FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick gave insight last Friday into what the Patriots planned to do defensively to Peyton Manning.
One thing his defense would not be doing, Belichick indicated, would be making it easy for Manning to figure out where he should go with the football.
“When he sees what it is, he gets to the play he wants to get to,” said Belichick. “I would say they’ve hit a lot of big plays on plays like that. … You can be in whatever you want to be in, but if they have a play to beat it, and it’s well executed, which it frequently is with Denver, you’re just playing right into their hands.”
When Sunday night rolled around, the Patriots announced to Manning with their alignment that they didn’t want him throwing the football anywhere. They wanted Denver to run.
There was a Saturday tipoff to the plan as well when the Patriots released Leon Washington on Saturday and called up cornerback Justin Green from the practice squad. It was time for all hands on deck in the secondary.
From the first possession, the Patriots opened in nickel defense with both safeties well back. It was Belichick’s announcement that New England was going to muck up the area between 7 and 15 yards and protect deep with their safeties.
Manning, smart enough to know he’s beyond the point where he ram throws in downfield -- especially in harsh winds -- said, “Fine. You want to give us room to run. We will run.”
After breaking down film, Broncos coach Jack Del Rio summarized what he saw from the Patriots defense.
“They played a lot of drop coverage, a lot of eight-and-nine-men drop stop. I thought we took what was there,” he explained. “I thought that was one of the reasons we were able to pound it at them. If they’re going to play that soft approach then we’re going to have to be able to control the ball and run it.”
It was all about getting to third down, said Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
“You could see that their game plan was to run on first and second and throw on third and short,” he explained. “They didn’t want to be in third-and-long. They wanted to be in third-and-short so they could work those short routes because it was hard to throw downfield if you were into the wind. To have the wind in your face there, they wanted to live on those short routes.”
So having the middle cluttered and whacking Wes Welker at the line to upset his crossing routes was a major point of emphasis?
“We had a great game plan, we knew that if we were able to affect his reads and his timing and his being comfortable in the pocket by moving guys underneath, changing things, having three guys rush and trying to get underneath some of those crossing routes, that kinda screws with ya,” Ninkovich added. “So I think we executed our game plan. They were running the same runs over and over and over again -- inside run, inside run, inside run -- so in the second half you see that they do that and you make subtle adjustments.”
Even though field position after Patriots turnovers tinkered with the plan a little, Denver stuck with the run the Patriots were giving them on first down.
For the first three quarters, Denver ran on 12 of 13 first-down opportunities. Their only first-down throw was the second play of the game. It was incomplete. When Manning attempted his second first-down pass with 14:37 left in the game, he was intercepted by Logan Ryan.
On the next Denver possession, Manning again opened the drive with a first-down throw. It was intercepted by Aqib Talib but the play was waved off because of defensive holding.
Matt Chatham, the former Patriot linebacker who does terrific analysis work on the Patriots defense, showed the look the Patriots were giving Manning.
In the end, Denver ran for 280 yards on 48 carries. Moreno had 224 on 37 carries.
While that would seemingly bode poorly for the Patriots run defense, consider what the Patriots did a week earlier against the Panthers.
Facing a very good rushing attack with a mobile Cam Newton, New England loaded up against the run and sought to hem Newton in, making him beat the Patriots through the air.
The Patriots held the Carolina running backs to 41 yards on 16 carries. What killed them was their failure to contain Newton’s scrambles. He ran seven times for 62 yards and 56 of those yards came on his four third-down carries. All went for first downs.
The game plan for Carolina was sound. The execution of it in terms of containing Newton was not. And the Patriots offense didn’t hold up its end with its first-half mistakes that ruined drives (fumble, third-down protection gaffe leading to a sack, penalty).
The game plan for Denver -- which was the opposite of what was drawn up for Carolina -- was again almost ruined by the offensive missteps in the first half.
But this week, the game played out long enough for the Patriots to emerge with the win.
The upshot? The Patriots approach of being a “game plan” team with changeable defenses is what makes it confounding for teams to prepare for and almost impossible to analyze using statistics alone.
For instance, the Patriots are allowing an AFC worst 139 yards rushing per game. That’s 31st in the league. But Sunday, they invited Denver to run all night. Their belief was that, on the Broncos’ way down the field, they would get some third-and-threes or third-and-fives that they could win on because they would take away Manning’s short throws.
In didn’t go exactly according to plan because, well, football intervened.
The diversity of NFL offenses on a week-to-week basis demands defenses be able to morph along with them. That requires defensive players who are versatile enough mentally and physically to grasp the different demands and then execute them.
What the Patriots showed defensively in a six-day span on prime-time TV is their belief that, to succeed on defense you have to decide what you are willing to allow and what you have to take away.
Monday night, they didn’t take away the Newton scrambles that they intended to because -- simply -- he was just too damn good. So they lost. Narrowly.
Sunday night, they did take away the Broncos aerial attack and -- because of their own offensive implosion in the first half -- a good game plan almost became moot. But they won. Narrowly.
Imagine what the results will be if and when it comes together.