The New England Patriots relied on strong defensive efforts earlier in the season while their offense continued to find its identity and its groove. Injuries on defense, and the return of key players on offense, have turned the tables.
Up against a Denver Broncos offense that has scored points at will for most of the season, it will be up to quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to keep pace.
Over the past three weeks, Brady has proven that he's not ready to go gently into that goodnight, but he isn't going gently to the turf in the face of a heavy pass rush this season—one of the league's best is one of the league's worst under pressure.
The Broncos have a modest 29 sacks this season, and their sack rate of 6.7 percent is right around the league average. The Patriots, on the flip side, are not the stellar pass-blocking offensive line we've seen in years past, yielding 28 sacks of Brady for a 6.9 percent rate.
While Denver may not have an elite pass rush, it can most certainly be a difference-maker in a close game. Just ask the Cowboys and Chargers; both teams yielded four sacks in a one-possession loss. The Patriots have yielded four or more sacks of Brady in three games and have lost two of those games. They needed a last-second touchdown to beat the Saints after their defense logged five sacks of Brady.
Pass protection alone won't ensure a Patriots victory, but it will ensure their beset chance of a victory, which is to match pace with the Broncos' high-powered offense. Here's how they do it.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots pass protection has been called into question at times this year. Brady has already been sacked as many times as he was all of last season, and he's on pace to be sacked around 45 times.
Many of Brady's sacks, however, can be attributed to simple unblocked rushers.
Brady has been sacked the eighth-most of any quarterback this year, but according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he's only been pressured on 33.3 percent of his dropbacks, which is actually the seventh-lowest average in the NFL. For the most part, the offensive line is doing its job.
When it's not, it's easy to tell. Brady has been sacked in an average of 3.51 seconds after the snap, the third-fastest average in the league.
Against the Bengals, Brady was sacked once on each of the Patriots' first two drives as Cincinnati set the tone for the game. It's debatable who was responsible for Bengals defensive linemen Geno Atkins (left) and Wallace Gilberry (right) on these sacks, but what's not debatable is that someone, somewhere along the line, missed the assignment and simply did not get a block on the linemen.
This has been a recurring problem for the Patriots, and it crept up against the Panthers, as well.
Defensive end Greg Hardy, one of the league's best pass-rushers, was simply unaccounted for on this play. It's no shock, then, that Brady was brought down in such a hurry.
There should not be very many unblocked defenders against a Broncos defense that only sends a blitz on around 28 percent of their opponent's passing snaps. According to ESPN's Jeff Legwold, the Broncos did not send extra rushers at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith very often this past week:
The Broncos rushed three or four players at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith on 79.6 percent of Smith's dropbacks, including penalty snaps. They got one sack in those rushes. They sent five rushers at Smith on nine dropbacks and got one sack and rushed at least six rushers at Smith on just one snap in the game and got a sack on the play. Two of the Broncos three sacks came when they were in their nickel package (five defensive backs).
The Broncos defense isn't exactly putting the pressure on its opponents with an exotic blitz package. The Patriots must get their protection called correctly at the line of scrimmage to make sure they don't make life easy for the Broncos defense.
You Know Where To Find Them
This ties into the previous point. There is nothing mysterious or exotic about the Broncos pass rush. They aren't sending the blitz from every direction. It's just that their edge rushers are effective at putting pressure on the quarterback.
|Denver Broncos pass rush snaps|
|Player||From the left||From the right||All positions|
|Pro Football Focus|
For the most part, Denver's defensive front seven is plug-and-play. The snap summary wasn't available for linebacker Von Miller, but he is primarily lined up on the strong side.
With the return of Miller to the defensive lineup, though, Legwold says the Broncos have begun to show a new wrinkle with some 3-4 looks on defense, and continued to do so against the Chiefs in Week 11.
The Broncos, as they have done from time to time since Von Miller returned from his suspension and Wesley Woodyard returned from missing two games with a neck injury, flashed a 3-4 look on defense for a few snaps against the Chiefs. After showing it for 20 snaps against the Redskins to help keep Robert Griffin III from getting loose, the Broncos showed it for three snaps against the Chiefs in the first half Sunday. It enables them to use Miller and Shaun Phillips in a stand-up role as edge players.
Both Miller and Phillips are accustomed to rushing the passer from an upright position (two-point stance, as seen below).
Some consider it more difficult to rush the passer from this position, as it limits the ability of the defender to win leverage by getting underneath the offensive lineman's pads. A linebacker rushing from a two-point stance must sink their hips and then either drive upward for a bull rush or make a beeline for the quarterback and turn the corner on the speed rush.
Miller and Phillips are exceptional at both (above, it's the exceptional quickness of each defender that allows them both to get into the backfield for a "meeting at the quarterback"), so it will be important for offensive tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon to use their large frames, long arms and considerable strength advantage over the two edge defenders to make sure they are kept away from Brady.
The Release and Patterns
One of the best ways to negate the pass rush is to deliver the ball quickly. Peyton Manning has been the league's best in that regard this year, also because of protection issues. Brady is also in the mix among quarterbacks who get the ball out of their hands the quickest.
|Tom Brady from the pocket|
|Time to throw (seconds)||2.54||T-6|
|Time to attempt (seconds)||2.46||T-9|
|Time to sack (seconds)||3.51||27|
|Percent of passes in 2.5 seconds and less||56.5||9|
|Pro Football Focus|
Brady knows that's his best bet against the Broncos.
"They've got some big guys up front, they've got some athletic guys like Shaun Phillips and Von [who] are great pass rushers," he said. "[They have] really athletic linebackers and some experienced guys in the secondary. So, it’s a good group. It’s a good group. They force you into getting rid of the ball quickly, especially when Von is going. He is as dynamic of a pass rusher as there is in the league."
He's not elusive, by any stretch, but even if the Patriots have some blown assignments in pass protection, Brady should still be able to get the ball out of his hands before the pressure gets there.
Against the Panthers, Brady and the Patriots made it a point to attack the short and intermediate area of the defense, helping Brady get the ball out quickly. He had just two attempts that traveled 20 yards or deeper beyond the line of scrimmage, and he had just three incomplete passes on his attempts traveling nine yards or fewer beyond the line of scrimmage.
On the above play, the Patriots were lined up in the 11 personnel grouping, with wide receiver Julian Edelman out to the left and Aaron Dobson on the opposite side, with Danny Amendola in the slot. Running back Shane Vereen flanks Brady to his right initially before motioning to the other side.
Brady made some checks at the line of scrimmage, possibly a "dummy call" but also possibly checking into the the screen pass to Edelman on the left side. With the quick release, Brady was able to take advantage of the off coverage from the Panthers' nickel defense and got the ball out of his hands before the defensive line really had any chance of getting to him.
A quick-strike pass attack is just a starting point, though. There's even more the Patriots must do to keep Denver's defense honest.
Letting the Broncos defense pin its ears back and get after Brady is simply not a recipe for success. The Patriots have to stay balanced.
In fact, the teams that have given the Broncos their best shot have mostly done so with a healthy pass-run ratio.
|Broncos past four opponents, run-pass balance|
|Opponent||Run plays||Pass plays|
The Chargers, Redskins and Colts all stayed balanced to keep the Broncos defense honest, and also to wear them down a bit.
The Redskins didn't finish with a great balance, but on their way to a 21-7 lead in the third quarter, they had 22 rush attempts and 18 pass attempts. The Chiefs had 15 first-half rush attempts and 19 first-half pass attempts.
Balance in and of itself won't cut it, though. The Cowboys kept it close by running 40 pass plays and just 14 running plays. The Eagles, on the flip side, couldn't keep up despite a near-perfect balance of 34 passes and 35 runs.
The way the Patriots were running against the Panthers (107 rushing yards and 4.3 YPA against the league's third-best run defense), it would be a surprise if the Patriots were incapable of running against the Broncos. Make the Broncos front seven physically exert itself against the run early, and that will buy plenty of time for Brady as the game wears on.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.