When people talk about that first meeting we hear the weather brought up a lot. Yes it affected the game. But defensively, the Patriots absolutely bottled up our receivers and they did it through sound defense and good scheming. I'm going to take a look at this play from a lot of different perspectives and show you just how effective the Patriot secondary can match up with our Bronco offense.
Again if you're unfamiliar with my labeling system, I identify man to man matchups with boxes of the same color, and zone responsibilities with the circles. As far as those labels, (Z) is Eric Decker, (Y) is the TE (Virgil Green in this case), (A) is Wes Welker, and (X) is Demaryius Thomas.
Here we have a mixture of approaches. On the outside receivers (Z) and (X), the Patriots are playing press man. On the TE, believe it or not we have three levels of coverage. Ninkovich is going to jam him at the line then rush the QB. From there the SAM is going to carry him vertically through his zone and pass him off to the safety who shows Cover 2 presnap, but is really charged with coverage on the TE. Think of the LB/S combination as a bracket that could work high to low and side to side depending on the route. The slot corner on Wes Welker is going to jam him and carry him to the MIKE's zone before falling off and covering the flat against a possible attack from the RB. Over the top we have a single high safety who will cheat to the left side of the offensive formation before bailing out and playing centerfield.
The Broncos offense is running their "levels" concept with two short crossers and a deeper square in from Thomas.
From the snap we see Decker jammed as he tries to release. you can see Nink getting a chip on Green and the safety to that side already stepping up to handle this responsibility if the route goes that way. Walker is jammed as well. Also notice the other safety retreating.
Now at this point the underneath crossers are going to have to pass a gauntlet of three zone defenders. The Outside receivers are jammed and create no separation. Virgil Green might have the best shot with inside leverage on a post, but by the time we get to that point, Chandler Jones has ragdolled Zane Beadles and causes Peyton to throw the ball away incomplete.
Manning could probably hit either Welker or Ball over the middle for a minimal gain but he is eyeing Thomas on the left sideline. Green has passed out of the LB's zone and is about to release to the inside on a post. He actually has position but...
Jones is now free and Peyton, still looking to the left throws the ball away. Even if he had hit Welker or Ball underneath the gain would have been minimal. NE is very good at tackling and limiting YAC (or at least were that night).
NE is one of the toughest secondaries the Broncos will have faced all season. Their outside corners, Ryan for that matter all can disrupt timing at the line of scrimmage making it difficult for Thomas, Decker, and Welker to get separation. Not only that, they scheme things well to limit the impact a play has on the defense. Here the TE was guarded at three levels as were the crossers coming over the middle.
I think you will see a very similar approach on Sunday. When they do choose to play Cover 1 or disguise it, you can guarantee they are comfortable with leaving Dennard on an island with Decker as they did here. When you have players on the outside that can press and guys underneath that play zone at a high level, it is going to take patience and some playmaking ability by the receivers to beat it.
Manning and Gase no doubt have a plan to deal with it. Some of the things they can do is stack one side of the LOS more than others. If you have a 1x3 or 3x1 (or even a 1x4 or 4x1) alignment, it changes how the safeties have to play and can create a favorable matchup for someone. They can also stack receivers and use pick plays. As disciplined as they are on the outside, it is going to take some persistence to score a big play over the top.
It will be interesting to see how the Broncos approach the rematch because New England's defense had a lot of right answers the first time around.