NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Peyton Manning returns to Foxboro on Sunday as a member of the Denver Broncos, who are looking to drop New England to 2-3 on the season. How can the Patriots overcome a banged-up roster in order to prevent their record from dipping below .500? Explore ten significant aspect’s of tomorrow’s game below.
1. Will Peyton Manning be able to push the ball downfield and spread out the defense?
Peyton Manning is just 7-10 in 17 appearances against the Patriots, but his struggles against New England’s defense have been exaggerated by a few poor showings on major stages; he has thrown 37 touchdown passes over those 17 games. New England’s chances of beating Manning this time around will depend in part upon Manning’s ability to make deep throws into tight coverage. The majority of Manning’s work this season has come on short throws to mask his depleted arm strength; Manning has attempted just 15 throws of 20 yards or more this season, completing only six of those passes for 160 yards, with an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions (three.) Manning also has yet to throw a touchdown pass on an intermediate route, with 17 completions on 38 attempts. New England’s coaching staff has been quick to dismiss the idea that Manning will be unable to challenge the Patriots deep; Manning must do just that in order to prevent New England from crowding the line of scrimmage and forcing him to throw into heavy traffic on a consistent basis. Look for the Patriots to respect Manning’s deep ball early in the game, although New England could employ more aggressive coverages if Manning struggles on his early throws downfield.
2. Patriots’ run defense must improve over 2011 performances vs. Willis McGahee
Broncos running back Willis McGahee will turn 31 in two weeks, but there has been no noticeable dropoff in his performance since last season; McGahee rushed for 1,199 yards on 249 attempts (4.8 yards per attempt) last season, and he is on pace to rush for 1,300 yards on 276 carries (4.7 yards per attempt) in 2013. Last week, McGahee accounted for 135 total yards and scored a touchdown in Denver’s 37-6 blowout over the Oakland Raiders. To make matters worse, McGahee also performed well against the Patriots in 2011, rushing for 70 yards on seven carries in December and 76 yards on 17 carries in January, scoring Denver’s only touchdown. The Patriots are currently tied for seventh in run defense, allowing an average of 85.2 yards per game, but that ranking will be challenged by McGahee’s size, strength, and quickness. New England must be prepared to defend against the outside stretch as well as inside carries from McGahee. Left end Rob Ninkovich draws a particularly difficult matchup against massive Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin; Ninkovich was easily maneuvered by Ravens right tackle Kelechi Osemele back in week three.
3. Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley present difficult matchups
Left cornerback Devin McCourty is enjoying a strong season – he has allowed just 12 completions and one touchdown on 29 attempts, with two interceptions and a 42.2 rating against – but he can only cover one of the Broncos’ top wide receivers. Right cornerback Kyle Arrington has struggled mightily (15/19 for 255 yards and two touchdowns against) and will be tested heavily on Sunday. Denver’s three dangerous wide receivers are an even bigger issue when combined with a potentially thin New England secondary: starting free safety Steve Gregory will miss the game with a hip injury, and third cornerback Sterling Moore is listed as questionable (knee.) Fourth cornerback Ras-I Dowling missed practice time for an undisclosed reason. Rookie Tavon Wilson is expected to start in Gregory’s place, while Marquice Cole and rookie Alfonzo Dennard could be pushed onto the field if Moore and/or Dowling are inactive. Brandon Stokley may be 36, but his chemistry with Peyton Manning would make him a tough matchup for a relatively inexperienced player such as Cole or Dennard; even after missing practice time, Sterling Moore’s presence in the secondary is critical.
4. Can New England’s linebackers cover tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme?
Through four games, the Broncos have heavily integrated tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme into their offense; Dreessen has played 219 snaps, while Tamme has seen the field for 176. Manning will test New England’s ability to cover these two threats early, especially considering New England’s inability to prevent previous opponents from moving the ball via their tight ends; Jared Cook gained 64 yards through the air for the Titans, Todd Heap gained 62 for the Cardinals, Dennis Pitta added 50 and a touchdown for the Ravens, and Scott Chandler caught two touchdown passes for the Bills on 62 yards of his own (Buffalo’s second tight end, Dorin Dickerson, also gained 36 yards.) Outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower is expected to be a game-time decision on Sunday; his absence could significantly impact New England’s linebacker play and force recently re-signed linebacker Bobby Carpenter into a significant role in New England’s defense. Linebackers may be forced to cover Dreessen and Tamme almost exclusively in the early goings, with safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson protecting the deep end of the secondary.
5. Right end Chandler Jones will be challenged by Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady
Ryan Clady has long been considered one of the NFL’s elite offensive tackles; the 26 year-old has started every game of his career and been named an All-Pro twice (in 2008 and 2009.) Through for games this year, Clady has allowed just one pressure without surrendering a sack. He should have his hands full against rookie standout Chandler Jones, who has three sacks and two forced fumbles on the season in addition to numerous quarterback pressures. Jones may have difficulty reaching Peyton Manning as a pass rusher and could make a greater impact as a run defender by setting the edge effectively and forcing Denver to abandon the outside run; the Broncos have rushed for just 24 yards off of the left end and seven yards behind Clady this year. The Patriots may also test out Jones’ ability to make short coverage drops in an attempt to confuse Manning; Jones has dropped into coverage seven times so far in 2012.
6. How will Broncos center Dan Koppen perform in his return to New England?
The Patriots drafted Dan Koppen out of Boston College all the way back in 2003, and he started 120 games with the club over the next nine seasons. Released during final roster cuts, Koppen eventually landed with the Broncos as an injury replacement for J.D. Walton, who was lost for the season after suffering a broken ankle; this will be Koppen’s first start of the season. Although Koppen is frequently praised for his shotgun snapping, his ability to handle the offensive line’s protections, and his mobility, his presence on Denver’s offensive line should be appealing to New England, specifically nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Koppen historically has had trouble defending against size and strength at the defensive tackle position, and he could be in for a long day against Wilfork and his considerable power. The Broncos may be forced to double-team Wilfork for the majority of the game, leaving the rest of their offensive line saddled with one-on-one matchups and Denver susceptible to blitzes.
7. Can the Patriots establish a ground game early against a top-ten rush defense?
The effectiveness of the Patriots’ rushing attack was easily the most impressive aspect of New England’s 52-28 victory in Buffalo last week; the Patriots ran 40 times for 247 yards and three touchdowns while converting 19 first downs on the ground. However, it is unreasonable to expect a repeat performance against Denver’s ninth-ranked run defense (87.5 yards per game allowed.) Rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe weighs 300 pounds, and Denver is three deep at defensive tackle with Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, and Mitch Unrein. Rushing to the outside will be difficult as well: the Broncos have an extremely athletic group of linebackers in Von Miller, Joe Mays, and Wesley Woodyard. The primary value of the running game this week will be to slow down Denver’s pass rush via draw plays; unfortunately, that also increases the likelihood of another major workload for Danny Woodhead. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drew criticism for his decision to give Woodhead 16 touches in New England’s loss at Baltimore, and the Patriots’ offense was much more successful against Buffalo, with Woodhead taking a back seat to Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden.
8. How will Brandon Lloyd match up against Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey?
Head coach Bill Belichick heaped lavish praise upon Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey this week, and for good reason: Bailey has allowed just seven completions on the season. Bailey’s primary responsibility on Sunday night will be Patriots split end Brandon Lloyd, who had a relatively quiet three-catch performance last week but already looks comfortable in New England’s offense. Bailey and Lloyd are well-acquainted with one another, having spent time together in Denver from 2009 to 2011, and their matchup should be interesting to watch. The Patriots won’t have Julian Edelman on Sunday, and both of the team’s top tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, are listed as questionable. Lloyd must gain separation from Bailey in order to prevent Denver’s defense from focusing on New England’s other options. The Patriots will also move Lloyd around in order to try and draw a different matchup; many of Lloyd’s snaps are from the left side of New England’s offensive formation, where Broncos right cornerback Tracy Porter has struggled this season, surrendering three touchdown passes.
9. Will tight end Aaron Hernandez (questionable, ankle) be active on Sunday?
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has played just 69 offensive snaps so far this season after spraining his ankle in the first quarter of New England’s week two loss to Arizona; he has been officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game after practicing in a limited capacity this week. Hernandez played a big role in each of New England’s meetings with Denver last season: he caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in week 15, then another four for 55 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. Even more impressive, Hernandez’s 13 catches came on just 16 attempts. With wide receiver Julian Edelman out and fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomananwanui listed as questionable, any contributions from Hernandez would be welcome; should the Patriots decide to play it safe and hold Hernandez out, Daniel Fells, who played 45 snaps last week against Buffalo, would likely see another significant workload.
10. Broncos rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller must not be allowed to disrupt Brady
Champ Bailey is still playing at an elite level, but nonetheless the most disturbing element of Denver’s defense is their outstanding duo of pass rushers: defensive end Elvis Dumervil and outside linebacker Von Miller. The two have combined for 5.5 sacks on the season and will challenge offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer with their speed off the edge. Both players have played well on the season, having surrendered just one sack: Titans defensive end Kamerion Wimbley beating Nate Solder in the season opener. Denver’s defense blitzes Miller often, which could force New England to retain extra blockers, whether that means leaving a running back in pass protection, asking Rob Gronkowski to stay and block, or substituting in an extra tight end such as Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui to give Brady some extra time to throw. Either way, the Patriots could be in “Ace” personnel (1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE) more often than usual considering Julian Edelman’s absence.