WHEN DENVER HAS THE BALL:
It is amazing that in light of all the Patriots-Colts/Patriots-Broncos games in the past seven or eight years that analysts, media, and fans still bring up the idea of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick being in Peyton Manning’s head. When Manning was defeated soundly in the past, it had more to do with Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, et al than any schemes. The best schemes in the world mean nothing without the players intelligent enough to run them and athletically gifted enough to make an impact.
The strength of Peyton Manning has always been beating the defense before the snap. His arm strength may not be what it once was, but his accuracy throwing the ball more than compensates. With weapons on offense like wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, the team has compensated for a running game with the mediocre Knowshon Moreno and disappointing rookie Montee Ball.
Obviously, New England will be daring the Broncos to run the ball. With injured defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo out for the season, it may be tempting for Denver to take the run when the Patriots present it. However, as much as New England would like Denver to run, the Broncos are unlikely to consistently run the ball until later in the game with a lead.
The Broncos offense is a match-up nightmare for defenses. A defense never stops Denver’s offense, they merely slow them down a little. Blitzing Manning works occasionally, but for the most part he will diagnose and destroy a blitz. The Denver offensive line is hardly special, but with Manning so quick in his reads and getting the ball out on a three step drop so often, they can afford to have sub-par blockers like Zane Beadles and Chris Clark starting.
Like facing Tom Brady, the key to disrupting the rhythm and reads is to get pressure up the middle with a four man rush. Unfortunately, outside of Cincinnati (pre-Geno Atkins injury) and Detroit (when they feel like playing) there are very few defensive fronts capable of generating consistent push up the middle without blitzing. New England, without Kelly and Wilfork, most definitely is not bringing a big rush with their defensive tackles.
With defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones being the primary pass rush, the Patriots need to get creative. Going around the edge with pressure is negated by Manning get rid of the ball before even an unblocked end can get near him. Kicking Jones inside can help, as can dropping Ninkovich in coverage and overloading the middle with pressure. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have the best opportunity to disrupt the passing game with inside pressure; however, vacating the middle of the field leaves a big hole for Manning to exploit.
There is no easy game plan. The Patriots need to stay in sub packages with multiple defensive backs to cover all of the pass receivers of Denver. Any linebacker pressure requires additional rushers dropping into passing lanes to disrupt, knock-down, or cover areas in the zone where Manning may not expect them. A few big plays by the defense and turnovers may be enough to get a few desperately needed turnovers or stops to get and keep a lead early on in the game for New England.
Last year, the Patriots gave up three touchdowns to Manning, but special teams created a turnover for New England and the defense forced and recovered two fumbles. Creating turnovers and winning the turnover battle has been a big part of New England’s success on defense. Different looks, different rushing lanes, different coverages, and mixing and matching defenders is important. The best strategy, however, is keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning as much as possible.