Patriots Preview: Denver Broncos Week 6

The Denver Broncos pose yet another huge challenge for the New England Patriots. The last stop on their ridiculous road tour has the Patriots traveling to Mile High in Denver to take on a 4-1 Broncos team that looks like an offensive juggernaut. The Patriots defense had their hands full last week, barely holding on for a win... Dave Fletcher previews the game against the Broncos, another game the Patriots need to win, but aren't expected to.

Patriots Preview: Denver Broncos Week 6
By Dave Fletcher

All things considered, it is nothing short of amazing. Through five games, the injury-riddled Patriots defense has surrendered an AFC-high 136 points, forced just three turnovers and had a different starting secondary for every game. Yet here they are with a chance to get to 4-2 with a win at Denver (4-1) going into the bye week.

How in the world are the Patriots surviving with such a dire defensive situation? For one, the Patriots have scored 118 points, third best in the conference. Call it payback from the offense for all the times the defense carried the load in the past two seasons.

“Looking back on the last few years, there has been times where, offensively, we haven’t produced much, but the defense has held them,” Tom Brady said on Wednesday. “I think you realize each group has better days than others. There’s times when the defense plays well and we look back and say ‘Guys we have to help you out more than that as an offense.’ And it goes vice-versa … Over the years, we probably had more days where the offense is apologizing to the defense than the defense apologizing to the offense.”

Unfortunately, an offense can bail out a struggling defense only so many times before running into its own problems. It already happened once this season against San Diego and it is bound to happen again should the defense continue to have problems maintaining fourth quarter leads.

There are signs, however, that New England’s defense can begin to contribute more consistently against the Broncos this week at Mile High Stadium.

The main reason for hope is the improvement in run defense. After the Chargers bullied the Patriots defensive front en route to 180 rushing yards, the Falcons were held to 116 yards after averaging over 200 going into the game. Linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel and safeties Eugene Wilson and Guss Scott showed improvement in their tackling, minimizing Atlanta’s longest rushing play to 18 yards.

The Patriots will need a similar effort against Denver’s rushing attack, which has thrived for the past decade no matter who has been the ball carrier. This season, Mike Anderson began the year as the Broncos’ No. 1 back, but Tatum Bell has since emerged and averaged 6.2 yards-per-carry. Touches will likely be split between the two, but Bell seems to be the more explosive back right now.

Coach Bill Belichick compared Bell’s speed to that of Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker, who the Patriots were able to neutralize by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. Denver’s offensive line relies on smaller but very athletic players who use cut blocking schemes similar to Atlanta. While many defensive players regard the technique as dirty, blocking defenders below the waist is legal and the tactic has worked for Denver for many years.

New England owns the size advantage along the defensive front, so it will be important for nose tackle Vince Wilfork, end Jarvis Green and, if healthy, Richard Seymour to keep the Broncos’ line, anchored by 13-year veteran Tom Nalen, from opening up cutback lanes for the runners.

New England will go a long way in stopping Denver’s offense if it can force quarterback Jake Plummer into passing situations on third downs. The turnover-prone Plummer has a mediocre 75.7 passer rating this year and the Broncos have converted just 27 percent of their third down opportunities. Since throwing for 251 yards in Week 1, Plummer’s passing totals have gone down in each subsequent week, bottoming out at just 90 yards last week against Washington.

While New England’s secondary is hardly comparable to Washington’s at this point, nearly all of Plummer’s success this season has been thanks to Rod Smith, who has 28 catches for 308 yards. In his last three games against the Patriots, Smith has 24 catches for 449 yards.

“He kills us every time he plays us, so I'm sure when he goes to the Hall of Fame, he'll give a lot of credit to us,” said Belichick.

It is unclear whose job it will be to contain Smith as the Patriots again have just about every player in their secondary except Asante Samuel and Wilson listed on the injury report. Smith’s counterpart, Ashley Lelie, is off to a slow start, but he has the ability to catch deep balls and provide a quick score if New England lets him get behind the safeties.

The big play will likewise be important to the Pats offense this week as they face a Broncos team that is stingy against the run but young and susceptible in the secondary. Denver has yielded an average of just 88 yards on the ground this season thanks to a group of fast, physical linebackers led by veteran Ian Gold. The question is whether injured cornerback Champ Bailey makes it back onto the field this week after a hamstring strain.

Without Bailey, Denver’s inexperienced secondary will have problems shadowing Deion Branch and David Givens for four quarters. Provided Brady has enough time to deliver the football, this may be one of those weeks where nine or ten different receivers get into the act catching passes. Tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson finally showed what they are capable of against Atlanta last week and even Bethel Johnson caught a home run ball for a touchdown. That should continue this week against the Broncos. Establishing the run can always come later in the game as a result of a successful passing game.

“I’d say the passing game compliments the running game in general,” said Brady. “(But) I don’t think throwing to one particular player or position really affects the running game.”

As long as New England proves early on that it can burn Denver’s corners downfield, Corey Dillon should be able to get his usual 20-25 carries.

“Corey is a huge part of this offense. We have to continue to get him the ball and get him yards,” Brady said.

If Dillon is still touching the ball late in the fourth quarter, it will likely be because Brady has already done his job spreading the ball around and exploiting the holes in Denver’s secondary.

The Patriots could certainly use a win where they don’t need to rely on Brady’s two-minute drill to get them in position for a win. Perhaps this will be the week where neither the offense nor the defense feels compelled to thank the other for picking up the slack.

What to look for: Which players on the injury report actually play? Belichick took a rather passive aggressive approach in revealing how he felt about the Falcons’ downgrading Michael Vick to ‘questionable’ last Saturday after being listed as ‘probable’ all week despite not practicing. The Patriots, who typically list players who miss practice as ‘questionable,’ seemingly mocked Atlanta’s actions by classifying 15 players as ‘probable’ for the Denver game. As of Wednesday, that list of ‘probables’ were: Tully Banta-Cain (knee); Troy Brown (foot) ; Matt Chatham (knee); Dillon (ankle); Randall Gay (ankle); Green (shoulder); Marquise Hill (ankle); Larry Izzo (thigh); Willie McGinest (finger); Tyrone Poole (ankle); James Sanders (ankle); Scott (knee); Seymour (knee); Duane Starks (thigh); Brady (right shoulder). On Friday, Belichick added Beisel (finger) to the list and changed everyone’s status to ‘questionable’ except Brady. On Friday the injury report took another twist as all the probable players were listed as questionable for Sunday, with the exception of Brady who remained probable.

Notes: A running misconception: Known for having a fondness for running the ball, Denver head coach Mike Shanahan hasn’t quite fulfilled that expectation this year. Of their 99 first-down plays, the Broncos have run the ball only 37 times … The Broncos are 3-0 at home this season … New England’s turnover differential stands at -6, while Denver’s is +6 … New England was penalized 11 times against the Falcons … Last week, the Patriots had a 100-yard rusher (Dillon), a 100-yard receiver (Graham) and a 300-yard passer (Brady) in the same game for the first time since Nov. 2, 1997, when Curtis Martin ran for 104 yards, Shawn Jefferson had 108 yards receiving and Drew Bledsoe threw for 313 yards in a 23-18 loss at Minnesota … Brady was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Atlanta.

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