I'm surprised that the Patriots will be facing the Denver Broncos. Anyone who says they're not surprised is a diehard Broncos fan with complete respect for the T.J. Yates and the Houston Texans. That's it. Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow managed to throw for 316 yards on 10 completions. However, those 10 completions came on 21 attempts, leaving Tebow with yet another sub-50% completion rate performance.
The impact of his completions were undeniable, but they definitely could have been limited, or even prevented, by a more disciplined Steelers defense with a better strategy. Surprisingly, the Patriots played with this better strategy back in Week 15.
Tebow managed to throw for the following yard marks:
51, 30, 58, 6, 40, 13, 6, 15, 17, 80.
That's 5 plays of 30+ yards. You read that correctly: Half of Tebow's completions were for 30 or more yards. Only two of his completions were for fewer than 13 yards. The Patriots will have their hands full trying to limit the Broncos and their big plays as they've been at the bottom of the league in big plays of 20+ yards allowed. In fact, the Patriots have allowed 89 plays of 20+ yards this season, which is the most in (at least) the past 15 seasons. That averages out to 5.56 of those big plays every game- although only 5 touchdowns have come from those large plays. 5 plays of 20+ yards was all Tebow needed to upend the Steelers; the Patriots had better take him seriously.
With Tebow coming to town, I thought it would be important to look at all of the plays that the Broncos posted in Week 15 of 10 or more yards. How were the Broncos gaining their yards? How could the Patriots do a better job of slowing them down? I'll post those results later, but there are a few key facts that stood out.
1. Tim Tebow did not complete a pass of 10 or more yards through the first three quarters without using play action (and only completed four).
2. The Broncos (especially Demaryius Thomas) ran the same play against Kyle Arrington that they used to defeat the Steelers.
Let's take a look.
Even though the Patriots were getting slaughtered, they managed to have the lead. Sadly, the Broncos already three plays of 20+ yards at this point in the game and had four more 20+ yard plays in this quarter alone.
The Broncos lined Demaryius Thomas on the nearside of the field with Kyle Arrington in off-coverage. James Ihedigbo is the safety in the box to spy the running back and Tim Tebow. However, the Patriots have a safety deep (Sergio Brown) who is noted with the pink arrow. The Broncos motioned Eric Decker to the far side of the field in order to slide the defense and create an opening for Thomas.
Tebow runs the play action and is circled in orange. Ihedigbo bites and jumps towards the line of scrimmage, while Thomas runs behind him. The linebackers, Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher, also bite to create more open field across the middle of the field. Kyle Arrington continues to drop back in coverage (off the screen), which creates a large pocket between the front bracket (Ihedigbo and Mayo) and the back bracket (Arrington).
Thomas sits down in the pocket of coverage and waits for the ball. Tebow sticks the pass between Mayo and Ihedigbo, although he has been improving and can probably now hit Thomas in stride. Ihedigbo is still recovering from biting on the play action and is not in position to attack the ball. Arrington is playing far off of Thomas and needs to close the distance to make a play. Sergio Brown (pink arrow) has to come make the tackle as Thomas slants across the field. Of course, it's Week 15 Sergio Brown, so he misses the tackle and Thomas runs for an additional 10 yards. Still, Brown is able to slow Thomas enough for another defender (Devin McCourty) to come across and make the stop.
This is the alternate angle of the same play. You can see how none of the mid-depth defenders are in position to attack the ball because they bit on the play action. Sergio Brown (pink arrow) is the last line of defense. The linebackers will have to play with more control and discipline in the upcoming game if they want to limit the big plays allowed- and the safety has to play deep enough to prevent the home run play.
Oh, and the Broncos didn't just beat the Patriots with that play once...
...Eric Decker ran the same play later in the 1st (Brown is the pink arrow, Ihedigbo is the green arrow). Arrington's is closer to make the play and Brown actually makes the tackle, but Decker is able to run the same route and pick up 22 yards. The Broncos used the play action (again) to draw the defenders up and create a pocket in the secondary for Decker. Oh, and this wasn't the last time it happened...
Thomas did it again in the second quarter. This was Tebow's 3rd 10+ yard throw and all three were from the play action. Ihedigbo was on the opposite side of the field as Mayo was the underneath defender who bit on the play action. Brown is still noted with the pink arrow. Basically, the Broncos were able to beat the Patriots three times in a row on essentially the same play. Hopefully the Patriots have been doing their homework and watching film in order to take away Tebow's favorite throws.
Now let's look at Tebow's game against the Steelers.
The Steelers throw essentially 11 players in the box. The Broncos line-up and the Steelers are reading a run play. Thomas is on the nearside and is in man coverage. Tebow runs the play action to try and draw Troy Polamalu to the line to create the same pocket in the secondary that he created against the Patriots.
Unfortunately for Tebow, Polamalu doesn't bite on the play action and stays in the perfect spot to prevent the inside slant route. Fortunately for Tebow, Thomas reads that Polamalu is in position and stutter steps to feign a slant and then takes off down the field. Since the Steelers had 11 players in the box, there wasn't a deep defender to deter Thomas from taking the deep route.
The Broncos were going to run the same route as they did against the Patriots. In fact, you can see Tebow's eyes and he wanted to make the slant throw. However, he has to hold the ball while Thomas read the coverage and ran down the field. Tebow and Thomas showed great teamwork and ability to adapt to the coverage- hopefully the Patriots don't give Tebow the time to let the play develop.
Here's an aerial view of the play. Polamalu is in the purple box and the other safety is under the pink arrow. Keep in mind that the pink arrow safety is the same player that was Sergio Brown in the Patriots defense. So do you understand what that means? Brown and the Patriots defense knew what they were doing and executed well enough to prevent a disastrous play from occurring. Brown was doing his job and was doing it well (enough). For Week 15 Brown, that's scary.
Don't worry, there's still one more play. The Broncos run the same play as their opener in overtime. Yikes.
The Steelers show 11 in the box. Tebow motions the nearside receiver in to try and show a "run play" to the Steelers defense. The Steelers safety (pink arrow) bites and crashes the line on the snap in order to try to read and stop the play in the backfield. Thomas is on the far side of the field and runs his basic slant route in man coverage. The Steelers are all so close to the line that there's no mid-depth defenders to create traffic in the passing game.
You can see the safety (pink arrow) trying to recover. Too late. Thomas has the inside lane on his coverage and has the entire field in front of him. Game over.
This is the aerial photo of the play. It was a perfect set-up for this play to happen.
So what will the Patriots take away from the Steelers game? Discipline, discipline, and more discipline. It's clear that Tebow is comfortable with only a few throws, and they're all to his left. He can definitely make throws down the right sideline (the touchdown to Eddie Royal is clear evidence), but he has a definite preference and greater ability to complete throws to his left.
Therefore, the Patriots should think about keeping additional help in the secondary on Tebow's left (throwing) side. The Steelers and the Patriots were burned when the coverage on the left side faltered and when the players were out of position. Discipline on the left side is extremely important for the success of the Patriots' defense.
I don't question whether the Patriots can step up and limit the big plays they allowed to the Broncos in the first round- that was just poor execution and general lack of hustle by the Patriots. I believe it's of greater importance to limit Tebow's throws to his left side because that takes away half of his offensive output as he's left with scrambles and lower-percentage throws across his body to the right side of the field.
(Note: For those who think, "Psh, the Patriots won't play without a deep safety. They don't have to worry." Please don't get ahead of yourself. The Patriots have gone zero deep safety and have gotten torched when they didn't help Devin McCourty deep on Brandon Marshall. It happens. They can't afford to take those risks.)