Denver had a hard time stopping the Patriots, but allowing long conversions on third down suggests major issues on defense. New England would score on three of the four offensive drives in which they converted a long third down, so it’s clear Denver’s defensive issues had an impact on the entire game.
The Patriots found favorable matchups and exploited them, but the Broncos were also a step late responding to the plays and were often caught out of position. Peyton Manning did everything he could to keep the Broncos in the game, but the long drives by the Patriots dominated the time of possession.
Denver’s defense has to play better for the Broncos to take the next step from a good team to an elite team in the NFL. Until the defense plays better, the Broncos will fall well short of their goals.
3rd-and-10 Conversion – Slant to Wes Welker
The Broncos played a lot of man coverage with safety help against the Patriots. That is normally how you would try to slow down the Patriots, but it backfired terribly on Denver.
First and foremost, the Broncos either didn’t do a good job of jamming at the line or they played off the receivers and allowed them to get free.
The Patriots converted on 3rd-and-10 and would eventually score a touchdown on the drive.
The play was a simple slant/out combo underneath with Welker and Rob Gronkowski lined up tight to the left. The Broncos are in man coverage with a single safety helping over the top.
Welker beats cornerback Chris Harris off the line of scrimmage and gains separation on his slant route. Rahim Moore cheats left and has to shuffle his feet back toward the Welker slant before reading the pass and reacting.
Brady hits Welker for 14 yards and Moore makes the tackle after 14 yards and a first down. Brady obviously liked the combination between man coverage on Welker and a large gap in the center of the field.
Brady and Welker made it look too easy. The drive ended with a touchdown run by Stevan Ridley.
3rd-and-14 Conversion – Flip to Danny Woodhead
Again, the Broncos use man coverage to try to limit the Patriots offense, but this time they used two deep safeties. That leaves linebacker Joe Mays trying to cover Woodhead out of the backfield.
The Broncos show like they are going to bring more than four rushers in hopes that the Patriots will leave Woodhead in to block.
The fake blitz actually works and Brady is spelled from the pocket, but Woodhead leaves the backfield and jumps to the inside of Mays.
Mays is forced to turn and cover Woodhead, but he changes direction and angles him back outside.
Woodhead gets all the room he needs and runs away from the defense to get the first down. The Patriots would convert the drive into three points on a field goal.
3rd-and-17 – Woodhead Stretch Run
There are not many plays designed for 3rd-and-17, yet the Patriots dialed up a play to Woodhead that picks up 19 yards. The basics of the play are simple. The Broncos drop six players on defense into coverage. The defense has to account for a long pass and there are only five defenders in the box.
The splits on the linebackers tell Brady that there is a potentially huge running lane to the left. Get Woodhead into the secondary and you never know what might happen; Logan Mankins is responsible for blocking Mays.
Mays takes himself out of the play and Mankins looks for the next player to block.
Mankins reaches Moore and Welker gets a block on Mike Adams moving right to left. The block by Welker enables Woodhead to turn on the jets and get the first down. Tracy Porter has to tackle Woodhead from behind to save an even longer run.
The Patriots would score another touchdown several plays later.
3rd-and-12 - Deion Branch Long Reception
This was the only long third-down conversion where the end of the drive did not end up in Points for the Patriots.
The defense only sends three rushers and drops eight players into coverage. This time the Broncos use zone coverage.
Brady steps up in the pocket and sees four defenders covering Gronkowski and Welker, who are both on the ground after colliding. Brady realized Branch and his safe check-down are his only two receivers in single coverage. The short pass would have been stuffed, so Brady opts to challenge Denver’s defense deep.
Branch makes the catch in front of the safety after running a deep dig route. The safety is slow to respond and the Patriots convert another long third down.
Brady understands the coverage, his players and where to go with the football and made the Broncos pay dearly for a vanilla defensive scheme.
If the Broncos want to avoid the same issues going forward, they need to mix things up on defense to disguise their obvious weaknesses. The Broncos don’t have to face a team like the Patriots every week and that will certainly help, but teams will continue to attack a player or scheme deficiency until Denver makes some adjustments.