The Denver Broncos are expected to win the Super Bowl—anything less is a failure. The stakes may be high for the AFC Championship Game, but the expectation remains unchanged.
Long before the when, where and who were set, the Broncos were expected to win this game—the opponent just so happens to be the New England Patriots. The Broncos couldn’t control who they played, but they did ensure the game would be played at home in Denver by securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a 13-3 regular-season record.
The only thing the Broncos could control this week was how they prepared for the Patriots. In Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s mind, it’s the same kind of preparedness that got the team to this point.
"If you have to prepare harder for this game, that means you probably haven't been preparing hard enough all season long,” Manning said on Wednesday via the Broncos’ official website.
Good preparation is manifested in a game plan—one that maximizes the odds of victory. The best plan for the Broncos to beat the Patriots may take them outside their comfort zone—a scary idea for a team with such high expectations.
Sustaining drives with a balanced offense, stopping the run between the tackles and taking away quarterback Tom Brady’s short passing game should give them the best chance to win. It’s a very achievable plan but one that the Broncos have not deployed with a ton of success this season.
One might assume that because the Broncos had the best offense in the league this season that they had an offense that was good at sustaining drives. While they were good, it was also one the offense’s biggest weaknesses.
The Broncos offense went cold for extended periods in every loss this season and even a few wins against weaker opponents. When the offense hasn’t performed, the defense has been exposed.
|Week||Opponent||Result||Consecutive Drives w/o Score||Drives|
|6||Jaguars||W||4||Punt, Fumble, Punt, INT|
|7||@ Colts||L||6||Fumble, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt|
|8||Redskins||W||5||Punt, Punt, Punt, Fumble, INT|
|10||@Chargers||W||4||Fumble, Punt, Punt, Punt|
|12||@ Patriots||L||5+3||Punt, Fumble, Punt, INT, Punt, TD, Punt, Punt, Punt|
|15||Chargers||L||4||Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt|
In Indianapolis, the Broncos punted on five consecutive drives—four of which were three-and-outs. By the time the offense got it together, the Broncos were down 19 points and had to rally from behind. The comeback ultimately fell short.
In New England, six of the Broncos’ final nine drives ended in a punt, and two ended in a turnover. Two of the drives ending in a punt were also in overtime. With a 24-0 halftime lead, the Broncos needed to sustain drives on offense and play safe on defense, but they couldn’t do either one.
Against the Chargers at home, the Broncos punted on four consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters. Three of those drives were three-and-outs, and the other was just four plays before a punt. The Broncos got behind, and the Chargers sustained their drives to keep them from getting enough opportunities to get back on track.
Sensing a theme?
The Broncos also had trouble sustaining drives in a few of their wins, but against weaker opponents it was less of an issue. The Broncos went into the half against the Jacksonville Jaguars with just a 14-12 lead because of four consecutive poor drives in the second quarter which included two three-and-outs and two turnovers.
The Broncos fell behind Washington 21-7 after five of their first six offensive drives ended with a punt or turnover. The Broncos got back on track in the second half and ended up blowing Washington out, but the offensive struggles were still apparent.
In San Diego, the Broncos had some trouble closing out the game and let the Chargers climb within a score in the fourth quarter. The Broncos did eventually prevail, but they had three consecutive punts in the second half that were preceded by a fumble that almost cost them the game.
To some extent this is nitpicking a great offense. The Broncos have an explosive offense that is capable of scoring a lot of points. If the Patriots don’t limit the explosive pass plays, sustaining drives will be unimportant to the outcome of the game.
Except that’s likely just what the Patriots will try to do. If the Patriots can limit the explosive pass plays, the Broncos will have to sustain drives. If the Broncos offense stagnates for a stretch like it did in six games this season, it leaves the door wide-open for the Patriots.
|Team||Plays Per Drive||Yards Per Drive||Time Per Drive||Points Per Drive|
|Broncos||5.9 (T-5)||36.2 (2)||2:25 (T-23)||2.83 (1)|
|Patriots||5.9 (T-5)||30.6 (9)||2:25 (T-23)||2.10 (9)|
The Broncos and the Patriots both averaged 5.9 plays per drive and an average drive time of 2:25 this season. From that perspective, these teams are more evenly matched than counting stats might indicate—particularly if the Pats sell out to take away the big plays.
Both offenses have relied on explosive plays, but the Patriots’ newfound running game has changed things. With New England likely to focus on stopping Manning, it would make sense for the Broncos to use the running game more than they usually would.
The Patriots also have a weak defensive front, and rookie running back Montee Ball is emerging as a legitimate weapon for the Broncos. The tandem of Ball and Knowshon Moreno could help carry the offense to victory.
The 4.5 yards-per-carry average the Patriots allowed in 2013 was tied for 24th in the league, and the 134.1 rushing yards per game they allowed ranked 30th in the league. It’s not a stretch to say that the key to beating the Patriots is running over them.
Moreno did that in the loss to the Patriots in Week 12 by toting the ball 37 times for 224 yards. The Broncos ran the ball 47 times (excluding a Manning rush for zero yards) and threw the ball just 36 times. The running game was productive, but the majority of the carries came in the second half, and the Broncos couldn’t convert on third down to sustain their drives.
This time around, the running game should be part of the game plan early on. The Patriots are likely going to ignore Denver's running game in hopes of slowing down Manning, which should provide all the opportunity the Broncos need.
Manning and co. can always open things up later in the game as an adjustment when the Patriots are forced to stop the run. Once Manning sees a safety or linebacker diving down into the box, he can take advantage through the air.
Daring the Broncos to Run
The last time these teams played, the Patriots dared the Broncos to run it. The Patriots lined up in press-man coverage on the outside with two deep safeties. One of the two safeties was responsible for deep help, while the other was expected to pick up the tight end in the passing game.
The Patriots’ safeties and linebackers align outside the numbers, which leaves the middle of the field open for a big run. The Patriots didn’t do this by accident; they simply were content to allow the Broncos to run the ball in return for limiting big passing plays.
With only six men in the box, the Broncos get an easy 16-yard gain on a run straight up the middle. The Patriots may have been OK with giving up yards, but not 16 yards.
The key to the play is Ball, who has more speed and initial quickness than Moreno. Ball squirts through the hole, forcing the safeties to tackle him from the side. If Moreno is carrying the ball, it’s still a good gain, but there is a chance the safety can get in front of him. With Ball, one misstep by a safety can turn into a big play.
If the Patriots use a similar game plan, the Broncos shouldn’t hesitate to hand the ball off to win. Ball should get more work, as he’s the back who's capable of turning these opportunities into explosive run plays. If the Broncos can force the Patriots out of what they want to do defensively, it will only benefit Manning and the passing game.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick likely will take his chances with the running game instead of letting Manning beat him. For that reason, the Broncos shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the run early, as the key to their offensive success may depend on it. If the Broncos try to open things up early, they run the risk of the offense stagnating, which would give the Patriots a window to get a lead.
From there, the Patriots could turn to their running game to grind out the victory. That’s not the kind of situation the Broncos want to put themselves in, so an effective ground game and long sustained drives should be the plan.
Running more doesn’t mean the passing game isn’t still a big part of the offense; it just means the Broncos need to take advantage of the way the Patriots are likely to play them. Rub routes and crossing patterns should also help the Broncos break free of the press-man coverage, but the Patriots have enough talent in the back end of their defense to disrupt Manning’s timing with his receivers.
From Man to Zone Coverage
The Patriots don’t have a legitimate deep threat without tight end Rob Gronkowski, which means the Broncos don’t have to respect the deep pass as much as they normally would.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both glorified slot receivers who will run short routes along with running back Shane Vereen.
When the Patriots do want to go deep, they will need to find one of their two rookie wide receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins or Aaron Dobson. Since neither player will scare the Broncos, that gives the defense more options on how to defend all the players running underneath.
As Andy Benoit noted for MMQB.com, defenses like the Broncos are increasingly moving toward man-coverage schemes. Unfortunately, injuries have forced the Broncos to rethink their strategy for Sunday.
There are two problems with man coverage for the Broncos in this game. First, they don’t have a great pass rush without outside linebacker Von Miller. Second, their personnel in the secondary took a huge hit when starting cornerback Chris Harris Jr. tore his ACL last week.
The Patriots will use pick routes and rub routes against man coverage to force cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer and whoever else gets on the field to loop over and around other defenders. The net result could be big plays for the Patriots.
New England will also take advantage of any personnel mismatches that may be present in man coverage, just like it did in overtime against the Broncos in Week 12. Brady immediately identified that Edelman was being covered by linebacker Wesley Woodyard and found him for a 17-yard gain.
With that much room to work with and without much quick pressure, Woodyard is going to get burned every time. Brady had no problem beating the man coverage in the second half of Week 12, and the Broncos' pass defense is significantly weaker now.
On 2nd-and-10 in overtime in Week 12, Miller and Harris combined to force an incomplete pass. Harris has to trail Amendola all the way across the field while avoiding a teammate. Despite the tough assignment, Harris was there to keep the pass to short gain if caught.
Miller applied quick pressure, which forced Brady to get rid of the ball under pressure. It was an incomplete pass and resulted in a 3rd-and-long situation for the Patriots that they weren’t able to convert.
Given the personnel the Broncos have healthy, they need to play more zone coverage than they have all season to limit Brady. Since it’s not something the Broncos have done very often, it should also catch the Patriots by surprise.
Zone coverage also has another benefit; it enables the defense to play with more eyes in the backfield. With the emergence of running back LaGarrette Blount in the Patriots’ rushing attack, stopping the run also has to be a focus.
One of the common problems of man coverage is that defenders are turning and running with receivers and thus taking their eyes off the play. Receivers and tight ends can take cornerbacks and safeties out of a run play simply by running down the field and letting them follow.
In zone coverage, the Broncos can sit on all the short stuff that Brady likes to throw to Edelman, Amendola and Vereen and have extra defenders there to support the run. The Broncos may yield a lot of completions and yards with this strategy, but they should be able to better limit big plays both in the passing game and running game.
By using more zone concepts, the Broncos may also be able to jump one of Brady’s short passes to make a game-changing play. As long as the offense is effective, the defense doesn’t need to be perfect.
The Broncos can surely beat the Patriots, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Running the ball and sustaining drives isn’t exactly what this offense is known for, but it may be the best way to win the game.
Switching abruptly to more zone concepts on defense is not something the Broncos have done a lot of this season, but the switch makes sense given the absence of the personnel to be successful in man coverage and while also needing more players to support the run.
The Broncos may be the favorites, but they need a good game plan that addresses several key issues they have now on defense and had against the Patriots in Week 12. The Broncos have the offensive talent to win this game, but they better have a better plan than Belichick if they hope to win.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com