Thinking through defending the Patriots

Happy Tuesday, friends.  Assuming the Broncos can take care of business against Cleveland and Kansas City in the next couple weeks, it’s looking like the Patriots will be in line to make a trip to SAF@MH in the divisional round of the playoffs.  I thought it might be fun to think through some ideas for defending them, the next time they play the Broncos.

First of all, I’ve been advocating playing straight-up Cover 2 against New England, and hoping to get some stops.  After Sunday night’s 49ers-Patriots game, not so much.  If anybody could be successful playing zone, the 49ers would have been the team.  They did play pretty well in man-to-man, though, and that tells me it can be done.  Let’s start this exercise with that thought - that good man-to-man coverage can be effective.

The Patriots are difficult because both their talent and their scheme are outstanding.  The parts fit well together, and Tom Brady always has somewhere to go with the ball quickly if he gets blitzed.  Let’s say that blitzing very often is a bad idea, based on the evidence.

New England likes to switch between 11 and 12 personnel, roughly half the time each.  They’re most dangerous when both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are healthy, and both are on the field in 12 personnel.  The defense is forced to decide between playing nickel or base, and for most teams, either choice is wrong.  Gronkowski is an excellent blocker, and the Patriots will run all over you in nickel, and base defense is going to tend to leave you with a LB who can’t cover one of the TEs or a RB.

With Gronkowski out Sunday night, the 49ers played nickel and weren’t forced to pay for it by the Patriots running game.  I would advocate for the Broncos trying to go nickel too, with one big DT being the odd man out.  Against 11 personnel, I’d want three cornerbacks (we’ll call this small nickel, with Tony Carter being the third CB ), and against 12 personnel, I’d want three safeties (big nickel, with Jim Leonhard being the third safety).

For this to work, first of all, the front six have to do work against the running game.  Let’s say that’s Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Wesley Woodyard, and D.J. Williams.  Robert Ayers, Justin Bannan, and Danny Trevathan can substitute in, and I think you want to minimize Keith Brooking’s snaps in this theoretical game.

Assuming the run defense is solid, it’s time to start thinking about coverage.  The 49ers did the job Sunday by putting their best cover guy (Carlos Rogers) on Wes Welker, and their best coverage LB (Patrick Willis) on Hernandez.  It mostly worked, although Hernandez had solid stats, on the surface, with 10 catches for 92 yards and a TD.  He was targeted 19 times, though, and holding a guy that good to 4.8 yards per target is winning.

The guy who had the huge game was Brandon Lloyd, with 10 catches for 190 yards, on 16 targets.  A lot of that happened in the second half of the game, when the Niners started playing more zone, to their detriment.  Still, you have to be mindful of Lloyd, who is as good a receiver as there is in the NFL from the numbers to the sideline.  (He’s a huge reason why zone doesn’t work, incidentally, because his ability to catch the ball on the sideline stretches the zone horizontally.)

Let’s picture the Patriots base personnel as Stevan Ridley, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Lloyd, and Welker, and we’ll make adjustments from there.  On defense, my coverage guys are Champ Bailey, Harris, Rahim Moore, Mike Adams, Leonhard, Woodyard, and Williams.

Moore is going to be my single-high free safety.  He’ll be assigned to play centerfield, and limit big plays.  Outside, I want to change it up in this game, and have Bailey cover Welker, and Harris cover Lloyd.  Welker dominated Harris in October, and I don’t really want to see a repeat of that.  I think that Bailey could shut him down, and that changes the offense.

As for the tight ends, I want Mike Adams on Gronkowski, and D.J. Williams on Hernandez.  Woodyard gets Ridley, and Leonhard can be a robber, to be deployed in an intermediate zone, based upon the offensive look.  I’d vary it, but in general, I’d want Leonhard hanging out on whatever side had two out of three from among Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker.  He’d be in a position to help out quickly on a receiver in the intermediate area, and to fill a gap in the running game.

I don’t think 11 personnel is as good a group for the Patriots, but when they use it, presumably with Deion Branch replacing Hernandez, Tony Carter would take him, and D.J. Williams would become an underneath bracket defender on Gronkowski, with Adams over the top.  (There’s no robber in this idea.) 

One thing that the Patriots like to do often is sub out Ridley, who isn’t a good receiver, for Danny Woodhead, who is.  Then they’ll walk out Woodhead wide in empty sets, and see who lines up on him.  If it’s a corner, that indicates zone; if it’s a linebacker, that indicates man-to-man.  The Broncos like to play a lot of man, so trying to surprise the Patriots is probably a wasted effort.  The 49ers used Navorro Bowman on Woodhead, to good effect.  The Broncos should similarly walk out Woodyard on him, when he lines up wide.

Those are the Patriots’ base personnel groupings, and they run a ton of subtly different formations from them.  The Broncos don’t need to worry about that, though, from a substitution perspective.  Playing at home, the high-tempo one-word run game will be less of an issue too, if the Broncos can keep the crowd engaged in the game.

Tactics-wise, I’d like to see the Broncos use more stunts than they’ve typically liked to do.  The Patriots show some problems dealing with end-tackle stunts, and that should be taken advantage of.  I’d also like to see them not switch open and closed sides against New England, because when you’re switching, that’s when the Patriots like to snap the ball.

I believe that the Broncos can do just about everything that the 49ers did on Sunday night, and that they can have a similarly strong defensive performance.  If they’re playing at home, and the offense is having a good, efficient game, that would put the Broncos in a really strong position to win, and advance to the AFC Championship game.

If they get a 31-3 lead, though, I’ll be mad if they start playing a soft zone.  We can at least hope that lesson was learned.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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