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How the Patriots neutralized Von Miller in 2016

From the mouths of Miller and Bill Belichick.

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AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Denver Broncos Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Denver Broncos pass rusher Von Miller had 5 tackles against the New England Patriots in week 15 of the 2016 season and not much else. It was one of only two games all season where Miller failed to hit the quarterback or record a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

The entire Patriots offensive line did a pretty good job against the Broncos that day, giving up just 2 sacks, 1 hit, and 8 hurries, with rookie guard Joe Thuney responsible for both sacks and 3 of the hurries according to Pro Football Focus. New England would love to have an encore performance in week 10 against the Broncos- so what did the Patriots do so successfully last season, and can they repeat the strategy in 2017?

“They were just throwing the ball quick,” Broncos pass rusher Von Miller said on Wednesday. “That's it. Throwing the ball quick. Tom Brady was flawless. Everybody was flawless on offense. It wasn't really a high-scoring game either though. If we still making them play where they've got to throw the ball and really score some points it'll be different.

“Last game I was quiet but I've got another opportunity to go and play these guys. I've had success against the same group of people before and I've just got to come in with that mindset this week. It doesn't matter what scheme they throw at me. It doesn't matter what the play call is. I've just got to go out there and be dominant. I've got to go out there and do what I do.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed just 16 of 32 passes for 188 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions, with wide receiver Julian Edelman (6 catches for 75 yards on 12 targets), running back James White (3 catches for 24 yards on 8 targets), and tight end Martellus Bennett (2 catches for 35 yards on 4 targets) accounting for the majority of the passing production.

With two of those three players no available for the Patriots (Bennett’s status on the waiver wire still pending), the Patriots would likely have to go in a different direction to copy that strategy in 2017.

Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett have been utilized deep down the field and with Hogan likely sidelined, both Cooks and Dorsett will be tasked with stretching the field and possibly opening up lanes for Danny Amendola or Rob Gronkowski or the running backs in the short area.

But the best help might not actually come in the passing game, but instead on the ground. Running back Dion Lewis racked up 95 yards on 18 carries (5.28 YPC), while LeGarrette Blount and James White added another 20 carries (albeit for only 42 yards) as the Patriots focused on controlling the clock and maintaining their lead. If the Patriots can run the ball, then perhaps they’ll be able to take the edge off the Broncos pass rush.

“You just do the best you can,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about stopping Von Miller. “It’s not any better on the other side with Shaquil Barrett or [Shane] Ray. It’s not any better inside better with {Domata] Peko, [Shelby] Harris, [Derek] Wolfe and [Adam] Gotsis. Wherever you go you’re not really going away from anybody, you’re just going into somebody else. It’s a tough problem.

“Miller can do it all; he can play the run, he’s a great edge setter, and he’s a great speed rusher--good counter move, good speed to power rush. He’s seen double teams and things like that, he knows how to deal with them. He has a good inside spin and has the power to get away from those types of techniques. He’s a good pass rusher and he’s as good a player as there is in the league.”

Brian Phillips did a nice film review of how the Patriots could schematically account for Miller in the potential absence of Marcus Cannon, and perhaps the solution is simply to force Miller to focus on more than just Brady. Give him running backs to cover, or an extra tight end to chip, or have him be aware of the run game. Anything to take the bead off of Brady’s body.

But even that isn’t a perfect solution. Denver is much better against the run this year than they were last year and the Patriots run game is still looking for its identity. When you factor in the Bronco’s secondary still impeccable ability to cover wide receivers, the Patriots will have to look at the tight end position to finally step up in 2017.

The Broncos rank 31st against tight ends in the extremely official “fantasy points allowed” metric and 25th against tight ends by DVOA. Look for Rob Gronkowski to be an important focal point of the Patriots passing attack as he could be the replacement piece for Edelman in absorbing all of those targets.

Some mix of running the ball and getting rid of the ball quickly is necessary to neutralize the Broncos pass rush. The Patriots should have the personnel to pull it off.