Stymied might be a relative term. Peyton Manning still threw for 438 yards on Sunday. However, the Broncos were by no means the well-oiled machine that has operated smoothly for most of 2014. They turned the ball over twice, were miserable on 3rd down, and had virtually no running game. The Patriots knew they couldn’t completely shut down the Broncos. Instead, they had to win in the critical moments of the game.
Nothing Going on the Ground:
First and foremost, the Patriots stopped Denver’s running game right in its tracks. The Broncos haven’t really relied on their subpar rushing attack this season, but 43 yards on 17 carries isn’t going to win many games no matter who is at quarterback. The score kind of dictated the amount of rushing attempts, as the game got out of hand in a hurry in the 2nd quarter. However, the real reason for the lack of a ground game was defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He was disruptive from the get-go, getting quick penetration to ruin the design of the play and even shedding blockers to make tackles. Denver had no ability to handle him up front in the running game.
Looks the Same:
The Patriots used an interesting approach to stop Manning in the passing game. Instead of moving defenders around before the snap to try and disguise their coverage and prevent Manning from getting a clear picture, they predominantly aligned in single-high coverage (one safety in the middle of the field). They did everything out of only a handful of similar looks, which meant that Manning couldn’t find many indicators of what the coverage would be. It wasn’t until post-snap, and sometimes late after the snap, that the picture became clear, and this kept Manning from getting into his normal rhythm. Sometimes, with the exception of the free safety and one extra defender, 5 Patriots would be matched on 5 Broncos, and they would follow them everywhere on the field. This was man-free coverage. Other times, they’d drop into a normal cover-3 zone. Still other times, they would have the outside and slot corners lock up man-to-man on their respective receivers, while 3 defenders inside would play zone vs any short routes in the middle of the field.
Post snap, the Patriots did a good job of not tipping their coverages. For instance, sometimes their corners would take their initial steps as if they were going to follow receivers across the field like they would in man coverage. They would then fall off into zone. The Patriots also brought some zone blitzes where a defensive end would drop out into coverage at the snap. This is what happened on the Rob Ninkovich interception. The coverage ultimately fooled Manning.
More importantly, the Patriots didn’t align the same defenders in the same spots. So while the overall alignment of the defense may have predominantly been the same pre-snap, the personnel wasn’t. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner didn’t just cover the same receiver on every play. They didn’t just play man-to-man to the receiver to their side only. There was no discernable pattern. The reason for this is simple. Often times, teams will align in unconventional personnel alignments to help define the coverage. For instance, sometimes a tight end will line up on the outside of the formation with wide receivers inside. This is actually something the Broncos do quite often. If a linebacker or safety aligns over the tight end, this is generally a strong indicator of man coverage. If a corner takes him, it’s generally zone. The Patriots varied how they responded to formations like these, and it prevented Manning from being able to quickly decipher the coverage based on personnel alignment. Again, this didn’t necessarily fool Manning all day, but it was enough to disrupt the smoothness of the offense, and that kept Denver from being quite as successful.
One thing about this approach is that it results in lots of mismatches that don’t favor the defense. The idea is to hope that the overall disguise causes enough indecision on the part of the quarterback that the mismatches can’t be taken advantage of too regularly. It also works in conjunction with the talent level of the Patriots’ personnel. The Patriots clearly have confidence in the coverage abilities of their defensive backs (not named Revis or Browner) as well as their linebackers in order to live with the occasional mismatches.
Physical With Receivers:
One of the most noticeable aspects of New England’s game plan was the decision to get hands on Broncos receivers. Patriots corners, safeties, and linebackers jammed receivers at the line, and often stayed on them until they were 5 yards downfield (sometimes more). Linebackers sometimes waited in the middle of the field and hit any receivers running short crosses. This overall approach served the main purpose of helping to disrupt the timing of the Broncos’ passing game. It worked well.
The Patriots weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush without blitzing or stunting. For instance, on their only sack of Manning, a critical 4th down in the 2nd quarter, Akeem Ayers stunted inside around Vince Wilfork. This resulted in a clean path to Manning despite the Patriots bringing just a 3-man rush. These stunts and blitzes helped to get enough pressure on Manning at the right times.
Both the Broncos and Patriots will learn from this game for the next time (hopefully) they meet. The Broncos in general are an execution offense. They don’t fool defenses. They are predicated on receivers lining up at the snap so that Manning can decipher the defense and then bombard them with great pass after great pass. However, on Sunday, Denver’s stationary offense allowed the Patriots to play the coverage that they wanted to play. If the Broncos had used some motion, they could have prevented the Patriots from feeling as secure in running their disguised coverages.
An up-tempo approach, which the Broncos have had lots of success with in the past, would also have helped keep the defense on its heels. Manning and the Broncos seemed to be too often caught up in getting into the right play and using the entire play clock to do so. This allowed the defense to know when the snap was, and as a result, it enabled them to more easily get into their post-snap disguises. As stated earlier, let’s really hope we get to see this matchup again this season to see how both teams adjust.