Tom Brady and Peyton Manning face off for the 13th time when the Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots in Week 5. Plenty of focus has justifiably been dedicated to the matchup, which pits two longtime rivals—and future Hall of Fame QBs—against one another. But for Pats fans, there's another angle to the story: How will the Patriots defense slow Manning and Denver's high-flying offense?
The Broncos rank seventh in the league in points-per-game (28.5) and ninth in passing-yards-per-game (278.0). Manning himself is fresh off an impressive performance in a win against the Oakland Raiders, in which he completed 30 of 38 passes for three touchdowns and a 130.0 passer rating.
So how does New England—which currently sits at 25th in the league in passing-yards-per-game allowed—keep the Broncos in check?
Let's take a look at a few potential components of New England's defensive game plan heading into Week 5.
Key in on RB Willis McGahee
Sounds kind of counter-intuitive, right?
It's strange to suggest that the way to slow one of the league's top QBs is to focus on shutting down his running back, but it's the truth. Even more importantly, they have to find a way to stop Willis McGahee without bringing too many defenders into the box.
Drawing FS Pat Chung in towards the line of scrimmage won't work against Manning. He's the kind of quarterback who has no qualms about calling an audible at the line based on his pre-snap reads.
McGahee is a decisive runner who hits the hole hard and cuts well when he needs to. He's averaged 4.7 yards-per-carry on 69 carries this year. It's going to be a tough task for the Pats to slow him and prevent Manning from airing it out against a defense cheating up into the box to play the run.
New England will need DTs Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to be their usual, ball-carrier-swallowing selves. Wilfork, in particular, has a huge mismatch awaiting him: He's lined up against former Patriots C Dan Koppen. Koppen tends to struggle at the point of attack against bigger nose tackles, and Wilfork is one of the biggest.
The Pats will also be counting on rookie DE Chandler Jones and DE/OLB tweener Rob Ninkovich to set the edge on off-tackle runs. The line will need to focus on funneling run plays into the waiting arms of bruising LB Brandon Spikes (two forced fumbles in Week 4) and weakside backer Jerod Mayo.
Thankfully, run defense is something the Pats D excels at: They're currently ranked seventh in the league in rushing yards allowed, yielding just 85.0 per game.
They'll need a similar effort in Week 5 if they hope to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional attack.
Limit Yards After the Catch
Admittedly, this isn't exactly a unique component of the Patriots' game plan for the Broncos. Wrapping up ball-carriers should be tenets of the defense heading into any game, not just this one.
But tackling—and its correlate, taking good angles to the ball-carrier— is something the Patriots have struggled with at times this year. Witness Dennis Pitta's touchdown in Week 3 and Donald Jones' 68-yard score in Week 4 for concrete examples of big plays yielded by bad fundamentals.
Steady tackling by the secondary will be crucial to a Pats' win against Denver. The Broncos are sixth in the league in yards-after-catch (YAC), according to Stats.com. The same source lists Denver WR Demaryius Thomas as second in the NFL in YAC, behind Percy Harvin.
Checking out the highlights of their game against the Raiders, many of the Broncos' big plays—including a 40-yard pass to Thomas, a TD to Eric Decker and a 14-yard TD to Lance Ball—involve short passes that turn into long yardage. Manning has been carving up defenses with quick hitches, screens and dump-offs into the flat.
The Pats will certainly see this on tape, and hopefully they'll be in position to make tackles after receptions. They can't be lazy, indecisive or slow when it comes to wrapping up tacklers. This will be a huge thing to watch for from the Pats in Week 5.
Get a Big Game from Their Secondary
The Broncos' win against the Raiders might actually serve the Patriots well this week.
If Denver feels that Manning is finally getting his bearings, they may try and pass more in Week 5. That immediately doesn't sound like an inviting prospect for the 25th-ranked Patriots passing defense, but their D should look a little different next week than it has all season.
With starting SS Steve Gregory reportedly out for the game, look for more rookie Tavon Wilson in the secondary. In limited time, Wilson looks like a much better pure coverage safety than Gregory. Instead of getting caught in no-man's-land in coverage—as Gregory did multiple times against the Bills— Wilson has put himself in position to make plays, with 11 tackles (including solid run support) and two interceptions thus far this year.
That should give a boost to the Pats at the safety position, where they've been getting picked on all season.
As for plays outside the hash-marks, we've seen a much better Devin McCourty than whichever one showed up last year. He played well against the Bills (six targets, two completions allowed, two INTs) and also looked good against the Ravens in Week 3 outside of a rough fourth quarter.
The Patriots will also be playing plenty of nickel (five DB) defense against the Broncos' passing attack, and they've got some talented personnel in that formation. According to ProFootballFocus.com, CB Sterling Moore was second in the league in yards-allowed-per-coverage-snap last week. He played 37 snaps and allowed only two yards.
It may seem like a controversial statement based on total-yardage stats, but total yards don't always tell the tale. With Wilson in the secondary instead of the struggling Gregory, look for a much-improved Pats secondary in Week 5.
If they can cover long enough to let the front seven pressure Manning, the Pats just might walk away with an important conference win against the Broncos.