Patriots - Broncos: Game Plans & Matchups

News, notes, injury reports, including key matchups, and game plans for both the Broncos and the Patriots in their Division Playoff game.

PATRIOTS

   The Patriots haven't made any noteworthy additions to the roster thanks in large part to the fact they've had near-perfect attendance at practice this week. The 53-man roster is as healthy as it's been in months, which means there likely won't be any practice-squad promotions or players signed off the street.

   A healthy offensive line would certainly help the running game, and a fully loaded secondary more than likely would limit the experimenting that's gone on in recent weeks, particularly the Devin McCourty audition at safety.
Through it all, there's still a chance the Patriots will try to utilize McCourty somewhere in the deep part of the field, especially after watching Broncos QB Tim Tebow burn Pittsburgh's secondary on the game-winning touchdown last weekend.

PLAYER NOTES
   --Practice-squad WR Britt Davis has drawn the assignment of mimicking Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, who caught the game-winning touchdown in last week's playoff game. Davis has spent time with the Broncos, so his input could be valuable.
   --WR Chad Ochocinco has been quiet most of the season, but he could be a wild card for the Patriots if the Broncos try to adjust their scheme to take TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker out of commission. The last time the teams met, TE Aaron Hernandez benefited from the game plan, but Ochocinco is always a threat to make a big play deep down the field.
   --RB Stevan Ridley, who could play a big role offensively Saturday, thinks Denver's defense has flown under the radar. "A lot of the talk is about (Tim) Tebow, but not so much about their defense," Ridley said.
   --DL Mark Anderson finished with 10 sacks this season, marking the second time in his career he's reached double digits in sacks in a single season.
   --QB Tom Brady reached the 4,000-yard mark for the fourth time this season, tying him with Warren Moon and Philip Rivers for the fifth most 4,000-yard seasons in NFL history.

INJURY IMPACT
   --DL Kyle Love was not seen on the field during media availability at Wednesday's practice, the lone player missing after the team had perfect attendance Tuesday. His absence was not injury-related, though his status for this weekend is still uncertain.
   --OL Sebastian Vollmer is finally back at practice this week, a positive sign after he battled back and foot injuries. Vollmer hasn't played in quite a while, but he appears to be heading in the right direction for Saturday's playoff opener.
   --OL Logan Mankins was back on the field Tuesday and Wednesday after missing several games with a knee injury. Mankins was a game-time scratch several weeks ago, but he should be ready for Saturday's game.
   --OL Donald Thomas should get just as much playing time Saturday even if Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are back in the lineup. The additional body allows the Patriots to be more flexible with player substitutions, and fresher legs from the offensive linemen in the fourth quarter means more opportunities for the tight ends to play a role in the passing game instead of having to stay back and block.
   --NT Vince Wilfork's role could take on even more importance this weekend if Kyle Love misses Saturday's playoff opener. Though Wilfork is a Pro Bowler, Love has played the majority of snaps at nose tackle in the team's 3-4 front with Wilfork serving a role as the team's top interior player in a 4-3 scheme.

   GAME PLAN: The plan of attack against QB Tim Tebow might be different this weekend than it was in Week 15 based off what the Patriots saw in Denver's playoff win over Pittsburgh.
   Tebow has proved he can tuck the ball and run at a moment's notice, which is no secret to anyone who followed his career in college, but he's also proved he can connect with his receivers on big plays, as evident by his 80-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime last week.
   What the Steelers failed to do was guard the deep part of the field, instead spending too much energy defending the intermediate routes, which have been a problem for Tebow. The second-year quarterback has shown a habit of poor decision-making when he has less time to maneuver, but when given ample protection and ample time to develop a big play down the field, he's showed he can execute as well as any quarterback on any given day.
   Expect to see plenty of nickel and dime coverage this week. The Patriots don't want to get beat deep, so they'll gladly leave the short routes undermanned in hopes that a frustrated Tebow eventually will make a mistake. He's dangerous on the run, but more so as a runner than as a passer, so if the Patriots can seal the edges and force Tebow to make quick decisions, they'll be in good shape.

   MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots OLB Rob Ninkovich vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow -- Though the Patriots won't reveal any of their game plan, they figure to use a spy to track Tebow from time to time, assuming the athletic quarterback tucks the ball and runs as often as he's expected to. Ninkovich is a perfect candidate because of his size and speed. As coach Bill Belichick says, you wouldn't use the same player to spy Ben Roethlisberger as you would to spy Michael Vick, and Tebow is big enough to warrant a strong defender as a spy.
   Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas vs. Patriots DB Devin McCourty -- This isn't a traditional matchup because McCourty probably won't spend the entire game at the cornerback position defending Thomas one-on-one. McCourty might be asked to play safety at times, which means he could draw the assignment in the deep part of the field and serve as the last line of defense on big plays. Everyone saw what happened when Pittsburgh left Ike Taylor stranded in the secondary in overtime last weekend, and there's a chance for a similar big play or two Saturday night if McCourty doesn't grasp the concept of playing safety in the next few days.
   Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo -- In a perfect world, the Patriots could use up to six defensive backs to defend the deep part of the field and prevent Tebow from taking chances down the field, but the plan will go down the drain if the interior linebackers can't stop the run. McGahee is a big part of this game; if he gets going, the Patriots will have to stack the box defensively, which then leaves Tebow with the chance to exploit the secondary.


BRONCOS

   The Broncos made a tactical switch in the Pittsburgh game, going to a heavy dime package that included three safeties -- David Bruton, Quinton Carter and Rafael Bush.

   Denver likes the alignment against teams like New England that can spread the ball out because Bush has cornerback abilities at the safety position. Carter and Bruton share deep responsibilities, and the former should be active in coverage against the Patriots' dangerous tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez.

   The Broncos went without a fullback vs. Pittsburgh after putting starter Spencer Larsen (knee) on injured reserve. The team instead opted for two- and three-TE sets that frequently employed tackles Tony Hills and Chris Clark alone and in tandem.

   In lead-blocking situations, the team also used tight end Dante Rosario in two-back sets.

INJURY IMPACT
   --SS Brian Dawkins has been doing some lateral movement exercises, stretching and light sprinting exercises, but he still hasn't received clearance to practice. Dawkins hurt his neck in the Dec. 11 game against Chicago, and he has played just over one quarter of one game in the four games since.
   --WR Eric Decker has been classified by the team as having a knee sprain, believed to be his medial collateral ligament. Decker didn't take part in the first two days of prep for New England, and his return is an extreme long shot.
   --DE Elvis Dumervil was given an off day earlier in the week for ankle and leg issues, but the team's second-leading sack producer shouldn't be hampered much come game day.
   --TE Daniel Fells (ankle) was able to return to the Steelers game after taking a hit flush on his foot following a long catch. Fells is limited at practice but will be good to go Saturday night.

   GAME PLAN: The Broncos ran the ball for 167 yards in the first quarter alone in the first meeting with the Patriots (and 254 overall), and with frigid temperatures expected in Foxboro, you can bet they will lean heavily on the ground game to try to move the chains.
   Denver's offense hit the quick strike on numerous occasions vs. Pittsburgh, and if the Patriots sell out in run support, QB Tim Tebow will take his shots.
   But the first order of business is getting RB Willis McGahee untracked, whether via zone-blocking methodology, a matchup scheme, the read-option or a combination of the three.
   Defensively, the Broncos will try to disguise their coverages as long as possible to keep Tom Brady from checking out of plays and attacking the weak areas of the field. But expect Denver to keep up an attacking mind-set -- using multiple fronts and blitz packages -- after Brady was hit only a couple of times and sacked twice in the first meeting. The Broncos hope that man-to-man coverage can hold up against the Patriots' talented wide receivers and tight ends.

   MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots WR Wes Welker, the NFL's leader in receptions with 122, vs. Denver CB Chris Harris, who handles slot responsibilities in nickel and dime packages -- One of four rookies to play in all 17 games for the Broncos, Harris has been one of the biggest surprises on the roster this season. Undrafted out of Kansas, Harris has shown both a willingness to tackle with a spirited, aggressive approach in man-to-man coverage. Welker is as savvy as they come, but in the first meeting, he was limited to four catches. Harris said the key was to challenge Welker on every snap and try to limit his route options. But Welker has the savvy to use the December meeting as a setup for future route combinations. Harris will have to be able to adjust.
   Broncos LB Von Miller, who led Denver with 11.5 sacks in the regular season in gaining second-team All-Pro honors, vs. New England's offensive line -- In the Pittsburgh game, Miller went back to a joker role he's handled at times this season where defensive coordinator Dennis Allen attempts to get matchup problems by moving Miller around the formation. The result vs. Pittsburgh was Miller getting his first sack in four games and adding three tackles, despite still being hampered by a bothersome cast on his right thumb. Miller aligned over center on occasion in the first meeting vs. New England but was largely silent with just a single tackle for loss. Miller must get in the Patriots' backfield on at least a few occasions to make Tom Brady take notice or else it will be a long day for Denver.


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\r\n","mobileBody":"    The Patriots haven't made any noteworthy additions to the roster thanks in large part to the fact they've had near-perfect attendance at practice this week. The 53-man roster is as healthy as it's been in months, which means there likely won't be any practice-squad promotions or players signed off the street.    A healthy offensive line would certainly help the running game, and a fully loaded secondary more than likely would limit the experimenting that's gone on in recent weeks, particularly the Devin McCourty audition at safety. Through it all, there's still a chance the Patriots will try to utilize McCourty somewhere in the deep part of the field, especially after watching Broncos QB Tim Tebow burn Pittsburgh's secondary on the game-winning touchdown last weekend.    --Practice-squad WR Britt Davis has drawn the assignment of mimicking Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, who caught the game-winning touchdown in last week's playoff game. Davis has spent time with the Broncos, so his input could be valuable.    --WR Chad Ochocinco has been quiet most of the season, but he could be a wild card for the Patriots if the Broncos try to adjust their scheme to take TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker out of commission. The last time the teams met, TE Aaron Hernandez benefited from the game plan, but Ochocinco is always a threat to make a big play deep down the field.    --RB Stevan Ridley, who could play a big role offensively Saturday, thinks Denver's defense has flown under the radar. \"A lot of the talk is about (Tim) Tebow, but not so much about their defense,\" Ridley said.    --DL Mark Anderson finished with 10 sacks this season, marking the second time in his career he's reached double digits in sacks in a single season.    --QB Tom Brady reached the 4,000-yard mark for the fourth time this season, tying him with Warren Moon and Philip Rivers for the fifth most 4,000-yard seasons in NFL history.    --DL Kyle Love was not seen on the field during media availability at Wednesday's practice, the lone player missing after the team had perfect attendance Tuesday. His absence was not injury-related, though his status for this weekend is still uncertain.    --OL Sebastian Vollmer is finally back at practice this week, a positive sign after he battled back and foot injuries. Vollmer hasn't played in quite a while, but he appears to be heading in the right direction for Saturday's playoff opener.    --OL Logan Mankins was back on the field Tuesday and Wednesday after missing several games with a knee injury. Mankins was a game-time scratch several weeks ago, but he should be ready for Saturday's game.    --OL Donald Thomas should get just as much playing time Saturday even if Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are back in the lineup. The additional body allows the Patriots to be more flexible with player substitutions, and fresher legs from the offensive linemen in the fourth quarter means more opportunities for the tight ends to play a role in the passing game instead of having to stay back and block.    --NT Vince Wilfork's role could take on even more importance this weekend if Kyle Love misses Saturday's playoff opener. Though Wilfork is a Pro Bowler, Love has played the majority of snaps at nose tackle in the team's 3-4 front with Wilfork serving a role as the team's top interior player in a 4-3 scheme. The plan of attack against QB Tim Tebow might be different this weekend than it was in Week 15 based off what the Patriots saw in Denver's playoff win over Pittsburgh.    Tebow has proved he can tuck the ball and run at a moment's notice, which is no secret to anyone who followed his career in college, but he's also proved he can connect with his receivers on big plays, as evident by his 80-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime last week.    What the Steelers failed to do was guard the deep part of the field, instead spending too much energy defending the intermediate routes, which have been a problem for Tebow. The second-year quarterback has shown a habit of poor decision-making when he has less time to maneuver, but when given ample protection and ample time to develop a big play down the field, he's showed he can execute as well as any quarterback on any given day.    Expect to see plenty of nickel and dime coverage this week. The Patriots don't want to get beat deep, so they'll gladly leave the short routes undermanned in hopes that a frustrated Tebow eventually will make a mistake. He's dangerous on the run, but more so as a runner than as a passer, so if the Patriots can seal the edges and force Tebow to make quick decisions, they'll be in good shape. Patriots OLB Rob Ninkovich vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow -- Though the Patriots won't reveal any of their game plan, they figure to use a spy to track Tebow from time to time, assuming the athletic quarterback tucks the ball and runs as often as he's expected to. Ninkovich is a perfect candidate because of his size and speed. As coach Bill Belichick says, you wouldn't use the same player to spy Ben Roethlisberger as you would to spy Michael Vick, and Tebow is big enough to warrant a strong defender as a spy.    Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas vs. Patriots DB Devin McCourty -- This isn't a traditional matchup because McCourty probably won't spend the entire game at the cornerback position defending Thomas one-on-one. McCourty might be asked to play safety at times, which means he could draw the assignment in the deep part of the field and serve as the last line of defense on big plays. Everyone saw what happened when Pittsburgh left Ike Taylor stranded in the secondary in overtime last weekend, and there's a chance for a similar big play or two Saturday night if McCourty doesn't grasp the concept of playing safety in the next few days.    Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo -- In a perfect world, the Patriots could use up to six defensive backs to defend the deep part of the field and prevent Tebow from taking chances down the field, but the plan will go down the drain if the interior linebackers can't stop the run. McGahee is a big part of this game; if he gets going, the Patriots will have to stack the box defensively, which then leaves Tebow with the chance to exploit the secondary.    The Broncos made a tactical switch in the Pittsburgh game, going to a heavy dime package that included three safeties -- David Bruton, Quinton Carter and Rafael Bush.    Denver likes the alignment against teams like New England that can spread the ball out because Bush has cornerback abilities at the safety position. Carter and Bruton share deep responsibilities, and the former should be active in coverage against the Patriots' dangerous tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez.    The Broncos went without a fullback vs. Pittsburgh after putting starter Spencer Larsen (knee) on injured reserve. The team instead opted for two- and three-TE sets that frequently employed tackles Tony Hills and Chris Clark alone and in tandem.    In lead-blocking situations, the team also used tight end Dante Rosario in two-back sets.    --SS Brian Dawkins has been doing some lateral movement exercises, stretching and light sprinting exercises, but he still hasn't received clearance to practice. Dawkins hurt his neck in the Dec. 11 game against Chicago, and he has played just over one quarter of one game in the four games since.    --WR Eric Decker has been classified by the team as having a knee sprain, believed to be his medial collateral ligament. Decker didn't take part in the first two days of prep for New England, and his return is an extreme long shot.    --DE Elvis Dumervil was given an off day earlier in the week for ankle and leg issues, but the team's second-leading sack producer shouldn't be hampered much come game day.    --TE Daniel Fells (ankle) was able to return to the Steelers game after taking a hit flush on his foot following a long catch. Fells is limited at practice but will be good to go Saturday night. The Broncos ran the ball for 167 yards in the first quarter alone in the first meeting with the Patriots (and 254 overall), and with frigid temperatures expected in Foxboro, you can bet they will lean heavily on the ground game to try to move the chains.    Denver's offense hit the quick strike on numerous occasions vs. Pittsburgh, and if the Patriots sell out in run support, QB Tim Tebow will take his shots.    But the first order of business is getting RB Willis McGahee untracked, whether via zone-blocking methodology, a matchup scheme, the read-option or a combination of the three.    Defensively, the Broncos will try to disguise their coverages as long as possible to keep Tom Brady from checking out of plays and attacking the weak areas of the field. But expect Denver to keep up an attacking mind-set -- using multiple fronts and blitz packages -- after Brady was hit only a couple of times and sacked twice in the first meeting. The Broncos hope that man-to-man coverage can hold up against the Patriots' talented wide receivers and tight ends. Patriots WR Wes Welker, the NFL's leader in receptions with 122, vs. Denver CB Chris Harris, who handles slot responsibilities in nickel and dime packages -- One of four rookies to play in all 17 games for the Broncos, Harris has been one of the biggest surprises on the roster this season. Undrafted out of Kansas, Harris has shown both a willingness to tackle with a spirited, aggressive approach in man-to-man coverage. Welker is as savvy as they come, but in the first meeting, he was limited to four catches. Harris said the key was to challenge Welker on every snap and try to limit his route options. But Welker has the savvy to use the December meeting as a setup for future route combinations. Harris will have to be able to adjust.    Broncos LB Von Miller, who led Denver with 11.5 sacks in the regular season in gaining second-team All-Pro honors, vs. New England's offensive line -- In the Pittsburgh game, Miller went back to a joker role he's handled at times this season where defensive coordinator Dennis Allen attempts to get matchup problems by moving Miller around the formation. The result vs. Pittsburgh was Miller getting his first sack in four games and adding three tackles, despite still being hampered by a bothersome cast on his right thumb. Miller aligned over center on occasion in the first meeting vs. New England but was largely silent with just a single tackle for loss. Miller must get in the Patriots' backfield on at least a few occasions to make Tom Brady take notice or else it will be a long day for Denver. Patriots News Broncos News Patriots Daily Newswire  Broncos Talk  -- Patriots Talk For more Patriots news follow us via Twitter: Follow @patriotsinsider Or find us on Facebook : Facebook.com/PatriotsInsider ","skipOnMobile":false,"media":[],"dateOverride":"2012-01-13T07:43:00","authorOverride":"TSX","role":"","isPremium":true,"isHotNews":false,"isRumor":false,"syndicationFlag":true,"isClassified":true,"hotNamesLinked":true,"storyImage":"[MEDIA:1018898]","mainImage":{},"thumbnailImage":"[THUMBNAIL:1018898]","heroImage":{},"authorImage":"","tags":[{"id":"176","name":"New England Patriots"},{"id":"189","name":"Denver Broncos"},{"id":"176","name":"New England Patriots"},{"id":"189","name":"Denver 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