The Patriots head coach is used to devising game plans to stop Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, but he's probably finding himself focusing much more closely on the running game than the passing game.
That's because the running game has been so central to the Broncos' offensive success this year, and likewise, it's the reason the Broncos earned a victory in the first meeting between these two teams. That week, the Broncos ran the ball 32 times and piled up 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns, including C.J. Anderson's game-winning 48-yard score in Denver's 30-24 overtime win.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that game—not the least of which is the importance of linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who was forced from that game with a knee injury.
As a team, though, the Patriots saw the kind of schemes that the Broncos are probably aiming to use on Sunday in the return match.
One of the Patriots' biggest tests will be avoiding open-field blocks, where the Broncos like to get their linemen out in space to spring the running back free for big yards. That's what happened to the Patriots on the final play in overtime.
The Broncos' entire offensive line pulled from right to left, with center Matt Paradis and left tackle Ryan Harris pulling to block out in front of the play. Left guard Louis Vasquez and the two Broncos receivers on the left set up a wall, and on the other side of that wall were three Broncos offensive players ready to block three Patriots defenders.
Paradis helped complete the wall on the left with a block on linebacker Jonathan Freeny. Tight end Virgil Green kept safety Devin McCourty at bay, and Harris came downhill with a block on cornerback Malcolm Butler.
At that point, all Anderson had to do was evade a tackle from safety Duron Harmon, and he was off to the races. A better angle and a better open-field tackle by Harmon would have prevented the touchdown, but the Broncos executed a lot of good blocks all over the field before that.
That being said, you'll notice one particular Patriots defender who's not on the field in the above screenshots: Hightower.
Broncos rushing stats before Hightower injury: 15 carries, 43 yards. Broncos after Hightower injury: 17 carries, 136 yards, 3 TD.— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) November 30, 2015
Go figure, the Patriots' run defense is much better with their best run-stopping linebacker on the field. But make no mistake: Stopping the run is not a one-man job.
But just like Julian Edelman had an obvious impact on the Patriots offense, Hightower's impact is equal against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower ranked in the top 10 among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run and 13th out of 42 in tackling efficiency.
We can see why thanks to plays like this. Anderson ran off the right guard for a seven-yard gain on 2nd-and-3, so this wasn't technically a good play for the Patriots defense, but it was a great individual effort by Hightower to reach over the guard and still make a tackle despite being blocked to the ground.
Hightower has taken on the role of a one-man wrecking crew in the running game many times in his career, and while he can certainly help the Patriots' run defense, he can't do it alone.
The running game is central to the Broncos offense as a whole through play-action passing; Peyton Manning ranked 16th out of 37 quarterbacks in play-action percentage and 12th in play-action completion percentage. Manning's completion percentage was 57.8 on non-play-action throws, nearly 10 points lower.
Clearly, the Broncos offense is much more successful when the running game is moving effectively. The Patriots can throw a wrench in it all if they stop the run. But they're not strangers to this.
In fact, they've done this before against a Gary Kubiak offense. The current Broncos head coach was the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2012 and 2013, when the Patriots did a fairly good job of bottling up the run. The Patriots built big leads in two games in 2012 (one regular season, one in the playoffs) thanks to holding the Texans to just 191 total rushing yards on 50 carries.
That sounds like a lot, but the Texans averaged 132.7 rushing yards per game that season, and the Patriots held them to just 95.5 average in their two meetings. The Texans' lack of effectiveness on the ground is what caused Matt Schaub (53-of-83, 575 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions in those two games) to play so poorly.
The Patriots could be looking for a similar result this week; if they shut down the run, it will force Manning to beat them with his arm. The future Hall of Famer has certainly been that kind of quarterback in the past, but not this year.