The very first offensive play of the New England Patriots' 2013-2014 playoff campaign went for a touchdown.
It wasn't a 90-yard bomb to New England's next Randy Moss. It wasn't Rob Gronkowski breaking three tackles to the end zone. It wasn't a pass from Tom Brady at all.
It was a two-yard run by LaGarrette Blount.
That play - or more accurately, that opportunity - perfectly encapsulates the New England Patriots of this season. Blount's touchdown was set up by an Alfonzo Dennard interception, illustrating that the 2013 Patriots are no longer an offensive juggernaut; they are a complete team. They will beat you on offense, defense, and special teams. It is the opportunity created by an advantageous play in any one area, feeding directly into another, that gives them an advantage.
Want another example? Just look at the Broncos' Week 12 game against the Patriots. A fumble recovery on a botched punt cost Denver the game in overtime. Sure, the missteps of Wes Welker and Tony Carter were to blame, but the Patriots special team unit was still in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a Broncos mistake.
I say all this because I'm scouting the New England Patriots offense, and it isn't particularly explosive. It is, however, tremendously efficient, led by a dominating offensive line, a quarterback who isn't susceptible to making mistakes, and a little known, widely underestimated playmaker.
For this edition of MHR Scout, I analyzed stats, watched tape of the Patriots' Week 12 game against Broncos (as tough as that was), and watched their Divisional Game against the Indianapolis Colts. Here are my notes on the Patriots offense.
The Patriots offensive line
The left side of New England's offensive line is probably the best in football. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins have had a phenomenal year, and they have showed no signs of slowing. Solder's worst game came when he was regularly facing Von Miller, but as we know, Miller is not available this time around. Mankins has gotten better as the year has progressed and seems to play better in the playoffs.
Watch LeGarrette Blount's second touchdown run against the Colts for a perfect example of the left side's dominance.
I could run through that hole.
The Patriots have famously changed their starting offensive line a dozen times this season, but there's no reason not to expect the line up of (left to right) Solder, Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Marcus Cannon we saw last week to persist this week. Connolly is the best of these other three, which is far weaker than the Patriots' left side; if the Broncos are going to attack with blitzes, it should come from this side.
Running backs tell the tale
The Patriots have three running backs, but each has very specific strengths and weaknesses. New England knows this, and they call plays to their players' strengths. LaGarrette Blount is not a threat in the passing game - he's iffy as a pass blocker and worse as a catcher (despite his role as kick returner). Shane Vereen is a threat in New England's short-yardage passing game, as Bronco Mike broke down thoroughly earlier this week. Stevan Ridley hasn't fumbled since Week 12 against Denver and is their dual-threat.
The presence or absence of any of these backs gives Denver a pretty fair idea of what the Patriots will do.
|When this RB is in the huddle||Divisional Round||2013 Season|
It's safe to say that when Blount is in, the Pats are probably running the football. When Ridley is in, they will pass four out of five times.
Priority #1 - Stop LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley
The Broncos did a fair job of slowing the Patriots' run game in Week 12, but their defensive effort then was led by terrific first-half performances by Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, and Derek Wolfe. None of these players are available for the Broncos this week.
The Broncos' Next Man Up philosophy has worked though, thanks to a surging defense led by Terrance Knighton. Sylvester Williams has played well, and if Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers can cause just a little disruption against that Pats' o-line, the Broncos defense stands a chance.
LaGarrette Blount, hot off four touchdowns last week, is currently the biggest threat to Denver's defense. With 189 rushing yards in Week 17 and 166 rushing yards in the Divisional Round, it's safe to say he's New England's primary creator of offensive production. Blount packs a big punch at 250 pounds, but as Football Outsiders points out, he packs a lot more than just a punch: quickness, power, vision and speed.
Blount and Ridley combined for only six carries against the Broncos in November, so there isn't a lot of tape on how Broncos defenders will handle them in particular. I like the potential of Champ Bailey playing a lot of corner in this game though, assuming he remains fully healthy. Bailey is a better-than-solid tackler in the running game, and having him every down would be huge.
Priority #2 - Pressure Tom Brady
There's been a stat floating around that Jack Del Rio defenses have never intercepted Tom Brady. While true, they have forced him to fumble, returned those fumbles for touchdowns, sacked him over a dozen times, and if Wesley Woodyard would have caught a gimme fourth quarter interception in Week 12, Jack Del Rio's defense wouldn't have had to hear that stat all week. (They also would have have sealed a win for Denver with that interception, but I digress.)
Brady's efficiency has gone down significantly when blitzed and when pressured in 2013. The Colts were able to limit him to a 52.0% completion percentage and 78.4 passer rating thanks to fairly consistent pressure. Brady only completed 2 of 7 passes when under pressure, and 4 of 10 when blitzed, which is a formula the Broncos must try to replicate to protect their depleted secondary this Sunday. Blitzing will be key.
However, knowing this, the Patriots aren't afraid to go into max protect schemes and give Brady time to throw.
I could pass in that pocket.
Despite the apparent and oft-mentioned "lack of weapons", the result of that play was still 27 yards. When Brady has time to throw, he will find an open man, even via the tiniest windows. The Broncos must knock Brady around to get him out of rhythm.
Priority #3 - Contain Julian Edelman
No matter what Mike Adams says, Julian Edelman is doing a fine job of replacing Wes Welker as the Patriots' slot target and option route threat. Edelman actually leads all wide receivers in catches since Week 12 with 53, a huge number for a five-week span, and he hauled in four touchdowns in that time as well. Against Denver alone, he had nine catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and that was with Chris Harris Jr.
Edelman's underneath crossing routes are deadly, and the Patriots used them to great effect against the Colts and Broncos games I watched. His longs of 27 and 43 yards in these respective games were both such routes, and Edelman broke several tackles on his way down the field. The Colts hits weren't soft either; they forcibly knocked Edelman onto a different path than when he caught the ball, as diagrammed below (Edelman caught the ball at the blue X; Colts defenders hit him at the red marks, only redirecting his path instead of taking him down).
I could not run for 27 yards in that situation.
Priority #4 and Conclusion - Play mistake-free football
The Patriots are a complete team. The Broncos need to be as well. They will not shut down this offense - as I've documented, the offensive line is too good. Brady will make some throws. Blount will make some runs.
The Broncos need to make more throws, and they need to make more runs, and they need to not turn the ball over as they did in Week 12. They need to not give the Patriots the opportunities upon which they love to capitalize. If they do that, they can out-score these efficient Patriots, and earn the crown of Kings of the AFC.