In the less sexy matchup of this game, the depleted Patriots offense takes on the equally-as-banged-up Broncos defense. Sounds exciting, right? Rob Gronkowski’s absence has turned the Patriots into a running football team. It’s also taken away most of the downfield component of their passing game. The Broncos, on the other hand, have lost their best defensive player in Von Miller, their best corner this season in Chris Harris, and a huge stopgap on their defensive line in Kevin Vickerson. Additionally, with Champ Bailey battling a foot injury all season, his role has been reduced and altered.
Due to all of their injuries, it’s safe to say that Denver’s defense has changed significantly since they faced the Patriots. Last Sunday against the Chargers, they used lots of zone coverage right from the start, a departure from the style they played earlier in the season. With the Chargers trying to possess the ball using their running game and short passes in order to keep Peyton Manning off the field, Denver’s defensive philosophy worked. Through the first 3 quarters they plugged running lanes, sat on short routes, and the pass rush was ultimately able to get enough pressure on Rivers to keep him from seeing the occasional open receivers that were there.
However, later in the game, with San Diego trailing by 17 and Chris Harris knocked out with a knee injury, the Chargers finally started spreading out their offense and attacking downfield. Broncos cornerback Quentin Jammer was a major liability in coverage as he was burned several times for big plays (both in man and zone).
Down the stretch, the Broncos attempted one vanilla coverage after another. They didn’t disguise, didn’t disrupt receivers, and relied on their pass rush to try and stop San Diego’s offense. This style of play does not work in the NFL anymore. Passing games are too sophisticated to be beaten by straight forward and static zone coverages. Only teams that get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their front-4 can utilize this approach. Broncos Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio was relying on the Broncos’ Von Miller-less front-four pass rush to stop the Chargers. The results were plain to see.
After two seemingly easy touchdown drives, the Chargers continued picking apart Denver’s defense until they were inside their 20-yard line with a little over 4 minutes left to play. With San Diego threatening to make it a 3-point game, Del Rio finally got aggressive. He called three straight blitzes, which led to a 5-yard pass and 2 hurried incompletions. On those hurries, Rivers had open receivers but did not see them (that’s what blitz pressure can do to a quarterback). The Chargers settled for a field goal to pull within 7 but never saw the ball again.
The lessons from this game for Denver are clear. They are not talented enough in coverage and their pass rush isn’t effective enough to play straight up on defense.
The Patriots do not have much of a downfield passing game anymore, so this is a different matchup for the Broncos than San Diego was altogether. New England mostly utilizes a short passing game, comprised of crossers and option-routes with slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They are at their most dangerous on in-breaking routes, where Brady can get them the ball quickly and they can get upfield right away.
With Chris Harris out it would make sense for Champ Bailey to move from the nickel corner into the number-2 slot. The Patriots use a lot of big personnel sets with only 2 receivers or less, forcing teams to matchup with their base defense (2 corners). I’m sure Denver would rather have Bailey out there than Quentin Jammer or Kayvon Webster, two DBs who have looked lost at times this season. Furthermore, the Patriots’ passing game is inside the numbers, which is where Bailey has been playing since late in the season. It wouldn’t be much of a departure from what his duties have been if he’s out there on all 3 downs this Sunday.
The keys for Denver in the passing game will be to take away the inside from Edelman and Amendola. Whether they decide to do this with man-press coverage or bracket coverage with linebackers helping out, they cannot allow Brady to put the ball on his receivers quickly. They must make him throw outside where the ball is in the air longer and the defense has more time to react, at very least limiting yards after the catch. Whatever they do, they must try to take away the easy plays and avoid using vanilla coverages.
However, the most vital matchup on this side of the ball will be on the ground. The Patriots have morphed into a power running team since Rob Gronkowski’s injury. LeGarrette Blount has been outstanding, as he’s shown significantly improved foot quickness (very impressive considering his size) and big-play ability.
The Patriots are now a team that sticks with the run. Not only are they wearing teams down, eventually leading to big plays on the ground, but they’re keeping themselves in manageable 3rd down situations. This is perfect fit for their short and quick passing game. Additionally, as we saw last week, they’ll be patient and stick with the running game until the defense starts to cheat. Then they’ll use play action and pick up 50 yards with a designed shot downfield behind an overaggressive safety.
LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen have played great for New England in recent weeks. But it isn’t just the running backs that are making the Patriots’ rushing attack go. The offensive line has been phenomenal of late. Their double teams at the point of attack have been overwhelming – they physically dominated the Colts’ front-3 a week ago. They’ve consistently been able to get to the 2nd level and clear out linebackers, creating even bigger running lanes.
The matchup to watch on this side of the ball will be Broncos nose tackle Terrance Knighton vs the Patriots interior offensive line. Knighton is less moveable than anyone on the Colts’ defensive line. If he can hold his ground and force LeGarrette Blount to stop his feet, the Broncos have a chance to limit New England’s rushing attack. Broncos linebackers and the D-line as a whole are much more geared to stop the run than Indy’s front 7. The winner of the battle on this side of the ball could very well be the biggest factor in deciding the winner of the game.
Ultimately, this is as good of a matchup as you can ask for in an AFC Championship game. Aside from all the off-the-field media-driven drama, you have two great teams fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl. Denver has arguably the best passing game in the history of the league. The Patriots are arguably the most suited they’ve been to win a championship since their 2004 squad, which featured a great defense and running game. Both the Broncos and Patriots have battled abnormal amounts of adversity and constantly changed throughout the season as a result. The winner of this game will be well deserving of a trip to the Meadowlands.