For week 15, the New England Patriots (11-2) travel to Denver to face the Broncos (8-5) in a show-down between two of the AFC’s best. It also is a rematch of the 2016 AFC Championship game, which the Broncos came out as the winners of that one before ultimately winning Super Bowl 50 as well. This game certainly does not lack importance though, as play-off implications are high in this game. That includes the Patriots looking to lock up the number one seed (and home field advantage throughout the playoffs) and the Broncos looking to keep their stranglehold on one of the two wild card spots. One of the match-ups that will have a big impact on the outcome of the game will be Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman against Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
Both are having great 2016 seasons so far and this has the makings of being not only a great match-up to watch, but one that could be pretty evenly matched potentially. Edelman has 79 receptions, 791 receiving yards and two touchdowns but has turned on his play as of late with 31 receptions, 334 yards and a touchdown over the past four games. According to Pro Football Focus, Edelman has forced seven missed tackles since week 10, which is the second most among wide receivers during that span. He also has 55 targets over the past four games (13.75 on average), which is most in the NFL among wide receivers. It’s fair to say that Edelman has seen a big uptick in work for the Patriots and will try to carry his momentum into this game as well.
Harris is having another terrific season himself, including having 11 pass break-ups, two interceptions and one forced fumble. According to PFF, Harris is their number two ranked cornerback in the NFL this season with a 91.5 (out of 100) grade. He is ranked only behind teammate Aqib Talib while sporting the highest coverage grade (91.5) out of all cornerbacks. He has also stayed healthy this season with 904 snaps played so far, fifth most out of all cornerbacks. Harris is not only regarded as arguably the best slot cornerback in the league but also as one of the best overall.
Harris is a big part of this Broncos defense, that has allowed only 183 passing yards per game and 10 passing touchdowns, both best in the NFL. The Patriots come in with the fourth most passing yards per game (280) and tied for fifth in passing touchdowns (26), so this is certainly going to be a strength-versus-strength match-up.
While Harris is regarded as one of the best slot corners in the league, Edelman has also proven to be one of the most productive wide receivers out of the slot wide receiver position. Edelman doesn’t necessarily play slot all the time as the Patriots main “Z” wide receiver, but he does spend plenty of time there and also in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Edelman does a lot of his damage being lined up usually a few yards behind the line of scrimmage and being the focus of quick passes/screens. His ability to run with the ball after the catch and being notoriously difficult to tackle makes him not only a dangerous weapon for Tom Brady and the Patriots, but a nightmare to cover for opposing teams.
Edelman has also been able to function more from the slot comfortably recently due to Chris Hogan’s deep threat ability and also Malcolm Mitchell’s emergence as a viable outside wide receiver. The Patriots have been forced to run more three wide receiver sets (“11” personnel) since Rob Gronkowski went down with a back injury. As mentioned above, even with Hogan and Mitchell stepping up as of late, Edelman is still being utilized heavily in the Patriots passing offense. With Hogan and Mitchell playing on the outside effectively more, it takes the pressure off of Edelman on passes behind the line of scrimmage/short passes.
It is likely that Harris will be facing Edelman for the most part in one-on-one situations despite playing in dime situations (five defensive backs) for the most part because of the Patriots more frequent “11 personnel” play-calls. We saw a good amount of plays in week 14 where the Patriots reported a lineman (usually Cameron Fleming) as eligible, which requires Edelman to be off the line of scrimmage if they run “11 personnel” formations. So it’s possible that the Patriots will continue to do that and have Edelman more of a focal point behind/on the line of scrimmage on plays designed for him.
The key for Harris will be diagnosing these types of plays quickly as if not properly covered, it gives Edelman the ability to work with more open field after the catch for example. Considering that Edelman will likely have some sort of blocking on those quick, behind/on the line of scrimmage receptions, Harris will be forced to fight his way through that as well. Going back to it, the key for Harris will be diagnosing these plays quickly and not being afraid to play tight man-to-man coverage on Edelman throughout the game.
By doing that, it will help prevent Edelman from being able to work with open field after the catch. Also, it could also help defend against these type of passes before they even happen. Allowing Edelman to have space to catch and run the ball is the worst case scenario for Harris and the Broncos in this game.
Overall, this is two of the best at their position facing off against each other in a crucial game. It’ll be fun to watch these two throughout the game and how both will have to adjust to keep the upper-hand in their match-up.