For a team that prides itself on week-to-week versatility, the New England Patriots aren't accustomed to this level of inflexibility. Injuries have hampered how creative head coach Bill Belichick can really be on both sides of the ball, an ominous development ahead of the Patriots' most challenging game of the year at the Denver Broncos.
Granted, the Broncos are hardly a Goliath themselves, having clawed their way past the wreckage of Peyton Manning's twilight days to post an 8-2 record. With injuries shelving Manning, first-time starter Brock Osweiler has actually allowed Gary Kubiak to run more of his preferred under-center, movement-based schemes. As unfathomable as it may be, the Patriots may have preferred to see their long-time nemesis in this matchup.
The opposing quarterback won't be Belichick's biggest concern in this game. The Broncos have fielded the league's best defense for virtually the entire season, and though the Pats had the personnel to crack the code, that may no longer be the case. If Danny Amendola is unable to play through a knee sprain this week, New England will have its thinnest receiving corps of the year against its toughest defensive matchup.
Still, the Pats should have their share of opportunities, and a victory here would virtually clinch a first-round bye for this bruised squad. Turning to the tape and stats, let's construct a game plan for how New England can keep its record unblemished after Sunday night.
Offensive Game Plan
The easy place to start here is with the injuries at wide receiver. However, that wasn't the core of the problem in New England's Monday night struggle against the Buffalo Bills. Indeed, it may not have made a massive difference had the likes of Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis been healthy, as the offensive line had no chance of protecting Tom Brady against Rex Ryan's byzantine pressure schemes.
Wade Phillips runs a far different system in Denver, as his one-gapping 3-4 scheme rarely disguises where the pressure is coming from. The Broncos have typically gone with standard four-man rushes, sometimes rushing five when a tight end or running back stays in to block.
The one "Joker" piece Phillips will occasionally pull out is T.J. Ward, an excellent all-around box safety with a spotty reputation, especially in New England. Denver had success last Sunday against the Chicago Bears with Ward disguising his blitz and coming in unblocked on multiple plays.
Still, the Broncos are generally comfortable with dropping into standard man coverages and allowing talented pass-rushers like Von Miller and Malik Jackson to go to work. New England has the good fortune of not needing to deal with DeMarcus Ware, who will miss his third straight game with a back injury, but Miller in particular is a potential game-wrecker against Marcus Cannon or Sebastian Vollmer. As illustrated below, Miller's signature rip move is one of the deadliest pass-rushing moves in the league at the moment.
NFL (@NFL) October 11, 2015
Before we discuss any of the other individual matchups, everything needs to start with pass protection. New England was simply not a functional offense for large chunks of the Bills game, and the offensive line's inability to get a bead on Ryan's pressure looks played a huge factor. Denver won't present the same intellectual challenge, but the linemen must win their pass-protection matchups on the vast majority of snaps.
When Brady does receive time to throw, he'll still have the league's biggest mismatch to throw to. However, defenses are no longer being punished for investing all their resources into defending tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been conspicuously quiet over the past month. The onus is now on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to creatively unlock Gronk and ensure he can make enough game-changing plays to keep the rest of the Pats' motley crew afloat.
The actual key to slowing Gronk has never been all that big a mystery. Players have been preaching physicality against Gronkowski since the start of the season, but for some reason, it's only now beginning to bear dividends. In recent weeks, the All-Pro tight end hasn't even been able to release into his route due to overwhelming press coverage, often from more than one defender, right near the line of scrimmage.
Just as the Detroit Pistons of the late 80s and early 90s constructed the "Jordan Rules" to stave off Michael Jordan's ascent, it appears NFL defensive coordinators are now forming bylines for the "Gronk Rules." It's rare to see Gronkowski get a free release off the line anymore, and when he does, he'll almost universally see bracket coverage from an underneath defender and a safety who cheats toward his side over the top.
In the constricted area of the red zone, where Gronk's size has typically been a mammoth advantage, that kind of commitment has had deleterious consequences for his scoring production. In the past month, Gronkowski has scored a pair of long touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, but otherwise has been held out of the end zone. In fact, Brady's favorite red-zone target has essentially been invisible in that stretch, especially in comparison to his torrid start to the season.
|Rob Gronkowski Red-Zone Production|
|Weeks 1-7||Weeks 8-11|
|% of NE Targets||31.8 %||13 %|
For Gronkowski to have just a single red-zone reception the past month is frankly unacceptable. It's no coincidence that the Patriots ranked second in red-zone touchdown percentage after Week 7 (71.8 percent), but have since converted just 55.6 percent of their red-zone drives into touchdowns.
In this specific matchup, we can expect Gronk to see lots of man coverage from Ward, whose hit infamously tore Gronkowski's ACL back in 2013. Ward was generally locked in solo man coverage against Bears tight end Martellus Bennett last week and played a terrific game, limiting Bennett to a season-low two catches and 26 yards. Ward's combination of size, speed and ball awareness was on display throughout that game.
The above play was a well-designed seam route in the red zone which should have resulted in a Bennett touchdown, but Ward foiled the play with a nice leaping pass deflection, all while staying "in phase" with the receiver and avoiding a pass-interference call. In order to throw different looks at Ward and the Broncos defense in general, New England may want to consider sending Gronkowski in motion into stack sets. A similar pre-snap concept helped spring him for his 76-yard score against the Giants two weeks ago.
Most likely, the Patriots are not going to run the ball with any measure of consistency in this game. Denver is second in yards allowed per carry (3.5) and ranks ninth against the run by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.
In two games against the Broncos as a member of the Patriots, LeGarrette Blount has carried the ball a grand total of seven times for 19 yards. Blount will get more of an opportunity in this game, but he doesn't have the speed or agility to escape speedy and physical linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan.
The Pats will likely need some type of horizontal element in this game. Amendola being available would obviously help, and perhaps running back James White sees more run after scoring on half of his touches against Buffalo.
No receiver has actually done consistent yard-moving damage against the Broncos yet this season. Calvin Johnson had seven first downs against them, but was limited to 77 yards and no touchdowns. Only two players—Travis Benjamin and Marquess Wilson—have even cracked 100 receiving yards on Denver.
This isn't meant to build the Broncos up into some infallible modern-day version of the 1985 Bears. But in truth, Denver provides the Patriots less margin for error than any opponent New England has faced, at a time when the Pats' own injuries are already reducing the margin for error. At this point, the Patriots best plan of attack might be to design basic man-beating concepts—for example, rub routes—and see if they can scheme their way down the field.
Defensive Game Plan
Defending the new Osweiler-led Broncos offense begins with stopping the run. Despite never leading by more than one possession, Denver ran the ball on over half its offensive plays last week. This is highly indicative of how the Broncos would prefer the game to flow, especially now that Gary Kubiak is able to run his preferred zone-stretch run schemes.
Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson were both clearly more comfortable last week, combining to run for 170 yards on 4.7 yards per attempt. The Broncos run game had been static operating from the shotgun or pistol that Peyton Manning preferred, but Hillman and Anderson were much more impressive going downhill. In particular, the blocking from the tight ends on the end of the line was an underrated key to the ground game's success.
Owen Daniels and the recently acquired Vernon Davis were both on the field for over 70 percent of the team's offensive snaps against Chicago, per Pro Football Focus. Though both over-30 vets have seen their receiving skills dwindle in recent seasons, both possess the intelligence and three-down skill sets necessary to make Kubiak's multi-tight end personnel packages work.
Consequently, this will almost certainly be a base-package game for the Patriots defense. New England still won't have Jamie Collins, whose quickness and ability to knife through gaps would have been a huge asset against an outside-zone team. Denver's blocking scheme will provide a big test for the likes of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks, all of whom will need to maintain gap integrity inside to allow New England's linebackers to chase the ball-carrier without an offensive linemen coming to down-block them out of the play.
The Pats did face a similar type of scheme against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5 and were generally successful in holding the Cowboys to 100 rushing yards on 4.1 yards per carry. Subtracting quarterback runs, Dallas' running backs actually averaged 4.0 YPC, well below Dallas' seasonal average of 4.3 YPC. In fact, since allowing over 4.0 YPC in half of their first six games, the Patriots have yet to allow any team to cross that mark in their last four contests.
If the Patriots can contain Hillman and Anderson, they won't need to deal with too much mystery in Denver's passing game. The Patriots will face the problem of staying disciplined against play action, as the zone-stretch concepts naturally lead into play-action bootleg passes, another time-tested Kubiak staple.
In his first start, Osweiler went 20-of-27 for 250 yards, good for a robust 9.3 yards per attempt. Many of his chunk yards came off play action, such as this tight end dig over the middle, a classic beater against single-high safety coverages.
Despite his yards-per-attempt figure, the Broncos didn't ask Osweiler to push the ball downfield, as he attempted just a single pass which traveled over 20 yards in the air. Nevertheless, he generally appeared composed and competent in his progression reads. For example, on this third down in the two-minute drill, Osweiler came off his first read (Screenshot 1) to deliver the ball to Davis for a first down through a tight throwing window (Screenshot 2):
It may not look like a relatively complicated read, but since Denver doesn't run many route combinations, Osweiler's reads aren't necessarily so clearly predefined. Identifying which receiver is winning his isolation route is a tricky task for a first-time starter, though Osweiler did not appear overwhelmed, albeit against a subpar Chicago secondary.
Osweiler's target distribution was rather telling. Though Thomas received a team-high eight targets, Davis and Daniels combined for 11 targets, the most for a group of Broncos tight ends this season.
The tight ends in Kubiak's system have traditionally played an integral role in both the passing and running game. On multiple occasions, Denver ran a version of this tight-end screen against the Bears:
Daniels initially faked as if he's staying in to block. Subsequently, when Osweiler sold the play-action fake, Daniels slipped out of the backfield and had offensive linemen going downfield to block for him. There was a similar version of this in the Chicago game where Daniels was essentially running a play-action boot swap, sneaking out of the backfield while running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
Therefore, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will face a decision on what to do with their safeties. New England has leaned on Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung to play in the slot with the roster's dearth of cornerbacks, but those two would also be logical solutions to stay in the box for both run support and coverage against the tight ends.
Still, given the importance of the tight end to Denver's offense, it might make more sense to move the safeties back into the box and allow someone like Rashaan Melvin to cover slot receivers. It's doubtful Denver will force Osweiler out of his comfort zone to attack a specific matchup; if anything, the Patriots should welcome the thought of the green quarterback constantly being forced off his first read.
New England's coverage simply needs to complement its pass rush, which should on paper have a strong outing against Denver's hot mess of an offensive line. Even while blocking for Manning's quick release for the first 10 weeks, the Broncos rank just 18th in sack percentage at 5.8 percent. Football Outsiders' Ben Muth recently broke down the line's struggles and claimed the unit possessed "the worst balance [he's] ever seen."
That should be music to the ears of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. And while Jones and Ninkovich should win their fair share of matchups on the edge, the tape suggests Osweiler struggled much more with interior pressure. Multiple times, he was late to even recognize that pressure had even arrived before beginning to scramble.
The receiver I circled was Osweiler's first read, and as you can see, he was actually open at the time Osweiler pulled the ball down to try and escape pressure. This is a game where Collins would have thrived—sensing a theme?—on A-gap blitzes, but the Patriots should still consider using that wrinkle with Dont'a Hightower. Osweiler may be more mobile than the statuesque Manning, but he is hardly elusive in the pocket.
Run-first offenses such as Dallas and Buffalo have generally played into New England's hands over the past two months. The Patriots are a defense which could be vulnerable against a quarterback with strong downfield accuracy and a willingness to stretch the field, but that criteria certainly doesn't fit Osweiler at the moment. Thus, for all of New England's problems on offense, its defense should once again be able to keep the Patriots in the game.
Key Players and Matchups
Every week in this space, we'll list two offensive and two defensive players critical to the game plan who haven't necessarily received much attention in the sections above. Not all of these selections will necessarily be the most obvious choices, but each figures to play a key factor in New England's chances of victory.
Scott Chandler: Is this the week Chandler finally breaks out? Patriots fans have been asking that question for weeks, and if the free-agent signing can't distinguish himself amid a group of wide receivers from the cast of The Replacements, it might be time to deem Chandler a lost cause.
However, he did play a season-high 50.7 percent of the snaps against Buffalo, per PFF, though he caught just one pass for three yards. New England will almost certainly lean on two- and three-tight end sets for the majority of Sunday night's contest, giving Chandler and his receiving skill set another shot at extended playing time. For the first time this season, he might get a real chance to show what he can do in a featured role.
Dont'a Hightower: We alluded to Hightower as a potential blitzer in the defensive game plan section, though he hasn't been used much in that capacity this season. However, he remains New England's best run defender, and his physicality in shedding blockers could be critical to helping contain the Broncos running game.
Hightower has played every snap the past two games and will remain the fulcrum in the middle of the defense until Collins returns. As the pressure continues to build on New England's defense to carry more weight, Hightower's versatility will be one of the most important factors to keeping the Patriots' record perfect Sunday.
Bryan Stork: Last season, the Patriots' shoddy offensive line stabilized when Belichick inserted Stork as the starting center. New England went back to its 2014 starter in the pivot last week, benching undrafted rookie David Andrews for the first time all season and playing Stork at his natural center position after he initially played right tackle the past two weeks.
Stork's experience at center isn't going to solve all of New England's problems—dangerous edge-rushers like the one they're facing this week will give them problems the rest of the season—but maybe it's the first step towards finding a five-man combination that works. Stork will have a stiff challenge against Denver's solid defensive line, likely battling against nose tackle Sylvester Williams for much of the game.
Dominique Easley: If interior pressure is going to be a theme of the defensive game plan, then Easley figures to play a prominent role, especially late in the game. The 2014 first-rounder recorded his first sack since Week 6 last week but has been quietly productive as a 3-technique. PFF has him down for 21 quarterback hurries, the third-highest total on the team behind Jones and Jabaal Sheard.
The Denver interior isn't exactly stout in pass protection and could fare worse if left guard Evan Mathis misses the game after injuring his ankle last week. If Easley can have a disruptive game, that will go a long ways towards flustering Osweiler and possibly generating the type of turnover the offense could sorely use at this point.
The stakes aren't really high for New England yet. Even if the Patriots drop this game, they'll still hold a one-game edge over the Broncos and Bengals for home-field advantage. Football Outsiders' playoff odds currently see the Patriots winning the No. 1 seed in just under 75 percent of simulations, while they peg the Pats' odds of receiving a first-round bye at 94.4 percent.
In fact, a loss wouldn't really reveal anything that hasn't been increasingly evident over the past two weeks. New England needs health more than wins at the moment, and if the playoffs began today, the Patriots would not be strong choices to repeat as champions.
Fortunately, New England still has just under two months until its likely first playoff game. However, that rosy long-term perspective doesn't provide many solutions to Sunday's impending contest. Against Buffalo, the Patriots played exactly the kind of game underdogs typically play: They called a conservative offensive game, forced a timely special-teams turnover and held on defensively.
The Pats will likely need to follow that formula again versus Denver, which is hardly ideal. New England should stand a much stronger chance in a potential January rematch, but for this week, the Broncos hold the upper hand.
Prediction: Denver 21, New England 20