Pull out your kings, queens, rooks, knights, bishops and pawns, because in the ultimate chess match between New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, every piece is essential.
Moves and countermoves will determine the flow of the game until one sides puts the other in checkmate.
Each has enjoyed their success at different times—both over the course of a game and over the course of their careers—but when it comes to stumping Manning, fewer have succeeded more often than Belichick.
|Year||Avg. pass TD||Pass TD vs. Patriots||Avg. INT||INT vs. Patriots||Avg. points||Points vs. Patriots|
Source: Pro Football Reference
A good scheme helps, but ultimately, players have to execute the game plan successfully. Few quarterbacks are better than Manning at capitalizing on a defense's mistakes. There are multiple areas the Patriots need to excel and exploit if they want to have a prayer of slowing down the Broncos offense.
Invite the Run
The last time the Patriots played the Broncos, Manning handed off to a back 47 times. The Patriots front seven has struggled at times to stop the run, but anytime Manning isn't dropping back to pass, the defense wins—if only a little.
Thus, the Patriots would be wise to invite the Broncos to run the ball. That starts with pre-snap formation.
Notice how far the edge defenders are lined up from the interior linemen on the Broncos' very first offensive play against the Patriots in Week 12. The spacing is begging the Broncos to run the ball, with holes in the defensive front before the ball is even snapped.
The safeties are also lined up 12 yards away from the line of scrimmage, giving a Cover 2 look—another advantage for a running play, as those defenders won't make it to the play until late.
The Broncos had called a run, so Manning didn't have to audible, and the Broncos gained 12 yards on the run. It was a tone-setting play for the Broncos but was indicative of the Patriots game plan: They'll give the Broncos the yards on the ground if it means they're not creating explosive plays in the passing game.
Here's another example, on 3rd-and-3 in the first quarter. Once again, the Patriots are spaced apart on the defensive line and the safeties are lined up 12 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Even on 3rd-and-short, the Patriots were more mindful of a pass than a run. The Broncos were happy to oblige, gaining six yards and picking up the first down.
However, four plays later—three runs, one pass—the Broncos would be forced to settle for a field goal.
Regardless of the situation, it would be a surprise to see the Patriots put seven or more defenders in the box. They will be in a nickel defense almost the entire game, as was the case in the previous meeting, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston.
The Patriots are healthier in the secondary now than at any point in the year. Aqib Talib has been battling a hip injury all season long but is finally off the injury report. Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) were listed as questionable and probable, respectively, but both played on Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts—Arrington on a limited basis, Dennard for over 80 percent of the snaps.
Those three will probably be called on for a heavy workload on Sunday, and all three will need to be ready, including rookie cornerback Logan Ryan (over 75 percent of the snaps in the previous meeting). The thin air could leave them all drained by the conclusion of the game.
This isn't rocket science. When the opposing quarterback has thrown 55 touchdowns in a season, your best bet is to make sure he doesn't add to that total. The Patriots know Manning is a bigger threat than Moreno, and they'll be happy if the Broncos decide to put the game in the hands of their running back rather than their quarterback.
They can win a slugfest with the Broncos; they probably can't win a shootout.
We hear it all the time: You can't give Manning pre-snap information that will allow him to exploit you. He'll capitalize every time.
The Chiefs' inability to disguise is what got them beat. They held Manning in check the first time around, but even in doing so, they weren't able to completely contain him.
Give Manning an inch, he'll take 70 yards.
Disguising coverage is easier said than done. It's not as simple as showing one thing and doing another; if a defender gets too far out of position in his endeavor to disguise his assignment, he could be exposed if Manning finds the opening before the defender can get there.
Plus, as hard as a defense may try to stay disciplined with its disguise, Manning has a way about discovering what your true intentions are. Belichick said on WEEI's Salk and Holley:
Denver makes it hard on you because they all of the time get into formations that force you to declare certain things. Whether you're going to move a linebacker out or you're going to put your corners on one side, whether they're going to stay backside to a tight end, things like that to try to get some indicators on what the coverage is going to be.
If they were to line up in the same formations every time, it'd be a lot easier to disguise because you know where they are and you have a little more control over it, but when they're going fast and change their formations a lot and give you different looks...Disguising is certainly a big part of the game and it's important, but it's not as important as playing what you have called. If you can't play what you have, then it doesn't matter if you disguise it or not, it's probably not going to be very good, but that's the issue. They don't make it easy for you as much as you want to disguise, sometimes they put you in a bind.
The Patriots didn't really throw a lot of exotic coverages at Manning.
Instead, the Patriots stuck primarily with man coverage, often with the safeties in Cover 2 over the top, sometimes with linebackers sinking into short or intermediate zones over the middle.
The element of disguise, however, was still present.
On 1st-and-10 at the 9:03 mark in the second quarter, the Patriots showed their Cover 2 look on the back end with safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon both lined up around 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. As a result of this, it looks as though linebacker Brandon Spikes (circled in blue) is in man coverage on tight end Virgil Green (circled in black).
However, this is really a disguise of the Patriots' true intentions, which is a Cover 1 Robber technique. Instead of playing deep, Harmon comes down to defend the short and intermediate routes on his side of the field.
Manning looked that way initially, but both Spikes and Harmon were in position to defend the seam route by Green. Manning looked to Wes Welker on the checkdown, but the slot receiver was accounted for on his drive route over the middle. By the time Manning worked his way across the field to try to find Demaryius Thomas, Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was bearing down on him.
Manning threw the pass toward Thomas, but it didn't land anywhere near him, and thus was flagged for intentional grounding.
It was a big play for the Patriots defense, and it all started with a good disguise of the coverage. The Patriots will need to do a good job of not showing their hand before the snap, but they must also execute their assignments after carrying out the disguise.
Belichick trusts his cornerbacks fully. Why else would he have them in press coverage, down near the line of scrimmage, on nearly every defensive play against the Broncos?
As recently as two years ago, it would have been sacrilege to suggest that the Patriots secondary matched up well with—well, anyone. However, it's become a strength of the team this year, much like it was when the Patriots were hoisting Lombardi Trophies from 2001-04.
This secondary has a similar makeup to those groups, primarily for its physical style of play, and it'll need to bring it against the Broncos, much like it did in the previous meeting.
On Logan Ryan's interception of Manning in the fourth quarter, Broncos receiver Eric Decker was running a slant route from the left side of the field over the middle.
Ryan got his hands inside Decker's chest pads almost immediately, within the five-yard window. There was some contact after the ball was thrown, but not enough for a flag to be thrown, as well.
But Ryan got by with a little help from his friends, namely Arrington, who got pressure on Manning on the corner blitz. As a result of the oncoming rush, Manning was unable to fully step into the throw.
However, without the solid jam from Ryan, this throw may have been in just the right spot for Decker to bail Manning out. Instead, the ball was thrown slightly behind the two players, and Ryan was able to reach back for the pick.
Physical play is key, but getting too grabby can result in penalties. The Patriots were disciplined in that respect the last time around but were called for two pass interference penalties and one defensive holding penalty.
It could have been more.
Talib got away with one in the fourth quarter on Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was the target on a screen pass. The route combination threatened to "pick" Talib out of the picture, so he grabbed onto Thomas' jersey and was able to disrupt the pass as a result.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with testing the boundaries, and the Patriots should be willing to accept a five-yard first-down penalty if it means preventing a big play in the passing game. Over the course of the game, the Patriots should be mindful of the threshold—what's drawing a flag, what's acceptable—and push those boundaries for all four quarters.
Whatever it takes to disrupt the timing of the Broncos offense, the Patriots should be willing to do it.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots cornerbacks are healthier as a group than they've been all season long. That should give the Patriots some hope of slowing down the Broncos receivers, as it will take a physical game from the corners to disrupt the timing element of the Broncos offense.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.