In his last four games against the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark(notes) has pulled in 14 receptions for 257 yards. Clark, who leads all tight ends with 60 catches his season, matched that 14-catch total against the Houston Texans last week when Houston used bracket coverage to deal with Indy's receivers, leaving Clark to abuse talented rookie linebacker Brian Cushing(notes) over the middle. Against the Patriots last year, the Colts lined Clark up at or near the line of scrimmage, hoping for matchups in which linebackers could be put on a string by Peyton Manning's(notes) ability to manipulate with play action. Clark picked up four catches for 63 yards in the Colts' 18-15 win. This year, Manning will be looking more to Clark to make plays, and Clark is clearly qualified to do so. The question is, how will the Pats respond?
Of those four prior games against New England, Clark's only statistical standout came in the 2006 AFC Championship game, which safety Rodney Harrison(notes) missed with a knee injury. Clark caught six passes for 137 yards in the game that finally game the Colts a one-up on their great rivals. Harrison was matched up against Clark in each of the other three games, and Clark totaled eight receptions for 120 yards. Clearly, with Harrison retired, the Pats will have to find a favorable safety coverage scheme to counter Clark.
Fortunately, they have one in the person of Brandon McGowan(notes). The fifth-year player and former Chicago Bear is impressing in his first season with the Pats, especially against marquee tight ends. When he covered Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez(notes), the future Hall-of-Famer caught one pass for 16 yards. When matched up with Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow(notes), Winslow caught two passes for nine yards. He's the main reason New England is giving up only 5.9 catches, and 35.9 yards per game against tight ends. Whether the Colts release Clark into more of a flex role or keep him inside, this will be McGowan's toughest test to date. When asked about Clark this week, Bill Belichick acknowledged the challenge.
"Tight ends are usually hard to match up against: the (defensive backs) don't have the size and the linebackers can't usually match their speed and quickness. Clark runs well; he runs like he's a receiver. When he gets down the field, he's a vertical guy, but he has good quickness and can win underneath."
If McGowan can keep with Clark and prevent Manning from using his absence up top as an excuse to exploit other defenders with the deep pass, the Patriots will take a big step forward to winning this always-compelling game.