A big game calls for a big preview. In Part 2 of this 4-part series, Mark Schofield explores how Denver has defended Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots pass receivers. Can Denver slow down Gronk, Minitron and LaFell or will they dial up the right coverage schemes to contain the Patriots passing attack?
In Part 1 of the passing game preview we illustrated how Denver’s defense pressured Tom Brady in 2013, forcing quick throws, sacks and turnovers. In Part 2 of this series we examine how the Broncos pass coverage harassed Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the New England receiving corps.
When the tight end was on the line of scrimmage in a three-point stance, the Broncos did not allow him a free release. On this play Brady is under center and New England’s 12 personnel is on the field. Gronkowski (circled in white) plants a hand on the turf to the left of the formation while Denver’s base defense shows Cover 1:
Off the snap the Broncos stay with Cover 1. On the edge, Von Miller is ultimately responsible for covering Brandon Bolden out of the backfield, but before he tracks down the running back he makes sure to get a jam on Gronkowski as the tight end attempts to get off the line of scrimmage:
Miller immediately passes off the tight end to inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who takes over man coverage on Gronkowski. Brady still finds the tight end with his throw but the play is held to a short gain thanks to the momentary disruption provided by Miller’s jam. As we will see in Part 3 of this series, when Denver failed to jam Gronkowski, they paid the price.
When the Patriots took Gronkowski off the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance the Broncos slightly adjusted their scheme for covering the tight end. On this play Brady is in the shotgun using 11 personnel. Gronkowski begins this play on the right side of the formation. Denver has nickel personnel in the game and shows Cover 1 in the secondary:
When Gronk shifts to the left side of the formation, strong-safety Duke Ihenacho follows:
Denver stays with Cover 1 as the play begins, but watch how the strong safety jams Gronkowski initially and then stays in physical man coverage:
The most interesting thing to watch for Sunday is what Denver chooses to do when the Patriots decide to split their big tight end out wide. On this play from Week 12, Brady is under center and has Gronkowski split to the outside left. Denver‘s nickel package shows Cover 1 in the secondary and is indicating blitz at the line:
The Broncos do indeed blitz and stay in Cover 1, but rather than put a small cornerback on the tight end in man coverage, they take their strong safety and leave him one-on-one:
Ihenacho tries to get a jam on Gronkowski and play him in tight man coverage, but the receiver is simply too strong for him and gains inside leverage on his slant route. Brady hits Gronkowski in stride and the receiver lumbers down to the one-foot line.
If and when New England splits Gronkowski out wide, how will Denver counter? Will they rely on their strong safety or will they look to use a bigger, physical cornerback out there in the one-on-one matchup? Say, old friend Aqib Talib?
Defending the Rest of the Band
We next turn our focus to the coverages and concepts Denver used to contain the non-Gronk targets. As previously noted, in the regular-season matchup the Broncos used a lot of Cover 1 in the secondary. They also employed that scheme in the AFC Championship game, as on this 3rd and 3 play from the Patriots’ opening drive. The Denver nickel package uses Cover 1 and escapes unharmed:
Brady and special-teams ace Matthew Slater are unable to connect on the straight go route.
Remember, in the AFC Championship game the Broncos did not have to contend with Gronkowski, which allowed freedom for more interesting looks in the secondary. On this 1st and 10 play the Patriots empty the backfield against Denver’s nickel personnel. The defense shows Tom Brady Tampa 2 coverage pre-snap:
The linebacker drops deep with Danny Amendola’s seam route, taking away that option from Brady. The quarterback settles for the short pattern on the outside from Shane Vereen, and the running back makes a nice play on the catch-and-run.
Denver also showed some basic Cover 3 as well:
Brady reads this play to the weakside, and works the high-low concept with Michael Hoomanawanui and Vereen. The running back is able to find a soft spot between the flat and the curl zones for a decent gain.
Returning to the Week 12 matchup, when the Broncos strayed from Cover 1 they always had an answer for Gronkowski. On this play the tight end begins the play in the backfield, but then shifts out to the slot on the right:
In response, Denver walks Robert Ayers out over Gronkowski and he is sure to get a jam on the tight end off the snap of the ball.
From reviewing these games the key to Denver’s approach to the New England offense seems two-fold. First, they look to get pressure on the quarterback. Behind that, they try and have an answer for Rob Gronkowski, either by playing physical man coverage on him or using linebackers to impede him as he comes forward off the snap. When their defenders jammed and re-routed him, Denver contained the tight end. But as we glimpsed here, and will see again in Part 3, when they either fail to jam Gronkowski or allow him a free release, they often paid the price.
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