Steve Gregory has seen enough of Andrew Luck from afar to realize the challenge the quarterback presents.
Poise. Strong arm. Ability to run and throw on the move. A rare knack for reading pro defenses in his rookie season. You name it.
Now Gregory and his teammates in the New England Patriots secondary must try to stop all that. The starting safety knows that Sunday’s game against the resurgent Indianapolis Colts will be a test for one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses.
”We’ll have to be on top of our game in order to contain the things that he does,” Gregory said Wednesday. ”You could tell the guy’s a leader. He’s taken on the job and he’s been a true professional about it, so he’s definitely doing a great job over there.”
And he’s improving as the season goes on.
In his last game, Luck completed a season-best 69.2 percent of his passes. In the one before that, he threw for a season-high 433 yards.
The Colts have won their past four games, after winning just two all last season, and Luck has three of his top four completion percentages in that stretch.
”He’s gotten better each week,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ”He does a real good job of avoiding the rush but also keeping his eyes downfield and not just pulling the ball down and trying to run or kind of panicking in the pocket.
”He has a lot of poise.”
Luck’s ability to buy time by scrambling away from pass rushers puts a greater burden on defensive backs to stay with their receivers, but the Patriots have allowed the fourth most yards passing in the NFL and have been vulnerable to long completions. They’re coming off a 37-31 win over the Buffalo Bills in which Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 337 yards despite being sacked three times.
The Bills had a chance to win, but Fitzpatrick threw an interception into the end zone with 23 seconds left when rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham ran the wrong route.
”Just like every week,” Gregory said, ”you want to get pressure on the quarterback.”
The two Patriots who have done the best job of that are defensive ends Chandler Jones, with six sacks, and Rob Ninkovich, with five. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork sometimes occupies two blockers, giving the ends more space to operate.
”Their front four is incredibly stout. Wilfork is one of the best nose tackles-interior guys in the league,” Luck said. ”They have very good edge rushers on the sides. They do get to the quarterback and even if it’s not a sack, they sort of harass, force a quarterback out of the pocket. So, that’ll be a focus all week.”
If Luck has plenty of time to throw, the onus will be on the linebackers and defensive backs to keep him from completing passes.
”You want to disguise your coverages,” Gregory said. ”That doesn’t change really too much with who you’re playing. That’s pretty much a staple of what you want to do defensively.”
The Patriots will throw a wild card into the mix with newly acquired cornerback Aqib Talib. He completed his suspension when the Patriots played the Bills after he was traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had to sit out four games without pay for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. He said when he was suspended that he took an Adderall pill without a prescription ”around the beginning of training camp.”
Talib did not talk with reporters after practice, He’s expected to do that on Thursday. Teammates responded briefly to questions about the former first-round draft choice.
”He’s learning,” Ninkovich said. ”He’s hitting the ground running. We’re just here to help him out and help his transition. The great thing about him is he’s a great athlete.”
The Patriots will have their own rookie, like Luck, trying to keep building on his transition to the pros.
”The best thing is having great people around you,” said safety Tavon Wilson, a second-round draft choice from Illinois. ”The older guys here have been great, instrumental in my development. So he probably has those older guys there, like Reggie Wayne, bringing him along.
”He doesn’t play like a rookie. He doesn’t make too many mistakes. When he does make those mistakes, we have to make him pay for them.”