The Broncos defense is a far cry from what it was 2 years ago when Wade Phillips’ unit all but carried the team to a Super Bowl win. They currently rank 18th in the NFL in sacks, 29th in points against, and 31st in takeaways (Wade’s Rams are #1 in takeaways for the record). Despite their struggles, they do still have some strengths on defense. Von Miller is still one of the best pass rushers in the game, and you would be hard pressed to find too many better pairs of cornerbacks than Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. On Sunday night, the Patriots offense did everything it could to avoid the Broncos’ strengths on defense and exploited their weaknesses instead.
As they always do, the Patriots used unconventional personnel alignments to create mismatches against Denver’s defense. In doing so, they all but removed Talib and Harris from the game. You can see exactly how they did this on their first touchdown of the night.
On this play, the Patriots were in “21” personnel. That’s 2 running backs, 1 tight end, and 2 wide receivers. The Broncos were in base personnel in response, which meant that they had the conventional 4 defensive backs on the field (2 safeties and 2 cornerbacks). Base defenses have less speed and coverage ability than sub-package personnel groups. This was exactly what New England wanted.
More importantly, pay attention to how the Patriots distributed their personnel. They aligned running back Rex Burkhead on the perimeter to the left with tight end Rob Gronkowski inside of him. To the right, they put receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola. How the Broncos aligned to this formation would define the coverage and highlight the mismatches for Tom Brady to choose from.
The Broncos responded with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris aligned to the same side of the field over Cooks and Amendola. Safety Darian Stewart aligned on the opposite side of the field over Burkhead.
Safeties don’t normally align on the perimeter unless they are playing man-to-man. The coverage was therefore defined. Now it was up to Brady to choose his best matchup.
On this particular play, with the advantage in Denver’s favor to the right side of the formation (Talib and Harris vs Cooks and Amendola), Brady focused on the left side of the field. He had Gronk running a corner route and Burkhead running an in-route.
The Broncos were double-teaming Gronkowski and had safety help over the top. That left Burkhead 1-on-1 vs safety Darian Stewart. Below, you can see the attention Gronk was drawing as well as the separation Burkhead was able to create out of his break.
The choice for Brady was about as clear as it gets, and the result was an easy touchdown for Burkhead.
This play was a perfect example of what the Patriots did to create so many mismatches and easy completions on Sunday night. By aligning their running backs, full backs and tight ends on the perimeter, they were able to clearly define the coverage pre-snap for Brady and pinpoint the mismatches. This is such a significant part of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ approach on offense. To them, it isn’t necessarily about their #1 or #2 receiving options on the field being better than the opponent’s #1 or #2 cover defenders. It’s about their #3 and #4 options being substantially better than the defense’s #3 or #4 cover defenders. On this play, Burkhead was New England’s 4th-most capable receiver on the field. Yet he was easily able to create separation from safety Darian Stewart.
The unconventional personnel alignments are the means by which the Patriots generate so many mismatches in the passing game. No team in the league has done a better job over the last 5 years of doing this. Most teams will occasionally utilize these types of personnel alignments. No team does it with the level of down-after-down resilience as the Patriots do. No team creates as many big plays from safe and easy throws as the Patriots do. The Broncos defense had no answer on Sunday night. No team has had an answer so far in 2017. We’re not sure any AFC team will this season.