All week long, you’re likely to spend your time hearing talk about the upcoming AFC championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots as if it boiled down to a one-on-one matchup or one factor being responsible for whatever the outcome will be.
Julian Edelman’s return means a Patriots win! Chris Harris’ shoulder injury means the Broncos secondary is in trouble! Patriots O-line figured out how to stop the pass rush last week! Every dropped pass is Peyton Manning’s decline! And the one you will hear more than any other, BRADY VS. MANNING FOR THE FINAL TIME, THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER GREAT QB RIVALRY!
That’s just a short list, of course, but my larger point is that you can’t really fit this conference title matchup into a neat little box with just a couple of factoids and trivia tidbits that explain everything about what will happen. We know that football is a complex sport and, while every sports reporter wants to boil a game down to one single play (I should know, I’m a sports reporter in real life), multiple factors play into the outcome.
What happened the last time the Broncos and Patriots met cannot be boiled down to the absence of any one player or who was taking snaps behind center, and what will happen this week cannot be boiled down to what happened in the divisional round. Some people made the mistake of believing that Green Bay was back in fine form after its convincing win against Washington, but while its divisional round game with Arizona was close, the Packers weren’t exactly in “fine form.” Others thought that Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t be able to throw a ball more than 10 yards because he couldn’t do it after injuring his shoulder against Cincinnati, but there was a difference between how Roethlisberger could throw the ball immediately after the injury and how he could do it with the Steelers limiting him in practice and allow him to heal. (Of course, you may insert your Toradol jokes here.)
If we want to examine what to expect when the Broncos and Patriots play each other this week, we need to do more than boil it down to any one factor. So allow me to look at some factors that may not get talked up as much, and we’ll do it without portraying this as BRADY VS. MANNING, EVERYONE ELSE EXPENDABLE EXTRA.
The Broncos-Patriots matchup this week can’t be simplified as how the Patriots were missing Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola last time and those two alone will be the difference makers. Let’s go back to the regular-season meeting and review everyone who either didn’t play at all, started but left the game and how many snaps they actually played, and those who did play but were lost for the season after the matchup.
We’ll start with the last category to find out just how valuable these players really were. For the Patriots, the two who have since been placed on season-ending injured reserve are running back LeGarrette Blount and linebacker Jerod Mayo, also known as two players who are known as key contributors based on past reputation but haven’t been that key this season. Blount averaged three yards per carry in the regular-season meeting between the Broncos and Patriots and didn’t factor that much into the outcome. When Dion Lewis was healthy, he was a bigger factor to the Pats’ run game, plus he could run routes and catch passes, which Blount does not do well at all. Meanwhile, Mayo had fallen down the depth chart behind better players such as Jamie Collins and Jonathan Freeny. Neither player is that significant to the Patriots success and they aren’t likely to be missed.
Switching to the Broncos, backup safety David Bruton Jr. played 88 percent of the defensive snaps and 70 percent of the special teams snaps in the last matchup. We’ll get to the reason why Bruton played so much in that game, but it’s important to remember that Bruton has been a vital part of the safety rotation, more so than Mayo was to the Patriots LB rotation. The Broncos have used Josh Bush in his place and, while Bush has his moments, he’s not as consistent as Bruton. The other player gone is backup safety and return man Omar Bolden, whose absence is more likely to be felt on punt returns. The likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood and Shiloh Keo haven’t been anywhere near as good as Bolden. But one might say, as long as the Broncos don’t muff a punt return, they should be OK.
The first category covers players ranging from those who went to season-ending IR before the season even began (e.g., Broncos OT Ryan Clady) to those placed on IR during the season before that Broncos-Patriots matchup (e.g., Patriots OT Nate Solder). These players don’t really have a place in our discussion, though. Dwelling on “what might have been” with a player who was lost for the season prior to that game is pointless, because your team’s mindset should be “next man up.”
It’s the second category that holds more relevance, so let’s briefly review those players. We’ll start with the Patriot players who never took a snap: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Jamie Collins. Edelman’s absence certainly didn’t help, but Collins was just as significant, given how good he is in run defense and pass coverage. And then comes the players who started but left the game at some point. Rob Gronkowski’s departure late in the game gets talked up the most, but he played 85 percent of the snaps. The bigger loss was arguably Donta Hightower, who played just 41 percent of the defensive snaps before leaving the game.
Last week, Hightower sat out the final series against Kansas City, but that was likely because the Patriots figured they’d let him rest for a series and only send him out if they had no other choice. Collins played 48 percent of the defensive snaps before exiting the game with a back injury, and teammate Chandler Jones only played 40 percent of the snaps. Jones is certain to take the field Sunday, and I would expect Collins to do the same, even if he is listed as questionable on injury reports.
But the Patriots weren’t the only team missing key players in that regular-season outing… and, no, the Broncos’ list does not solely include Peyton Manning. The big name who didn’t play a snap and whose play has been good this season was DeMarcus Ware. It’s funny how pundits want to overlook Ware’s 7.5 sacks in 11 games and pretend his presence couldn’t counteract the presence of at least one absent Patriots player. Then come the players lost during the game. The Broncos originally wanted to rest guard Evan Mathis because he had an ankle injury, but a knee injury to guard Louis Vasquez changed those plans. Vasquez played just 30 percent of the snaps and Mathis was force to play with that bad ankle the rest of the game. The comes the defense, in which safety T.J. Ward made an early exit, lasting just 15 percent of the snaps (this is why you saw so much of Bruton). Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams also departed early, taking just 12 percent of the snaps. Ward’s absence was just as big of a deal as Hightower’s. It wasn’t like the Broncos were at full strength because of the narrative that Peyton’s absence was addition by subtraction.
So what does this mean for this week’s matchup? Regarding the Patriots, having Edelman and Amendola back in the lineup will definitely help. However, it’s not simply about how good the Broncos are at covering those two, but how much the pass rush can disrupt what Tom Brady likes to do.
Because the NFL is a passing league, there is a tendency to overstate the importance of a good secondary. But if you look at the teams that are known to have good cornerbacks and/or safeties, they share another trait: They can rush the passer well. Losing a key member of the secondary can be an issue, but you can make up for it if your pass rush stays intact. When the Patriots played the Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl, Cliff Avril’s departure with an injury meant Seattle’s pass rush took a hit and gave Brady more time to find open receivers. When the Pats played Kansas City last week, Justin Houston was limited to nine snaps and, once again, the depleted pass rush gave Brady more time. One must remember that, when a team loses a key pass rusher, it has to adjust its schemes to compensate, meaning more blitzes are likely. That’s exactly what the Chiefs did last week, and that’s exactly what plays into Brady’s strengths, because he can recognize blitzes and capitalize by finding a player who isn’t covered well.
Take away a cornerback or safety and, sure, it can have an effect, but not as great as losing a pass rusher. And that brings us back to DeMarcus Ware, who is likely to be a bigger key than the injury status of Chris Harris. Ware’s presence means a better chance for the Broncos’ pass rush to disrupt Brady’s rhythm and thus ease the burden on Harris, simply because Brady doesn’t have as much time to get the pass off.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Broncos can just sit back and let the pass rush do its job. But to understand what the Broncos need to do to contain the Patriots receivers and tight ends is to understand what the Broncos really struggled with last week when they met up with the Steelers and how that approach will not work with the Patriots.
The Broncos’ struggles with the secondary last week aren’t simply about Chris Harris and his shoulder injury. They are about the Broncos’ decision to play so much zone coverage when they weren’t comfortable with it. The reason the Broncos made the switch was because of the Steelers’ speed at the WR position. But that game revealed enough to show that zone coverage isn’t something the Broncos should regularly do, particularly when it comes to the Patriots, and that brings me to this.
PLAY ZONE COVERAGE AGAINST THE PATRIOTS AND YOU ARE SCREWED.
Pardon the all caps, but the point about zone coverage cannot be stated enough. What makes the Patriots receivers and tight ends so good is not their speed, but their ability to run routes and translate that into additional yards after the catch, or to confuse defensive backs and get open for scores. Rob Gronkowski’s most overlooked ability is his route running, and while he certain brings a lot to the game, I would argue his route running tops the list. Route running definitely tops Julian Edelman’s talents and Danny Amendola has gotten better at this, too.
When a team runs routes well, you can’t stay in zone coverage all game long. Man coverage is what you need to run and, more importantly, your defensive backs need to have the mindset that their first priority is to tackle the receiver in question, and don’t go for the ball unless you jump the route or the receiver makes a mistake (and yes, even Patriots receivers make mistakes; they are only human, after all). An aggressive mindset of going for the football will cost you against the Patriots. A disciplined mindset of tackling the receiver first will at least limit the Patriots YAC.
This brings us back to T.J. Ward, who has been disciplined when it comes to coverage and doesn’t think about going for broke on every play. He’s not going to shut out Rob Gronkowski, but he should limit Gronk’s YAC. His skill set should also allow him to see plays develop and make key defensive stops, which will be just as important to limiting Patriot drives.
Flipping over to the offense, we have spent our time overanalyzing Peyton Manning’s arm strength that it’s becoming a cliche. Peyton’s skills have declined, but arm strength is not the sole reason why he hasn’t been as good as he was in his prime. It’s a combination of wear and tear on his body, plus the normal decline a quarterback experiences as he gets older, of which arm strength is one of several areas. Footwork, the ability to move well in the pocket and touch on the ball can also be affected by a normal decline. The talk about Peyton’s arm strength, honestly, is less about Peyton and more about a general obsession with that asset.
With that said, the bulk of the drops the Broncos had last week were not about Peyton, contrary to what certain pundits want to believe. They have more to do with receivers thinking too much about taking off downfield before they have secured the ball. That’s particularly true when you consider that the opportunities for “catch and run” plays haven’t come often for the Broncos because of Peyton’s decline. But that doesn’t mean Peyton shouldn’t attempt the throws. It means when Bronco receivers see a stretch of open field, that they can be patient to get the ball first, then get whatever YAC they can from that point. Or if they know a defender is approaching or nearby, to not think about the defender and keep their mind on securing the football.
But while Peyton’s physical skills are in decline, his mental skills are not. His ability to identify blitzes gives him a dimension than can still allow him to frustrate opposing defenses. One throw last week aside (the throw over the middle that William Gay nearly intercepted only for Emmanuel Sanders to swat the ball away), Peyton didn’t try to fit a lot of throws into tight windows. Perhaps he is understanding his limitations and his one bad throw came because he knew he had to take a chance or the Broncos might not win. But as long as he doesn’t try to fit throws into tight windows early, he should be OK.
So if we take a look at what the game will really boil down to, it would be the answers to these questions.
* Will Peyton Manning continue to understand his limitations and not to try to squeeze every throw into a tight spot?
* When Broncos receivers and running backs get open for easy catches, will they think about catching the ball first and not think so much about yards gained?
* Will the Patriots offensive line really hold up against a Broncos pass rush that has their key players healthy?
* How much will the Broncos pass rush account for what Tom Brady is able to do and how often he hits receivers and tight ends?
* Will the Broncos defensive backs remember to tackle the receiver first and not be too aggressive for the football?
* How much will Jamie Collins be able to play? If he is limited, what does that do to the Patriots’ run defense and pass coverage underneath?
It’s those little things that are going to matter more than the one-on-one matchups and comparisons to what happened in the divisional round. They obviously aren’t the only questions to answer, but they will tell the tale far more than what anyone has to say about You-Know-What-Matchup.