Three things the Broncos have to do on Sunday from the New England perspective:
1) Run, run and run some more.
The first few games of the season opposing teams have had success with the run against the Patriots defense. Pittsburgh and Atlanta gave up on it too early. Atlanta was forced to play catchup, which is one reason they couldn't do more damage on the ground, but Pittsburgh never seemed to get on track.
The Patriots have one of the least effective run defenses in the league giving up 114 yards per game (20th in the league). Teams that use the run to setup the pass have figured out how to beat the defending Super Bowl champions. With Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson Rodney Harrison and Keith Traylor gone, the Patriots have become soft in the middle. Last season those players helped New England hold down the sixth best rush defense in the league surrendering only 98 yards per game.
If Denver can use it's second ranked ground game to pound the ball, they will be able to setup send or third and short, greatly improving their ability to control the clock. If Denver finds the ground game rough going, and cannot open things up, the Patriots have a much better chance to win.
2) Hit the long ball.
The Patriots defense has so many issues, it wouldn't matter if Denver ran or passed on first down. The key for the Broncos will be to hit a deep pass against the young, inexperienced and injury depleted secondary. The Patriots have given up more long pass completions this season already than they did all of last year.
The Patriots have been giving space to receivers other than the opponent's number one, allowing these secondary options to have big receiving days. If Denver cannot get Rod Smith on track, they should be able to find Ashlee Lelie open for the long game. The deep middle of the field has been one area successfully targeted. This is more of a reflection of the absence of Rodney Harrison and the inconsistent play coming from second year safety Guss Scott.
New England has 15 players on the injury report, most of who have been downgraded from probable to questionable. The Friday report might be part of Bill Belichick's intention to send a message to the league about their inaction against Atlanta's head Coach Jim Mora, who apparently played games with Michael Vick's injury. What is accurate about the report is virtually every Patriot's starting defensive back has either been listed as questionable on the report, or is still on it. A healthy Denver receiving corp will have the added benefit of going up against players who are not fully healthy.
3) Keep the Ball out of Tom Brady's hands late in the game.
This goes without saying most of the time; yet opposing coaches still make the mistake of giving the ball back to the Patriots late in a close game, with too much time on the clock. The Patriots have engineered two fourth quarter victories won by a last minute field goal already this season.
In a close game, the Patriots seem to play better knowing what's at stake. With Adam Vinatieri and Tom Brady working together, the team just assumes they'll be able to stage a late comeback. The receivers work harder to pick up yardage, the line appears to block better, and the entire team takes on the mentality of having been there and done that. If Denver has the ball late in the game, and they're tied or ahead, head coach Mike Shanahan better call running plays to eat up the clock, or Brady and Vinatieri will improve their mark of 20 games in which they've marched down the field to kick the wining field goal.
Three things the Patriots have to do on Sunday from the Denver perspective:
1) Stop the Run
For the New England Patriots to have any measurable success they must first contain the Broncos rushing game, forcing Denver to rely solely on the arm of Jake Plummer. While it may be difficult to shut down the AFCs number one ground attack, it's not impossible.
It's important to use a constant rotation of defensive lineman to offset the thin air at Mile High. The Broncos thrive on wearing down their opponents and the longer that Jake and Co. are on field, the harder it will be for New England to stay fresh.
2) Limit the Turnovers
Unlike past years the Broncos now find themselves on the positive side of the turnover ratio at +6. They worked hard over the off-season on creating turnovers, closing in on pass coverage and stripping the ball. Through the first five games of the 2005 season that extra work has apparently paid off.
On the flip side, the Patriots have gone from one of the leagues best to one of the worst in turnovers. Their takeaway ratio of -6 has dropped them into 28th place in the NFL and you can expect the Broncos to try and exploit this at every opportunity. It's essential that New England hold onto the ball and control the time of possession.
The Broncos recent success is a direct result of capitalizing on their opponent's mistakes. Minimize the mistakes and you limit the home team from taking control of the tempo. Force Denver to beat you don't give them the opportunity.
3) Take away the 12th Man
Invesco Field can be a horrendous place to play for an opposing team. Coming in as the Defending World Champions only intensifies the matchup.
Offensively the Broncos will use the crowd and a hard count by Plummer to try and draw the opposition offside while defensively trying to minimize Brady's communications prior the snap. Both have worked effectively in the past and this Sunday should be no exception.
Understanding this, the Patriots need to take the crowd out of the game early. First drive possession is crucial in establishing the tempo of the game and the ability to capitalize quickly will remove any 12th man Bronco advantage.
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
What they have to do on Sunday
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