When your opponent is the 11-2 New England Patriots, the keys to the game suddenly become imperatives to just sticking around. But the Denver Broncos have won two straight against these Patriots, and they own a 6-5 record against Tom Brady.
They've done it twice before with two different quarterbacks, but can the Broncos make it three in a row at home and knock off the Patriots? They'll have to make sure they do three things in order to make that a reality.
Limit Unfavorable Matchups
One of Bill Belichick's favorite strategies on offense is to exploit matchups that put the opposing defense in a pickle. Last year, the Broncos had mixed results in this department. In the regular season game, the Patriots got running back Brandon Bolden matched up against Danny Trevathan and took full advantage. Brady lofted a floater to Bolden, who sped past Trevathan and took the pass 63 yards for a touchdown.
In the AFC Championship, the linebackers held up much better. Brady took a number of shots when Bolden and James White were singled up against either Trevathan or Marshall, but the coverage was tight and the pass rush was so potent that Brady couldn't hang in for the extra second it took for the running backs to exploit the difference in speed.
This year, Denver is obviously without Trevathan and Marshall. It's going to fall on the shoulders of Corey Nelson, Zaire Anderson, and possibly even Todd Davis to match up with White and Dion Lewis on the outside. Those two backs are essentially receivers; White has 50 receptions for 474 yards and four touchdowns this season.
If things go especially poorly and the linebackers are getting burned like they did by Tevin Coleman of the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year, you might see the Broncos avoid their base defense and start moving exclusively to the nickel defense. If that happens, the Patriots will almost certainly start pounding LeGarrette Blount into the middle of a vulnerable Broncos defensive line.
A couple ways to combat this; mix up zone and man coverage so that linebackers don't have to line up outside like corners, and disguise blitzes so that the running backs will have to stay in and chip against a pass-rusher that never comes.
Get After Brady
This one is obvious, and it's much easier said than done. The Broncos thrived in this category, especially in the AFC Championship, sacking Brady four times. The reason that was such a rare occurrence is that Brady releases the ball usually in less that 2.5 seconds. Expect Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to try to time the snaps, perhaps even getting a couple of offsides penalties in the process.
It's also imperative that the rush comes from up the middle. Derek Wolfe will need to eat Brady's children once again and provide pressure between the guard and the tackle so that he can't just step up in the pocket to avoid the rush coming from Miller and Ware.
Going back three years, one of the big reasons the Broncos dominated the Patriots in the 2013 AFCCG was because Terrance Knighton was eating space in the middle, both shutting down Blount and swallowing up Brady on a crucial fourth down. Sylvester Williams is not the same player that Knighton was in his prime, but if he can provide any semblance of a rush in addition to bottling up run plays, the Broncos will be in great shape on defense.
The pass rush also factors into the previous key. The less time Brady gets, the less time the Denver linebackers will have to stay glued to the Pats backs and tight ends. One hand definitely washes the other on defense.
Strike a Balance on Offense
On Monday, I wrote about how the Broncos completely abandoned the run against the Tennessee Titans after Justin Forsett put the ball on the ground. Now, he should really try not to fumble again, but even if he did, the Broncos need to stay committed to running the football. That means running on early downs as well as plugging away for that elusive yard on third-and-short.
The main reason the Broncos defeated the Patriots with, yes, Brock Osweiler, playing quarterback last year was that the running game took the pressure off of him and allowed him to make just a few clutch throws. In that game, the Broncos got 172 combined rushing yards and three touchdowns out of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, which offset the fact that Osweiler completed just 54 percent of his passes.
Denver might need something fairly similar this year out of Forsett and Devontae Booker. Last week, Trevor Siemian threw the ball an ungodly 51 times against the Titans, and he managed to both complete 35 of those and not turn the ball over (his teammates did that for him). That will never work against the Pats. In fact, if Siemian approaches 50 passes again, it's a good sign that the Broncos got blown out.
If the Broncos can find any success on the ground (it's all relative after a week when they ran nine times for 18 yards), it will give them a chance to run the seldom-used bootleg pass. And sure, it's been tough sledding on the ground since Anderson and Andy Janovich were put on IR, so the Broncos might consider either giving Juwan Thompson a few looks at fullback or running a few draws and traps out of the shotgun. Anything to ensure the Broncos aren't as blatantly one-dimensional as they were last week.
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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.