Know Your Enemy
The last time the New England Patriots had to travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos, in the regular season, was in 2011. That game ended poorly for Tim Tebow and company, as they fell to the Patriots 41-23, in what would be a precursor to the beatdown they later received in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, the Broncos have drawn the Patriots on their regular season schedule each season. This week marks the third consecutive year that the Broncos have had to travel to Foxboro to do battle with them.
The 2012 matchup between these teams ended in the Patriots winning handily 31-21. It was only Manning's 5th game as a Bronco and the team was still trying to gel around him. In 2013, the Broncos got out to a 24-0 halftime lead, riding Knowshon Moreno and a dominant first half defensive effort.
But a combination of turnovers and a porous second half defense, resulted in Tom Brady and the Patriots tying the game at 31 and sending it to overtime. It was a battle of attrition in frigid November weather and Broncos head coach, John Fox, decided late in the game to replace the volatile return man, Trindon Holliday, with Wes Welker, as their punt returner.
It ended in ironic disappointment, as Welker failed to waive off his teammates in time and the ball grazed the leg of Tony Carter, resulting in a muffed punt, giving the Patriots the ball on the Broncos 13-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal just 3 plays later.
That series of events goes to show that vs a well-coached team like the Patriots, especially on the road, there is no margin for error. If a mistake is made, Brady and company will make the opposition pay for it.
Although the Patriots are an efficient offensive team, they are not the juggernaut of yore. Since they lost key guys like Welker and Aaron Hernandez, they haven't been as prolific on offense.
When the Patriots decided to let Welker walk in free agency last year, they went out and signed fellow Texas Tech alum, Danny Amendola, a player with a similar skill-set, to replace him. Unfortunately, Bill Belichick learned the hard way that it's easier said than done, replacing a player of Welker's caliber.
Amendola has been unable to replicate Welker's production within the offense. In 2013, he only appeared in 12 games, due to injury. He ended the season with 54 receptions (on 83 targets), for 633 yards and only 2 touchdowns. It was less than half of the production of Welker's last season in New England.
In another ironic twist of fate, the player who rose to the top in the New England offense, was a guy who had been hiding in plain sight on the roster for 4 years; Julian Edelman. Edelman became Brady's go-to guy, both in the slot, and on the outside. He turned in a career season of 105 receptions, for 1,056 yards and 6 touchdowns.
At running back, the Patriots are thin. They lost their bell-cow in Stevan Ridley for the season. They've turned to Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden to take over between the tackles.
However, the player who will always be the most prolific in the Patriots offense and the piece de resistance, is All-Pro tight end, Rob Gronkowski. Gronk got out to a fast start in 2013, before being lost for the season, when current Broncos safety, T.J. Ward, then with the Cleveland Browns, hit Gronk low and tore the ligaments in his knee.
Gronk has since rehabbed his knee. He got out to a somewhat slow start this season, as he got his equilibrium back, but is now playing in full effect. He has 40 receptions, for 558 yards and 7 touchdowns. He is a dominant player and one whom the Broncos have struggled to contain traditionally.
When Gronk and Hernandez were at the height of their tight end partnership, they were a force to be reckoned with. When Hernandez left, however, the Patriots lost some of their 12 personnel (2 TEs) firepower, and had to get by primarily with just Gronk. That has changed.
Right before this season started, Belichick orchestrated a trade that would send Pro Bowl left guard, Logan Mankins, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in exchange for tight end, Tim Wright, and a 4th round pick. It took Wright some time to assimilate and find his place within the Patriots offense.
But over the last 4 weeks, he has caught 13 balls, for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns. It seems as if the Patriots 12 personnel exploitation is back. And that's bad news for the Broncos defense, as they have struggled to contain tight ends all season long.
Just last week, the Broncos gave up 2 touchdowns to Antonio Gates. In week 6, New York Jets rookie tight end, Jace Amaro, had a career day vs the Broncos. Jack Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, has yet to find an answer for covering tight ends.
Primarily, Del Rio has deployed strong safety, T.J. Ward, to cover tight ends one-on-one. For a time, Ward held his own. But over the last 3 weeks, he's surrendered 3 touchdown receptions to his tight end assignment. Brady and Belichick are fully aware of this. Look for them to try and get Gronk and Wright heavily involved early and often.
Ward's forte is not in coverage. He's slightly better than average in that area. Where he excels is in the box, as an extra linebacker in effect. Last season, when Aqib Talib was in New England, the Patriots faced the New Orleans Saints and All-World tight end, Jimmy Graham, in week 6.
Belichick deployed Talib to primarily cover Graham and it was a smashing success, as Graham was effectively shut out of the game. Graham would finish the game without a catch, before he left in the 4th quarter with an injury.
It worked and the Broncos could choose to take a similar path vs the Patriots, now that Talib's in Denver. However, there is a risk when you matchup a cornerback on a tight end, even a physical corner, who's not afraid to tackle. The opposing offense could choose to simply run the ball over that tight end and attempt to dominate on the ground.
This is even more risky in the case of Gronk, as he is one of the league's best blocking tight ends, too. And with the Patriots penchant for running the hurry-up, it makes substitutions difficult, which forces Del Rio's hand on the field, personnel-wise.
Ultimately, this is a risk that the Broncos should be willing to take, because they are the NFL's top defense at stopping the run. Even if it leaves the box a little light, it's important to not allow Gronk and Brady to get into a groove. Assigning Ward to cover Gronk is a recipe for disaster.
On the offensive line, the Patriots aren't as strong as they were last year. A lot of that has to do with the loss of Mankins. They plugged Dan Connolly in at left guard and he's struggled some. On the season, he's earned a -4.8 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus.
Inside, the Patriots are vulnerable. Center, Bryan Stork, has fared even worse (-6.9). Ryan Wendell, the right guard, has held his own, earning a cumulative grade of +2.6 via PFF. When the Patriots run the ball, look for them to try to run off the strong right side most often.
At tackle, Nate Solder (LT) has struggled (-4.5), having allowed 4 sacks, 5 QB hits and 9 hurries. Look for DeMarcus Ware to exploit the youngster from Colorado. Sebastian Vollmer (RT) has been much better. He's earned a +6.1 cumulative grade via PFF, having only allowed 2 sacks on the season.
The Patriots will try to neutralize the Broncos pass rush by pounding the rock and with quick throws. If the Broncos can carry over their defensive dominance in the run game to the Patriots, it will take away what Belichick wants to do and render them one-dimensional, forcing Brady to make plays from the pocket. Von Miller has traditionally had great games vs Brady and I don't expect that to change this week.
On paper, this is where one would think the Patriots could be exploited. They lost their Pro Bowl middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo, for the season with a torn PCL. The Patriots are also without their best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, for another few weeks.
But appearances can be deceiving. Again, Belichick teams are the best coached teams in the NFL. Even with apparent scrubs, the Patriots always seem to get the most out of their players, especially on defense. And that hasn't changed in 2014.
As it stands, the Patriots are the 17th ranked defense in total yards, but they're the 14th ranked in points per game. So again, on paper, this seems like an average defense. But they're not, especially when they're playing in front of their home crowd.
Manning the middle of the Patriots defensive line, is perennial Pro Bowler, Vince Wilfork. So far this season, he's been his usual self at the point of attack. He's notched 25 total tackles, a 1/2 sack and he even picked off a Derek Carr pass, to clinch a week 3 victory. This has earned him a +1.1 cumulative grade via PFF.
The Patriots found another no-name defender, who turned out to be an above average starter on the defensive line, in Chris Jones. He and Wilfork have formed a respectable duo inside. But they are struggling to contain the run. On the season, the Patriots are giving up an average of 129.6 rushing yards per game, good for 25th in the league. Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson could be in for a big day.
Last year, Knowshon Moreno rushed for more than 200 yards at Foxboro. With the way the Broncos offense is set up this year, I can't see how they'd fail this time if they managed to duplicate those numbers. But like most teams the Broncos face, they'll get the Patriots best shot on Sunday. And Belichick knows how to beat Peyton Manning.
To replace Mayo, the Patriots are relying on a group effort. Belichick said this about replacing his Pro Bowl linebacker.
“So we will have to put multiple groups, multiple players to do some things that he did. I don’t think there’s one player that’s going to run this team and do all that Jerod did. We were lucky to have him, let alone a guy who can do all that too. It will come from a combination of guys somehow.”
The Patriots traded for linebacker, Akeem Ayers, and in two weeks of action, he's seen 42 snaps. Rookie, Deontae Skinner, saw an uptick in snaps last week vs the Chicago Bears. But between Rob Ninkovich, Dont'a Hightower and rotation at the mike position, they are trying to overcome the loss of Mayo.
In the secondary, the Patriots are thriving. They are currently ranked 2nd in the league in passing yards per game, averaging 210.9. When the team chose not to bring back Aqib Talib, they signed Darrelle Revis to a 1-year, $12M deal. He has fit in perfectly with the Patriots.
On the season, he's earned a cumulative grade of +5.8 via PFF. He's been targeted 38 times, relinquishing 21 receptions. He'll likely match up with Demaryius Thomas on Sunday and Broncos Country will get to see if Revis Island is still a sovereign nation.
The Patriots signed another corner in free agency, to play opposite of Revis; Brandon Browner. At 6'4, 221lbs, he is long and physical. He spent the first quarter of this season serving his 4-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy. Over the last two games, he's seen 98 snaps and is getting back into the groove.
Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington round out their sub-packages. Arrington, in particular, has been good thus far, earning a +3.1 overall grade via PFF. I like Emmanuel Sanders to have another big game vs the Patriots, especially in the play-action.
The perennially underrated Devin McCourty is consistently one of the best safeties in the NFL, year in and year out. He's currently PFF's 5th highest rated safety with a +7.4 cumulative grade. He's smart and he knows how to read the quarterback. It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots choose to guard Julius Thomas.
Thomas has been relatively quiet the last two games, after scoring 9 touchdowns in the Broncos first 5 games. I'm sure that McCourty will be matched up on Thomas, more often than not, with maybe a linebacker bracketing. Thomas is due to have another productive game, but I'm not sure it'll happen on the road vs this pass defense.
Again, to beat the Patriots on the road, the margin for error is finite. Unlike last year, when the Broncos turned it over 4 times, they'll have to protect the ball. Ronnie Hillman has been on a roll as of late and the Broncos will likely try to control the game by pounding the rock. Expect to see a heavy dose of both Hillman and Thompson.
On defense, it's all about stopping the run and containing Gronkowski and Wright. It'll be interesting to see how Del Rio approaches Gronkowski, in particular. The Broncos have proven that they are one of the NFL's premier defenses at stopping the run. I don't expect that to change on Sunday.
If they can force Brady to make plays in the pocket, from 3rd-and-long situations, Ware and Miller will have plenty of opportunities to cause disruptions. Look for Brady to target the rookie, Bradley Roby, early and often. The Broncos will have to execute for 60 minutes, as the AFC's 1-seed could very well be determined by the outcome of this game.
Broncos 30, Patriots 24