NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Tonight, the 7-3 New England Patriots will attempt to rebound from their 24-20 loss at the Carolina Panthers this past Monday as they host Peyton Manning and the 9-1 Denver Broncos in another prime-time matchup which projects as the most difficult regular-season contest remaining for Bill Belichick’s 2013 squad. Read on for ten keys to this week’s game.
1. Will Tom Brady extend his streak of effective performances to three straight games?
After a concerning start to the season in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady struggled to lead anything resembling a productive passing offense, New England has been more effective at moving the ball downfield through the air over the past two weeks, with Brady having put together a 432-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Steelers prior to the bye week and a 296-yard, one-touchdown game in New England’s loss at Carolina last week. In order for the Patriots to keep up with Denver’s high-output passing game, Brady will need to have one of his best performances of the season. Fortunately, that looks possible this week, as the Broncos currently rank 28th in the league in pass defense, although that number is somewhat inflated thanks to the constant leads the team plays with, forcing opponents to pass at a higher rate than usual and allowing them to accumulate passing yardage once the game’s outcome has already been decided.
Denver typically likes to rush at least five, allowing strongside linebacker Von Miller to get after the passer, generally operating out of a sub package featuring five defensive backs. If New England’s offense line can buy Brady time against a defense which rushes their linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties on occasion, he may be able to benefit from an average deep secondary comprised of free safety Mike Adams and strong safety Duke Ihenacho (Michael Huff was also recently signed in free agency.) Brady has struggled to throw the deep ball effectively this season, finding most of his success on intermediate throws, but he will have to take some shots downfield in order to prevent the Broncos from flooding short passing lanes.
2. How much success will New England’s rushing attack have against Denver’s front?
Denver’s pass defense is certainly not playing up to expectations, but they have been able to compensate to some extent with their effective run defense, which has held opponents to 92.7 yards per game, a figure which ranks fourth in the league. Their run defense does benefit from the constant leads the team plays with, forcing opponents to lean towards the passing game, but make no mistake: the Broncos have also played outstanding defense against their opponents, with top-thirteen figures in Adjusted Line Yards on attempts in any direction, according to Football Outsiders. Most notably, the team ranks first in run defense on carries behind an opponent’s center or guards, having allowed only 2.96 yards per carry. That should make for an interesting matchup against a Patriots team which is currently ranked first in the league in that same category on their own rushing attempts, averaging 4.95 Adjusted Line Yards per carry in that direction.
Denver’s interior offensive line is composed of defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and nose tackle Terrance Knighton, both effective run defenders but the latter enjoying the better season of the two. Knighton, a massive 6’3”, 335-pounder, dwarfs any of New England’s interior offensive linemen, making him a particularly difficult matchup in this game. The Broncos have also benefited from some larger personnel on their line, including 6’5”, 285-pound left end Derek Wolfe, 6’5”, 293-pound defensive end Malik Jackson, and 6’3”, 274-pound defensive end Robert Ayers, the latter two rotating in frequently.
3. Can New England’s offensive tackles protect Brady from Von Miller and Shaun Phillips?
Von Miller, Denver’s top pass rusher and a player who is considered one of the most dangerous in the league, isn’t averaging over a sack per game like he did in 2012, but over four games since returning from a drug suspension, has picked up two sacks, five quarterback hits, and twenty pressures since returning to the field. Denver uses him as their strongside linebacker, rushing him from either side of the formation, and regardless of where he lines up tonight, he will present a difficult matchup for New England’s offensive protections. He possesses outstanding explosion and bend off the edge, making him one of the most difficult assignments of the year for Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. However, he is not the only threat the Broncos present opposing passers with.
Shaun Phillips, who put together a Pro Bowl season in 2011 as an outside linebacker in the San Diego Chargers’ 3-4 defense, suffered through an injury-plagued 2012 campaign but has resuscitated his career in Denver this season after having signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the team this past April, a deal which Phillips claims he left money on the table to accept. That decision may have set up Phillips for one last lucrative contract this offseason, as the 32 year-old has played quality run defense and added nine quarterback sacks thus far on the season as a defensive end for the Broncos. He recorded 1.5 sacks in Denver’s win over the Chiefs and one sack the week previously at San Diego, his former team.
4. Do the Broncos have the cornerback depth to cover all of New England’s receivers?
Broncos left cornerback Champ Bailey has been working through an injury-plagued 2012 campaign in which he has been held out of all but two contests and is currently listed as questionable for this week’s contest against the Patriots with a foot injury, practicing in a limited capacity throughout the week. If he is held out once again, Denver will be working with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Kayvon Webster on the outside, with Chris Harris starting in the slot. That means those players are the most likely matchups for Patriots receivers Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Julian Edelman. Rodgers-Cromartie, a member of Aqib Talib’s draft class, signed a similar one-year “prove it” deal this past offseason and has been successfully rehabilitating his value thus far in the season, having been targeted once every 6.4 snaps last season while allowing 1.24 yards per coverage snap and a completion once every 11.3 snaps in 2012, but improving those numbers to 6.6, 1.09, and 13.4 in 2013, respectively.
Chris Harris has also shown himself to be an effective option, holding opponents without a touchdown pass thus far and surrendering more than 50 receiving yards on only three occasions, with quarterbacks posting a 65.2 rating on throws in his direction. Kayvon Webster, who has been playing on the outside in Bailey’s absence, has allowed only two touchdowns on the season himself, one coming last week, albeit in a 2/5 performance in which Alex Smith gained just nineteen yards throwing in his direction. Other than Rodgers-Cromartie, this isn’t a particularly recognizable secondary, but Denver’s cornerback personnel have played well this season despite flying under the radar. If Bailey returns, it’s likely that Webster will be relegated to a reserve role.
5. Are any Broncos defenders up to the task of defending Rob Gronkowski downfield?
Thanks to his freakish combination of size, strength, and athleticism, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski presents a constant problem for opposing defenses, and fortunately for the Patriots, Denver favors undersized linebackers, exacerbating the problem of covering Gronkowski from their perspective. Athletic middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard is frequently dropped into coverage, but at 6’0” and 233 pounds, he may not be big enough to hold his own against Gronkowski. The other linebacker Denver often assigns coverage responsibilities is weakside starter Danny Trevathan, another former Kentucky player, who has been slightly more effective this year but who, at 6’1” and 240 pounds, is also a little bit undersized for the task; he is also generally responsible for defending running backs rather than tight ends. Two weeks ago, Denver’s defense was tasked with covering Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, and rotated defenders throughout the game, with Woodyard and cornerbacks Chris Harris and Mike Adams frequently assuming those responsibilities.
Neither of the cornerbacks mentioned above possess the size to challenge Gronkowski, so the tight end projects as New England’s best option for moving the ball through the air. Gronkowski has caught a touchdown in each of the past two games, something it’s reasonable to expect him to produce again this week. Given how efficient Denver’s cornerbacks have been overall this season, their lack of size at linebacker is a weakness which Brady should attempt to exploit by targeting Gronkowski early and often tonight.
6. What can the Patriots do defensively in order to disrupt Peyton Manning’s rhythm?
There’s not much that the Patriots can show Peyton Manning that he hasn’t seen over the course of his extensive career, but head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will undoubtedly need to devise plenty of deceptive defensive looks and complicated coverage shells in order to create confusion in this week’s contest. However, thus far Manning has shown himself to be capable of succeeding against basically any defensive approach, throwing for over eight yards per attempt in any situation. The Patriots will need to blitz effectively from time to time, but cannot leave their secondary undermanned against a passer who has completed 67.8% of his passes against additional rushers, a figure which is complemented by a 12:1 TD:INT ratio. However, Manning has been even more effective against four or fewer rushers, completing 70.5% of his throws and averaging 8.9 yards per attempt as opposed to his 8.3 figure against the blitz.
Manning is still an accurate passer downfield, but fortunately for New England, the vast majority of his throws, 66.7%, have been on attempts which travel less than ten yards downfield. That could allow the Patriots to flood that area of the field with defenders, challenging Manning to try taking shots further downfield on a cold, windy night in Foxborough. Free safety Devin McCourty has been an effective deep-zone defender since converting from cornerback last season and may be able to handle single-high coverage given the infrequency of Manning’s deep attempts this year.
7. Will New England’s pass rush be able to create any pressure on Manning this week?
Two weeks ago, Peyton Manning appeared to be in considerable pain after receiving a low hit from Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget in which Manning ostensibly aggravated one of his sprained ankles, prompting some token speculation that the quarterback would be unable to play in last week’s divisional matchup against the Chiefs. Predictably, Manning appeared in the contest and threw for 323 yards and a touchdown, with Denver’s offensive line protecting him from being sacked or even hit over the course of the game. The Patriots will need to knock Manning around a bit in order to win tonight, but they will have to do so against an offensive line which has performed exceptionally well despite their lack of familiar faces.
Left tackle Chris Clark has been starting in Ryan Clady’s place since the latter was lost for the season in week two, with the former limiting opposing pass rushers to just five sacks on the season. Center Manuel Ramirez earned a contract extension back in September and has blossomed into a quality starter at age 30. The Broncos also possess an incredibly underrated right guard in Louis Vasquez, who has held opponents without a sack on the season, with massive right tackle Orlando Franklin continuing to live up to his second-round selection back in 2011. The only weak point on the line is left guard Zane Beadles, who has allowed twenty-five pressures on the season, although the Patriots may struggle to create too much pressure against him with their underwhelming defensive tackle rotation. Of course, by blitzing the Patriots are also incurring the risk of Manning dissecting their secondary.
8. How will Aqib Talib hold up against Denver’s top receiving option, Demariyus Thomas?
Last week, Patriots left cornerback Aqib Talib made his highly-anticipated return to the field against the Carolina Panthers, lining up opposite Steve Smith in shadow coverage for almost the entire game. However, Talib failed to meet the expectations he created earlier in the season by allowing six completions for 95 yards on only eight attempts in his direction, with both the number of receptions and the number of yards allowed representing season-highs for the cornerback. This week, New England will have to hope that Talib’s performance did not portend his performance this week, as he draws a difficult matchup against Denver’s 6’3”, 229-pound number-one receiver, 2010 first-round pick Demariyus Thomas, who is in the midst of an outstanding season.
Thomas has caught 60/88 targets (68.2%), having gained 914 yards, an average of 10.4 yards per attempt, and nine touchdowns on the season, with just two dropped passes. Although the Broncos have a deep group of wide receivers, the Patriots would be wise to assign Talib to Thomas all game, as he presents a mismatch for any of New England’s auxiliary options at the position, leaving those players to cover the likes of Eric Decker and Wes Welker (more on them later.) Talib has already shown a flair for covering bigger receiving options, and if he can limit Thomas’ impact in the game, he will have done his part to help the Patriots win. No defenses have held Thomas to less than five receptions on the season, and he is coming off of two straight games with over 100 receiving yards, the former a three-touchdown performance against the San Diego Chargers.
9. Is New England’s secondary healthy enough to cover Wes Welker and Eric Decker?
One of the biggest challenges for the Patriots this week will undoubtedly be covering Denver’s deep group of receiving options, with number one target Demariyus Thomas presenting a difficult matchup for Aqib Talib, detailed in further depth above, and the Broncos also possessing two other legitimate threats at the position in Eric Decker and former Patriot Wes Welker. Those players would be difficult enough to cover with a completely healthy secondary, but unfortunately for New England, that is not the case, as cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) are currently listed as questionable for this week’s contest, with Dennard having sat out last week’s loss with the same injury.
New England may be more inclined to try and get him onto the field this week against a significantly deeper receiving corps than Carolina boasts, but it’s entirely possible that neither will be able to suit up, which would leave the Patriots with Logan Ryan in coverage on Decker and special teams standout Marquice Cole lining up opposite Welker. Ultimately, it would come as something of a surprise if Dennard were to play after undergoing a scope on his meniscus, but Arrington has not missed a game over the past four seasons and should be healthy enough to match up against Welker in the slot. Ryan, a physical 5’11”, 195-pounder, may find that he is reasonably well-suited to covering the 6’3”, 215-pound Decker. Obviously, neither of these matchups represent ideal situations, but Arrington’s presence would greatly benefit a Patriots team which really doesn’t have a viable alternative option versus Welker.
10. Will Denver’s running backs offer an effective alternative to the passing game?
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels received plenty of criticism for his drafting ability as head coach of the Denver Broncos, with one of his most widely-panned selections being Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno in the first round of the 2009 draft. However, Moreno is still starting in Denver, having enjoyed something of a career renaissance once Peyton Manning joined the team last season. Moreno has touched the ball 187 times this year, gaining 936 yards on those touches and having scored nine touchdowns; according to Football Outsiders’ metrics, he currently ranks eleventh in the league in his rate of successful runs with a 49% mark, while contributing as an effective receiver out of the backfield as well.
Denver has also been working rookie second-round pick Montee Ball into the offense a little bit more lately, with Ball averaging twenty-three snaps per game over his past three contests while contributing two touchdown runs in last week’s victory over the Chiefs. The Broncos currently rank ninth in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle, according to Football Outsiders, but typically favor the stretch plays characteristic of Peyton Manning offenses. That may appear to benefit a New England defense which has struggled against interior rushing attempts, but the Patriots have struggled to defend stretch plays all season, ranking twenty-ninth in run defense against attempts off of the left end and seventeenth against attempts off of the right end; by comparison, Denver ranks fourth and tenth on attempts in those directions, respectively.
Final Prediction: Broncos 31, Patriots 24