This is the third in a series of previews that will take a closer look at each divisional-round matchup, using advanced metrics and game tape observations. We continue with the matchup that will see the Denver Broncos in Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots. These two teams met in Week 15, and the Pats took the game, 41-23, after the Broncos took an early 16-7 lead.
When: Saturday, January 14
Where: Gillette Stadium
The first question to ask about this game is just what kind of offense will we from the Denver Broncos? After their improbable win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round, they proved that they now know more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. In the regular season with Tim Tebow at quarterback and when holding a lead, the Broncos threw the ball a grand total of … 15 times. In the Steelers game with a lead, Tebow aired it out 16 times. Completely contrary to that notion, the Broncos ran the ball 21 of 23 times in first down against the Steelers. Of course, one of the two times they didn't came in the 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas in overtime.
That's why safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy both played up at the line — because they were playing tendencies, and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy out-schemed Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. And make no mistake — when you out-scheme LeBeau, that's about as good as it gets. So, it's hard to look too much at tendencies this time, because McCoy is so good at mixing things up as Tebow's skill set gradually improves.
One of the reasons the pass worked so well against Pittsburgh was Denver's outstanding protection. In the regular season, starting offensive tackles Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin gave up a total of 17 sacks. In the playoff game? Zero. The Patriots don't bring extreme pass rush, especially since they lost end Andre Carter for the season, but what they did the last time they faced the Broncos — and what they should be expected to do again — was to wait patiently at the edges for any hint of the read-option, or any other strains of Denver's run game. Tebow had James Harrison on a string and over-pursuing on several plays in that win against the Steelers, but Bill Belichick understands the value of discipline in pursuit against a mobile quarterback. He won't make those mistakes.
"It's a little different game than I think most of the time you play in this league," Belichick said of the option attack in his Thursday presser. "I think as a defensive back, you're expecting passes on every play and then when you don't get it, you don't get it. But here it's run-force, option responsibilities and then play-action or double moves and things like that. Every time you come out of the huddle, again, The secondary's primary responsibility is always pass, but in addition to that, they have a lot of run-force responsibilities in this game and option and those kind of things. It definitely puts pressure on from that standpoint, that you have a lot more things to think about for a defensive back. Instead of going into the game where you're expecting that every play is going to be a pass. You have to be ready for that on every play, but the reality is that the every play is not a pass. There are a lot of outside runs, there are a lot options plays, there are a lot of plays the secondary force is critical on. It is, it really attacks the entire defense. They do a good job of working sideline-to-sideline and goal line-to-end zone."
What kind of coverage will the Pats show to Tebow? In that Week 15 game, they switched from zone concepts to more man coverage in the second half (per our good buddy Greg Cosell on the NFL Films blog). Part of that certainly had to do with the fact that New England scored 27 unanswered points and made the Broncos offense one-dimensional, but the main reason is that man coverage exploits Tebow's weaknesses, and Denver's weaknesses by proxy.
Early in Tebow's time as a starter through the 2011 season, the idea was to get his primary receiver open as quickly and consistently as possible. Man coverage takes a lot of that away by throwing off the timing and accuracy of those quick stick and option routes. Cosell also mentioned that against the Kansas City Chiefs in the season finale, Tebow faced man coverage on all 22 of his pass attempts, and he completed just six of them. Man coverage also allows the Pats to guard against Tebow calling his own number on the QB draw plays that so bedeviled their defense in the first quarter. However, there are new wrinkles to Tebow's read concepts -- nobody will mistake him for Aaron Rodgers anytime soon, but he's getting better at reading and directing safeties and making plays off coverage motion.
One issue for Tebow is that he'll be without two of his main guys through the season. Right guard Chris Kuper was excellent through the regular season with all the blocking concepts required in Denver's multi-dimensional rushing attack — everything from specific gap pulls to second-level blocking to trap plays to gliding smoothly back in pass protection. Kuper made rookie right tackle Orlando Franklin's job a lot easier, though Franklin certainly stepped up in the playoffs. And receiver Eric Decker was Tebow's main outlet, though it could be argued that there are few members of the Patriots defense looking more forward to covering Demaryius Thomas than Decker. But the Broncos will miss Decker's blocking — he made some killer blocks last time these two teams faced off.
On the other side of the ball, how do the Broncos stop all of New England's weaponry? Last time, they covered mega-tight end Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady's ancillary receivers decently, but fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez blew Denver up for 9 catches, 129 yards, and a touchdown.
Brady may want to circulate around to other guys this time — the Broncos ranked 16th in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA metric against tight ends, but 23rd against #1 receivers, 23rd against #3 and below receivers (i.e., slot guys), and 30th against running backs in the passing game. The Pats aren't led by their running backs by any means, but the Broncos had best not sleep on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stephan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead. Green-Ellis never fumbles and is a dynamic red zone threat, Woodhead can break off the occasional play, and Ridley is hugely underrated.
Now, here are the good numbers for those who want the Broncos and Mr. Tebow to succeed — the Patriots rank dead last in Defensive DVOA against #1 receivers, allowing an average of 8.2 passes and 77.8 yards per game to the main men. Demaryius Thomas, rejoice. Remember all those passes Tebow's completed to tight end Daniel Fells? Well, New England is 29th in DVOA against tight ends (7.1/43.3 avg).
And that's where the Pats are vulnerable — if the Broncos can benefit from a balanced approach and somehow manage to keep the score close longer than just one quarter. New England also ranks 29th in FO's Defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, and they've given up 4.5 running back yards per carry. In that last matchup, Tebow ran 12 times for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
As unstoppable as New England's offense seems to be, there are also elements of Denver's game that should give New England fits. It's just a matter of how much Denver's defense helps its marquee quarterback, and how much New England's marquee quarterback has to serve as his own defense by running up the score and taking half of Tebow's game away.