In Part 1 of this series, we analyzed the New England Patriots offense and how the Denver Broncos could stop them. In this edition, we will look at the Broncos’ high-powered offense and how the Patriots will gameplan for them.
Read Part 1 here.
There are a million things that could be said about this Broncos offense, but one word describes it perfectly: dangerous. Peyton Manning has a plethora of options to throw to. In fact, his receivers could even be considered the most talented group of receivers in the whole NFL.
Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and Knowshon Moreno. On any given play, Peyton Manning may have the option to pass to any one of them. They create huge matchup issues, especially in a short passing and yards after the catch system that the Broncos have. Peyton Manning uses his plethora of weapons to exploit defenses and create mismatches by checking into plays and optimizing routes at the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos like to set picks to allow their other receivers room to catch and run. They employ bunch formations to get the upper hand on defensive backs. From their pre-snap positions, the receivers can either set picks on defensive backs coming across from the other side of the formation to allow the opposite receiver to have a wide open catch, or they can jam the immediate defensive back covering another receiver in the bunch formation. This simple -and legal- tactic allows the Denver offense to convert on third downs and pick up big gains. (For visuals and more on this, read Greg Berdard’s analysis on MMQB)
The biggest difference between the matchup between the Broncos and the Patriots for the Broncos offense is the presence of Julius Thomas. Thomas is a chain mover, red-zone target, and overall coverage mismatch. The Patriots have historically been terrible at covering tight ends, as Jacob Tamme was the Broncos’ most efficient pass catcher in Week 12. Orange Julius works as Peyton Manning’s safety blanket in tight situations, as seen by the crucial converted 3rd and 17 play at the end of the Broncos’ divisional round game against the Chargers.
A well known weakness of the Broncos’ system is bump-and-run coverage, which disrupts receivers’ routes and takes value out of the short passing game by interfering with the timing of passes. Fortunately for the Broncos, they are aware of this weakness and know how to get out of it too. When teams purely try to cover the Broncos’ myriad of receivers, they are forced into their sub-packages. Denver’s strategy has always been to run their way out of this issue, as Knowshon Moreno has had a productive year running the ball, and easily spots holes in nickel and dime defenses.
The combination of Denver’s prolific passing attack and their underrated ability to run the ball make for a complicated task for opposing teams’ defenses.
The Patriots’ Defensive Gameplan
Let’s rewind back to Week 12 and remember why the Patriots were able to score 28 unanswered points while essentially shutting down the Broncos offense. The Patriots employed a two high safety look the whole game, focusing on playing bump-and-run to disrupt receivers. They let Knowshon Moreno run free, but effectively took Peyton Manning out of the game.
Biggest difference for the Patriots defense between then and now? Jamie Collins. The 2nd round draft pick for the Patriots is an athletic linebacker who has the length, size, and speed to cover big athletic receivers. Collins could be used to cover Julius Thomas and prevent him from moving the chains like he did against the Chargers.
Letting Knowshon Moreno run free on the Cover 2 look in Week 12 wasn’t a pretty sight for Patriots fans. Moreno demolished the middle of the New England defense, rushing for 224 yards and a touchdown. This time around, the hole left by Wilfork and Kelly is filled by a reliable Sealver Silgia, who was a free agent pickup by the Patriots. Silgia beat out Isaac Sopoaga for the defensive tackle job and him along with rookie DT Chris Jones may do enough to limit Moreno’s production. Dont’a Hightower has improved late in the season, and he could be instrumental in not letting Denver run the Patriots out of their sub-package defense.
The most important things for the Patriots to do? Get pressure on Peyton Manning and play good man to man coverage. Second year defensive end Chandler Jones is a monster on the outside, and paired with Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots pass rush is an underrated one. Belichick will have schemes to get past the Denver offensive line and get good pressure on Peyton.
The Patriots defensive backs are looking healthy, as Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan will look to play physically on Denver’s receivers. In this year’s playoffs, referees have allowed more contact between DB’s and wide receivers, which is good news for the Patriots who need to disrupt Denver’s wide receivers right off the line. Steve Gregory, who missed Week 12, will be playing this game too, adding another layer of depth to the secondary.
Look for Bill Belichick to mix up coverages and give different looks to confuse Peyton Manning. Belichick’s two-high safeties look took Peyton out of the game last time, and though this time it should be harder to surprise the Broncos, the Hooded Menace should be able to cook up a scheme that could slow this record-setting offense.
Both teams have dangerous offenses and player personnel that make them among the best in the league. The Broncos have the upper hand in offensive weapons, but the Patriots have the upper hand in coaching and game-planning. Expect this game to be a chess match not only between Brady and Manning but between other important parts of each team as well.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, this game does have huge implications. In the last three playoff games between Brady and Manning, the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
But this game is made to be more than just the Championship.
Whoever wins this game and goes on to win the Super Bowl will be deemed the greatest quarterback of all time. Peyton Manning would finish off the greatest season by a quarterback ever with a Super Bowl win; the media would go crazy. Tom Brady would overcome great adversity to lead his team to a fourth Super Bowl win, in a record six Super Bowl appearances.
This is the battle for the title, and the battle to become the G.O.A.T.