While nothing is guaranteed in the year 2020, all signs points towards the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos finally squaring off on Sunday after their game originally scheduled for Week 5 had to be postponed twice due to the Coronavirus. New England’s players returned to the Gillette Stadium facility on Wednesday, however, and they will hold their first practice of the week — and, in fact, their first since Saturday — later today.
When they do, the expectation is that Cam Newton will be among those participating: the team’ starting quarterback was activated off the Reserve/Covid-19 list on Wednesday, and should be good to go again. With Newton back in the fold, the Patriots will no longer have to rely on backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham who led the offense to just 10 points and four combined turnovers last Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Getting Newton back should make life easier against a solid Broncos defense that is currently ranked 14th in the NFL after having given up an average of 24.5 points over its first four games of the regular season. But what should New England do from a preparatory perspective in order to attack Denver? Let’s find out.
Don’t be afraid to test a good run defense
When looking at the numbers, the Broncos have been very good against the run so far — even though the traditional numbers do not quite reflect their success. They have given up 436 rushing yards (13th) and just two touchdowns (3rd) on 105 attempts (17th) for an average of 4.2 yards per carry (11th). Advanced statistics, however, show that Denver has been stout when it comes to slowing down opposing rushing attacks.
The team is ranked fifth in run-defense EPA (-0.197), seventh in DVOA (-25.6%), and ninth in success rate (36.1%). Long story short, running against Denver has not been an easy job. And yet, the Patriots should try to establish a presence on the ground just they like they attempted throughout their first four games this year.
How can they be able to do it, though? By finding and possibly exploiting weaknesses.
Denver’s numbers are generally solid, but what stands out is that the team is better on the interior of the formation than the perimeter. The non knee-down yards gained by an offense average illustrate this:
- Left end: 8 attempts, 28 yards
- Left tackle: 9 attempts, 42 yards
- Left guard: 10 attempts, 23 yards
- Center: 34 attempts, 136 yards
- Right guard: 14 attempts, 84 yards
- Right tackle: 12 attempts, 78 yards
- Right end: 6 attempts, 43 yards
As can be seen, teams have gained an average of 4.2 yards when challenging the interior defensive line primarily manned by big-bodied Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris. On the outside, however, that number jumps to 5.5 yards per run — a noticeable difference that the Patriots likely will try to use to their advantage.
After all, they should try to get the running game going against the Broncos for two simple reasons: it shortens the game and puts more pressure on Denver’s offense, and also focuses on what New England does best, namely carry the football behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. With Newton likely back in the fold, this should become easier than it was against the Chiefs in Week 4, but the challenge is still a significant one considering the Broncos’ talent up front.
What could the Patriots therefore do in order to meet it? As noted above, stressing the perimeter should be the way to go. Whether that is by running zone schemes, employing pull blocks or using fullback leads out of i-formation looks, New England should try to get a numbers advantage on the perimeter to spring its ball carriers free around the edge. This way, the team would avoid going against the big interior and possibly find more success.
Identify the weak spots in Denver’s coverage
As Pats Pulpit’s own Mark Schofield pointed out earlier this week, crossing routes could be a key to moving the ball against the Broncos’ defense. The unit has been susceptible to surrendering yards when challenged underneath, and the Patriots will try their best to follow this recipe in order to challenge the weak spots in Denver’s coverage. Finding those will obviously be the key, especially considering how head coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell construct their defense.
The unit is one of the most complex in the game with its use of pre-snap motion and non-balanced coverage looks challenging an offense’s abilities to react accordingly and make necessary adjustments. But no matter if Denver runs man or zone looks, or uses mixed looks such as Cover 6 — a combo coverage that is split between Cover 2 principles on one side of the field and Cover 4 on the other — every defense has its weaknesses.
Just look at the following play from the Broncos’ game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and old friend Tom Brady:
Denver was in a Cover 6 look as the one mentioned above, with the far-side defense being covered by one safety over the top and the other being manned by two defensive backs both responsible for their respective quarters of the deep field. Accordingly, the two started to back-pedal at the snap in order not to get beat over the top. This, however, opened up some space underneath for wide receiver Scott Miller (#10) to exploit on a short out route.
The key to the play working is that both Miller and Brady (#12) diagnose the coverage the same way and react accordingly. The quarterback, after all, already started his throwing motion before his intended target has made the cut to the outside — any mistake in such a situation could have fatal consequences.
Finding those weak spots also includes using the crossing routes mentioned above. The following play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2 shows this as well:
Denver again aligned in a Cover 6 look, with the defensive backs on the right side of the offensive formation playing a Cover 2 defense and the opposite half being manned by quarters principles. The Steelers, however, did not attack like the Buccaneers did on the play above and instead of going for the short out against off-coverage tried to target the hole between the off-the-ball linebackers and the deep safety on the Cover 2 side of the field.
Tight end Eric Ebron (#85), running from a two-man bunch, ran a crosser over the middle of the field into that hole — one that was opened because the deep zone defenders on both sides had to drop back to account for the vertical routes. The design behind that play therefore put the offense in a successful spot. Those spots, meanwhile, also need to be found by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The veteran play caller, however, does have plenty experience drawing up plays against defenses like the one presented by Denver — one that is not just relying on Cover 6 but also incorporating many Cover 3 or Cover 2/4 principles. Just two weeks ago, for example, New England played against another disguise-heavy defense from the AFC West, the Las Vegas Raiders’.
The Patriots’ passing game was not at its best that day, with Newton having an up-and-down performance that was offset by a tremendous game from the running back corps and offensive line. Against Denver’s stout run defense, however, New England’s quarterback needs to be sharper at finding weak spots in the coverage in order to successfully move the football down the field through the air. There certainly will be spots to exploit, but it is on Newton to find them after the coach-quarterback communication has been shut off.
Keep Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris at bay
While the Broncos lost linebacker Von Miller for the year because of an ankle injury suffered in early September, the team’s front seven is still capable of wreaking havoc if given a chance to do so. Two players in particular stand out: outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and defensive end Shelby Harris, who are responsible for 26 of Denver’s 63 quarterback disruptions so far this year and have proven themselves as quality players against both the run and the pass.
Chubb is the more productive pass rusher of the two in terms of overall pressures, and is in the middle of a very good third year in the league. The former fifth overall draft pick is tied with Harris for the team lead in sacks, though with two-and-a-half each. While that number may not stand out, the two are more than capable of disrupting an offensive rhythm if not properly contained.
One problem is that there is no obvious pattern behind where they line up: Denver likes to move both around its defensive line in order to create favorable matchups. Against the Patriots, those might come in two separate spots: with right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor and center James Ferentz listed as absent during Wednesday’s projected practice report, New England again might have to rely on sixth-round rookies Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron to fill any potential voids up front.
Onwenu might take over the Patriots’ left guard spot, with Joe Thuney possibly moving to center again and Shaq Mason returning at right guard. Herron, meanwhile, is projected to start at right tackle in case Eluemunor is unable to play. While the two have looked good so far whenever on the field — especially given their status as rookies in a season like this — they are still just in their sixth week of NFL regular season action, meaning that the Broncos likely will try to challenge their reaction and communication skills on Sunday.
Accordingly, the two and the players surrounding them need to be at their best to limit what Denver throws at them, particularly in the form of Chubb and Harris.