The Denver Broncos defense has played well this season at points, with some high peaks like the dominant win against the Dallas Cowboys and some low valleys like the 51-point embarrassment to the Philadelphia Eagles. They’re still good but they haven’t dominated teams as they did in 2015 or 2016, and coming off their worst game in ages they now face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the NFL’s best passing offense, at least statistically.
We went over some of the defensive issues that have led to the fall off in performance this season, all seemingly fixable issues, but the Patriots will be an especially tough test. Winning against them will require great play from the secondary especially up the middle, where the safeties have struggled at times.
Offensively, the Broncos aerial attack will have chances against a Patriots defense that’s allowed plenty of yards though they’ve managed to keep scores down in the last few outings.
Thing is, in Denver, the Patriots have always struggled even in the Bill Belichick era, which means the pressure is on this coaching staff to show they, too, can stifle New England as other Broncos defenses have in the past.
With the season on the line now more than ever, we get into all these matchups to see what we should be looking for Sunday.
The “No Fly Zone” versus Brady
With all due respect to the Seattle Seahawks, it’s hard to dispute the Bronco superiority as a passing defense in the last couple seasons. That’s remained the case this year but teams have also approached Denver differently, aided by early leads allowing them to slash the defense slowly but surely with calculated matchups being attacked. No one’s better at finding your weaknesses and exploiting them than the Patriots.
What’s worked in the past is getting after Brady relentlessly and stopping the run early and often. The Broncos have been okay against the run, aside from their two losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.
As mentioned above, the real issue in this game is the stopping the Patriots in the air and more importantly stopping Rob Gronkowski and their running backs as receivers out the backfield. This has always been the core of this defensive matchup and when Gronk’s been out, things have always been easier for the Broncos.
In 2017, Joe Woods has chosen to leave Darian Stewart out on an island more than a few times, that approach won't work in stopping Gronkowski. The Broncos one defensive Achilles heel has been covering tight ends throughout the last few years and that’s been especially true in 2017 as they’ve allowed 623 yards to opposing TE’s, second most in the league.
What’s allowed the Broncos to have success against Brady and Gronk in the past is a fairly common schematic strategy, bracketing the tight end with help over the top and a defender underneath at all times. This is how, even when spread out wide, the big tight end can be kept at bay, to some extent. In the past, the Broncos lined up T.J. Ward on Gronkowski and had Stewart to help over the top, and while Ward wasn’t always perfect, the strategy worked. Youngster Justin Simmons is likely to get that duty this time, and the second year player will have to rise to the occasion, showing that at least in man coverage against an athlete of Gronk’s caliber he can have an impact. Stewart being used as the deep safety, which is where he’s at his best, will also have to have a big game something he hasn’t really done yet this year.
Another matchup that the Patriots have tried to attack in the past is going after the Denver linebackers in coverage, particularly with their running backs. If this was a point of emphasis for New England in the past, it should be even more so now that they’ve added a few more receiving assets out of the backfield. This is where Brandon Marshall needs to show he’s still a high-end defender when it comes to playing in coverage, and where Zaire Anderson could be severely tested if caught in this type of situation. It’s also where Woods and Vance Joseph will need to show some wits in matching the Patriots moves with adequate personnel, throwing nickel defenders like Will Parks in the mix as another option to cover running backs. With James White and Rex Burkhead, Denver will need to be extremely careful on wheel routes or empty back sets with the RB flexed to the outside. Part of covering the running backs with success in the passing game also comes down to having safety help over the top with an aware last defender who’s ready to make plays on the ball.
[caption id="attachment_98179" align="alignnone" width="638"] In coverage on a linebacker to the near side, Stewart makes a great play on the ball as the deep safety.[/caption]
Re-watching previous meetings between the Denver ‘D’ and New England, it's very telling how much more pressure the Broncos generated compared to this season, especially in the last two games. That’s particularly true on money downs like third-down where Denver’s just not putting on the same type of pressure. That can’t happen against the Patriots and if the rush is a little slower it’ll be up to the secondary to keep coverage tight and precise. An advantage for Denver will be that starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out in this game, meaning Von Miller will get to rush against a backup for the majority of the contest.
The Eagles, presented a big test on third down, and the Broncos were somewhat successful holding them to only 5-of-13 conversions and 2-for-4 on fourth down. It’s how costly the opportunities Philadelphia did convert that ultimately left a mark. Penalties aided some of those plays for the Eagles and that has to stop. Part of the problem was that the secondary wasn't as active in closing on plays and reacting to the ball.
We saw how bad things got against Philly, it could get even worse against the Patriots if the Broncos don't play up to their abilities and come out with a sound game plan.
They have a chance on offense
The Patriots defense has held opponents to an average of 13.5 points per game in their four-game winning streak, so let’s not get too bullish, but there are areas in which the New England ‘D’ can be exploited.
For starters, this might be the easiest game the Broncos offensive line will face all year, as the AFC East foes are lacking in talent up front and have only created 16 sacks this season tied for 23rd in the NFL. If Mike McCoy’s unit can’t block this group, that'll be very telling of how bad things really are.
The Patriots pass defense is also the NFL’s worst, allowing 65 percent of completions and an average of 296 yards per game. Regardless of injuries and who's starting at quarterback, Denver needs to put up points and yards against this group. The Patriots have faced Brock Osweiler several times, so expect a precise game plan to affect Brock's weaknesses.
Just a week ago, Melvin Gordon ran all over this defense and the Los Angeles Chargers averaged 7.5 yards per carry in a losing effort. The Patriots, like the Broncos, also struggle with tight ends, an area in which Denver has to find a way to manufacture some production. Even Football Outsiders' DVOA has the Patriots as the second-worst unit in the NFL behind the Oakland Raiders. All this is to say there are areas to be exploited all over the field even if Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas aren't healthy.