W2W4: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
By Hal Bent
When the Broncos Run the Ball:
Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Head coach Gary Kubiak took the job in Denver bringing in offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and his West Coast offense. Kubiak’s offense is well-known to head coach Bill Belichick from defending it when Kubiak was the offensive coordinator in Denver (1995 through 2005), head coach in Houston (2006 through 2013), and offensive coordinator in Baltimore (last season).
In the past, Kubiak and the Ravens put up 428 yards and 31 points on the Patriots in the Divisional Playoff round last year. In 2013, a bad Houston team scored 31 points and put up 385 yards of offense on the Patriots’ defense. Of course, the 2012 Texans and their “Letterman Jackets” fiasco was a Kubiak/Dennison offense which went nowhere in the regular season and postseason.
The Broncos are going to be trying to run the ball on Sunday with no Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler making his second career start. The Broncos have been held under 70 yards rushing six times this season and lost two of those games. The other four games saw the Broncos run for over 140 yards and they predictably won all four games. Under 70. Over 140. There is no inbetween. The Broncos run and win or struggle to run and struggle on offense.
Denver’s two-headed rushing attack features last season’s breakout star C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Anderson struggled mightily at the beginning of 2015 finding his role in a new offense. He is strong, low-to-the-ground, and a one-cut-and-go rusher expected to be a power back. Anderson has just 383 yards rushing in 10 games, a 3.8 yards per rush average, and just one touchdown.
Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Hillman has been the lead back in Denver as the 2012 third round draft pick has three 100-yard rushing games on his resume. Hillman was a better fit to the Kubiak/Manning hybrid that Denver tried to run early in the season with a compromised offense featuring Manning in the pistol alignment. Hillman has a career high 528 yards rushing so far in 2015.
New England has turned their run defense from a perceived liability early in 2015 to a strength as the calendar noses towards December. Without Manning, the Denver offense is built off zone blocking in the running game and play-action and bootleg action from the quarterback coming off those stretch plays and run fakes. Not being able to establish the run is a big impediment to the Broncos, particularly with a young quarterback.
The Patriots preach containment on defense and they will be tested Sunday night. Defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard will need to be cognizant of the backs in the running game and keep them from gaining the edge. The trio has done this well (except for in week one) and have done a great job of funnelling the running backs back inside where defensive linemen and linebackers are waiting for them.
New England has strong depth at defensive tackle with massive veteran Alan Branch occupying blockers and being difficult to move. Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga are big and tough to run on. Rookie Malcolm Brown has been showing improvement in the running game each week and Dominique Easley–usually on the field on passing downs–has been effective blowing up running plays with his interior penetration.
With Jamie Collins just returning to practice, the Patriots cannot count on him to play Sunday night–even if he does play it will not be the full game and it will not be at the expected level. New England needs Jerod Mayo to continue his resurgence from last week.
The veteran had a huge game in his first extended action versus Buffalo and made his presence felt in the running game like he did five years ago. He and Dont’a Hightower will be expected to fill cutback lanes and get off blocks to make plays to contain Denver’s rushing attack.
The Patriots need a coordinated defensive effort with the defensive ends setting the edge, funnelling the running backs inside where the tackles should be keeping the offensive linemen from getting to the second level. There, the linebackers (and safety, if necessary) need to be making the tackles and keeping the Broncos from picking up consistent chunks of yardage and opening up play action opportunities.
New England slowed a strong Bills rushing attack last week. It may be a different style and blocking scheme they face, but the Patriots should be able to continue their impressive run of defensive play in the running game.
Next: When the Broncos Pass the Ball