W2W4: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

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When the Broncos Pass the Ball:

Peyton Manning hadnot been bad for Denver this season: he has been downright atrocious. The numbers are downright shocking as he has completed just 59% of his passes (193 of 322) for 2,180 yards (5.0 yards per attempt) and has just 9 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Of course, the end of 2014 was a precursor to the season-long breakdown by Manning (see below):

From Pro-Football-Reference.com

With Manning’s 5 of 20 passing performance for 35 yards and 4 touchdowns performance against Kansas City, he was replaced by Brock Osweiler. Osweiler went 14 of 24 for 146 yards with a touchdown and interception in relief of Manning and then went 20 of 27 for 250 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first career NFL start in his fourth NFL season.

Osweiler should get the dangerous Emmanuel Sanders back in the starting lineup. Sanders has 46 catches for 639 yards and can lineup anywhere on the field and run every route. He is quick, smart, and strong in the air going for the football. After the catch, he makes small gains into big plays much like Julian Edelman does.

On the other side is six-foot-three athletic and fast wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is coming off seasons of 94 receptions for 1,424 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, 92 receptions for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, and 111 receptions for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. Through 10 games this season Thomas has 71 receptions for 875 yards but only 2 touchdowns.

Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Having lost tight end Julius Thomas in free agency the Broncos brought in Kubiak favorite Owen Daniels. Daniels has been less than hoped for and Denver swung a deal to acquire veteran tight end Vernon Davis from the San Francisco 49ers. With Kubiak preferring multiple tight ends in his offense, Davis makes a solid receiving complement and had six catches for 68 yards last week.

Osweiler in place of Manning is the x-factor. As far as the passing attack, the Patriots have had plenty of experience with the Kubiak/Dennison offense. Kubiak’s passing offense plays off the running game and play action. Stopping the passing game goes hand-in-hand with slowing the running game. Stretch plays and bootleg isolation passing plays are staples of the offense and defenders biting on play action opens space downfield.

New England has allowed just two 300 yard passers all season with just Ben Roethlisberger (topping 300 in garbage time) and Eli Manning (topping 300 yards on his “almost” game-winning drive). Of course, some (like me) would argue that they were the only top-echelon quarterbacks New England has faced in 2015 (sorry, Tyrod Taylor). Brock Osweiler is still an unknown quantity at this point.

The Patriots should be able to generate pressure on the Broncos with their strong pass rush. Defensive end Chandler Jones has emerged as one of the top pass rushers this season and will give left tackle Ryan Harris problems. Left guard Evan Mathis has struggled with injuries in the past few weeks. Right tackle Michael Schofield will be put under pressure on the right side with defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard.

New England has multiple options for defending the Broncos in the passing game. Cornerback Malcolm Butler typically takes the top option and leaves Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty/Duron Harmon to double-cover or bracket the larger receiver. With his quickness and closing speed, Butler may be best suited for covering Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and leaving Demaryius Thomas to Ryan and company.

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Unless Denver falls far behind early, they will likely again go with the two-tight end and two receiver look this week. Denver has struggled to find a third wide receiver who can contribute regularly (Bennie Fowler has 12 receptions, Jordan Norwood has just 12, Andre Caldwell has 8, and Cody Latimer has made Aaron Dobson look like a solid draft pick with just 5 receptions this season.

Latimer actually has played better with Osweiler at the helm, but he was also filling in for Sanders and did not come close to approximating his performance. Look for Denver to have tight end Virgil Green in his customary role as blocking tight end on running downs and Daniels as the receiving tight end with Vernon Davis.

New England has Patrick Chung to handle one of the tight ends or third wide receiver. Chung has actually improved upon his fantastic 2014 season and has been a savior on defense covering tight ends, slot wide receivers, and filling the role of a linebacker in the running game. With Jamie Collins doubtful, the Patriots again have one less coverage option and they will have to get creative.

Last week the Patriots had Tavon Wilson playing at nickelback (and playing well) one week after being a DNP-CD. Maybe Wilson plays a key role again in coverage; Maybe linebacker Jerod Mayo can have another strong game in coverage as he did last week against Buffalo; however, someone will have to slow the two-tight end passing attack of the Broncos on Sunday night.


Next: When the Patriots Run the Ball