The Patriots and Broncos square off at Gillette Stadium on Sunday in a game that may determine who has home-field advantage in the playoffs. What can the Patriots pass defense do to slow down the future Hall of Fame quarterback? Will the run defense suffer as a result? Dave Archibald has the answers.
When Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set the record for career touchdown passes, Bill Belichick cracked, “He’d probably be waiting a lot longer to pass that record if he hadn’t played against me so many times. He certainly threw a lot of them against defenses that I had.”
The Patriots head coach was being modest, but Manning certainly has had some success against New England in recent years. Since joining Denver, Manning has completed 67% of his passes in three games against Belichick and the Patriots, averaging nearly 300 yards per game and throwing seven touchdowns against one interception. Despite those gaudy stats, the Broncos haven’t scored more than 24 offensive points against the Patriots in that time period, and have won just one of three contests, but that one was the AFC Championship game last January.
How have the Patriots slowed down the high-flying Denver offense despite Manning’s big numbers? What went wrong in the playoff meeting? We will look at the contests individually to see if any patterns emerge that provide clues as to how Belichick will game plan against Manning on Sunday – and whether it will prove successful.
October 7th, 2012 – Patriots 31, Broncos 21
Manning’s line: 31 of 44 for 337 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 2 sacks, 1 fumble
The Patriots dominated early, building a 31-7 lead before two late Denver touchdowns closed the gap. Denver did its part to help the Patriots, turning the ball over three times, with Manning, running back Willis McGahee, and receiver Demaryius Thomas all losing fumbles. Thomas had a huge game for the Broncos, hauling in 9 of 11 targets for 180 yards, but the rest of the Denver air attack was pretty ineffective, totaling just 157 yards on 33 targets, a 4.8-yard average. The Patriots also shut down Denver’s running attack, holding McGahee to 51 yards on 14 carries and a long run of 11 yards.
Rolling, Rolling, Rolling: Confounding QBs
The Patriots rolled coverages frequently to create confusion. They lined up with two deep safeties almost every play and did not shift into the actual coverage – man or zone, with varying numbers of deep defenders – until after the ball was snapped. This put pressure on Manning to identify the coverage on the fly and determine the correct read. He didn’t make big mistakes, but hesitated at times, letting the pass rush get home twice – once forcing a fumble and once producing a sack on third down – and often threw short routes and checkdowns. The play below shows how the shifting coverages caused problems for Manning, even if it wasn’t evident in the box score line:
Safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson line up in a two-deep look, but at the snap Wilson immediately backpedals into a deep centerfield zone while Chung sprints over to pick up tight end Jacob Tamme in man coverage – it’s Cover 1, not a two-deep safety shell as it appears pre-snap. Because Manning doesn’t recognize the coverage right away, the throw is slightly late and incomplete.
Rolling, Rolling, Rolling: Receivers Must Recognize
Rolling coverages post-snap complicates Manning’s pre-snap reads. It also puts pressure on the receivers to understand the defense so they can run choice routes and sight adjustments. Unfortunately, this Sunday the Patriots are missing their defensive signal-caller, Jerod Mayo, which could hurt their ability to coordinate complicated defensive schemes like this.
November 24th, 2013 – Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (OT)
Manning’s line: 19 of 36 for 150 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 2 sacks
This was a tale of two games. The Broncos raced ahead to a 24-0 halftime lead, as the Patriots lost three fumbles and turned the ball over on downs. New England rallied for 31 unanswered points in the second half while Denver turned the ball over twice. The mistake-prone game fittingly ended with a Broncos muffed punt in overtime, leading to the game-winning field goal.
The contest featured one of the worst passing performances of Manning’s career – his 4.17 yards per pass attempt was his worst mark since his rookie season. Part of that was the weather – 22 degrees at kickoff with 22 mph winds, but part of it was the way New England defended Manning. The Patriots rolled coverages post-snap as above and dropped players into coverage in different ways:
The Broncos align in shotgun – they ran 83 of their 86 plays from the ‘gun – and the Patriots counter with just two down linemen and six total players in the box with two safeties deep. At the snap, they rotate into a one-safety look. The coverage is a hybrid: the outside corners and strong safety Duron Harmon are in man-to-man coverage while the three underneath linebackers are in zone. The tight coverage and confusion lets the pass rush get home, and Manning is called for intentional grounding and a big loss.
Costs of Coverage
This kind of coverage is not without its costs, however. With just two down linemen and six in the box, the front is really light against the run, which helped contribute to Denver’s best rushing output on the season by more than 100 yards. Lead back Knowshon Moreno ran 37 times for 224 yards:
Again the Patriots use just two down linemen and a six-man box against a shotgun look, and Denver’s offensive line swallows up undersized defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Moreno starts to the offensive left before cutting back to the right in a designed counter, which allows the tackle to pin linebacker Dont’a Hightower inside. Tight end Virgil Green comes all the way across the formation to hit defensive end Rob Ninkovich with a slice block and open the hole. It’s a well-designed play, but part of the key is that the Broncos have a numerical advantage against the light box.
War daddy Vince Wilfork, absent a year ago after an Achilles injury, is back for this Sunday’s game to occupy blockers up front, but the Patriots nickel defense has struggled against the run this year. The Patriots will need to find a way to drop defenders into coverage and stymie the Denver passing game without giving up too much on the ground.
January 19th, 2014 – Broncos 26, Patriots 16
Manning’s line: 32 of 43 for 400 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 0 sacks
The final score makes this game look closer than it was, as Denver led 23-3 early in the fourth quarter. The Broncos amassed 507 yards of total offense and scored on six of eight possessions. Only the Patriots’ red zone defense kept the game from becoming a laugher; they held the Broncos to four field goals and just two touchdowns in six red zone trips – a fine performance against a Denver offense that scored touchdowns on 73% of red zone situations on the season, best in the NFL.
Mano a Uh-Oh
The New England defense could not get off the field, as the Broncos converted 8 of 14 third- and fourth-down opportunities. They punted just once, didn’t turn the ball over, and held the ball for more than 35 minutes. The Patriots played aggressive man-to-man defense much of the day, but struggled to stay with Denver’s talented receivers:
The Absence of Disguise
The Broncos spread the field with four receivers and the Patriots show an obvious man look, putting all their corners up on the line of scrimmage in press coverage. Eric Decker, lined up wide right, runs a shallow cross to the left side. A seam route in the middle of the field occupies the middle linebacker and creates congestion that slows the trailing cornerback. The shallow cross is a classic man beater – it’s very difficult for a defensive back to stay with a receiver through middle-of-the-field traffic. Because the Patriots don’t disguise the coverage, this is a simple read for Manning and an easy throw to a wide-open receiver.
No Pressure, All Peyton
Crossing routes are generally slow to develop, but the pass rush was unable to collapse the pocket or pressure Manning. This was a problem all day, as the New England pass rush did not register a sack or a quarterback hit. This formula has proved disastrous for the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes in recent seasons: an invisible pass rush and coverage that wasn’t good enough to compensate. Things got even worse once cornerback Aqib Talib left with an injury as Demaryius Thomas went to work on replacement Alfonzo Dennard, logging five receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown against the youngster.
November 2, 2014 – ???
The Patriots added veteran cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason, which should give them the depth to match up with Denver’s receivers, including new addition Emmanuel Sanders. However, the Patriots will need to mix coverages better than they did in the AFC Championship game, when they got too predictable. They will need to generate more pressure on Manning, a feat that will be a challenge without Chandler Jones, their best pass rusher, sidelined with a hip injury. They will need to cover Denver’s tight ends better than they have – opposing quarterbacks have a 104.9 rating against the Patriots in 2014 when targeting that position – as Julius Thomas leads all NFL tight ends with nine touchdowns. And they will need to limit those passing weapons without opening up huge lanes for Denver’s ground assault.
Throwing ’em Off Their Game
Shutting down Manning is nearly impossible – he’s too good, too smart, has too many weapons, and gets rid of the ball too quickly. A successful game plan against Denver focuses on disruption: can you make Manning hold the ball a beat later than he wants to? Can you re-route the receivers at the line and throw off the timing and spacing just a bit? Can you create a little confusion as to what the coverage is? Can you make a couple plays to create a turnover or make a key third-down stop? If the Patriots can do some of these things, they can limit Denver’s offensive output enough to outscore them. If not, it will be a repeat of January’s playoff meeting, and a disappointing loss for New England.
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