In the lead-up to the Patriots vs. Broncos week nine match-up, I asked Kyle Montgomery of SB Nation's Mile High Report five questions on Denver and what the Patriots should expect:
At 6-1, most around the league consider the Broncos the best team in football this year. We know all about Peyton Manning and the passing attack. What's one other element about this team, perhaps something that's been under-discussed, that has made them so good?
The Broncos' defense has stepped up in a major way this year, helping the Broncos close out big wins. Even starting in Week 1, when Andrew Luck and the Colts were driving for a game-tying score with less than two minutes left in the game, it was rookie cornerback Bradley Roby who broke up a pass to Reggie Wayne on 4th down that sealed the Broncos' win. In Week Two, it was Terrance Knighton tipping an Alex Smith pass on 4th down at the goal line. Since those close calls, the Broncos have enjoyed some blowout wins thanks to its pass rush and underrated secondary. That's been the theme all season: Manning and the boys get the Broncos ahead, and the defense puts opposing teams away.
As Patriots fans have learned the hard way, there's no such thing as a perfect team. What is the Broncos' biggest weakness? How do you beat them?
Denver's offensive line has been inconsistent. I would say that it's getting better, but I don't have enough confidence in them to say their bad games are totally behind them. That is certainly an element that can be worrisome, especially if a team has four down linemen that can generate pressure without the need to blitz. If you're able to generate pressure with your defensive line, particularly up the middle, you can force Manning into a mistake.
The other key is to keep the ball away from Manning. Generate long, scoring drives on offense, and keep Manning on the sideline. That's easier said than done, but we saw the Seahawks and Chargers succeed in that gameplan in 2013, and the Chiefs nearly succeed in that endeavor in Week 2 this year (they failed on that fourth down and also missed a field goal). So the blueprint is there, it is just difficult to execute.
But Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can succeed at executing any gameplan. That's always worrisome.
How has Aqib Talib been for the Broncos this season? Is the fanbase generally happy with the Talib - Rodgers-Cromartie swap?
Aqib Talib has been solid for the Broncos, and most fans are happy with his production. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of 2013 was just as good as Aqib Talib of 2014, so the swap is good in the sense that Talib came cheaper than DRC was bargaining at the time. Most Broncos fans are more excited about the development of their other cornerback, Chris Harris Jr... but I'll get to him in a minute.
Is it possible that Peyton Manning is getting better? Is he at the top of his game right now?
Manning is on pace to have a better statistical season than any quarterback has ever had in the NFL, except for the one he had just last year. So yes - since 2012, Manning has gotten better, and he's at the top of his game right now. You see it in the way he prepares and executes each week. Even on the sidelines, he's always studying, always sitting right next to OC Adam Gase and planning the next series. Manning has been making up for his drop in arm strength with an increase in preparation and football savvy, and it's made him better than ever.
Who is one under-the-radar player, on both offense and defense, that Patriots should make themselves familiar with heading into Sunday's game?
Defense: Chris Harris Jr. (told you I'd get to him in a minute). I'm not sure what's most remarkable about Chris Harris Jr.'s 2014 story. Is it that he's coming off an ACL injury from just this past January? Maybe it's the fact that he went undrafted three years ago, giving him a salary that arguably makes him the most underpaid player in the NFL. Maybe it's the way he laughs off inheriting qualities from Champ Bailey, like it's a totally normal easy thing to do, or the fact that he had an interception last week hours before heading to the hospital to join his wife in the birth of their first child (an induced labor they scheduled for that night ostensibly because, hey, the week following Thursday Night Football is kind of like a mini-bye).
No, what's most remarkable about CHJ is his play on the field. He's covered a variety of targets, including opposing team's #1 receivers, and has barely given up 100 yards total on the season. Not in a game. In 7 games. He's the 2nd-highest graded cornerback according to PFF and he's allowing the lowest QB rating by their metrics.
Offense: Emmanuel Sanders. He's certainly emerging out of the radar in 2014, but teams still seem to be discounting the element he brings to Denver's offense. He beat Chargers cornerbacks on three different routes on three touchdowns that showcased the dynamic elements of his game: not only his speed (that go-route touchdown was sick), but his route-running and juking ability. Earlier in the Chargers game, he made a terrific leaping catch between two defenders that I'm sure left him sore for a week. Last Thursday served as a microcosm of Sander's season: he has blinding speed, but can also make the tough catches and run all the routes.