely see another two or three here).
Those are median projections, and could swing either way, but that’s a safe expectation heading in.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Sure enough, the Colts’ upstart zone defense was shown to be exploitable downfield last week against DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Deshaun Watson, and the dangerous aerial attack of the Texans — and a big key last week was Watson’s ability to move around and avoid pressure while his receivers found open space. While Tom Brady does not have Watson’s mobility, he is able to manipulate the pocket as well as any quarterback in football, and his offensive line entered last week ranked seventh in adjusted sack rate, compared to 28th for Houston. This should allow the Patriots’ receivers to find open space throughout the game.
The key to the Pats’ passing attack will be the short areas of the field, where Julian Edelman will return to immediately regain his underneath role that should lead to around eight to 11 targets week in and week out. Across his last 39 games (2014 through 2016), Edelman has only four 100-yard games; and while he had an outlier seven-touchdown season in 2015 (in only nine games played), he totaled only four touchdowns in 2014 and three touchdowns in 2016. Monster upside is rarely Edelman’s calling card, but he should be a reliable producer right out of the gate, and he is entering the year underpriced compared to expectations.
With Edelman back, Phillip Dorsett is the guy likeliest to take a playing time hit, in spite of posting 16 catches on 26 targets so far, to eight catches on 15 targets for Chris Hogan. Hogan has continued to operate ahead of Dorsett, playing 70 snaps to Dorsett’s 57. The Patriots like Hogan’s versatility — though it’s tough to predict a breakout game here. Hogan would be well off the radar on the full-weekend slate, but he’s going to have a few big, out-of-nowhere outings this season, and he does have the skill set to find open areas on the Colts’ back end.
Josh Gordon only played 18 snaps last week, and it seems unlikely the Patriots expand his role too much on a short week. Gordon will likely see his playing time spike in Week 6, with the Patriots receiving this mini-bye that will give them more time to work him in. Once Gordon becomes more involved, he is ultimately going to eat into the playing time of Dwayne Allen (45 snaps last week), with the Patriots running fewer two tight end sets.
Rob Gronkowski did not practice on Monday or Tuesday and is listed as questionable for this game — though there is little concern over his availability at the moment. If Gronk does miss, this will theoretically create a path to more playing time for Gordon, but the likeliest scenario will be a “group effort” to replace him, with Dorsett, Hogan, Edelman, and James White taking on the largest share of the pass game pie. If Gronk plays, there is no reason to be concerned about his ceiling — though defenses continue to focus on him with no major downfield threat to worry about, lowering his usage and production floors below where we typically expect to find them.
Indy is dealing with major injuries on defense, with starting safety Clayton Geathers, starting corner Nate Hairston, and stud rookie linebacker Darius Leonard all questionable. The Colts have other injuries behind these guys, which the Patriots will likely take advantage of by going up-tempo in order to tire out this skeleton unit.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
Indy presents a non-threatening run matchup — especially as this team is so comfortable playing with five defensive backs, and will likely be back-on-their-heels this week due to injuries.
In Week 5, the Pats gave 40 snaps (and 29 pass routes) to James White, while giving 33 snaps (and three pass routes) to Sony Michel. White will likely see a dip in pass game work with Edelman back, after seeing eight to 10 targets in three of four games so far; but given how little the Patriots trust Michel in the pass game at the moment, White will still be on the field enough to produce.
Michel looked a lot better last week, with the Patriots getting him outside the tackles a number of times and allowing his quickness to create problems for the Dolphins’ defense. Michel will be a yardage-and-touchdown- back for the time being, with very little pass game involvement; but there is opportunity this week for yardage to pile up again, and for touchdown chances to be there.
From a pure “fantasy points scored” perspective, the Colts are best targeted on the Showdown slate, with the return of Marlon Mack throwing some of our certainty out of the window; but from a price-considered standpoint, Ebron, Pascal, and Rogers could all be used on the main slate, while Hines carries big price-considered upside to go with his Mack-introduced uncertainty. Andrew Luck should be able to pile up a good 30 or so completions, with somewhere around 300 yards and a couple touchdowns — creating plenty of room for floor across the main pieces on the Colts, with a couple of these guys likely spiking for a strong game.
On the Patriots, we know that someone will likely post a big game — but as always with this team, it’s a guessing game as to who that will be. Edelman comes in underpriced and should make an impact right away, though “monster games” are rarely in his range. He’s a strong piece, but it is likely that someone on this team outscores him. The best candidates, in order, are Gronk // Michel // White // Hogan // Dorsett // Gordon. It really won’t be “surprising” if any of those guys pop off for a big game, but I wouldn’t reach beyond the first four until large-field stuff. Cordarrelle Patterson will also remain involved, with iffy volume and big-play upside.
If you want to collect all of the points on one of these offenses, either quarterback is a solid play. The Patriots are the better defensive unit on the Showdown slate.