Beating Tom Brady: Broncos Passing Preview

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.

In the regular-season meeting between these two teams Denver emphasized Cover 1 in the secondary, and used different concepts within this scheme to address Gronkowski depending on his alignment.


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:

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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:

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With Ihenacho now in Washington, look for T.J. Ward or Aqib Talib to implement a similar coverage style on Gronkowski this weekend.

Split Wide

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Finding Holes

Denver also showed some basic Cover 3 as well:

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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:

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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

Broncos-Patriots matchups almost always end up being multi-act plays, so why not a multi-part Passing Preview? Mark Schofield looks at how Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack has fared against the Denver Broncos defense in this first installment.

With a huge matchup with the Denver Broncos looming, we will explore, in-depth how Jack Del Rio’s defense has attacked the New England passing game in previous meetings. In this first installment, we’ll examine four instances from last season of the Denver defense generating pressure on Tom Brady.

The book on Brady (if there is one) is that pressure is the way to contain him. In both matchups last season Denver collapsed the pocket around the quarterback using a combination of talent and scheme.

2013, Regular Season Week 12

On this play from the Week 12 matchup last season, Von Miller beats Nate Solder one-on-one and forces a strip-sack. The Patriots have an empty the backfield and Brady stands in the shotgun as New England has 01 personnel on the field. Denver counters with a dime package using three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs, and they show Cover 1 in the secondary:

From the end zone camera, we see that the Broncos appear to be rushing five defenders. Both outside linebackers are in a wide 9 alignment; Robert Ayers in a three-point stance to the left of the defense (circled in orange) and Miller to the right (circled in blue). On the inside, reserve defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (circled in red) lines up in a three-point stance alongside DT Terrance Knighton (94) and defensive end Derek Wolfe (95):

Off the snap Unrein drops into an underneath zone coverage, which means Denver rushes only four players. With five offensive linemen, New England holds a numbers advantage in the trenches. However, on the outside Miller’s positioning begins to pay dividends:

Because of Miller’s alignment there is a lot of room between him and Solder. The gap closes quickly, and poorly, for Solder:


When Solder reaches out his arms to meet Miller he fails to get a good punch, and the linebacker is able to quickly knock the blocker’s arms down and disengage. This movement sends the left tackle sprawling and Miller continues into the pocket with a free shot at the quarterback. Wolfe adds to the chaos by disengaging his blocker. He slides behind Knighton, closes the lane in the middle of the pocket, and increases the pressure. The combination of Miller and Wolfe means there’s no way out for Brady:

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Knighton scoops up the loose pigskin and rumbles nearly all the way to the end zone.

Later in the Week 12 meeting, a timely blitz coupled with a poor protection scheme almost leads disaster for New England. The Patriots face 1st and 10 and Brady is under center with Brandon Bolden lined up as a singleback, and New England has 12 personnel on the field. The Broncos have their base 3-4 package in and initially show Cover 4 in the secondary:

Prior to the snap, strong safety Duke Ihenacho (circled in blue) rolls to the line of scrimmage in blitz posture, as the secondary adjusts to a Cover 3 look:

Turning to the end zone view, you can see Ihenacho on the edge, but notice DT Kevin Vickerson (circled in orange):

As the play begins, the Patriots run a play-action fake to Bolden. Right guard Dan Connolly is going to try and pull around to the left to simulate the running play. This leaves center Ryan Wendell to deal with Vickerson’s pass rush, and the impending disaster is circled in red:

As Ihenacho sprints into the backfield from the edge, Wendell completely whiffs on Vickerson. The mammoth defender bears down on Brady who is still in the process of executing the fake handoff:

As Brady exits the simulated run play and turns around, he has a big Bronco right in his facemask. On the outside, Ihenacho positions himself to contain the quarterback should Brady extricate himself from his perilous position:

Vickerson completes the sack and spins Brady to the turf. Somehow the quarterback manages to keep both the football and his shoulder in place:

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We have previously outlined how the concept of pulling blockers on play-action plays has caused problems for the New England offense. On Sunday, the coaching staff might want to leave those plays out of the game plan.

2013 AFC Championship Game

In the AFC Championship game Denver again generated pressure on Brady using both talent and scheme. While they did not get to the quarterback nearly as often as in the Week 12 matchup, the pressure still forced early throws and incompletions.

Early in the 4th quarter, the Patriots trail by 20 and are trying to mount a drive and cut their deficit. Brady is under center for this play and New England has 11 personnel on the field. The Broncos are in the nickel and show Cover 2, with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the top of the screen in press coverage on Julian Edelman:

The CB has no intention of covering Edelman, and as the Patriots run another play-action play Rodgers-Cromartie blitzes off the edge. The rest of the secondary drops into Cover 4:

No one picks up the blitzer and he has a free shot at the quarterback:

At the last moment Brady realizes the danger and just throws the ball away to avoid the sack:

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On this final play, Denver’s talent forces a sack and New England settles for a field goal try. The Patriots are in the red zone, trailing by 10 with 3:41 remaining in the 2nd quarter. The offense faces 3rd and 9 and puts Brady in the shotgun using 11 personnel. Denver counters with their nickel package and shows Cover 2 in the secondary before the snap:

As Edelman comes in motion from right to left the Broncos roll their coverage to Cover 3:

Denver’s coverage will play a minimal role on this play as we switch to the end zone camera. Ayers is now aligned to the outside of Solder using the wide 9 positioning:

The defensive player spurts into the backfield off the snap, and as Solder looks to engage, this happens:


Ayers puts a tremendous outside fake on Solder and the left tackle is wrong-footed going to the outside. Meanwhile the defender cuts back inside and is barely touched. He finishes the play and forces New England to attempt a field goal:

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If the book on Tom Brady really is to use pressure to beat him, Denver has followed that book to near perfection during their previous two meetings. If the Patriots are to secure a victory on Sunday it will start with providing their quarterback with more time to throw. In Part 2 of this series we will look at how the Broncos have used their secondary to deal with Brady and the New England receivers.

Mark Schofield, Inside The Pylon’s Quarterback, writes about play design, receivers, great offensive performances and terrible offensive disasters.

i and the Free Release” href=””>Part 3, when they either fail to jam Gronkowski or allow him a free release, they often paid the price.

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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