Saturday, November 1, 2014

Patriots' resolve, Mother Nature likely to cause Broncos' setback

The interior line of Stork, Wendell and Connolly are the key to a New England victory against the Broncos on Sunday

In its most fundamental form, football is a simple game.

If you can run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense, your odds of winning a football game are incrementally better than a team that relies primarily on the pass.  That said, the Denver Broncos can do it anyway you want.

They can beat you passing.  They can beat you running the ball.  They can beat you on special teams and they can beat you with defense.  Statistically, the Denver Broncos are the best team in the National Football League and their record details the same, so why is it that the Las Vegas sports books have the juggernaut Broncos as just a three-and-a-half point favorite this Sunday?
Covering pass catchers like Denver's Julius Thomas is why Browner is here

It could have something to do with the fact they are playing the New England Patriots.  And also for what Mother Nature has waiting for them.

Much the same as their meeting in Foxborough last November, the forecast for Sunday afternoon calls for intermittent rain and snow showers that will decrease by game time, leaving a raw, gusty wind for both teams to deal with - and while Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady may be the best bad-weather quarterback in league history (certainly he is currently), Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning has a long, well-documented history of having his problems in blustery weather.

Forget about how cold it's supposed to be - low 30's with a wind chill in the low 20's - because Manning has won in the cold.  What he hasn't been able to do is to win when the northeast wind blows, even with a good running game.

You see, Manning throws what can only be described as a "wounded duck", an ugly, wobbling floater that somehow has enough force behind it that he is deadly accurate with in the right conditions, but in the gusting wind, it becomes the equivalent of a Tim Wakefield knuckleball, and you never really know where those are going to end up.
Revis should play primarily to Manning's right to take away his comfort zone

Case in point: Last November Manning and the Broncos jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead in a driving wind, capitalizing on fumbles by the Patriots' offense on three consecutive drives to open the game that gave Manning excellent field position, and with their defense returning one of those fumbles for a score, Manning was able to turn and hand off to his backs, whose 137 yards more than doubled the Broncos' passing yard total for the first half.

So when the Broncos went into the locker room with a 24-0 lead at the half with nearly 140 yards rushing, many thought the game was over because now all Denver had to do is run the ball and kill the clock, New England's offense not even getting a sniff of the end zone...

...that is until Brady and his laser guided missile launcher of an arm easily sliced through both the wind and the Denver secondary to score 31 consecutive points on five consecutive drives to start the second half.  So now down 31-24 late in the contest, Manning was forced to the air, his first pass toward his tight end Jacob Tamme ended up in the hands of New England corner Aqib Talib.

Of course, Talib was called for defensive holding and Manning dinked and dunked his way down the field - aided by timely runs from Knowshon Moreno - and the Broncos were able to sustain one second half drive to tie the score in a game where the Patriots eventually came away with a 34-31 overtime thriller - a game that, in reality, would have been a resounding Patriots' victory had they been able to hold onto the ball.

Lost in all of this is the fact that when Manning was forced to the air in the second half, he completed only 9 of 20 wobblers for 73 yards, all but 20 of those yards coming on that desperation drive to tie the game - the fact of the matter is that the weather affected Manning more than the Patriots' pass defense did that day, and now he's coming back to Foxborough to face the the same weather, as well as a much improved Patriots' secondary.
Lafell could find roomover the top with the Broncos focused on Gronkowski

That said, Denver also appears to be better, and on both sides of the ball, though certainly not infallible.

The Broncos stumbled out of the gates to begin the season, taking narrow home victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs before dropping an overtime contest at Seattle, the wins over the Colts and Chiefs not decided until late in the game - but in coming off their bye week after dropping the game to the reigning World Champion Seahawks, John Fox' charges have come out swinging.

In those three games before their bye, Denver looked like anything but a juggernaut as they could neither run the ball effectively, nor stop the run, which naturally lead to their passing game struggling as well as their pass defense.  But the Broncos came out of the bye like a pack of greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit and stand at 6-1 after winning four straight...

...blowing out an excellent Cardinals' team at home before struggling with the Jets in New York, returning home and routing the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers in succession by ramping up their running game by nearly fifty yards per game and reducing the yardage given up on the ground by a pornographic sixty yards per game.

Much of that improvement can be attributed to the fact that in those four games, the Broncos raced out to a big lead and forced their opponents to the air - which with the quality of the Broncos' pass rush was like signing a death warrant for the opposing quarterback, so the first key for the Patriots is to not fall behind and, if at all possible, to score early to keep their running game valid...
Gronkowski should be the Broncos' main focus

...because the Broncos can be run on if a team sticks to their running game, which doesn't happen very often.

Abandoning the run has been a common theme for Broncos' opponents, as none of their foes since the bye have reached the 20 carry plateau, the most yardage gained a mediocre 62 yards by the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago - and almost all of it straight up the gut, where Denver is surrendering close to four yards per carry.

On the edges, however, teams have had next to no success at all as the speedy Broncos' linebackers set a mean edge that is allowing less than a yard a carry. Those kind of numbers do not bode well for a Patriots' team that don't necessarily have the speed to gain the corner to begin with, but for the Patriots to have a chance against perhaps the most complete team in the National Football league, they are going to have to run the ball, and keep running right up the gut regardless of level of success.

This will be no small task with nose tackle Terrence "Pot Roast" Knighton and his imposing 6' 3", 335 pound frame about as stout a run stopper as the Patriots will encounter this season.  Knighton anchors a line that includes the slightly smaller (6' 2", 315lb) Sylvester Williams as the rush tackle with Derek Wolfe and former Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware as the book ends...

...while Von Miller, perhaps the most dynamic and versatile strong side linebacker in the league, setting the edge and rushing the passer from the left, where it will be tasked to Patriots' right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to slow him down.  One thing that could lean in the favor of New England is if Miller is called upon to help cover New England tight end Rob Gronkowski at times, depending on the formations.
Gray has the bulk and power to have a big game against Denver

Nate Irving and speedy weaksider Brandon Marshall fill out the remainder of the linebacking corps while former Patriot Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are the corners and Rahim Moore and the hated T. J. Ward mop up at safety.  Smallish rookie Bradley Roby has been handling the nickle duties and figures to see a lot of Julian Edelman out of the slot.

In order to implement their power running game against such a talented unit, the Patriots have two choices.  The first is to go heavy with tight ends, presumably Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui at or close to the line and James Develin flanking Brady as the up back, with either first year load Jonas Gray on veteran slashback Shane Vereen toting the rock and seeing how far New England gets by punching the Broncos' front seven in the teeth...

...or by spreading the Broncos out by going with three wide and Gronkowski set as the flanker and Brady working from a single back set, forcing Denver into a nickle - or perhaps even a dime - and running up the gut against a lighter box.

The Patriots don't have to gain four yards a carry to be successful in this scenario, they just have to keep calling running plays, as just the threat of the run should slow down Denver's speedy sack artists long enough for Brady to find his receivers down the field.  This would be the more prudent choice as Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has had success in the past spreading out Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's defenses.

The only question after that is how do the Broncos defend the Patriots weapons amongst the pass catchers, with the smart money being on Talib and possibly a linebacker or safety drawing Gronkowski, Harris on Brandon Lafell and the aforementioned Roby on Edelman, while Marshall deals with Vereen circling out of the backfield - that or a combination of zone and man coverages.

But make no mistake and be under no delusion, the Patriots must establish their running game to take the Broncos to the mat, and in the interior offensive line of rookie Bryan Stork at the pivot, bracketed by tough as nails veterans Dan Connolly at left guard and Ryan Wendell at right, New England may have found the proper combination to do just that

As for Denver's offense, it is certain that they will try to establish the run against New England's much-maligned run defense, because they really may have no choice.

The bad weather deficiencies that Manning exhibits is not some turgid story line, it is fact.  Forget the cold weather, below 40 and below 30 crap, because that's what it is.  Manning's real nemesis is the wind - and if the tempest comes through the man-made win tunnel that is Gillette Stadium at any speed greater than twenty miles per hour, expect to see the Patriots get very physical with the Broncos' pass catchers and attempt to keep them in a phone booth...

...which wasn't going to be that much of a stretch to begin with, as Manning and his ducks rarely fly much past twenty yards downfield - his average of 85% passes going to his underneath receivers is the greatest percentage in the league - throw a stiff breeze into the equation and what he has going is the equivalent to a salmon swimming upstream with hungry bears lying in wait.

Another thing that the Patriots are no doubt aware of is Manning's penchant for throwing to his right, as 70% of his short throws end up going to that side, which makes left edge-setter Rob Ninkovich one of the big keys to the game

Expect the Patriots to employ a mixture of man coverages off the line with the linebackers holding their ground in a zone read, lurking underneath and ready to knock the chocolate out of any Broncos' receiver that manages to get loose in the scrum - and a scrum is exactly what it will be.

With Manning handicapped by Mother Nature and being pressured up the middle by a combination of Big Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones and either Casey Walker or newly signed Alan Branch, and with Patriots' cornerback Darrelle Revis holding down the right side of the field and Ninkovich pressuring from the same, Peyton will be forced out of his comfort zone...

...whether that means enough for him to make a mistake or two to the left remains to be seen, but it worked like a charm last November, when Logan Ryan had one of his best games as a pro in picking off Manning on a short dump off to Eric Decker, and had three other passes defended.

Decker is gone, replaced by speedster Emmanuel Sanders - and Ryan will likely get the call on him off the line, while prudence dictates that Revis cover whomever lines up on the right - most likely Demaryius Thomas - to ensure that Manning won't have it easy going to that side, and a well-rested Kyle Arrington hammers aging slot receiver Wes Welker as well as adding a physical presence in run support.

All of these matchups void each other out, which leaves the Broncos' most lethal weapon, tight end Julius Thomas, matched up with big, violent corner Brandon Browner - and if Browner can get his jam on with Thomas off the line and keep him in the proverbial phone booth, that will disrupt Manning's timing with him and perhaps give the pass rushers a chance to get to Manning.

The trio of Wilfork, Jones and Walker/Branch should be enough to counter Denver's running game up the middle and with the defense collapsing on anything going right, the onus falls on rookie defensive end Zach Moore to set a solid edge to the left, so that either linebacker Akeem Ayers or Jonathan Casillas can blow up screens and handle running back Ronnie Hillman swinging out into the flat.

Sound complicated?  It's really not so much, as both teams rely on fundamentally sound execution and, with all things being equal, so are the two combatants.  But everything isn't going to be equal if Mother Nature shows up as anticipated, and if that indeed happens, it gives New England a big edge.

No comments:

Post a Comment