In the regular-season meeting between the Broncos and Patriots, New England coach Bill Belichick played almost every snap out of a two-deep safety shell, with six players in the box.
So the Broncos handed off to Knowshon Moreno 37 times for 224 yards, and Peyton Manning completed just 19-of-36 passes for 150 yards. I don't see why the Patriots' approach would be a whole lot different in Sunday's AFC championship game.
Manning might throw it better in this meeting, because the weather will be a lot nicer than it was in the first game. And Manning won’t let the Patriots basically take away Denver's passing game by the defensive alignment. He’ll have an answer. But I think Belichick will do the same thing and see how Manning responds.
Manning will absolutely call runs at the line based on fronts and coverages, when there are six players in the box and the safeties are deep. Last week against San Diego, the Broncos had 17 runs and 16 passes in the first half. They finished with 36 passes and 33 runs by Moreno and Montee Ball. It was an efficient and methodical performance. And my guess is they'll run the ball well against New England.
The Patriots have also been efficient running the ball and putting less on Tom Brady in recent weeks. Last week against the Colts, New England had 234 rushing yards and 185 passing yards. The Patriots have been a run-heavy team the last three games. However, all three of those games were played in the rain, and you don't know if running more was their plan because of the weather or because they don’t have great weapons on the perimeter. With good weather in Denver on Sunday, I would not be surprised to see them be more proactive in the pass game. I think they will look at the Denver secondary, which isn't that strong especially without injured cornerback Chris Harris, and think they can scheme throws.
A perfect example of what I mean by that was a 53-yard pass to Danny Amendola last week. The Patriots had three wide receivers on the field, and it was the first play of a possession (and that’s important, teams will usually do more on the first play of a possession). They ran a hard stretch-run action to Stevan Ridley. Colts safety LaRon Landry was the single-high safety – he has no run responsibility as a single high safety, and yet he hit the run action very hard. The play wasn’t designed to go to Amenedola, but to Kenbrell Thompkins on a deep dig route. But because Landry hit the play-action fake so hard, Brady saw there was no deep safety and hit Amendola for a huge gain.
I think you'll see similar plays against Denver on Sunday. The Patriots will look at this Broncos secondary and think they can orchestrate some big plays. It won’t be Brady throwing 55 times like the old days, but they’re going to throw the ball.
The Patriots have also been very effective rushing the ball, obviously. One thing that stands out on film is how well they’re adjusting on the move. The defense lines up one way but they move after the snap. Sometimes you have a play called but the guy the tackle is supposed to block slants inside. So the tackle blocks someone else, and the fullback was supposed to block him but now he has to block someone else too. They’ve done well making those adjustments after the snap. And to have a good run game you need that to happen.
Back to when the Broncos have the ball, one matchup that's really interesting is Denver tight end Julius Thomas against New England linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins was terrific in New England's last game. He’s an athletic stud who had to learn how to play. Last week he was more athletic than Coby Fleener of the Colts. He won’t be more athletic than Thomas. That's why it's a fascinating matchup. I assume the Broncos will detach Thomas from the formation and make Collins play in space.
I think you'll see Collins vs. Thomas and the Patriots will put cornerback Aqib Talib on Demaryius Thomas, and I think that’ll be a wash. Demaryius Thomas is a big wideout with a lot of talent, but I wouldn’t call him a precise route runner. I think Talib will do a good job on him, and that actually could have a edge to New England. I also think they can kind of deal with Eric Decker in man-to-man coverage, relatively speaking. That means that Julius Thomas and former Patriot Wes Welker might be Denver's two most critical wide receivers, based on the anticipated matchups.
As you can see, a lot of attention will go to Brady and Manning, but there are a lot of other players and intriguing matchups that you can keep an eye on that will determine which team advances to the Super Bowl.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.