Thoughts on the Patriots game

Happy Friday, friends.  I’ve spent all week (9 to 5 every day) in an SAP workshop that’s part of my MBA program, and it’s had me busy day and night.  (I don’t know why I expected different, but I did.)  As such, I haven’t had much time to write or watch film lately.  I haven’t seen any Patriots stuff since they played the Broncos, so I don’t have any great new insight to offer on that front.  What I was thinking I’d do is share some strategy thoughts for tomorrow night’s game, heavily leveraging what I saw four weeks ago and what I’ve seen lately from the Broncos.  Something is better than nothing, right?  For more detail, you can refer to my Digesting piece from a month ago.

The Broncos finally hit some throws against heavy boxes against Pittsburgh, and it won them the game, obviously.  I didn’t expect Pittsburgh to play the Broncos any differently than they play anybody else, but they did.  They played a lot of nine in the box, and they played their CBs in man coverage, which isn’t their strength.  I don’t think that Dick LeBeau had a particularly good plan, and I think that Mike McCoy had a very good plan.

This week, I think that the Patriots will do what they usually do on defense, which is try to limit big plays and force the opposing offense to execute for long, sustained drives.  It’s a similar mindset to a Tampa-2 team, and it dovetails nicely with a high-scoring offense.  The Patriots will mix up their coverages and box counts, and they’ll give up plenty of yards between the 20s.  They rely on forcing turnovers and holding offenses to field goals in the scoring area.  That’s why it doesn’t matter that they’re the 32nd-ranked defense, because they’re 15th in scoring defense and 3rd in scoring offense.

Let me run that back for you, so you can fully appreciate it – the Patriots outscore teams 32 to 21, and they only outgain them 428 yards to 411.  How do you do that?  You do it by consistently winning the turnover battle, and by being really good in both red zone offense and defense.  The Patriots have always counted on those conditions.  That’s why they (and those who learned NFL football from Bill Belichick) tend to like defensive backs like Asante Samuel or Kyle Arrington or Alphonso Smith, who may not be too great in coverage, but who can catch the football.

I’m not a stats guy, as everybody knows, but let’s get some simple math into this:

  Yards Points Yards per Point NFL Rank
Patriots Offense 6848 513 13.35 4th
Patriots Defense 6577 342 19.23 2nd
         
Broncos Offense 5066 309 16.39 21st
Broncos Defense 5725 390 14.68 24th
         
NFL Average Offense 5549 355 15.63 17th (tied with Houston)
NFL Average Defense 5549 355 15.63 18th (between Cincinnati and Atlanta)

You can consider this to be similar to a measurement of conversion cost in a manufacturing environment, where yards are like labor and overhead cost, and points are finished goods.  The Patriots take two less yards to score a point than the average NFL team, and they force their opponents to gain almost four yards more to score a point than the average NFL team.  This is why they win so frequently, period. 

The Broncos are below average in both measures, as you can see.  Defensively, their main problem is that they played the following teams this year:

Rk Tm G Pts Yds Yds/Point
1 Green Bay Packers 16 560 6482 11.58
3 New York Jets 16 377 4989 13.23
4 New England Patriots 16 513 6848 13.35
5 Detroit Lions 16 474 6337 13.37
7 Chicago Bears 16 353 5026 14.24
9 Cincinnati Bengals 16 344 5118 14.88
11 Buffalo Bills 16 372 5624 15.12

Offensively, the Broncos weren’t as good at sustaining drives as they need to be.  With a guy like Tim Tebow, who is a threat to throw and run, the Broncos should be well above average in the scoring area, but they haven’t been as successful at getting down the field as they need to be.  They have had too many three-and-outs, and even beyond that, they’ve had a number of possessions with a couple first downs that end in a punt.  (Foxball doesn’t particularly help this stat, with the orientation toward punting on 4th and 1 from the plus 40.)

Now, last week against Pittsburgh, the Broncos had a pretty high-efficiency game on offense (for them) – they converted 447 yards into 29 points, an average of 15.41 yards per point.  That’s only a yard per point better than usual, but the real story is that they got about 1.4 normal games’ worth of yards in one game, against the number one yardage defense in the NFL.

Yards aren’t going to be a huge problem for the Broncos this week – the way the Patriots play defense virtually guarantees that they’ll give up yards.  For the Broncos to win, they’re going to have to efficiently convert those yards into points.

Now, how do the Broncos do that?  I think if the Patriots want to give the Broncos seven-man boxes and play two-deep safeties, Mike McCoy should be very happy to just run the ball at them for 60 minutes.  The Broncos can sustain a lot of drives running the ball if defenses aren’t going to sell out to stop it.  Now, you can’t fumble, and you can’t take holding penalties, but if you can stay mistake-free and gain 4.8 yards per carry, running the ball is a perfectly legitimate way to move down the field.

The hope, of course, is that the Patriots will start cheating up one of those safeties and opening up the vertical passing game against their suspect outside cover guys.  I doubt that the Patriots will want to do that very much, though.  They’re counting on their conversion efficiency being higher than that of the Broncos, and they would be perfectly happy for the Broncos to grind out 65 yards in 13 plays and take 7 minutes off the clock, only to kick a Field Goal.  That’s a win for the Patriots, and the Broncos need to avoid that on Saturday night.  They need to be pretty close to matching New England in terms of converting yards to points.

Of course, I’m assuming that the Patriots are going to convert their yards into points at a level that’s similar to their normal performance.  Turnovers and sacks would go a long way toward helping to reduce that efficiency.

Sacking Tom Brady from the outside is difficult, because it usually takes too long to accomplish.  The Broncos need inside pressure in this game.  That means they need Robert Ayers to have another big game.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed the substitution pattern lately, but Ayers has been in the game on a lot more passing downs over the last month.  He’s earning those opportunities through strong play, and if he keeps it up on Saturday, it will go a long way toward helping the Broncos win.

There are two other good ways to get inside pressure, besides a man whipping a man, both of which the Broncos are known to employ.  One is to employ A-gap blitzes, and while that can be effective in spots, it’s not recommended for frequent use against Tom Brady.  He’s too good at recognizing it and knowing where to go with the ball.

The other approach is to run games up front, in order to confuse the protection.  Elvis Dumervil has been very effective lately with stunting inside and getting quick leverage on a Guard who can’t handle him.  This is what I expect to see a lot of on Saturday night, from all angles.  You want to only rush four and play coverage, but you need to get somebody home here and there. 

Speaking of coverage, I would propose a different approach than last time.  We know the Broncos will play a lot of man-to-man, because that’s what they do best, but I think it’s time to re-think the matchups a bit.  An annoyance of mine about Dennis Allen is that the Broncos often go into games not planning to match up specific players.  When that happens, you end up with Calvin Johnson dropping into the slot, and not being followed by Champ Bailey.  I disagree with his take that defenders should play in positions that they’re familiar with, and not focus on specific men.

For this game, I think I’m moving Champ Bailey on to Aaron Hernandez full-time.  Hernandez is only 6-1, and he should be understood as a thick WR, because he has excellent WR skills.  I’m continuing to double Rob Gronkowski with D.J. Williams and a Safety, let’s say David Bruton.  As for Wes Welker and Chad Ochocinco, whichever one lines up outside would be covered by Andre’ Goodman, and if there’s a slot guy, Chris Harris would get him.  Wesley Woodyard would get the RB, and Joe Mays would play very little, because seven missed tackles against Pittsburgh was an atrocious performance, and because I don’t like him in coverage against New England.  Qunton Carter would be a single-high free safety.  I’m very comfortable with that, because nobody the Patriots have is much of a deep threat.

It’s tough to cover the Patriots, no matter what you do, but I think that that configuration represents the Broncos’ best hope.  Rush four, drop seven, take away Hernandez and Gronkowski, and make New England beat you another way.  Of course, they still can, but we’ll deal with that when the time comes.

My lunch break is ending as I finish this, so I’m just going to get it posted.  A Broncos victory is plausible on Saturday, if not terribly likely.  They’ll have to outperform their season-long norms, and force the Patriots to underperform theirs.  It should be very interesting to watch.

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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