Let's get one fact straight right away—barring an injury (or at least a severe aggravation of his sprained ankle), Peyton Manning will have success against the New England Patriots' injury-riddled defense. Even if the Patriots can get the likes of Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory suited up for their Sunday Night showdown, a total shutdown of the Broncos offense is highly unlikely.
But that does not mean the Patriots will get steamrolled by a Denver offense that can feel intimidating at times. While the Broncos will probably win the majority of the matchups throughout the night, there are measures New England can take to manufacture a handful of game-changing plays, which may very well make the difference among two closely contested teams.
Indeed, if the sentiment of that past paragraph sounds familiar, it's essentially the mantra the Patriots defense has taken the past several seasons as an opportunistic bend-but-don't-break unit. It's really a shame, because injuries have robbed the defense of what was an extremely promising start to the year. But with gaping holes in the front seven and half the secondary battling injuries, the defense is once again holding on for dear life as the offense gains strength.
Patriots fans will be uneasy whenever Manning and Co. possess the ball on Sunday night. However, if the Patriots defense can execute a few key concepts, New England will put itself in a favorable position to pull out a critical win.
Creative Pressure Schemes
Many believed the Chiefs could derail the Denver offense by creating pressure with a monstrous defensive line of Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe. But Kansas City infamously failed to knock down Manning even once, creating a perception that Manning had all day to throw.
While it certainly hurt that the Chiefs were unable to knock him down, they did generate 10 hurries out of 40 dropbacks during the game. That 25 percent pressure clip isn't great, though it is above the 22.7 percent average teams have generated on Manning this season.
Ideally, Kansas City would have gotten pressure by only rushing four, a formula that is practically foolproof when executed. The Chiefs were unable to win this way, but they did compile some pressure through solid scheming. Check out these two plays, where Kansas City threw a delayed safety blitz and disguised strong-side overload to create pressure:
The first one disrupts Manning's timing and causes him to throw to Welker earlier than he would like, while the second one results in a holding penalty. In the second clip, Kansas City actually only rushed four, giving them the best of both worlds. Blitzing is not the ideal way to pressure Manning, as his 61.5 completion percentage under pressure is the highest in the league, per ESPN's Scott Miller.
However, if the Patriots can disguise their coverage while finding ways to send pressure, that at least gives them a chance. New England has failed to consistently generate pressure with just four linemen all year, even though both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are in the top 10 of total pressures generated by defensive linemen.
New England should be able to get a bit more creative in its defensive playcalling since Manning is not particularly elusive, unlike roughly half the quarterbacks the Pats have faced this season. While it sometimes seems as if the Patriots defensive line just runs into a brick wall every play, they've had success with variations like this:
Chandler Jones certainly has the athleticism edge over Denver's offensive line, and play calls like that can help him utilize his length and quickness. Manning's quick release and impeccable pocket awareness make it nearly impossible for vanilla rushes to get home, so Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia must formulate some change-ups they can use to confuse the Denver quarterback and manufacture pressure.
If the Patriots can make life tough for Manning in the pocket, that would greatly aid the next facet of their gameplan.
Limit the Run and the Deep Threat
Belichick is notorious for eliminating the opposition's biggest threat. The Broncos are a pick-your-poison type of offense that presents no obvious target, but there are a couple players the Patriots should be able to target and contain.
First, it would certainly help New England's chances if the Broncos are one-dimensional. That one dimension would still be incredibly dangerous, but if Manning is throwing 50 passes, that makes play-calling and play identification a lot easier for the Patriots coaches and players. Thus, stifling Knowshon Moreno is actually significantly more important than many may believe.
Nevertheless, the Patriots' run defense has actually been better than many perceive, despite the losses of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly. The big difference has been an uptick in "big runs," which we'll define as rushes that go for 15 or more yards. We can divide the season into three segments—with Wilfork and Kelly, with just Kelly and with neither. Since Wilfork only played the first series of the Falcons game, we'll exclude him from that. Per Pro-Football-Reference's Game Play Finder, here are the results for each segment:
|Patriots' Run Defense Stats by Game Segment|
|Game Segment||Attempts||Yards/Att||Big Plays||Yards/Att w/o BP|
|1-3 (Wilfork + Kelly)||89||4.1||2||3.8|
Notice that if you subtract those 10 big runs, the Patriots are conceding just 3.4 yards per carry over the other 142 runs. That's a much bigger sample size, and indicates that the Pats are not really worse on a down-to-down basis, but that they're a bit more susceptible to the explosive play.
One factor to consider is that New England will play almost every snap in sub package personnel (i.e., extra defensive backs) to combat the Broncos' dangerous air assault. That might compromise their run defense a bit, but Moreno has just five runs of over 15 yards, and does not seem particularly likely to wreak havoc.
A more pressing problem could be Demaryius Thomas, particularly if Aqib Talib is unable to suit up. Talib was clealry gimpy in his first game back from a hip injury, looking stiff in his cuts and often losing ground to Steve Smith. He was unable to finish the game, but Talib had some encouraging words for ESPN Boston's Field Yates on Wednesday:
"It's all right, it's all right," Talib said Wednesday of the hip. "It tightened up on me a little bit towards the end of the game. It's fine though."
Talib was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Panthers' final drive resulted in what would be the game-winning touchdown. He attempted to return, but ultimately the tightness was too much to overcome.
"It's over with now. I'd rather not talk about it," Talib said. "I tried to go through it, as much as I can. If I could've been out there, I would've been out there."
As far as going forward, Talib classified himself as "day to day," though he did not appear to be moving gingerly in the locker room.
If Talib can play, his size would be a huge asset against the 6'3" Thomas, who tore up New England last season with nine receptions for 180 yards. The Patriots might still need to shade a safety towards Thomas, leaving open the unpleasant possibility of old friend Wes Welker piling up a series of 10-yard receptions.
And yet, slowing Denver's pace down the field is really the only chance New England has to come up with a couple of truly game-changing moments.
Turnovers are a fickle mistress, but one the Patriots have excelled in with remarkable consistency. New England's 36-game streak of forcing at least one turnover ended against Carolina, but it's not as if the Pats' opportunistic secondary did not have a couple chances:
Those are the chances the Patriots cannot afford to squander against Manning, as they will likely only receive a couple of those mistakes all game. Indeed, Manning has thrown interceptions on just 1.5 percent of his throws, the second-lowest mark in the league per TeamRankings.com. If he does throw a pick on Sunday, it will likely stem from a perfect storm of the above factors—excellent pressure, disguise and coverage.
A more feasible hope is to recover a fumble, as Manning has coughed up the rock eight times, tied for the second-highest mark in the league. In fact, the Broncos as a team have fumbled 2.1 times per game, the worst mark in the league. Denver lost three fumbles in their 10-point loss to the Pats last season, including one by Manning.
It's a bit cliche to say, but the Patriots really do have an excellent shot of winning this game if they win the turnover battle, especially given the offense's resurgence. TV commentators often get criticized for repeating the same jaded mantras again and again, but turnover margin is probably the biggest variable in determining the outcome between two evenly matched teams:
|Record by Turnover Margin, 2013|
|+3 or more||24-2|
The offense has done a solid job of protecting the ball the past month, with three of their five best turnover margins coming within the past four games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. If the defense can start a new streak on Sunday, that might be enough to push the Pats over the top.
Not that you need any more evidence of how dangerous the Broncos offense is, but I haven't even mentioned Julius Thomas or Eric Decker yet, who would be the top two receiving options on many teams. Thomas might require Devin McCourty's attention, lest the Pats have to suffer through the nightmare of defending the uber-athletic tight end with someone like Dont'a Hightower. Kyle Arrington, who played well against the Panthers until his missed tackle on Ted Ginn's game-winning touchdown, will draw Decker.
Bill Belichick likes to preach about "complementary football," where all three phases of the game make life easier on each other. This looks like a game where the Patriots offense and special teams will have to play well to set up the defense with easier situations. If New England must defend a short field, or stay on the field for extended stretches because the offense cannot find a rhythm, that will likely spell doom.
Fortunately, the Patriots have been trending in the right direction in those two phases. It was especially encouraging to see the kick coverage team bottle up Ginn, as that unit has struggled at times this year.
The defense does not need to shut down Manning and the Broncos, an impossible task given their injuries. But unlike against Carolina, when the defense was unable to generate the big play it needed, the unit must come up with one or two game-altering plays if the Patriots are to come out on top.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.