The most prolific rivalry of the generation. Two future Hall of Famers. Two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. It’s Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning for 15th time. How big is this game? The last three times Brady and Manning have faced off in the playoffs, the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
But this game is more than just Brady and Manning. This game is a large task for the coaches, as each team has its own special attributes that brings them success and respect- not to mention a future hall of fame quarterback. The running game will be in focus, as both teams have pleasant surprises at the running back position. But most of all, defenses will constantly be under pressure to defend these dangerous offenses.
In this edition, we will look at the New England offense and Denver’s defense.
The largest differences between the previous matchup between these teams and this one for the Patriots’ offense are the absence of Gronkowski, and the presence of a developed power running game.
Through the past three games, New England has largely relied on their running game. Opposing teams have had a heavy dose of Legarrette Blount has he has gotten a combined 48 carries for 355 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 4 coming against the Colts in the divisional Round.
Both Blount and Stevan Ridley missed the majority of the Week 12 game between the Patriots of the Broncos due to fumbles early in the game. The Patriots had to rely largely upon the likes of Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen for the run game, and ultimately got nowhere with it.
With a strong power run game this time around, the Patriots will look to run between the tackles to wear down the defense. Getting physical up front with the Denver front seven will be essential, as it will allow for more holes in the passing game, and possibly some long runs.
Unlike the run game, the Patriots passing game is not as strong. Tom Brady did lead the Patriots to a 34 point comeback in Week 12, but that was when the Patriots still had their biggest offensive weapon: Rob Gronkowski.
Without Gronk, the Patriots will have to rely on the short passing game to move the chains on third down. The play action passing game creates most of the deep passing opportunities. With their main receivers all 6 foot and under, the Patriots lack the ability to stretch the field, and will likely have to rely on creating picks and the screen game to move the chains.
The Patriots have also missed the likes of Aaron Dobson, the rookie out of Marshall that was out with a stress fracture in his foot. The 6’3″ 200 pound receiver had the ability to create vertical lanes and create more room for underneath routes for Tom Brady to dissect.
Denver’s Defensive Gameplan
The biggest threat on the Patriots offense is their running game. If the Broncos can stop the run, they can likely force the Patriots’ offense to a halt. By stacking the box and staying in their base defense, Denver would be able to significantly limit New England’s power running.
Staying in the base defense against the Patriots is not advised however, as this could create matchup issues with the Patriots’ passing weapons. This would also give the Patriots the man to man coverage on the outside that they desire, and create strong opportunities downfield coming out of the play-action fake.
So how does the Broncos’ defense go about stopping the Patriots’ offense? Get pressure on Tom Brady, and balance the defense between the run and the pass. If Denver limits Blount’s production while also taking Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen out of the game, the Patriots won’t be able to score any points.
Of course, this is harder than it sounds. Edelman is a quick receiver, and is extremely hard to cover. Denver lost both Von Miller and Chris Harris since the Week 12 matchup, so getting pressure on Brady and covering will be harder.
An especially important thing for the Broncos secondary to do to stop the Patriots is to stay on their receivers. If they don’t get caught looking into the backfield and don’t get fooled by the play action game, the Patriots have essentially no chance going downfield with a less than 100% Aaron Dobson.
To take away opportunities for Shane Vereen, the Patriots’ most productive 3rd down converter, Denver should bracket him in their dime package on third downs. Their defensive line got great pressure on Philip Rivers in the Divisional Round, and should be able to pressure Tom Brady even without Von Miller.
In Part 2, we will analyze how the Patriots defense can cover the array of weapons on the Broncos offense. Read it here.