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Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots

Part 1 of our team-by-team breakdown of this weekend’s NFL playoff action.

Tim Tebow

To try to break down what to watch for in Brady-Tebow II, we naturally went back to Week 15 and took a long look at Brady-Tebow I. The Patriots traveled to Denver and won that day, 41-23, but the game itself was a lot closer than the final scoreline. A few key mistakes from the Broncos and lucky bounces for the Patriots were enough to swing an early Denver lead into a three-score victory, but the Broncos were competitive for the vast majority of the game and actually outplayed the Patriots for most of the first half.

It’s easy to watch Tom Brady or Tim Tebow and note their respective strengths and weaknesses, but this game is going to be about more than their innate abilities. It’s going to be as much about the threat of what Brady and Tebow can do, because these two defenses are going to have to scheme ways to take away their respective strengths before a single ball is snapped. In particular, these quarterbacks are going to manipulate the opposing team’s safeties so severely that success or failure in that task could be enough to determine the game. Sure, Brady vs. Tebow is a great storyline. Just make sure you’re ready for Chung vs. Bruton, too.

Denver on Offense

If you watched the Broncos-Steelers game closely this past Sunday, you’ll remember that the Steelers made a very deliberate scheme choice. Despite the absence of starting free safety Ryan Clark, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was willing to risk the possibility that Tebow would hit one of his receivers for a big play if it meant that he could keep strong safety Troy Polamalu in the box. Polamalu often run blitzes, swooping into the backfield in the hopes that he can make a big play, but the Steelers used it to excess on Sunday. It slowed down the Denver running game, which averaged fewer than four yards per carry after hitting for 4.8 yards a pop during the regular season, but it exposed the rest of the secondary and allowed Tebow and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to open up possibilities down the field.

That stood out most, of course, on the 80-yard touchdown that sealed the game on the opening play of overtime. Before the first-and-10 play, the Broncos lined up with a lone running back and two tight ends. They motioned wideout Eddie Royal into the slot. Innocuous, sure, but the Broncos had run the ball 23 of 26 times on first down, often preceded by similar pre-snap motion out of the same personnel grouping. They had used this exact personnel group with the same motion nine times before in the game. On seven of those nine times, the Steelers had responded by pushing backup safety Ryan Mundy (Clark’s replacement) into the box, anticipating a run. This time, of course, it was not. Mundy got caught in no man’s land after Tebow play faked, and with Demaryius Thomas running a deep post versus one-on-one outside coverage from cornerback Ike Taylor, who was expecting help from Mundy, the result was a game-winning touchdown pass.

The formula here isn’t anything new. Run the ball, run the ball, go play-action at an opportune moment and see if you can get a big play. It places a constant strain on the opposing team’s safeties because it forces them to guess right, over and over again, until they exhibit clear tendencies. That’s when a sound offensive coordinator can exploit the safeties. Once his team lost starting defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to first-half injuries, LeBeau didn’t believe that his front seven could stop the Denver running game. He had to bring extra help into the box, and that extra help was Polamalu and Mundy. He hoped that Taylor could handle Thomas one-on-one, but 204 yards later, it was clear that LeBeau’s hopes were in vain.

What makes scheming even more difficult is Denver’s adherence to the run, particularly in unlikely situations. When defensive coordinators are playing teams that rely heavily upon play-action, they love third-and-a-lot because it takes the play-action out of the game. Who cares about a run fake on third-and-10? Nobody’s ever going to run the ball in that situation! Well, the Broncos do. Tebow’s ability to scramble means that the other team has to at least entertain the possibility of an improvised run, but the Broncos will also call designed running plays on third-and-medium. They did that several times against the Patriots, including a Tebow counter on third-and-9 that went for 19 yards. If you’re not safe from the threat of a running play on third-and-9, when can you be safe?

When you have a big lead in the second half, that’s when, and the Broncos have mostly avoided that situation this season. Against the Patriots, they were actually dominant on offense before three second-quarter turnovers killed their momentum. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots mostly chose to keep their safeties deep and allow them to react to the play call once they saw a handoff or a dropback. That’s partly because Bill Belichick (rightly) has far less faith in his cornerbacks than LeBeau does in his, but also because the Patriots were playing a wide receiver at safety. During their first game against the Broncos, New England started backup wideout Matthew Slater at safety because their regular starter, Patrick Chung, was injured.1 Chung is one of the few above-average players on the New England defense when he’s healthy, so his presence should be a huge upgrade for Belichick & Co.


If you’re wondering why one of the league’s model organizations had to resort to a backup wide receiver as their starting safety, you’ll want to read this article from October.

The team was also without middle linebacker Brandon Spikes for that game, and Spikes could also play a huge role in improving the defense’s performance. He wasn’t replaced by a punter or anything, but in his absence against the Broncos, the New England run defense was abysmal. The Broncos averaged better than eight yards per carry against the Patriots, and it wasn’t a figure inflated by one long run or some meaningless late yardage. In the first half, Denver carried the ball 20 times for 182 yards, and 13 of those runs produced four yards or more. They scored on a brilliant nine-yard run from Tebow and a breezy 32-yarder from Lance Ball, who took over for most of the first half when Willis McGahee suffered a leg injury. One thing to note on the Ball touchdown is the blocking, notably the trap from right guard Chris Kuper. Most of Denver’s successful carries in this game came to Kuper’s side of the field, and after breaking his leg in Week 17, he’ll miss this game.

Denver will also be without a true fullback, as starter Spencer Larsen missed the Steelers game before being placed on IR. We theorized that Denver would start rookie Austin Sylvester at fullback in what would have been his first NFL game, but Sylvester was a healthy scratch and the Broncos went mostly without a fullback. They did throw third-string tight end Virgil Green back there on a number of plays, one of which resulted in a blown block and a nasty sack of Tebow. Finally, the Broncos will be without wide receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a knee injury at the hands of James Harrison last week; his replacement will be former Patriots special-teamer Matt Willis, a significant downgrade.2 It seems natural to think that the Patriots would find it easier to stop Thomas without Decker, but all of Tebow’s big plays this past Sunday came after Decker left the game. The Broncos had a lot of success against the Patriots on play action throwing the skinny post to Thomas, and after his exhibition last week, the Patriots might be willing to sacrifice a few completions for first downs if it means avoiding the big play.


Eddie Royal will also see more snaps, but he’s been more of a utility receiver.

One final injury note for those of you who remember Week 15: New England will be without Andre Carter, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in that game. The Patriots really struggled to get pressure on Tebow during that first game, and it won’t be much easier without Carter around.

The Broncos didn’t punt once during the first 29 minutes of the game, and the only way the Patriots were able to stop them during the first half was through a series of unfortunate turnovers. With a 16-14 lead halfway through the second quarter, the Broncos promptly fumbled the ball away inside their own territory on back-to-back drives, spotting the Patriots offense the ball with a short field. Then, after the teams traded punts inside of two minutes, New England punted the ball to Quan Cosby with 14 seconds left. All Cosby needed to do was get out of the way for the game to go to halftime, but instead, he tried to field the ball inside his own 20-yard line and fumbled. The Patriots recovered all three of the fumbles and turned them into 13 points, giving them a 27-16 lead. Brady also recovered a bad snap on his own 11-yard line on the first drive of the third quarter, so the Patriots recovered four of what would eventually be five fumbles on the day, each of which had a dramatic impact on the game. That the Patriots were able to recover each of those four amounts to randomness, and there’s no reason to think it’s likely to happen again.

Patriots on Offense

You’re probably a little more familiar with how the Patriots put pressure on opposing safeties. During the first game between these two teams, they got some help, as the Broncos started a pair of backup rookies at safety, second-rounder Rahim Moore and seventh-rounder Quinton Carter. Slot cornerback Chris Harris made it a trio of rookies in prominent roles against the Patriots, and Brady took advantage of them all. Strangely, Moore has the best pedigree of the three, but this past Sunday, Harris remained in the nickel and Carter started for an injured Brian Dawkins and Moore was active without seeing a single snap.

While the Broncos dull the senses of opposing safeties with run after run, the Patriots do it with short passes to their receivers before taking shots down the field. The Broncos spent a fair amount of the first game in two-deep coverage with their safeties, hoping that it would limit Brady’s opportunities down the field and allow them to double-star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Naturally, Brady adapted and took advantage of what the defense allowed him, and he did so by manipulating his young charges deep in the defensive backfield.

You know that someone has to have been confused if Chad Ochocinco ends up scoring a touchdown, but that’s exactly what happened for the opening New England score of the game. With Wes Welker in the slot and Ochocinco split outside of him, the Patriots went with an empty backfield and ran a classic two-man route combination. Welker ran a quick out, and Ochocinco faked running a slant before releasing outside for a go pattern. The announcer blames cornerback Andre Goodman and suggests that the veteran got beat, but it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t alone on the play. Welker beats the slot cornerback with his out route, and for some reason, Carter chooses to try to jump Welker’s out pattern, even as Ochocinco’s running right by him. If Carter stays at home and gets over toward Ochocinco, the Patriots might get an eight-yard gain on a pass to Welker, but there wouldn’t be much more. Instead, Carter guesses wrong and goes for the pattern he’s seen a million times on film, and Ochocinco has an easy score.

The Patriots are so difficult because they force the opposition into impossible choices like that on virtually every play. The Broncos made it a clear priority to try to eliminate Gronkowski from the game, and they were able to limit him to four catches on five targets for a total of 38 yards, but that meant that Aaron Hernandez got to run free versus Harris and other overmatched members of the Denver secondary. He finished with a team-high nine catches, 11 targets, and 129 yards. Denver will have to make a difficult choice this weekend: Do they let Hernandez do that to them again? Or do they try to eliminate him from the game and do their best with Gronkowski instead?

Their best way to take out Gronkowski will be to get an excellent pass rush. Denver only sacked Tom Brady twice in 36 dropbacks in Week 15, and one of those sacks was on the aforementioned bad snap.3 We talked a bit last week about how Denver’s pass rush had slowed down after Von Miller’s injury, but the Broncos showed some signs of life this past Sunday by sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times in 45 dropbacks. That’s a sack rate of 11.1 percent, nearly double the 6.5 percent rate Denver had exhibited since Miller’s injured thumb went into a cast before Week 13. It’s worth noting that in two of Brady’s three notable recent playoff losses, the defeats by the Giants in 2007 and the Jets in 2011, the opposing team was able to sack Brady five times. Those are the only two games over the past seven seasons, playoff or regular season, in which Brady was sacked five times.4


This set up a third-and-24 inside New England’s 10-yard line that the Patriots were able to convert when defensive end Robert Ayers, for some bizarre reason, committed an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty as part of his traditionally useless pass rush. It was a killer penalty that cost the Broncos about 50 yards of field position, since New England drove the ball to midfield before punting. Ayers had two sacks against the Steelers last Sunday, but that’s nearly half of his career regular-season total (4.5) over three seasons. Come on.


Part of this is the game context (Brady’s more likely to be sacked when he’s throwing more passes, which is more likely to happen when his team is far behind), but these five-sack games both happened in close contests, so it’s not like the opposition was teeing off on Brady in a blowout.

The Broncos will get back safety David Bruton for this game, but veteran Brian Dawkins is out with a neck injury that could be career-ending. The Patriots were without tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver Deion Branch in Week 15. Branch will be healthy, but Vollmer is a likely game-time decision.

Special Teams

The Broncos are in a different world when they leave Denver, as Matt Prater goes from being a dominant weapon to serving as an adequate kicker. The Broncos cut Cosby nine days after his boneheaded mistake and have gotten superior returns out of Decker since, but Decker’s unavailability means that Eddie Royal will handle the punt returns on Saturday night.

New England has the league’s fifth-best special teams, thanks to great work from their specialists. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and rookie punter Zoltan Mesko have two of the league’s strongest legs at their respective positions, and a group led by Slater provides effective coverage downfield.

The Prediction

A lot of the factors that led us to lean toward a possible upset last week for Denver are gone. This week, they’re the team with more injuries. They’re the ones on the road in a hostile environment. They’re at the special teams disadvantage. Remember last year, when the Seahawks beat the Saints at home and then traveled to Chicago with their chests puffed out and got stomped? The Broncos might very well be about to emulate that. They should be able to score some, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to really stop the Patriots. New England 34, Denver 20.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

The Fabulous and the Flops of Wild-Card Weekend
Tim Tebow Silences All
Cashing Out Some Preseason NFL Bets

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