Patriots - Broncos: Game Plans & Matchups

News, notes, injury reports, including key matchups, and game plans for both teams in this Week 15 matchup.

PATRIOTS NOTES

   The Patriots are still holding out hope for the eventual return of LB Brandon Spikes and S Patrick Chung, but they're also prepared for the possibility that neither will play, which means they'll bring their usual lineup into Denver in search of a rare win in the Mile High City.
 
 The key to the defensive game plan will be containment, specifically geared toward QB Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and is causing havoc with his legs -- perhaps more so than with his arm.

   --K Stephen Gostkowski kicked the longest field goal of his career in Denver, a 53-yarder in October 2009 in a game New England lost.

   --OLB Rob Ninkovich figures to be a key part of this week's game plan since the Patriots will place a strong emphasis on containing QB Tim Tebow, which includes setting the edge.

   --TE Aaron Hernandez attended the University of Florida with Denver QB Tim Tebow and caught 111 passes with 12 touchdowns during his time as a Gator.  

   --LB Tracy White remains atop the team's leader board in special teams' tackles with 14, one tackle ahead of S Matthew Slater.

   --LB Jerod Mayo leads the Patriots in overall tackles with 75, one ahead of CB Devin McCourty; the latter has 10 more solo tackles (57) than Mayo (47).

INJURY IMPACT
   --S Patrick Chung missed practice Wednesday due to a foot injury. Though he hasn't played in five weeks, he had been practicing, indicating he was much closer to returning to the field. Wednesday's news appears to be a setback in his recovery.
   --OL Sebastian Vollmer remained out of practice Wednesday. He has missed the last two games with foot and back injuries and figures to be out of the lineup again on Sunday.
   --LB Brandon Spikes practiced Wednesday, a trend that picked up late last week despite the fact Spikes' knee injury kept him out of the lineup against Washington. This could be the week Spikes returns.
   --S James Ihedigbo will continue to serve as the "quarterback" of the defense Sunday if injured S Patrick Chung remains out of the lineup. Ihedigbo has battled injuries of his own, but has become a constant in the lineup since Chung went down in November.
   --OT Nate Solder, who has started 10 of 13 games in his rookie season, figures to be the starter at right tackle again this weekend barring a quick recovery by OL Sebastian Vollmer.

GAME PLAN:
Where do we start? These days, all conversations revolving around the Broncos begin and end with Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and has led a revival in Denver. The key to stopping him is, well, there really hasn't been a key developed yet. The fact is, Tebow's performance, while looking pedestrian at times, seems to elevate with the game on the line.

   The Patriots might not pay much respect to his arm, but they should, given their inability to stop anybody in the passing game, and that goes for the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman in recent weeks. On top of that, they have to be wary of Tebow's ability to create plays with his legs; it's become such a trademark in his performance that Chicago LB Brian Urlacher derisively referred to Tebow as a "good running back" following the Broncos' win over the Bears last weekend.

   Yet it's not all Tebow, all the time. The Broncos' defense has picked things up of late, so QB Tom Brady and the offense needs to remain the well-oiled machine it's been all season, and that means another healthy dose of TE Rob Gronkowski, the NFL's most unstoppable force and all-time single-season touchdown king for tight ends.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Patriots LB Jerod Mayo vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow -- This is a dangerous idea. One of the options in stopping Tebow and limiting his ability to scramble might be to put a spy on him defensively. Mayo would figure to get the responsibility based on his tackling ability, but paying too much attention to Tebow could leave the Patriots vulnerable in other areas. This wouldn't be a full-time responsibility, but Mayo might be asked at times to keep all eyes on the quarterback.

   Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots LB Dane Fletcher -- With so much attention being focused on Tim Tebow, this could lead to another matchup problem. The Patriots might be forced to play more 3-4 than 4-3, using Jerod Mayo as a spy for Tebow. Under that scenario, Fletcher might be left alone to handle the running game, and that is a matchup that would likely favor McGahee despite his poor showing last weekend against Chicago.

   Patriots CB Devin McCourty vs. Broncos WR Eric Decker -- Until McCourty is no longer given first-rate assignments, it's safe to assume he'll be covering Denver's top wide receiver, which, in this case, is Decker, who is averaging nearly 14 yards per catch and has eight touchdowns. Keep an eye on this matchup in the fourth quarter, where Decker and Tim Tebow have done the bulk of their damage.

BRONCOS NOTES

Denver offensively is going to have to play to its running-game strengths, whether it's more option-oriented or leans to the more recent two-back sets.

   And that will be a tremendous chess match, given Patriots coach Bill Belichick's coaching style that stresses fundamentals of tackling and reading offensive keys to diagnose plays. New England has had its issues vs. the pass but has been decent defending opposing ground games.

   Tebow is improving incrementally as a passer but his best work has come against softer defensive looks late in games or off play-action with the deep pass. His development isn't to the stage where he can get into a shooting match with the Patriots.

   Defensively, Denver will be at a significant disadvantage against Tom Brady and Co. if the health of its secondary doesn't improve. Rookie Rahim Moore played safety last week in Brian Dawkins' absence and his tackling was exceedingly poor. That's not a workable formula against the NFL's No. 2 pass offense built on big plays.

   CB Andre Goodman's presence covering outside receivers gives the Broncos the option of manning up CB Champ Bailey on WR Wes Welker in the slot. But Goodman's dealing with a concussion.

   His potential absence would mean regular nickel back Chris Harris would start and Jonathan Wilhite - a Patriots castoff - would be the third defensive back in the rotation. It might mean defensive coordinator Dennis Allen needs to curtail some of his blitz calls for fear of some of the one-on-one matchups that would emanate if the extra pressure doesn't arrive.

PLAYER NEWS
   --QB Tim Tebow's 517 rushing yards this season already ranks first all-time in a single season in Denver franchise history.
   --RB Willis McGahee averages 5.5 yards per carry after halftime this season, the highest average in the NFL behind only Buffalo's Fred Jackson (5.7) and ahead of Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy (5.4).
   --CB Champ Bailey's 189 passes defensed in 191 career games since 1999 is the highest per-game total (.99) in the NFL. Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber (185, .90 average) and Green Bay's Charles Woodson (156, .86) round out the top three.
   --DE Elvis Dumervil has at least a half-sack during every step of Denver's six-game winning streak. All 7.5 of his sacks have come since the Nov. 6 game at Oakland, coinciding with Dumervil returning to full health after shoulder and ankle injuries.
   --WR Demaryius Thomas has led Denver in receiving for two straight weeks. His 11 catches within that span is the best two-game output of his two-year career. He had 10 catches from Sept. 19-26 last year.

INJURY IMPACT
   --SS Brian Dawkins missed Wednesday's practice with a lingering neck issue that forced him out of the Bears game. Dawkins experienced numbness in his arm, which is consistent with a stinger. Coach John Fox earlier this week said he expected Dawkins to be fine to play Sunday.
   --CB Andre Goodman was wearing a visor and going through the stretching period with teammates during the open media period to begin Wednesday's practice. Goodman's recovery is critical to watch this week, given the Patriots' No. 2 passing offense and a lack of quality depth at cornerback beyond nickel back Chris Harris.
   --FS David Bruton continues to struggle through a series of Achilles/ankle issues. He missed practice Wednesday, and has been limited by those injuries in recent weeks, reducing his practice snaps. Bruton, though, hasn't missed a game as yet. He's tied with Dante Rosario for the team lead in special-teams tackles (eight) and plays a role in heavy dime packages.
   --WR Eddie Royal returned to practice after sitting out the previous 10 days after suffering a concussion vs. Minnesota. Royal was limited. His return could mean a reprisal of his punt-return duties. He also could cost Matt Willis and Demaryius Thomas some offensive snaps.

GAME PLAN:
New England allowed more than 450 yards and 27 points to Washington last Sunday. And despite a five-game win streak, that success has come against some of the NFL's lightweights at quarterback, including Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman.

   The Broncos need to protect the ball and get back to running the ball with stunning regularity and sustained success. Chicago was able to contain the edges against Denver and penetrate the backfield to hold Denver to 3.6 yards per carry. McGahee ran hesitantly after missing practice time with a knee issue.

   They'll need the McGahee that's put up six 100-yard individual games to play to Tebow's passing strengths - the deep ball off play action against a beat-up new England secondary.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Denver's efficiency protecting the football, with 10 giveaways in the last nine games, vs. a New England defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in takeaways with 25: One of the reasons Denver may want to get back to the 40-50 carry range of just a few weeks ago is that it eats clock and keeps New England's team that's already scored 396 points off the field. Another is that it prevents the kind of tipped passes and breaks on the ball that have been critical to the Patriots' notching 18 interceptions. And even with the strides Tebow's made, his strength still isn't reading pro defenses. It is Belichick's calling card to diagnose schemes that initiate confusion.

   Broncos CB Champ Bailey, who has matched up singly with some of the NFL's heavyweight WRs, vs. TE Rob Gronkowski, the league's new standard for heavyweight TEs: Opponents have mainly tried to double Gronkowski or cover him with a safety. Rarely have teams committed a cover cornerback to take away that option, in part because of Wes Welker's significant presence as a pass-catcher from the inside. But Bailey has been tasked with matching up with top-tier tight ends before: Tony Gonzalez in his Kansas City days; Antonio Gates with San Diego. It's unlikely Bailey will go full-time on Gronkowski, who'll see plenty of Quinton Carter, double teams and LB Wesley Woodyard. But on key snaps, don't be surprised if Bailey gets the call.



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\r\n","mobileBody":"    The Patriots are still holding out hope for the eventual return of LB Brandon Spikes and S Patrick Chung, but they're also prepared for the possibility that neither will play, which means they'll bring their usual lineup into Denver in search of a rare win in the Mile High City.    The key to the defensive game plan will be containment, specifically geared toward QB Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and is causing havoc with his legs -- perhaps more so than with his arm.    --K Stephen Gostkowski kicked the longest field goal of his career in Denver, a 53-yarder in October 2009 in a game New England lost.    --OLB Rob Ninkovich figures to be a key part of this week's game plan since the Patriots will place a strong emphasis on containing QB Tim Tebow, which includes setting the edge.    --TE Aaron Hernandez attended the University of Florida with Denver QB Tim Tebow and caught 111 passes with 12 touchdowns during his time as a Gator.      --LB Tracy White remains atop the team's leader board in special teams' tackles with 14, one tackle ahead of S Matthew Slater.    --LB Jerod Mayo leads the Patriots in overall tackles with 75, one ahead of CB Devin McCourty; the latter has 10 more solo tackles (57) than Mayo (47).    --S Patrick Chung missed practice Wednesday due to a foot injury. Though he hasn't played in five weeks, he had been practicing, indicating he was much closer to returning to the field. Wednesday's news appears to be a setback in his recovery.    --OL Sebastian Vollmer remained out of practice Wednesday. He has missed the last two games with foot and back injuries and figures to be out of the lineup again on Sunday.    --LB Brandon Spikes practiced Wednesday, a trend that picked up late last week despite the fact Spikes' knee injury kept him out of the lineup against Washington. This could be the week Spikes returns.    --S James Ihedigbo will continue to serve as the \"quarterback\" of the defense Sunday if injured S Patrick Chung remains out of the lineup. Ihedigbo has battled injuries of his own, but has become a constant in the lineup since Chung went down in November.    --OT Nate Solder, who has started 10 of 13 games in his rookie season, figures to be the starter at right tackle again this weekend barring a quick recovery by OL Sebastian Vollmer. Where do we start? These days, all conversations revolving around the Broncos begin and end with Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and has led a revival in Denver. The key to stopping him is, well, there really hasn't been a key developed yet. The fact is, Tebow's performance, while looking pedestrian at times, seems to elevate with the game on the line.    The Patriots might not pay much respect to his arm, but they should, given their inability to stop anybody in the passing game, and that goes for the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman in recent weeks. On top of that, they have to be wary of Tebow's ability to create plays with his legs; it's become such a trademark in his performance that Chicago LB Brian Urlacher derisively referred to Tebow as a \"good running back\" following the Broncos' win over the Bears last weekend.    Yet it's not all Tebow, all the time. The Broncos' defense has picked things up of late, so QB Tom Brady and the offense needs to remain the well-oiled machine it's been all season, and that means another healthy dose of TE Rob Gronkowski, the NFL's most unstoppable force and all-time single-season touchdown king for tight ends. -- This is a dangerous idea. One of the options in stopping Tebow and limiting his ability to scramble might be to put a spy on him defensively. Mayo would figure to get the responsibility based on his tackling ability, but paying too much attention to Tebow could leave the Patriots vulnerable in other areas. This wouldn't be a full-time responsibility, but Mayo might be asked at times to keep all eyes on the quarterback. -- With so much attention being focused on Tim Tebow, this could lead to another matchup problem. The Patriots might be forced to play more 3-4 than 4-3, using Jerod Mayo as a spy for Tebow. Under that scenario, Fletcher might be left alone to handle the running game, and that is a matchup that would likely favor McGahee despite his poor showing last weekend against Chicago. -- Until McCourty is no longer given first-rate assignments, it's safe to assume he'll be covering Denver's top wide receiver, which, in this case, is Decker, who is averaging nearly 14 yards per catch and has eight touchdowns. Keep an eye on this matchup in the fourth quarter, where Decker and Tim Tebow have done the bulk of their damage. Denver offensively is going to have to play to its running-game strengths, whether it's more option-oriented or leans to the more recent two-back sets.    And that will be a tremendous chess match, given Patriots coach Bill Belichick's coaching style that stresses fundamentals of tackling and reading offensive keys to diagnose plays. New England has had its issues vs. the pass but has been decent defending opposing ground games.    Tebow is improving incrementally as a passer but his best work has come against softer defensive looks late in games or off play-action with the deep pass. His development isn't to the stage where he can get into a shooting match with the Patriots.    Defensively, Denver will be at a significant disadvantage against Tom Brady and Co. if the health of its secondary doesn't improve. Rookie Rahim Moore played safety last week in Brian Dawkins' absence and his tackling was exceedingly poor. That's not a workable formula against the NFL's No. 2 pass offense built on big plays.    CB Andre Goodman's presence covering outside receivers gives the Broncos the option of manning up CB Champ Bailey on WR Wes Welker in the slot. But Goodman's dealing with a concussion.    His potential absence would mean regular nickel back Chris Harris would start and Jonathan Wilhite - a Patriots castoff - would be the third defensive back in the rotation. It might mean defensive coordinator Dennis Allen needs to curtail some of his blitz calls for fear of some of the one-on-one matchups that would emanate if the extra pressure doesn't arrive. PLAYER NEWS    --QB Tim Tebow's 517 rushing yards this season already ranks first all-time in a single season in Denver franchise history.    --RB Willis McGahee averages 5.5 yards per carry after halftime this season, the highest average in the NFL behind only Buffalo's Fred Jackson (5.7) and ahead of Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy (5.4).    --CB Champ Bailey's 189 passes defensed in 191 career games since 1999 is the highest per-game total (.99) in the NFL. Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber (185, .90 average) and Green Bay's Charles Woodson (156, .86) round out the top three.    --DE Elvis Dumervil has at least a half-sack during every step of Denver's six-game winning streak. All 7.5 of his sacks have come since the Nov. 6 game at Oakland, coinciding with Dumervil returning to full health after shoulder and ankle injuries.    --WR Demaryius Thomas has led Denver in receiving for two straight weeks. His 11 catches within that span is the best two-game output of his two-year career. He had 10 catches from Sept. 19-26 last year.    --SS Brian Dawkins missed Wednesday's practice with a lingering neck issue that forced him out of the Bears game. Dawkins experienced numbness in his arm, which is consistent with a stinger. Coach John Fox earlier this week said he expected Dawkins to be fine to play Sunday.    --CB Andre Goodman was wearing a visor and going through the stretching period with teammates during the open media period to begin Wednesday's practice. Goodman's recovery is critical to watch this week, given the Patriots' No. 2 passing offense and a lack of quality depth at cornerback beyond nickel back Chris Harris.    --FS David Bruton continues to struggle through a series of Achilles/ankle issues. He missed practice Wednesday, and has been limited by those injuries in recent weeks, reducing his practice snaps. Bruton, though, hasn't missed a game as yet. He's tied with Dante Rosario for the team lead in special-teams tackles (eight) and plays a role in heavy dime packages.    --WR Eddie Royal returned to practice after sitting out the previous 10 days after suffering a concussion vs. Minnesota. Royal was limited. His return could mean a reprisal of his punt-return duties. He also could cost Matt Willis and Demaryius Thomas some offensive snaps. New England allowed more than 450 yards and 27 points to Washington last Sunday. And despite a five-game win streak, that success has come against some of the NFL's lightweights at quarterback, including Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman.    The Broncos need to protect the ball and get back to running the ball with stunning regularity and sustained success. Chicago was able to contain the edges against Denver and penetrate the backfield to hold Denver to 3.6 yards per carry. McGahee ran hesitantly after missing practice time with a knee issue.    They'll need the McGahee that's put up six 100-yard individual games to play to Tebow's passing strengths - the deep ball off play action against a beat-up new England secondary. One of the reasons Denver may want to get back to the 40-50 carry range of just a few weeks ago is that it eats clock and keeps New England's team that's already scored 396 points off the field. Another is that it prevents the kind of tipped passes and breaks on the ball that have been critical to the Patriots' notching 18 interceptions. And even with the strides Tebow's made, his strength still isn't reading pro defenses. It is Belichick's calling card to diagnose schemes that initiate confusion. Opponents have mainly tried to double Gronkowski or cover him with a safety. Rarely have teams committed a cover cornerback to take away that option, in part because of Wes Welker's significant presence as a pass-catcher from the inside. But Bailey has been tasked with matching up with top-tier tight ends before: Tony Gonzalez in his Kansas City days; Antonio Gates with San Diego. It's unlikely Bailey will go full-time on Gronkowski, who'll see plenty of Quinton Carter, double teams and LB Wesley Woodyard. But on key snaps, don't be surprised if Bailey gets the call. Patriots - Broncos Game Chatter  Broncos - Patriots  Preview   For more Patriots news follow us via Twitter: Follow @patriotsinsider Or find us on Facebook : Facebook.com/PatriotsInsider ","skipOnMobile":false,"media":[],"dateOverride":"2011-12-15T20:21:00","authorOverride":"TSX","role":"","isPremium":true,"isHotNews":false,"isRumor":false,"syndicationFlag":true,"isClassified":true,"hotNamesLinked":true,"storyImage":"[MEDIA:1013493]","mainImage":{},"thumbnailImage":"[THUMBNAIL:1013493]","heroImage":{},"authorImage":"","tags":[{"id":"9817","name":"Louisville - Football"},{"id":"567","name":"Arizona"},{"id":"9996","name":"Arizona - Football"},{"id":"689","name":"Louisville"},{"id":"176","name":"New England Patriots"},{"id":"189","name":"Denver 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