Happy Sunday, friends. It's been a hellacious week for me, and it's been a few days since I've had time to write. I decided to share some thoughts today on how the Broncos should try to match up with New England today. Obviously, these are two good teams who both find themselves with 2-2 records, and this game will likely end up influencing the AFC playoff picture.
First of all, let's say something that's obvious, but that Broncos fans willfully choose to get wrong. The Patriots are extremely well-coached and schemed on both sides of the ball. Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit, but quite a few Broncos fans are wrongly convinced that Josh McDaniels is a bad coach. The Patriots had a couple three-and-outs early last week against Buffalo, and I saw a couple Broncos fans on Twitter saying it was the "McDaniels effect." The Patriots then promptly scored six straight touchdowns, and swamped the Bills.
Let's take a look at what the Patriots are doing on both sides of the ball, and think about how the Broncos can find success against them.
The Patriots have a tremendous set of weapons in the passing game, and lack only a true deep threat. I realize that Brandon Lloyd is often considered to be one, but I don't think he's the kind of guy who has the speed to take the top off a defense. What Lloyd is, is a really unique outside receiver who works the sideline extremely well, and catches many difficult passes. Wes Welker is still excellent in the slot, and after a bunch of small-sample analysis saying the Patriots were phasing him out, Welker is back to catching a bunch of passes.
The TEs may or may not be healthy, but for my money, the Patriots have the two most dangerous ones in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski is tall, agile, and faster than he looks. Aaron Hernandez, who probably won't play, has the build of a shorter TE, the run skills of a RB, and the precise route-running skills of a WR. When the Patriots use Danny Woodhead, that gives them five capable receivers on the field, and defenses are almost forced to play zone.
I've been impressed with the Patriots offensive line this season, both in protection and in the run game. The most interesting development of McDaniels 2.0 has been the return to the running game, featuring Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden. When an offense can run the ball, it really opens up the intermediate passing game on play-action. The Patriots are back to featuring a lot of that this season, and it's been very effective.
In order for a defense to have a good chance to beat New England, it has to do a solid job stopping the run with seven players, so that it can keep more than one man deep. I think the Broncos have a good shot to be solid up front without dropping the eighth man into the box. The drafting of Derek Wolfe changed the Broncos, because it gave them a third 300-pounder up front. Because he's held up so well, and because Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson are also doing an excellent job, the Broncos have been stout with seven.
I also think that Elvis Dumervil is going his best-ever job anchoring in the running game, and that Von Miller has become a monster on the edge. Doug pointed to a Greg Bedard article today suggesting that the Patriots should try to run outside on Denver, but I don't see that being very effective.
If the Broncos can play two deep safeties, they'll have a solid chance of slowing down the New England passing game. One thing we've seen over the years is that when teams can pressure Brady, they can cause him to struggle. Look for the Broncos to blitz some, and then use Von Miller in coverage against Gronkowski some. I think that Jack Del Rio will mix it up, and that the idea that he's going to coach scared and keep it basic is silly.
Ordinarily, with Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots like to stay in 12 personnel, and force defenses to choose between base and nickel defense. As they'll likely be missing Hernandez, I expect the Patriots to play more 11 personnel (with Deion Branch as the third WR), and the Broncos to counter with small nickel (with Chris Harris as the extra DB). When the Pats play 12 personnel with Daniel Fells as the second TE, the Broncos should play base.
The Patriots are going to have some success on offense, but the trick to this game is to make them move in small chunks, and to limit the Pats to field goals rather than touchdowns.
The Patriots, for years, were a DB-centric defense. Now, their secondary is their weakness, and it's limited their ability to be very creative with their coverages. Belichick has smartly shifted to playing a lot of Cover 2 and trying to force the opposing offense to pick up small chunks.
The key to being succesful in Cover 2 is stopping the run with seven men. The Patriots have an excellent DT in Vince Wilfork, and he's the nexus to being strong enough up front to do so. Rookie DE Chandler Jones has done a good job setting the edge, and starting LBs Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower are all excellent run players.
I don't think the Patriots pass rush is very frightening, and neither is their coverage. Spikes and Hightower are suspect in coverage, and all of their DBs can be had. The Broncos should run the ball, and work play-action into Cover 2-beating concepts. I'm sure the Patriots will use some Cover 3 to try to take away the seams, but that opens up the flats.
From a personnel grouping perspective, I favor more 11 personnel than 12 in this game for the Broncos. That's because I think that getting Hightower off the field in favor of Ras-I Dowling or Sterling Moore is a favorable trade for the Broncos. I'm indifferent on Brandon Stokley or Jacob Tamme as receivers, so I'm always looking at which one puts the worse defender on the field.
I think the Broncos can run outside on the Patriots, and that their crossing and vertical passing game can be very effective. The Patriots defense is full of guys who can catch, so Peyton Manning is going to have to be careful, but I am confident that he's going to be able to throw the ball in the seams of the zones, and get points on the board today.
Overall, i see this game being a shootout, where offense mostly beats defense. The Patriots have a better offense, and the Broncos have a better defense, and as trite as it sounds, this is going to be a game that's about execution.