MHR Chalk Talk -- New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (Week 5, '09)

There are three sides to a football team, which we call the offense, the defense, and special teams.  The best teams are elite on all sides of the ball.  So after 25% of the regular season is complete, consider this for Denver...

Offense -

QB Orton has thrown at least one TD in every game and zero interceptions.  He has a very respectable rating of 97.7 and a completion rate of 59%.  And he's done this with a restrictive glove on his hand to protect an injury.  The glove comes off this week.

RB Correll Buckhalter averages 7.2 yards a carry.  7.2 YPC!!!  Is that a statistical fluke?  37 carries should be enough of a base to demonstrate that this amazing stat isn't based on just a few carries or big plays.  (Denver's "other" RB, Knowshon Moreno, is up currently up for NFL Rookie of the Week).

Defense -

It doesn't get better than this - after four games, Denver's opponents are averaging less than a touchdown per game.  That's just plain "scary good".

Denver has been playing Super Bowl-level defense so far.  They've given up the fewest point in the NFL, the second-fewest total yards, the third-fewest passing yards, and the fifth-fewest rushing yards.

Special Teams - 

Kicker Matt Prater was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September.

Denver has beaten the Bengals.  The Bengals would be undefeated except for that loss, having also beaten the Steelers, the Packers, and the Browns.  Denver also beat Dallas, a team that many considered "a real test for Denver".  Dallas lost a close game against the potential Super Bowl-favorite Giants 31-33, and won the rest of their games minus the game against Denver.  Denver's schedule also included two teams that are struggling (the Browns and the Raiders), but the message is clear; The Denver Broncos are back.

This week, the team will face their toughest challenge to date, the New England Patriots.  My gut has been that the Patriots have the edge for this game for several reasons.  First, the success that Denver has is due in large part to Denver's desire to copy the NE approach to preparing and growing a football team.  Denver is doing a great job, but the genesis for the program is in NE.  While Denver is proving themselves to everybody, NE is a cornerstone of football excellence and has been for the decade.  But as I dug deeper, I found some tidbits that give me hope for a historic start for Denver.  Let's break down the matchups and see what information comes off the chalk board.

The New England Offense

It all starts with Tom Brady, easily one of the top three QBs in the League.  Brady does many things very well.  First, he spreads the ball around so that opposing teams can't focus on one threat.  His movement within the pocket is the best I've ever seen.  With a quick step, Brady avoids hits and buys crucial extra seconds to throw the ball.  Brady is accurate, and can throw deep.  He is very good at reading defenses, and makes good adjustments at the line.  Chicks dig him (I'm told).

The NE receivers and TEs are all very good, but three of them are freakishly good.  If you know nothing about football, you've heard of Randy Moss.  Randy Moss is a deep threat at WR, and deadly.  He has the speed, the hands, and the quick stutter step to create distance between himself and just about any defender.  Moss has been widely considered one of the best WRs in the League for several years, and with different QBs on different teams.  Complementing Moss, Wes Walker specializes in routes in short- to middle-ranges.  His quickness and physical play makes him enough of a legitimate threat that no defense can throw everything at stopping Moss.  Moss and Welker are arguably one of the top receiving tandems in the League, and playing with one of the best QBs.

It doesn't stop there.  One of my favorite TEs in the game is Ben Watson.  He has 2 TDs so far this season, and is averaging 14.5 receiving yards after 12 passes.  Many players are good at what they do, but Watson is a pure athletic specimen.  His speed is frightening, and he has very good hands.  He is too fast to be covered by a linebacker, and too physical for most defensive backs.  You may recall the 2005 AFC Divisional game in Denver during which elite CB and speed demon Champ Bailey got an interception and ran the ball back nearly the length of the field, only to be hit at the last second by Ben Watson, who took a perfect angle (starting as far back plus the width of the field) with smoke and flames flying off of his patented Iron Man Jet-Boots.

But this year, NE hasn't looked great at running back.  They are getting at least 100 yards a game on the ground, but only rank 17th in the run.  Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Fred Taylor are all capable RBs, and only need to do enough to make the passing game a threat.  In short yardage, they can cause most defenses to choose between stopping the first down or a major play, but they aren't causing a lot of concern for most teams.

The Patriots run the same offensive system as Denver.  They will use a lot of 3-WR sets, and like to use two-TE sets as well.  They like the edges of the field.  When they bring in a FB (Laurence Maroney) he blocks - nothing more.  He has no receptions this year, and only 2.9 yards per carry.  Brady will throw screen passes to the edges that set up complex blocking schemes to get the receiver downfield, or he will throw to Welker and rely on Welker's solid routes and evasive skills, or he will go to Moss for the deep threat.  Watson at TE is the threat always lurking in the passing game, as he can catch the quick hook or just streak up the middle and "split the safeties".

Whatever is a defense to do?  That's right.  They call in the Blue and the Orange.

The Denver Broncos Defense

Denver can take Welker out of the passing game with their fantastic pass rush.  That rush is so effective, it really doesn't require Denver to blitz much at all.  (Denver hasn't even really blitzed much this year!)  The face of the Denver pass rush attack is Elvis Dumervil.  Look at the following two video clips.  The first shows Neo (from the film "The Matrix") dodging bullets.  The second shows Elvis Dumervil avoiding a face mask with same move as Neo, and going after QB Tony Romo for the sack.  Yes, the same back bending move.

NEO -

 

Dumervil -

(click here, then go to the 1:46 mark, and watch until 1:52)

A defense beats Tom Brady the same way that they beat Peyton Manning of the Colts; they pressure the QB.  Denver is doing this better than anyone right now.  This is also how the Jets managed to beat Brady.

A second benefit of the pass rush is that it keeps Watson in check.  I wrote that the deadly weapon against the Broncos that the Cowboys possessed was TE Jason Witten.  Denver's amazing pass rush forced Witten to stay on the line to protect Romo, and took Witten's potential mismatches out of the game.  With an effective pass rush, and moving Dumervil around on the line, Watson should be kept in a blocking role.

So we see how the pass rush helps Denver in two key areas - it minimizes Brady, and it takes Watson out of the game.  What else does Denver need to do?

The run game isn't a threat for Week Five.  Denver's players can play their own brand of football (plugging the gaps with five lineman in a 5-2 look, allowing the LBs enough protection at the second level to stop runs).

In the passing game, Champ Bailey will match up with Moss.  This is the best a defense can ask for against Moss; having the best CB in the League to match up against an elite WR is a major help.  Against Welker, Denver will have CB Andre' Goodman.  He already has an INT for 30 yards (it came against Oakland), and has been playing extremely well opposite Bailey.  Anything that can get through either of these high quality CBs faces legendary safety Brian Dawkins and play-making strong safety Renaldo Hill.  That's right, both Goodman and Hill have turned into playmakers in Denver, giving Denver a secondary for the ages.  (I'll repeat, as I do each week, that there is an argument to be made that Dawkins and Bailey are the best players to have ever played at free safety and cornerback, respectively).

Unlike the last couple of years, Denver is wisely playing both safeties in deep zone coverage, which takes away deep plays and gives both safeties added time to assess and react.  As readers of MHR's Xs and Os authors HoosierTeacher and TedBartlett905 know (if I may say so myself), the two best ways to help your cornerbacks to look elite is to have a good pass rush (from the front 7) and solid protection over the top (from the safeties).  Denver now has both.

The Denver Offense vs The New England Defense

Denver's offense may not have Tom Brady, but they have some advantages.  The offensive line features two of the best tackles in the NFL in Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris.  Denver is loaded in depth at WR.  Let's look at the list.

  1. Brandon Marshall - We knew he could run over defenders, but after the game against Dallas, we learned that he has amazing cut-back skills.  If he gets the ball, he's very hard to stop.
  2. Eddie Royal - Doesn't shine as much in an offense that spreads the ball around.  But his route skills, agility, speed and hands make him a deadly threat if any team dares to leave him in single coverage with no support in the deep secondary.
  3. Brandon Stokley - Excellent hands, excellent experience, excellent route runner, and willing to take punishment to make the dangerous catches.  Colts' loss, our gain.
  4. Jabar Gaffney - Familiar with the NE system, he came to Denver already knowing how to play in the new offense.  Both he and Stokely can play at #1 or #2 in the event of an injury, and the team would carry on.

Now here's my question for the average fan.  You've heard of Shawn Springs at CB, but can you name any other CB on the NE roster?  Terrence Wheatley was the only name that came to my mind before I looked up the roster (and no, he's not the #2 CB).  In fact, when you move past Vince Wilfork at NT and Ty Warren at LDE, most of the names wouldn't be recognizable to most fans.  This isn't a bad thing, since many non-Denver fans probably couldn't name many of the Denver front-seven's players.  Name recognition isn't everything, but the point is that NE has had turnover on the defense, and is even currently in talks to bring back Junior Seau.

New England plays the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4, and relies on multiple looks out of this base to confuse and adjust to opponents.  They are well coached, and will improve as the season moves forward.  As it is, they rate above average in each vital category (points against - 9th, yards against - 7th, pass against yards 7th, run against yards 11th).

I think Denver will do what they always do, with little change.  They'll run the ball and try to establish an early running game.  They'll mix in screen plays (which sometimes include the RB in the slot), and spread the field with multiple receiving threats.  It will be interesting to see how much difference we might see with Orton's protective glove off.

Matchups in Terms of Rankings

(advantage in italics and bold)

                                                          Denver                          vs                     New England

Offense                                                                                                            Defense

Points scored (avg and rank)     19.8 (19th)                                            17.8 (9th)              Points against (avg and rank)

Yards for (avg and rank)              365 (9th)                                               287.5 (7th)            Yards against (avg and rank)

Pass yards (avg and rank)          217 (18th)                                            192.2 (7th)           Passed against (avg and rank) 

Run yards (avg and rank)            148 (4th)                                               95.2 (11th)           Ran against (avg and rank)

 

Defense                                                                                                          Offense

Points against (avg and rank)      6.5 (1)                                                   21.8 (14th)            Points scored (avg and rank)

Yards against (avg and rank)       239.8 (2nd)                                          376 (8th)              Yards for (avg and rank)

Passed against (avg and rank)   162.5 (3rd)                                           273.8 (5th)           Pass yards (avg and rank)  

Ran against (avg and rank)          77.2 (5th)                                             102.3 (17th)        Run yards (avg and rank)

Keys to the Game

Denver

  1. Go after Brady.  With a good pass rush by Denver, the Patriots lose Watson in the passing game, and Brady has trouble getting the ball to his receivers without risking interceptions.
  2. Establish the run.  Both teams demonstrate better defenses than the opponent's offense in this game except in one matchup.  Denver's run game is better than the NE run defense.  Denver needs to exploit this in order to keep Brady off the field, and to assist Orton by keeping the defense from focusing on the pass.
  3. Don't allow the big play.  Denver likes to shut down offenses, and to plod along on offense until they see an opening to exploit.  This makes for a low-scoring game, and low tempo.  If NE is able to create some quick strikes, it may take Denver several possessions to score.

New England

  1. Don't leave points on the field.  Denver won't score on most possesions.  A score on every or most possessions (even a FG) will be hard for Denver to catch.
  2. Get the lead.  Denver can protect a lead with the running game easier than they can play catch up.  Against Dallas and Cincy, Denver had to rely on big pass plays near the end of the games to get their wins.  Get the lead, and force Denver from playing their 4th ranked running game into playing their 18th ranked passing game.
  3. Protect Brady at all costs.  This is the direct inverse, but it is the number one key for both teams, so it bears repeating.  In my opinion, the game comes down to whether Brady gets pressured or not.

Conclusion

Before the season, I would have called this game for NE.  In fact, going into my preparation for this article, I would have given NE the edge.  The more I look at the matchups, the more I see that the teams appear to be very balanced.  Both teams will use two TE sets to stop the 3-4 (or Denver's 5-2, if you prefer).  NE has the advantage at QB, but both teams have fantastic WRs and TEs.  Denver may have the advantage at OL.  Right now, I'll take the Denver defense over the Patriots defense in terms of personnel and effectiveness, and I'll take Denver's running game over the Pats.

The key always seem to come down to the trenches, and this game is no different.  In this case, if Denver can get to Brady throughout the game, I predict a Denver win.  If Brady has time, the game goes the other way.  I tend to think the Broncos can get to Brady, but I also think NE will make adjustments throughout the game to protect Brady (including quick passes, screens, and check downs more so than actual blocking adjustments).

This game is too close to call.  I really have to give many advantages to Denver (including homefield, the running game, and the elite defense), but NE has the intangible of having the coach from whom our own coach learned from.  I ran a very good defense when I coached, and learned everything from my own head coach as well as the first (and only) DC I worked under.  Still, I have to admit that I can't begin to fathom coaching against my old mentor and having any success.  I'm sure McDaniels is more confident than I am, but when you hold up a mentor as the best coach in the League (and I think McDaniels holds Belichick in this regard), it is hard for me to believe that the butterflys aren't in the gut right about now.  McDaniels will do everything in his power to ready this team, and the players won't be intimidated.  So may be this really is "just another game".

If Denver wins, they move beyond being for real and become real contenders for a deep playoff run.  If they lose, the doomsayers will claim that the Broncos aren't so great after all.

Denver has a two-game lead over SD in the AFC West playoff race.  SD has the week off to nurse wounds, then plays Denver, then plays two games they should win (KC and OAK).  Denver needs all the padding they can get for their lead in the race.

Win or lose, Denver has already proven that they have a very good team.  We should shake off the concerns for how the media folks see Denver, and do what fans of good teams do.  Let's focus on the race for the playoffs now, and use this game as an early gauge for how well we might fare.  (And let's not forget the revenge factor after a beating last year at the hands of the Patriots.  The engineer of that beating is now on our side, so it should be a very interesting game).

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