Breaking the Broncos (Line)Back(er)s

Wrapping up the fourpart passing preview is a look at routes and concepts that have worked against the Denver defense this season. Tom Brady and the Patriots receivers can find success against the tough Broncos defense by exploiting matchups and making the right play calls.

(Author’s Note: I’m sleeping for a week after this game Sunday.)

Having thoroughly scrutinized the past, we return to the present as we conclude our four-part passing game preview. This season, Denver’s defense has been resolute against the pass. The Broncos have held opponents to 6.3 yards per attempt, second-best in the NFL, while holding opposition passers to an 82.3 passer rating, sixth-best in the league. Given these numbers, we reviewed Denver’s games to determine what works against them with an eye toward concepts employed by New England.

Seam Route

In Week 2 the Chiefs used the seam route against Cover 3 coverage for a nice gain. Kansas City faces 1st and 10 at midfield and comes out with 13 personnel against Denver’s base 3-4 defense. Tight end Travis Kelce motions from right to left and is in the slot when the ball is snapped:

The defense drops into Cover 3 while the TE starts downfield on his seam route. Kelce splits outside linebacker Von Miller and inside linebacker Nate Irving, both of whom are dropping into their zone responsibilities. Miller heads to the outside flat while Irving settles into a curl zone over the middle:

Kelce breaches the two zone defenders, getting behind them both and creates a huge throwing window for Alex Smith:

The throw is slightly behind the TE and he bobbles the ball before securing the catch. That minimal delay allows the safety and cornerback to converge, preventing this from being an even bigger play:

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If afforded this kind of space, Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots must capitalize.

Attacking Backers

In Part 3 we illustrated how New England created mismatches against Denver’s LBs in 2013. In Week 5 the sputtering Arizona Cardinals offense used this idea for two big gains. The plays were simple, using Andre Ellington’s speed to run away from slower defenders.

This first play finds Arizona facing 3rd and 1 on the Denver 42-yard line. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton is in the shotgun flanked by running backs, using 21 personnel. Ellington is to the quarterback’s left, circled in red, and the Broncos deploy a nickel package on defense:

The outside receivers all run vertical routes. The defense uses Cover 1, with their LBs settling into underneath zones. Danny Trevathan establishes position in the curl zone across from Ellington:

The RBs each run a short curl route and Stanton dumps the ball off to Ellington. This still is from the moment before the Ellington secures the reception, and shows Trevathan in good position to make the tackle:

Good position, but not good enough to complete the task:

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Ellington makes the catch and jukes away from the slower defender for a 17-yard gain. This is an example of an offense taking what the defense allows while exploiting a personnel mismatch.

Next, Ellington operates out of the backfield for a long touchdown reception. Following a Broncos punt the offense begins on their own 19-yard line. With the Cardinals again using 21 personnel, Stanton sets up in the shotgun alongside dual RBs, Ellington to his right. Denver’s base 3-4 is on the field and the secondary shows Cover 3. Inside linebacker Nate Irving is aligned across from Ellington:

Strong safety T.J. Ward (circled in orange) breaks over the middle of the field in a rover alignment. Irving races to the outside flat, where it appears the RB is executing a quick out pattern:

However, he is not. Ellington breaks on the vertical. When he makes his cut, three yards of cushion separate him from the LB:

With a few explosive steps Ellington increases the gap and is open for his quarterback:

Having beaten the coverage, all that is left is the catch and the score:

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The RB outruns the defense and 81 yards later the Cardinals send out their kicking team for the extra point.


New England employs the high-low concept in various ways. San Diego uses the design on this play to attack the Broncos secondary. Philip Rivers is in the shotgun on 2nd and 10 in the 2nd quarter. To his right Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal are in a “twins” alignment, with Royal circled in yellow in the image below. Branden Oliver is in the backfield with the quarterback. Denver’s nickel defense is aligned inCover 2, and rookie cornerback Bradley Roby is across from the twins:

At the snap, the defense rolls into Cover 1. Allen cuts inside on a slant route and Roby trails him. To the outside, Royal is sprinting downfield on a vertical route against CB Aqib Talib:

Roby finds assistance inside as a linebacker occupies the passing lane on Allen’s route, but the action is on the outside. The slant route has flipped the strength of the play, as shown below. In the yellow box are three San Diego receivers blanketed by four defenders, with safety help over the top. Now on the manufactured “weakside,” the Chargers have a nice high-low setup. Oliver breaks right on a short out route against a LB, while Royal begins his cut to the sideline, having sold Talib on the deep route. The former Patriot CB has his back to the receiver’s movement:

Rivers hits Royal along the sideline for a solid 17-yard gain:

This is a well-crafted play executed to perfection.

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Take A Shot

Sometimes an offense just needs to take a shot. San Diego has Rivers in the shotgun on 3rd and 12 and the offense faces the Denver nickel:

Malcolm Floyd is the outside receiver in the Chargers’ trips formation. As Denver drops into a Cover 2 shell, the WR runs a simple go route:

Floyd finds the weak outside zone in the Cover 2 scheme. The receiver has done his job:

But the quarterback cannot do his:

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Rivers waits too long to deliver the ball and his throw leads Floyd back inside. Remember, the outside near the sideline is a weak area in this coverage and the throw needs to be to the sideline. If you come at the king, you’d best not miss.

What Have We Learned?

This series covered Denver’s previous harassment of Tom Brady and Gronkowski and moved on to highlight New England’s success against the Broncos. Now in 2014, we see that Denver is still vulnerable to routes that attack their linebackers, specifically seam routes from the TEs and plays that isolate RBs on LBs. Those plays are the bread and butter of the Patriot offense. However, using the high-low concept, or simply taking a deep shot, opportunities exist for the offense to stretch the field vertically. Fans are in store for a tremendous chess match between the New England offense and the Denver defense Sunday afternoon.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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