W2W4 in the AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots vs Denver Broncos
By Hal Bent
When the Patriots Pass the Ball:
In the first matchup this season the New England Patriots were not fully healthy and now the big question is how does Denver cover Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and Danny Amendola? Unlike the previous game in Denver where New England had to return to their two tight-end look as they tried to compensate for an offensive line which was trying to get back on track after injuries.
Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer are healthy and manning the tackle spots after missing time with injuries and center Bryan Stork was just getting back to the center position in November. Guard Josh Kline is healthy at left guard while Shaq Mason has been the starter as of late at the other guard spot.
Rob Gronkowski is healthy and remains a matchup problem for Denver. Safety T.J. Ward may have ended his 2013 season with a low hit to the knees while in Cleveland and fellow safety Darian Stewart almost ended his 2015 season with a low hit, but he will remain as a headache for the Broncos linebackers and secondary. With Ward his over-aggressive play often leads to big plays in the secondary while freelancing and trying to make the big hit rather than the sure tackle. Ward will have a role covering Gronkowski, but Stewart, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan also will have key roles.
Von Miller is arguably the best pure pass rusher in the NFL regardless of the sack numbers he puts up. He gets his sacks seemingly each week and is near impossible to block with a single tackle. The return to health of DeMarcus Ware helps with the Broncos outside pass rush as the veteran remains a handful for any tackle to slow down consistently.
The cornerback position is where Denver has a huge advantage over most teams. New England is well-acquainted with former cornerback Aqib Talib and his aggressive coverage. Talib was highly appreciated by the fans in New England for his confidence and big plays. He is joined by Chris Harris Jr. who is one of the best coverage cornerback in the league when healthy.
Harris can play inside and outside covering the slot and outside the numbers. Look for him to cover Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola if Harris is able to play. Talib with length, strength, and long arms will likely draw coverage on Brandon LaFell and probably will help out in coverage of Gronkowski as well. Second year Bradley Roby is an embarrassment of riches for Denver as he is the third cornerback but could be the number one corner on a dozen or more NFL teams. Roby is better outside the numbers but could draw the assignment of facing the smaller and quicker Amendola.
Tom Brady is going to have to be on target this week with the Broncos run defense, Von Miller, and the strong secondary. It was a tough matchup when he did not have all his receivers healthy, but he should be better prepared to face the strong defense with Edelman healthy and a week to work off the rust (which resulted in so many first half drops against Kansas City). With all his weapons, Brady should be able to move the ball much easier than last time against the Broncos.
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