1) With the recent rash of injuries will the Patriots be forced into a pass-first mentality against the Broncos defense?
PI (Jon Scott): The Patriots are a pass first offense at this time. As much as they would like to convince opposing teams that they intend to be a running team, the Patriots have established the passing game as a key part of their offensive attack.
Tom Brady is on pace to set new career and franchise passing records. He has 119 completions out of 182 attempts for 1522 yard. That is the best five-game start of his career, and has him on pace to over 4800 yards. His previous best was 3764 in 2002.
It isn't just that Brady is making long completions, it's that he's completing 65% of his passes, also a personal best. The Patriots use the short and medium passing game to open up defenses that crowd the line to stop Corey Dillon. Defenses have been able to control Dillon, limiting him to 329 yards on 96 carries for a 3.4 ypc average, a career low.
Expecting the opposing defenses to crowd the line, the Patriots have decided that passing deep is in their best interests. Look for them to try to hit the bomb early; whether it's Bethel Johnson, Deion Branch or Tim Dwight, the Patriots have the receivers to get the job done. Each of those receivers have catches over 40 yards. Add in the fact that every receiver on the Patriots offense has a catch for over 30 yards this season, including the tight ends, and it's easy to understand why New England doesn't mind passing first.
2) Has the change of personnel, the injury situation and the home loss against San Diego hurt the Patriots from a mental standpoint?
PI: New England needed the win over the Falcons in the worst way. The media, the fans and even those inside the organization questioned whether or not the Patriots had what it takes to overcome the multiple unique challenges of 2005. The Loss to San Diego at Foxborough served to illustrate that point.
The biggest hurdle has been the change in personnel. The Patriots improved their offense in terms of weapons, but lost some effectiveness in their line. The return of Ben Watson at tight end, and the addition of a very fast Tim Dwight has opened up options the Patriots did not have in 2004. Evidence of that can be seen in Brady's passing numbers, and the lack of Dillon's rushing stats.
The injury situation has been unique. The Patriots continue to fight off more injuries than many teams in the league. With 15 active players on the injury report, including pro-bowl starters, New England is a list of walking wounded. Their ability to even field healthy bodies has come into question. They continue to sign street free agents with the hope of finding enough healthy bodies to field a competitive team.
3) What's New England's biggest strength or improvement over last season?
PI:The Patriots biggest improvement (strength) over 2004 is their passing game. As mentioned earlier, those familiar with the teams change in personnel are excited to see what Brady can do with legitimate playmakers on offense.
Tim Dwight adds a dimension to the return game the Patriots have been sorely lacking with the talented, but limited Troy Brown. While Brown and Dwight both see limited time in the passing game, their biggest contributions are expected to be on special teams.
The interesting part about the Patriots passing attack is that the players who figured to be the playmakers in 2005 are no longer with the team. David Terrell is now a Bronco, and Andre Davis is a free agent out of work recovering from injury. This means, outside of Tim Dwight, the team is using the same group of players they had last season, only now, their big play threats are healthy.
4) Has the pressure to repeat as World Champions created a disadvantage for New England?
PI: Boston is an unusual media market when it comes to the Patriots. Ironically, the Patriots, who have been one of the most successful professional sports franchises of the decade, play second fiddle to the Boston Red Sox, at least in the Boston area. You would think that would change, but Boston media is a fickle group. When things are bad in New England, they're really bad, and when they're good, it's just another day at the park.
To say the Patriots feel more pressure to repeat would be inaccurate. Tom Brady might feel more pressure to be a leader with so many other leaders missing from the team, but that's not indicative of the pressure of being a world champion.
Interestingly, other teams feel more pressure to perform when they play the Patriots, than the Patriots do when they play any particular team. Teams gear up and sell out to play New England, and then seem to stumble after bringing their "A" game. Each contest this season has been a virtual slugfest for the Patriots typically leaving a trail of injured bodies in its wake.
The pressure in New England is on the players who have not lived up to expectations of the team or the fans. Those players in particular are under added pressure to perform up to Patriots caliber expectations, or face being replaced. It's been like that since Bill Belichick arrived, and it doesn't appear to be changing.
5) How do the Patriots plan on limiting Jake Plummer's mobility on the bootleg?
PI: The Patriots will prepare for Plummer the same way they did for Michael Vick. Although Vick did not play, the team prepared as if he was going to be on the field. Some of that preparation will help this week against a very mobile and talented Plummer.
Expect the Patriots to put more emphasis on their outside linebackers to control the edge, either by forcing pressure on a bootleg, or maintaining their edge responsibilities to limit Plummer ability to have free space to operate in.
Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel have been called upon to play against mobile quarterbacks in the past. Although McGinest has a broken hand, and middle linebacker Monty Beisel is injured as well, these will be the two most prominent players keeping an eye on Plummer. If it turns out the Patriots need more speed on the field to contain Plummer or the Denver offense, expect to see more of Chad Brown and Rosevelt Colvin.
In either case, the Patriots will continue to try to pressure the quarterback, whether it's from the edge or the interior. The Patriots front four, Jarvis Green, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour will be counted on to bring pressure without the blitz. If the Patriots have to send a linebacker for added pressure, Plummer will surely find holes in the Patriots banged up secondary.
1) Will the Broncos use their ground game to control the tempo of the game, and what can the Patriots do to stop it?
(Schon): Without a doubt the strongest aspect of the Denver offense is their running game. Look for the Broncos to pound it out using a tandem backfield of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, with a possible Ron Dayne sighting in certain situations.
This run-first philosophy is essential if the Broncos hope to control the tempo of the game. The more success they have with the run, the more time Tom Brady and the Patriots offense spends on the sidelines.
The key for New England will be to box the corners and try to contain the line of scrimmage. Keeping in mind Bells explosive speed the Patriots secondary needs to be able to cover and recover quickly once he's past the line of scrimmage.
2) How effective will Jake Plummer be against a banged up Patriots secondary?
(Schon): Plummer's effectiveness relies heavily on his receivers' abilities to bring down the pass. Inconsistency with the receiving corps. has been a major factor in Jake's dismal 75.5 QB rating, but unlike previous years he's managed to avoid the mistakes of pushing too hard to make a completion.
You can expect Plummer to break out the passing game early, with Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie shouldering the majority of the load. While he may not have the arm or the accuracy of a Tom Brady, he does have mobility, which could play out huge against an already weak secondary.
"There's going to be some opportunities," Plummer said. "Hopefully we can create that in many ways, whether it's off the boot game or play-action game or just man-to-man and catching some blitzes knowing they're going to be in man and going downfield."
3) Which Denver player/ unit has to have a good game for the Broncos to win and vice versa (New England)?
(Schon): Wide Receiver Ashley Lelie must step up for the Broncos to have any success in the passing game. Dropped balls and the inability to break off the defenders have clearly put him on the hot seat and Sundays game may be the final opportunity to prove his worth on the starting unit.
Lelie's struggles have allowed the defense to add additional coverage on Rod Smith or Jeb Putzier, essentially limiting the Denver passing attack. This forces the Broncos into a one dimension running scheme, which albeit effective, is also very limiting.
Denver will test Lelie out of the gate with short cross-over and sideline patterns, hoping to rebuild the receivers confidence against a weakened Patriot secondary. As the passing game goes, so go the Broncos opportunity for victory.
4) Can Tom Brady be effective without a using maximum protection scheme?
(Schon): The return of defensive end Trevor Pryce and the revamping of the front line have been a big plus for Denver. While they are not the quickest team to the quarterback they are effective at applying pressure and limiting the options out of the backfield.
That being said, the Patriots offense does not rattle easily, and the Broncos will be hard pressed to shut down the AFC's best unit. Denver's only option lies in having the secondary try to contain the coverage downfield and force the Patriots into a running game, denying Brady the opportunity of turning this into a shootout.
If Brady can connect out of the pocket he's got the potential of putting up some huge numbers despite Denver's strong front line.
5) If Champ Bailey is unable to play with his hamstring injury, how effective can the Broncos secondary be?
(Schon): On Fridays Injury Report the team has Bailey listed as questionable, which means he's got a 50% chance of seeing any action. Although he's practiced with the team the last two weeks Mike Shanahan is not about to take a chance on aggravating something as serious as a hamstring at this juncture of the season, and will wait until game time to make a final decision.
This puts Denver in a dilemma forced into using two rookies at the cornerback position. Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth have both played well above expectations at this point, but are also prone to the typical rookie mistakes, most of which have come at very costly times.
The absence of Bailey in the backfield would certainly be a plus for New England and an obvious target for Brady, but Williams is confident he and Foxworth can step up to the challenge.
"If I looked over there and I saw some rookies, I'd try to go at them considering we don't have a lot of experience; we've never played a season on this level." Williams said. "But I think they come out early at us, we make a couple of plays and then it just goes back to the regular old game plan."
More Patriots coverage can be found on Patriots Insider
Michael John Schon has covered the National Football League and the Denver Broncos for the past nine years. As a member of the Pro Football Writers Association he has published and syndicated columns to both newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and Canada. His syndicated radio broadcast: "Schon Live" airs weekly on various radio stations around the country.
Schon can be reached at Schon@prostarmediagroup.net
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