Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Loyalists - Jake and Mike Talk Up AFC Championship Stuff

Every week, two of our bloggers pick each others brains like a couple of zombie baboons - today it's Jacob Bertram from and Michael Hamm from Foxborough Free Press serving up questions for each other in advance of the New England Patriots' Sunday showdown with the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game...

Former Indianapolis Colts' General Manager Bill Polian drafted Peyton Manning in 1998, using the very first pick in that draft on a player that he considered one of the best game managers he had ever seen coming out of college.

At first, that wasn't enough for Colts' fans, who had heard nothing positive about Manning's arm strength and about how he became rattled in college when faced with blitz pressure - how the hell was he going to make the Colts' better when he wilted under pressure and his passes looked like wounded ducks?

That job fell to Colts' new offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who developed an offensive system based on simplicity that ended up as the least conceptually dependent offense in the NFL over Manning's career, relying on a stout running game to set up the play action and a tight end-centric playbook that commanded the attention of defensive coordinators, allowing names like Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon to operate on the intermediate level...

...or as Chris Brown commented in his book, The Art of Smart Football, "By using a small number of personnel groups - typically either three wide receivers and a tight end or two wide receivers and two tight ends - it limited the possible responses from the defense and made it easier for Manning to diagnose it's weak spots."

In other words, Moore saw Manning as the ultimate game manager, taking what the defense gave him and giving the Colts the best chance of winning based on ball security and execution rather than forcing him into a highly conceptual offense where his arm strength and "Happy Feet" would doom him to being an average quarterback, and the Colts to being an average team.

Moore's influence and foresight helped Manning become one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, but it was Polian's twenty years of experience as a scout and personnel director mixed with Moore's track record with "Game Managers" Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell and Mike Tomczak as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator that made Manning's transition into the pro game a success.

This is to take nothing away from Manning, as he holds many appreciable records and has three conference championships and a world title to his credit, but with names like Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai running the football, Manning had an excellent stable of backs operating behind an equally impressive offensive line in which to running the stretch - a staple of the Colts' offense that opened up the field on play action...

...and with names like the aforementioned Harrison, Wayne and Garcon along with tight ends Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark in the pattern, many doubted that he could pull off the same success when he signed with Denver prior to the 2012 season, but John Fox's offensive philosophy mixed with the style of offensive coordinator Adam Gase allowed Manning to have continued success in Denver.

All of that, however, came crashing down when Denver fired Fox and his staff and hired prodigal son Gary Kubiak to lead the Broncos, the former backup to legendary quarterback John Elway bringing with him offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who has worked in Denver before and has been with Kubiac as his offensive coordinator in Houston for three seasons before both were canned by the Texans.

Dennison is more of a down-the-field strategist who ran the show under Mike Shanahan with Jay Cutler as his quarterback in Denver and prefers to have the quarterback with a strong arm be the focus in his offense and uses more of a running back by committee approach and with speedy receivers that can take the top off of defenses.

That is not Manning's game - never has been - and that is a huge reason why he is struggling. Most of his completions this season where he looked like the Manning of old were on intermediate crossers and on comebackers or "Dig" routes, where Manning could place the ball rather than hang the ball up in the air and let his receivers go get it.

Bringing Kubiak in was Elway's manner of dumping Manning for the stronger arm of Brock Osweiller - or starting over with a young fire pisser out of the draft - so Manning's struggles have been more about the system than his declining arm strength, though both combined have the experts feeling like he is done as an NFL quarterback, regardless of success in today's AFC Championship game.
Who covers Gronkowski?

That said, here are today's questions in advance of the game:

Aqib Talib is Denver’s best cover corner, but the Broncos’ secondary will take a huge hit if number two corner Chris Harris either can’t go or is playing with just one arm due to a left shoulder injury. It is supposed that Harris will try to go, but if he is ineffective and the Broncos are forced to go with slot corner Bradley Roby on the outside, will the Patriots try to go over the top on him, or will they be patient and stick to what works for them?

Jake: I have no doubt that if Josh McDaniels feels he can take an advantage of a matchup outside , he will attempt to do so. That being said, in former match ups, even with Chris Harris healthy, Julian Edelman has been a complete terror for the Broncos in the middle of the field. This will be the same, if not worse for the Broncos, if Harris can't play or is hampered.

Roby has shown promise as a young corner for Denver, but will draw a big matchup if he is forced outside into man coverage against the Patriots. I look for Tom to know exactly where he is at all times.

What in your mind is the biggest difference for the Patriots going into the AFC championship against the Broncos compared to when they played them last?

Mike: Health.

When New England played in Denver in late November, they did so without Julian Edelman, without Danny Amendola on offense and then lost Rob Gronkowski late in the game – and the Patriots still had not taken the training wheels off of James White…

On defense, they were without Jamie Collins, then lost Dont’a Hightower in the second quarter. All together, that is a lot of veteran talent lost that the Broncos took advantage of in many different respects – and still, the Patriots had a two score lead going into the fourth quarter.

With everyone back, even if no one was back, all the Patriots have to do is to play their game – do their job – and hold onto the football to win this game. If they lose, they will have beaten themselves.

Has Peyton Manning reached the end of his career? Please elaborate…

Jake: Peyton Manning looks to have reached the end of his career physically. Mentally, especially if the Broncos lose this Sunday, I do not believe Manning is ready to walk away. I do however think this will be his last year with the Broncos, no matter what happens. His mind is a sharp as ever, and in my opinion Peyton will look to another franchise to continue his career after this season.

What does that mean to the Patriots? Well his former offensive coordinator is now the head coach down in south beach. I'm not saying... but I'm saying.

When Hightower left the game with an injury during the regular season against the Broncos his presence was immediately missed. Why is he so important to the run defense?

Mike: At 6’ 3” and 280 pounds, Hightower is the ultimate front seven hybrid. He has the size and burst to fill gaps on the interior run game like a “Mike” linebacker and the same size and burst to effectively rush the quarterback in the passing game – then he displays the speed and lateral agility to cover sideline to sideline, setting the edge with power.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, as he was kind of a swiss army knife at Alabama, playing middle linebacker, defensive end and even reducing down to the under tackle.

Where he was missed most of all was on the weak side edge where the Broncos went for seven yards a pop in the running game, compounded by the fact that strong side linebacker Jamie Collins missed the game with an illness – so folks should expect a different looking run defense from the Patriots this time around.

Manning is pretty much a stationary target for the Patriots’ pass rush, even though the Broncos’ line has done a decent job of protecting him – if Manning is getting hammered early or is ineffective at moving the ball through the air, at what point does Kubiak pull him for the more mobile and stronger-armed Osweiller?

Jake: The only scenario I can see Manning get pulled is if the interceptions start piling up. Logically we know Brock started earlier this year and got a win against the Patriots, so going to him would seem to be a smart choice. However, pulling Manning in maybe his last game, would be controversial to say the least.

In the end, coach Kubiak, if things go south, will be faced with pulling of of the all time greats. It won't be an easy decision. If I had to guess, Manning will take care of the football and it will be up to the Patriots offense to put the game away this Sunday.

With Peyton Manning not the same QB he once was how does what Bill plans this week differ from let's say the game in 2013 as it comes to defending Manning? 

Mike: In 2013, Manning went off on New England’s defense, but the methodology from two years ago still applies today.

Both John Fox, who was the coach of the Broncos in 2013, and current head coach Gary Kubiak believe deeply in the benefits that running game has on an opposing defense, regardless of its effectiveness. In the 2013 game, The Broncos running game was being stuffed initially by the Patriots but Fox kept pounding the ball and the running of Knowshon Moreno made the difference for them on their two touchdown drives, and late in the game to run out the clock.

It was an ugly game, but something that Patriots’ fans have to remember is that despite all of Manning’s numbers – he was 32 of 43 for 400 yards – the New England defense rose to the occasion four different times to stall Denver drives, holding them to field goals instead of touchdowns by forcing Denver into 3rd and long attempts, making plays in the passing game to thwart scoring chances.

And still, despite crazy numbers for the Broncos offense, the Patriots were handicapped by an offense that was missing key players, much the same as we saw this season in the Patriots overtime loss to the Broncos.

The game plan should be pretty much the same this time around: stop the run no matter how many times they run the ball, and put Manning in 3rd and long situations where he has to look down the field at moving targets, then rely on them to come back to the ball and make a play for the sticks.

To read all about the Patriots from an old-school twist, be sure to follow us on Foxborough Free Press and on twitter at @ffpblogger, and for a fresh, modern view of the team go to and follow Jacob on twitter as well at @gamegentsdotcom !

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