WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots have been running with impunity. The Broncos – because of their ball-control and offensive efficiency – rendered the Chargers running game moot last week and were effective stopping the run against ineffective teams like Oakland and Houston in Weeks 16 and 17. But the Chargers showed in Week 15 that yards can be had on the ground and the Patriots have shown they can get them with LeGarrette Blount using himself as a human battering ram.
The Broncos’ front of Terrence Knighton and rookie Sylvester Williams matched up against the Patriots interior three offensive linemen matters to the running game. But keep an eye on the Denver linebackers as well. Paris Lenon, a 36-year-old journeyman, has taken over in the 4-3 base for the Broncos at middle linebacker. He and the explosive Danny Trevathan can run but they aren’t stout and neither is the very talented Wesley Woodyard. It’s a style mismatch that favors the Patriots if Knighton and Williams can’t hold up.
The Patriots ran it 20 times on first-and-10 last week and threw it six times. They averaged 8.6 yards on those runs (greatly aided by Blount’s 73-yard ramble). The Broncos meanwhile were awesome stopping first-and-10 runs last week (11 attempts, 19 yards) against a hobbling Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. First-and-10 productivity will be vital for the Patriots because second-and-long – even with a Denver secondary that’s torn up without Chris Harris (ACL).
The study this week done by Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels at Denver’s tendencies on first-down and reactions to play-action will be huge factors. And Brady’s ability to zero in on mismatches in the secondary will be a key. Duke Ihenacho, an undrafted safety who went to Junipero Serra HS just like Brady, will be in the crosshairs as will Champ Bailey, the corner Brady’s always considered the gold-standard in coverage. Bailey could be in for a lot of attacks from Brady.
The Patriots will like their speed and underneath mismatches with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola but the geometry of two small receivers being able to run past and go over cornerbacks just doesn’t work. Expect all shot plays downfield to be off of heavily-sold play action. Ihenacho and free safety Mike Adams can’t get sucked up in run-support. The Patriots offense will be a chess match through the air, a steel-cage match on the ground.