Happy Tuesday, friends. We’ve gotten a couple of emails lately wondering how the Broncos are going to deal with the loss of Chris Harris, their best and most consistent defensive back.
The simple answer is that the other defensive backs are going to have to step up. Duh, right?
I’m going to go a little beyond that today, even in a brief little post. The Broncos are actually pretty lucky right now, because none of the other three teams left in the playoffs are particularly well-built to capitalize on the loss of Harris.
The Patriots come first, and what I’d tell you there is that any Broncos fan who wants to cry about injuries should probably get in line behind Patriots fans. Their defense is absolutely decimated, and they have to play against a practically full-strength Broncos offense that is probably the greatest of all time.
The Patriots are missing their whole planned interior group of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Brandon Spikes, and Jerod Mayo, and they’re starting Dane Fletcher at MLB, with Joe Vellano and Chris Jones at DT. Remember, Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards against them in November, mostly up the middle, so this is a big deal.
They’ve also had some injuries in their secondary lately, limiting corners Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington, and also safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory. That’s pretty sub-optimal for them too.
The real problem they have, though, is on offense. They’re missing their best player in TE Rob Gronkowski, and they significantly lack threatening weapons in the passing game without him.
Julian Edelman has had a pretty good season, but he averaged 10 yards per catch as a guy who plays as much outside as he does in the slot. You think of him as a slot guy, because he’s little and white, but 73 of his 146 targets this year came outside. The real slot guy is oft-injured Danny Amendola, who is also little and white, and who had 67 of his 82 targets come inside.
Rookie Aaron Dobson has been hurt, and mostly ineffective when he plays, and classmate Kenbrell Thompkins isn’t very scary himself. At TE, the Patriots' current go-to guy is blocker Michael Hoomanawanui, who played all 74 snaps against the Colts. The number-two guy is Matthew Mulligan.
How exactly are the Patriots going to exploit the lack of Harris? They might make a few plays, here and there, but they don’t have a personnel advantage over the Broncos secondary that portends to allow them to keep with the Broncos offense in a clean game.
The real challenge for the Broncos will be slowing down the Patriots running game. A good place to start would be identifying which RB is in the game, because it gives away the intention of the offense. Against Indianapolis, LeGarrette Blount played 27 snaps, during which he ran the ball 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. Stevan Ridley played 23 snaps, during which he carried 14 times, and the Patriots passed nine times. Shane Vereen played 24 snaps, and the Patriots passed 19 times, with Vereen carrying five times.
The Patriots ripped the Colts on the ground because they were attacking Indy’s biggest weakness with what is their own current biggest strength. The Pats have a very good offensive line, and TEs who are more adept at blocking than catching the football.
If the Broncos can hold up in run defense, and keep the Pats in long yardage situations, I’m bullish on their chances to handle the New England passing game, which is a shell of its former efficient self.
I’ll put it to you like this – this year, Tom Brady threw 31 fewer passes than Peyton Manning, and had 70 fewer completions. Those completions netted Brady and his team 1,134 fewer yards and 30 fewer touchdown passes than Manning and the Broncos had.
The Patriots aren’t winning a shootout on Sunday unless they get some significant help in the turnover game. The Broncos are lucky to be facing them when they don’t have much talent at WR.
As for the Super Bowl, the story is the same for San Francisco and Seattle. They lack the depth outside to really threaten the Broncos secondary. If the Chargers or Bengals were coming to town this week, or the Bears, Packers, or Saints were going to be in the Super Bowl, I’d be more worried about the loss of Harris.
Since the three teams left don’t really count receiving depth among their strengths, I think it will be less meaningful than people think. If the Broncos lose, I doubt it will be because Chris Harris got hurt. I think the Broncos will play to their existing defensive scheme, and be fine, more or less.