Monday, December 19, 2016

Patriots' Defense, Running Game Key Old-School Win Over Broncos

The Denver Broncos knew coming into Sunday afternoon's game against the New England Patriots that they had to start fast on offense in the first quarter and finish strong in the fourth.

Mission accomplished - problem is, they forgot about the second and third quarters.

In reality, the Broncos did not collectively space out a full two quarters of a crucial matchup against their perennial nemesis, they just ran into a New England defense that is rounding into championship form at precisely the right time.
Dion Lewis carries against the Broncos

Denver moved the ball well between the twenties (where have we heard that one before?) in the first quarter, racking up 180 yards of total offense, then moved the ball well again against New England's three-deep prevent zone in the fourth, adding 103 yards to their impressive first quarter total - the problem was - and still is - that in between, the Patriots' defense forced five consecutive three-and-outs...

...allowing just 19 total yards in that span, smothering a Denver offense that did nothing to help themselves and made whatever the Patriots offense could muster against the Broncos' magnificent defense sure to hold up in the frigid cold of xxx field at Mile High.

As always against Denver, points were tough to come by, but the sixteen scored by the Patriots offense was more than enough to counter the lone field goal surrendered by New England's defense in a game reminiscent of last January's AFC Championship game, but with one very important difference:

This time, the Patriots took the points that were there for the taking, and didn't try to force the issue.

New England trailed the Broncos by eight points after Broncos kicker Brandon McManus'31 yard field goal made the score 20-12 with ten minutes left in that game - The Patriots but found their rhythm, going 63 yards in 11 plays and facing a fourth-and-one from the Denver 16 yard line...

...the try to Julian Edelman falling incomplete. They got the ball back with four-and-a-half minutes left and went 57 yards in eight plays and went for it on a fourth-and-six from the Denver 14, a pass to Rob Gronkowski falling incomplete - two long drives into the Bronco Red zone, but no points to show for it.

So when the Patriots got the ball back one last time with just under two minutes left, they needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie the game, but had they taken the points on the previous two possessions - assuming Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski would have made two chip shot field goals - they could have been driving for a game-winning field goal instead.

The Patriots lost that game when a two-point conversion try intended for Edelman fell harmlessly to the turf after a Gronkowski touchdown - so when Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick was faced with similar decisions against the Broncos on Sunday, albeit under different circumstances, he proved that he learned his lesson.

This time, his Patriots took the points and, this time, the Patriots came out on top.

Back in January, Belichick said that he didn't think his offense could move the ball well enough to just take what points he could get - and lord knows that there was plenty of evidence early in the game to support that school of thought - so he gambled on fourth down and paid the price.

Not this time, however, as he called on Gostkowski twice deep in Broncos' territory - including a fourth and goal from the three yard line that had to be plenty tempting.

The 16-3 final score tells a story that is more an encapsulation of the Patriots' fortunes for as long as Belichick and Brady have been running things, that the offense finds ways to score just enough  against elite defensive units, while his defenses set that bar for the offense with a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that relies on clutch plays and generating turnovers to get them off the field.

That's a formula that has gotten them to five consecutive AFC Championship Games and a couple of Super Bowls in that time span, and it's what has gotten the Patriots to a 12-2 record this season, winning their eighth straight AFC East division title and earned them their seventh consecutive first-round playoff bye.

The prescription for Denver's defense is to run the ball, then run the ball, then run the ball again to keep their elite pass rushers at bay, and sprinkling in play-action passes to keep the secondary honest - and Brady administered their medicine in the form of taking the snap and turning to hand the ball to Dion Lewis eighteen times and to seventeen times to LeGarrette Blount and 39 times overall...

...that compared to just 32 Brady throws - a far cry from the insane 56 he offered up in January, giving the Broncos only half as many opportunities to beat on him.

Brady's 177 passing yards is his lowest total for the season by a wide margin, but was more than offset by the 136 rushing yards produced by the running backs, with 95 of those courtesy of Lewis, whose short-area elusiveness made him a better choice as the featured back on Sunday, though Blount's bruising style was responsible for a two yard touchdown blast, the only six-pointer of the afternoon.

Denver's defense played like the top-five unit that they were entering the game and held New England's offense to a five-of-seventeen performance on third down conversions, not to mention their lowest output of yardage since Brady returned from suspension ten weeks ago - a fact not lost on Broncos' safety and resident goon T.J. Ward, who was spot-on in his analysis.

"We did dominate them," Ward told, "But when they don't have to pass, 'No Fly' kind of gets eradicated, so we got to try to make plays in other areas."

Ward was speaking of the Broncos' run defense, ranked next to last in the league, and how that problem area affects the secondary, which the players refer to as a No Fly Zone. "teams don't even have to throw the ball on us. If they're not in a position to throw, it's hard to get an interception, and even when they run, their backs have two hands on the ball, so it's hard to make a play."

It's called ball security, and the Broncos are in a dry spell in creating turnovers - which is enough, obviously, to cause some frustration and apparently some divisiveness in the locker room. Ward has a point, because creating turnovers is how the Broncos raced out to a 6-2 record in the first half of the season, but are now 2-4 in games since as turnovers have taken a nose dive.

In games where the Denver defense forces a turnover, they are 8-2, and in games where they don't, they are 0-4. That's what happens when a defense is forced to live or die by the turnover. By contrast,
New England is 4-2 in games when the defense doesn't force a turnover, and 8-0 in games where they do.

Obviously, the Patriots' defense has a lot more going for it.

A staple of all Belichick game plans is to stop the bad guy's running game and to not let any of their speedy wide receivers get behind them, even at the expense of some intermediate routes picking up big chunks. That philosophy causes some bandwagon jumping during games, but just like on Sunday afternoon, it tends to work itself out through the course of a game.

For instance, in the five games since a turnover-fueled debacle against the Seahawks that dropped the Patriots to 7-2, the defense has allowed just one team to rush for over 65 yards - the 49ers dropped 122 on them, mostly in garbage time - and held those teams to an average of 65 yards per game on the ground, and only fifty yards per game in their last four.

In the passing game, it's more of the same. Since the Seattle game, they have allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for just 225 yards per game and just a 52% completion rate - so it goes to figure that since teams can't run against the Patriots' defense and only complete half of their passes for pedestrian yardage numbers, those teams become frustrated and impatient, and that's when the Patriots take charge.

The Broncos offense did very little against New England's defense, even considering that quarterback Trevor Siemian completed 25 of 40 pass attempts on Sunday and the running game generated just 58 yards on 17 attempts.

"We're having fun" said cornerback Logan Ryan, who picked off Siemian in the red zone to stop Denver's lone threat of the afternoon, "we're getting after the quarterback and playing great defense. We feed off of each other."

Ryan paused for effect, then smiled. "Plus, we've been doubted all year. You all (The media) said we sucked and we heard all about the Broncos secondary and their defense, so we wanted to come out here and prove something."

The defense did prove something, that they are improving by the week. Perhaps not against top-tier offenses, but they can't help who they are scheduled against, nor can they control how those teams perform against other teams - all they can do is to game plan for each opponent and take away what they do best.

The Patriots protracted success should tell anyone who questions their talent or resolve that it's a working formula, that not every team can be attacked or defended the same way, and that it's all about matchups - and on Sunday afternoon in Denver, the Patriots did what they do more than any other team in the National Football League.

They won.

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