Broncos vs. Patriots: Defensive Changes Necessary for Denver to Stop Tom Brady

Jason MuckleySenior Analyst IIJanuary 12, 2012

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots forces his way into the endzone for a touchdown on second down and one yard to go against Robert Ayers #91 of the Denver Broncos in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs last weekend, the Denver Broncos unveiled a new dime package against the Pittsburgh Steelers to cover the slew of speedy wide receivers that the Steelers employed week to week.

Rafael Bush was an additional safety that Dennis Allen inserted to provide speed in the secondary as well as an extra body to disrupt Ben Roethlisberger’s passing game. The defensive change made a huge difference in the game. Roethlisberger was limited to passing for just 289 yards, but had an interception to go with his solo touchdown.

The Broncos didn’t let the Steelers receivers get behind them and the longest pass play by the Steelers was a 33-yard reception by tight end Heath Miller.

This weekend, the Denver Broncos defense has a much greater task: stopping Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' bruising tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

In the last matchup with the New England Patriots in Week 15, the Denver Broncos were victimized by the Brady-to-Hernandez hook-up, which accounted for 129 passing yards and a touchdown. Brady had a second passing touchdown when he found an uncovered Chad Ochocinco in the end zone after blown coverage by Denver’s secondary.

That type of mistake will not cut it in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Andre Goodman’s crucial mistake put the Broncos down early in a game that needed to be near perfect to even have a chance against the Patriots.

In the second round of this matchup, a nearly flawless execution of the game plan is again a top priority. The Denver Broncos showed that they could execute the game plan last week against the Steelers, so much of the same should be expected this week.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18:  Tight end Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots makes a reception as Champ Bailey #24 of the Denver Broncos defends at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Patriots defeated
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

To adjust for the strong, overpowering tight ends of the New England Patriots, the Broncos will switch back to a nickel formation, having five defensive backs and two linebackers who can cover.

Wesley Woodyard, who had a great game against the Patriots in the first game, should again see lots of action. He is a top cover linebacker who will likely match up against Gronkowski or Hernandez off the line of scrimmage.

More than likely he will match up against Gronkowski to provide blanket coverage and force Tom Brady to look at different options Saturday. Joe Mays, D.J. Williams and Mario Haggan will likely get more action as the second linebacker in coverage in the nickel package. Both Williams and Haggan have lined up on tight ends and have been able to hold their own in various situations.

As far as I’ve seen, most quarterbacks have tried to go after D.J. Williams when he is in pass coverage, but they have had limited results. Williams has had his share of pass break-ups and has at times gotten burned in coverage.

However, using a nickel package with five defensive backs should provide help for Williams and Woodyard in coverage. Look for the Broncos to line up Champ Bailey, Andre Goodman on the outside in coverage or possibly on Wes Welker in the slot, then to have David Bruton at strong safety and Quinton Carter at free safety, with either Chris Harris also in there or Rafael Bush as a third safety.

On defense, the Denver Broncos have demonstrated that they can get pressure on the quarterback while rushing only four and that has proved to be a great asset. Elvis Dumervil has returned to form as he has had 9.5 sacks this season and has made 42 tackles.

On the other side, the surprise most improved player on defense has to be Robert Ayers.

Ayers has provided a spark to the Broncos defense opposite of Dumervil as rookie sensation Von Miller has struggled with a cast on his right thumb in the past couple months. In last week’s playoff game with the Steelers, Ayers had two huge sacks on Ben Roethlisberger, leading the team.

Two weeks ago, facing the Kansas City Chiefs, Ayers had another sack. The Broncos hope his resurgence will continue against the New England Patriots and he can bring down Tom Brady.

The Patriots offensive line has not been stellar this season, but Tom Brady has been able to consistently get rid of the ball quickly, before taking a sack. The Broncos must get pressure with the front four to disrupt Brady’s passes to his bruising tight ends and shifty slot receiver, Wes Welker.

If he has time to make his reads and get rid of the football, Brady will carve up the defense.

In addition to switching to a revamped nickel package, the Broncos need the linebackers and cornerbacks to play bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage.

Getting a push at the line of scrimmage disrupts routes and timing with Tom Brady. They need to get the offense out of sync and out of sorts. The Broncos must hold up receivers at the line in order to allow the pass rush to make Brady uncomfortable.

If the Broncos can keep the Patriots out of rhythm on offense, it gives them a much better chance of limiting their offense, which has dominated defenses all year long.