There is a lot riding on this week's game for the Denver Broncos. They already hold a tiebreaker over the Indianapolis Colts and, at worse, split their series with the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. So, beating the New England Patriots can give them a hold on the #1 seed in the AFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be for the third straight year.
This game vs the New England Patriots is one of the final hurdles for the Broncos. They have shown that they are a tougher team than last year's counterpart and that their defense is much improved.
But Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts is one tough place to play for any team, giving the Patriots major home field advantage. However, there are three areas the Broncos can exploit the Patriots, to help them win and take control in the AFC. Now, onto the areas to exploit.
Note: All stats are from ProFootballFocus (Subscription required).
The Patriots offensive line has had a rough time this season. The coaching staff was rotating offensive linemen around from series to series not too long ago. Nine offensive linemen of the Patriots have seen time on the field, eight of which have seen over 150 snaps and seven over 200 snaps. Between the nine linemen, they have allowed 10 sacks, 21 hits and 56 hurries. That is without playing a pass rushing unit as strong as the Broncos. This week, they are matching up with a unit that has 28 sacks, 28 hits and 105 hurries.
The Broncos have as many players with a sack as the Patriots have allowed along their entire offensive line. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware lead the way with 10 and 8 sacks respectively (PFF doesn't do 1/2 sacks). The big reason Miller and Ware have the sacks they do is thanks to the work of the interior defensive linemen. They push the interior pocket and keep the QB from stepping up and away from the oncoming Miller and Ware.
That fact leads to an exploitable area. The biggest weakness on the Patriots offensive line is the interior. They consistently allow push up the middle, which keeps Tom Brady from stepping up and into his throws. So, for the success of the pass rush, a lot will be asked of Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Marvin Austin. This is their game to shine.
Yes, you read it right. One area for the Broncos to exploit is the founder of “Revis Island.” His 2014 has been nowhere near as great as in past seasons, or as the hype around him suggests. He has played 514 snaps. 303 have been in coverage and 211 have been in run defense. Revis has never been the most physical defender, often relying on his athleticism to help him, especially in the run game.
But being a cornerback, coverage is where it really matters for Revis and where you can measure his effectiveness. When you look at the averages, it looks like Revis is having a solid season, but that is just an illusion that occurs when balancing out the average. One or two good games skew the numbers.
Revis has allowed 21 catches on 38 targets. On the surface, that’s great, right? Well, in two games he was targeted 12 times and allowed 3 catches, which screws with the averages. Those two games also happen to be his only two with an interception. They came against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, respectively.
When you take away those two games, his average catch percentage shoots from 55.3 to 70.8. It's amazing how much two great games can mess up the averages, is it not? The same can be said for bad games, as well, but Revis has had more poor performances than good thus far.
When Revis is targeted, quarterbacks have a rating (QBR) of 65.9, which is great, but again, those two games skew the numbers a bit. Take those two games away and you’re looking at a QBR of 105.4. Revis is still a good corner, but he is a fraction of his former self. Look for Peyton Manning to try to exploit the mismatch of Demaryius Thomas matched up with Revis.
The Patriots run defense has struggled for a while. Their struggles go back to a couple years ago, and still are alive today. That doesn’t mean the coaches have not put in the work to try and fix it. They have, but they’ve simply been unsuccessful in doing so. Injuries have not helped the Patriots run defense, either.
This year, the Patriots sit as the 25th ranked run defense in the NFL. They have allowed over 1,000 yards rushing on the season, already with an average of 129.4 rush yards per game. However, in the redzone, the run defense gets tougher. From the yardage allowed, it looks like they get run over, but they have allowed only 4 touchdowns on the ground. They also don’t allow long runs often. The longest being 48 yards, which is also the only run over 20 yards they've allowed.
The Patriots made some moves to potentially help them stop the run. One was making a trade at the deadline (Akeem Ayers) and the other was signing a free agent defensive tackle (Alan Branch). It's still early. Ayers has seen action in only one game for the Patriots and Branch has yet to play a single down, so their impact to the run defense is relatively unknown. They could be the difference in the Patriots run defense being much improved, or they could provide little help, if not make it worse.
The Broncos need to come out and run the ball, but not allow it to keep their passing game down like it did a season ago. Last November, the Broncos ran the ball so well, they let their passing game suffer and Manning could not get a rhythm going with the receivers. Later in the game, when the Broncos needed to pass, they struggled as the rhythm was not there. That hurt the Broncos and played a role in their loss, as it lead to multiple three-and-outs that could have been scoring drives to give them a win.
This will be a tough game for the Broncos. Playing at New England is always tough for any team. The home field advantage is so great. On paper, the Broncos have the advantages by way of their players and mismatches. But when the game starts, that means very little. The Broncos have to execute and play mistake-free football. These three exploitable areas should serve to test the Patriots early and often. If the Broncos fail, then make an in-game adjustment and find a way to move the ball.