Patriots' Secondary Has the Pieces to Stop Broncos' Record-Setting Offense

Mike DussaultSenior Analyst IJanuary 16, 2014

Nov 24, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) throws a pass under pressure from New England Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones (94) in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 34-31. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

By this point, you probably have Brady-Manning fatigue, and you're not alone.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have ruled the NFL for over a decade, and every time they play each other it's a media blitz that focuses directly on the two legendary quarterbacks and far less on the teams around them.

But the more interesting matchup is really defensive mastermind Bill Belichick against the often-unstoppable Manning.

Belichick got much of the credit early in the rivalry, before Brady and Manning had racked up a collection of awards and records—especially when he held Manning's prolific offense to 14 and three points in the 2003 AFC Championship Game and 2004 AFC Divisional Round matchup, respectively.

Manning acknowledged Belichick's prowess this week, via Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post, saying, "Coach Belichick is the best coach that I have ever competed against, and I think it's safe to say that he will go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time."

When the New England Patriots were winning Super Bowls, Belichick had a veteran defense that could match Manning's talent—especially in their front seven. But later in the 2000s, as Belichick's defense turned over, he was left mixing and matching defenders, trying to throw curves at Manning to take him off his game.

This began in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, with Belichick looking to add more speed to his linebacker corps and inserting usual special teams player Eric Alexander at linebacker. Alexander led the Pats in tackles with an astounding 10 solo and was a frequent target of Manning's in the Colts victory.

A few years later in 2010, Belichick would put cornerback Kyle Arrington at defensive end to rush Manning. Arrington forced a third-down incompletion but was otherwise ineffective in the role.

Ultimately, these twists, whether by necessity or creativity, did little to slow down Manning.

Since 2005, Manning's teams have averaged 28.7 points in nine games and have been 5-4 against the Pats. It's been less about Belichick shutting down Manning and more about the Tom Brady and the Patriots offense being able to win shootouts or come close to it.

But now, Belichick finally has the pieces in place to challenge Manning like he did in the early-2000s.

Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington are all versatile and adept in press man coverage. Add in captain Devin McCourty on the back end and super-smart Steve Gregory at strong safety and it's clear this is the deepest and most talented secondary Belichick has had since 2003.

It's a far departure from 2005-2012, when the Pats went up against Manning often with a collection of undrafted rookies and off-the-street free agents.

And this group should be even better than the first time they saw Manning this season.

Sealver Siliga should be looking to make some noise against his old team.
Sealver Siliga should be looking to make some noise against his old team.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest difference is defensive tackle and former Bronco Sealver Siliga, who has solidified the interior of the line since taking over a starting role in Week 12. In the first matchup, the Pats interior tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were consistently pushed out of the way. The Broncos won't have as easy a time with Siliga on Sunday.

Dont'a Hightower was pulled from the first game, but he has really come on here at the end of the season and will be unlikely to leave the field this time around. Steve Gregory was also missing from the first game with a thumb injury, and his veteran experience and smarts are a big plus against a cerebral quarterback like Manning.

Alfonzo Dennard also missed the second half against the Broncos and figures to play a role after his two interceptions against the Colts in the divisional round. He's still being managed after midseason knee surgery, but he has often been the Patriots' best cornerback over the last two seasons.

While the Broncos will welcome back tight end Julius Thomas after not having him for some of November, the Patriots will look to rookie linebacker Jamie Collins to handle a bulk of the coverage duties on him. Collins had a breakout game against the Colts, and covering a big tight end like Thomas is just why the Patriots drafted him.

Patriots were in this nickel defense for most of the Week 12 matchup. Arrington blitzes from the slot here and forced a rushed throw and interception. The Pats only blitzed eight times in the game.
Patriots were in this nickel defense for most of the Week 12 matchup. Arrington blitzes from the slot here and forced a rushed throw and interception. The Pats only blitzed eight times in the Game Rewind

Having these fast and physical players puts a lot of options at Bill Belichick's disposal, but most of all it ensures he won't have to get overly creative with his personnel and coverages like he did to challenge Manning in recent seasons.

Thomas will see plenty of Talib on Sunday.
Thomas will see plenty of Talib on Sunday.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Earlier this season the Patriots didn't throw any major new wrinkles at Manning. For nearly the entire game they matched up man-to-man, with Talib on Demaryius Thomas, Ryan on Eric Decker and Arrington on Wes Welker, and they generally played either Cover 1 Robber or Cover 2 Man.

There were no walk-around blitzes or players out of position. The Pats won or lost at the line of scrimmage with pure physicality, and there's little reason to think there will be any major departure from that game plan.

Even as the Broncos used more crossing routes and picks in the second half to beat the man coverage, it was too little too late, and their drives continued to stall out because of the sure tackling of the New England defense.

Manning finished with just 150 yards passing, the lowest total since throwing for just 95 in a brief appearance in Week 17 of 2009.

Ty Law, the Patriots last great man coverage corner who picked off Manning three times in the 2003 AFC Championship.
Ty Law, the Patriots last great man coverage corner who picked off Manning three times in the 2003 AFC Championship.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It's strange to think that, in a season marked by more significant injuries than any other in Bill Belichick's reign, the Pats' defense might finally be better prepared to play against Peyton Manning than they have been in a decade.

They've been able to slow him down just enough in the past with fill-ins to pull out more wins than losses, but now the Pats have the kind of secondary to actually go head-to-head with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

With a secondary that is able to hold their coverage, it will buy the extra second for pass-rushers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to get to Manning. If that happens, New England's defense should control the game as they did in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs.

Forget about Brady vs. Manning; this one is all about Belichick's secondary vs. Manning.


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