Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots: Breaking Down Denver's Game Plan

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Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots: Breaking Down Denver's Game Plan
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The Denver Broncos secured a big win in Week 11 as they took down the previously unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs 27-17. They get no time to relax, as they travel to Foxborough to take on the 7-3 New England Patriots in Week 12.

Peyton Manning (ankle) still isn’t 100 percent healthy, but the Broncos did a good job keeping Kansas City’s pass rush off of him. The Chiefs failed to sack or even hit Manning on Sunday night. The Broncos will look to continue the great pass protection against the Patriots this week.

Part of their improved pass protection is a strong ground game to keep defenses off-balance. Knowshon Moreno had a season-high 27 carries against the Chiefs in Week 11. That’s only the second time in his career that he’s gotten over 25 carries in a single game.

Moreno is the most trusted back on the roster, and he’ll continue to be the lead back for the team in the second half of the season. However, some fear that Moreno is maxed out at his current workload. This could open the door for rookie Montee Ball.

Against the Chiefs, Ball scored two touchdowns, and he looks much more decisive than he did earlier this year. Using Ball more could help wear down a defense and also keep Moreno fresh. The Broncos have designs on making a deep postseason run, so saving wear and tear on Moreno is a must.

The passing game is still the strength of this team, and the Patriots will have difficulty slowing it down in Week 12. This game will see Wes Welker return to the field where he became a star in the NFL.

Welker is dealing with a concussion and, per the NFL’s protocol for dealing with this injury, has been limited in practice this week. I interviewed Mike Klis from the Denver Post on ESPN Denver this Wednesday, and he believes Welker could play against his old team on Sunday night.

The team may have Welker available, but it may be without star tight end Julius Thomas against the Patriots. Thomas is dealing with a minor knee injury he suffered against the Chiefs.

Interim head coach Jack Del Rio did not comment on Thomas after Wednesday’s practice. His only comment this week came on Monday at his press conference: "Julius Thomas has a knee sprain. He’ll be day-to-day."

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Del Rio did comment on how a player like Julius Thomas can create mismatches.

Those are the matchup issues that you are dealing with in today’s NFL. More and more, you’re getting tight ends and backs in space as well. You’ve got to be able to operate in space and Julius is certainly that kind of player. He’s a dynamic player. A lot of times those bigger tight ends—we’ll go against one this week (Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski)—but they’re too fast for a linebacker and too big for a DB to cover type of matchup concern, and Julius is that type of guy.

It will be a huge boost for the Broncos offense if Thomas can play on Sunday night.

Defensively, the Broncos have been improving each week for the last month. The start of their resurgence can be traced back to the return of linebacker Von Miller. He missed the first six weeks of the season due to a suspension, but Miller has given the defense a boost since his return.

Del Rio says that Miller can be more impactful on defense, and Miller agrees with this statement: "I definitely think I can be more impactful. I definitely think I can make more plays [and] be more productive." Miller continued: "If I went out there and got six sacks, I think that I could be more productive. That’s just me. I hold myself to a higher standard than any of my teammates and my coaches. Myself is the easiest thing that I can fix. I’m going to take it one day at a time and I’m positive that I can get there."

In addition to Miller, the Broncos are getting a boost from young defenders like Malik Jackson. I interviewed Jackson on ESPN Denver earlier this week and asked him about the challenges when facing a quarterback like Tom Brady.

"Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly, we need to get to him in a hurry. We have to stay disciplined and collapse the pocket," Jackson said.

The Broncos will be playing with a new starting free safety in Week 12. The good thing for them is that Mike Adams was a starter for them all of last season.

Adams is filling in for an injured Rahim Moore. The Broncos lost Moore to an injury not commonly seen in the NFL, lower compartment syndrome. Moore has been placed on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list.

The veteran safety is feeling good, and he knows his teammates have confidence in him. "Yeah, no doubt that definitely makes me feel better. [I started] 17 games last year, then coming this year, playing a different role, mentoring [S] Duke [Ihenacho] and playing a little role on third down—I’m excited now being in there full-time now again and I’m ready. I’m ready for the challenge."

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots sit atop the AFC East because of Brady. The team no longer has the high-powered offense it used to, but the Patriots can still go toe-to-toe in a shootout.

Brady is still one of the best in the game, and the Broncos need to get pressure on him early and often.

The ground game features Stevan Ridley as the primary banger between the tackles. The Patriots did get Shane Vereen back from his wrist injury in Week 11, and he may be the most dangerous back on the roster.

The Broncos have historically struggled against backs like Vereen, so he may be in line for a big game against Denver.

The wide receiver corps has a different look this year without Welker. He was replaced in the lineup by Danny Amendola, but the veteran has struggled to stay healthy this year. Amendola will play against the Broncos, but has been limited in practice this week.

Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are getting more playing time. Dobson is a downfield target with deep speed, but he drops too many easy passes. Thompkins can make difficult catches seem routine, but his hands and routes have been inconsistent this season.

The key piece of the Patriots' passing game is tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Broncos have really struggled against tight ends in recent years, and Sunday will be no different.

Gronkowski will be picking on guys like Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard in coverage on Sunday. That’s an advantage the Patriots should exploit time and time again.

Defensively, the Patriots will be playing without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee). They may also be without Aqib Talib, as he’s listed as day-to-day with a hip injury.

This defense is already without starters Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo. It can’t afford to be any more banged-up against a high-powered Broncos offense.

Weather may play a factor in this game. The temperature is going to be around 40 degrees at kickoff, and high winds are likely near the start of the game. This will be an issue for both sides.

This could be a shootout, but both sides have the quarterbacks to keep them in it until the end.

Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the New England Patriots on both sides of the ball.

 

When the Broncos Run the Ball

The Broncos have a fairly simple ground game, but one that can be quite effective. They will run out of the shotgun or pistol formation in addition to a traditional single-back formation.

In the picture below, we see a simple run play up the middle with Moreno as the ball-carrier. The Broncos use right guard Louis Vasquez to pull to the left and help clear out space for Moreno to run through.

NFL.com - Game Rewind
NFL.com - Game Rewind

This type of hard-nosed football should work well against a Patriots defense that has lost both Wilfork and Kelly on the defensive line.

In addition to Moreno, the Broncos could start featuring Ball more as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.

The Broncos have plenty of weapons on offense, and they will use the ground game to keep the Patriots defense honest.

 

When the Broncos Pass the Ball

There’s nothing wrong with Peyton Manning’s arm strength. He has struggled to throw deep at times this year, but that’s not due to dwindling strength.

Against the Chiefs in Week 11, Manning took some deep shots to keep the defense backed up. He could do the same thing against the Patriots if the look is right.

In the picture below, the Chiefs have seven defenders in the box, and it looks like they’re going to blitz after the snap. Manning sees Demaryius Thomas in single coverage on the outside and throws a pass that travels over 30 yards in the air.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

The result of the play is a 70-yard gain. As shown here, Demaryius Thomas has little problem beating Marcus Cooper at the line of scrimmage.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

In addition to taking deep shots, the Broncos also unveiled a new wrinkle for their passing offense. They moved the pocket at times to keep Manning away from the rush.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Here we see a critical third-down play near the end of the game. The Chiefs look like they’re going to bring heat on Manning. The Broncos slide the pocket to the right to keep Manning clean. He’s able to easily hit Eric Decker, who then picks up the first down.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Adam Gase is one of the more creative offensive coordinators in the league. Many would not have expected a moving pocket with Manning and his ankle problems. The Broncos didn’t do that a lot, but they did it well at critical times during the game.

 

When the Patriots Run the Ball

Many teams try to play defense against Manning and the Broncos by keeping their offense on the sidelines. The Chargers tried this method in Week 10, and in the first half, the Broncos only had the ball for seven minutes, 31 seconds.

The Patriots offense flows through Brady and the passing game. However, it does have some capable backs to turn to if need be.

Ridley is a grinder between the tackles who thrives on yards after contact. In the picture below, Ridley is almost caught behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s able to push for nine yards.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Behind Ridley, the Patriots have Vereen. He’s a multi-dimensional back who can beat you as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Vereen has the kind of speed and open-field moves that are tough to defend. He may be the biggest threat for the Broncos to cover outside of Gronkowski.

 

When the Patriots Pass the Ball

Let’s start with Vereen here. He’s a player the Patriots will try to get into space. On this play, he lines up as the deep back in a traditional I-formation. Brady sends him in motion, and Vereen runs a route down the left side of the field.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Vereen can run routes like a wide receiver, and that makes him incredibly difficult to cover. He can motion out of the backfield or line up in the slot before the snap. Covering Vereen will be a test for the Broncos.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The other major test will be covering Gronkowski. His size/speed combination is elite, and he’s one of the most difficult players to match up with in the NFL.

The Broncos linebackers will have their hands full down the seam. Gronkowski can get on top of the defense in a hurry. His large frame also allows him to box out defenders away from the football.

Dobson and Thompkins will be downfield threats for the Patriots. We’ll see Amendola work the underneath and quick out routes.

Under offensive coordinator (and former Broncos head coach) Josh McDaniels, the Patriots like to use simple but effective route combinations. We should see plenty of vertical routes combined with short or jerk routes underneath.

 

Summary

The Broncos want to finish off the season as Super Bowl champions. In order to be the best, they’ll have to beat the best.

The Patriots are a playoff-caliber team who should present a great challenge for the Broncos on Sunday night.

Del Rio commented on the spectacle that is Manning versus Brady:

It’s always a great matchup. You’re talking about two of the premier quarterbacks in the league. and it’s going to be shown in prime time and all that. For us, it’s an opportunity to go on the road and face a team that’s really been on top of the AFC for a number of years. It’ll be a great challenge and a great opportunity to go in there and play a good football team and find a way to scratch out a win.

Weather could be a factor in this game, and both teams are ready for it. Adams talked about playing in tough conditions on the road. "We’re definitely expecting the worst conditions possible as far as the weather goes and the crowd is always in it. Foxborough around this time [is] probably a little chilly, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going there to play a football game, and we’ll be ready for what they have, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be ready for us.”

This game could go down as one for the ages. All NFL fans don’t want to miss a second of what may be an instant classic.

 

 All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. 

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