3TFO: Broncos @ Patriots, Week 12
After a tough loss in a playoff-type atmosphere on Monday night, the New England Patriots will look to rebound at home in another prime time game. Though they were unable to pull off the last-second win, the Patriots have to be encouraged by the progress that their offense has shown in the past two games. Tom Brady finally has a healthy group of receivers and he has responded with two of his best games of the season. The offense will now need to pick up the slack for a defense that has been ravaged by injuries. By the end of Monday’s game, the team was missing six starters on defense from their opening day lineup.
Denver has enjoyed an excellent 2013 season, and last week’s win against an undefeated Kansas City team may have been their biggest win yet. The Broncos have no time to relax, however, as they will face the Chiefs in Arrowhead after their trip to Foxborough this week. Denver’s offense has been incredible this season. Against an elite Chiefs’ defense last week, the Broncos were “limited” to a season-low 27 points. The Patriots will need to score often if they hope to beat Denver this week, which should set the stage for another classic shootout between Brady and Peyton Manning.
Containing Von Miller
Von Miller has dominated since his first game back from suspension, and has firmly established himself as one of the league’s elite defensive players. Despite playing in just four games this season, Miller somehow leads all 4-3 outside linebackers with a +18.9 grade. Miller has proven throughout his young career that he is equally capable of being a destructive force both as a pass rusher and in run defense, and needs to be accounted for on every snap. After a relatively quiet game last week, Miller will surely be motivated to bounce back in a major way on a national stage.
When these teams met last season, the Patriots’ offense employed an interesting strategy to limit Miller’s effectiveness. Whenever Miller was on the sideline, New England went to a no-huddle offense so that the Broncos could not substitute Miller back into the game. Miller rarely comes off the field, but he played just 65 of 97 snaps that week. The former Aggie was still able to earn a career-best +12.3 grade in his limited snaps, a figure that fully justifies the concern that the Patriots had for him in that game. On paper, Miller appears to have an advantageous matchup this week against backup tackle Marcus Cannon, though Cannon has done a nice job replacing Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, and has yet to allow a sack in his three games at that position. He will have to be at his very best this week against one of the best pass rushers that the league has to offer.
Broncos Receivers vs. Patriots Secondary
It is difficult to argue that any team has a better group of receivers than the Broncos. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker have all enjoyed outstanding seasons, and all three rank in the Top 10 in our WR Rating statistic. Manning has a passer rating that is better than 100 when throwing to each of them. Tight end Julius Thomas has also been excellent, ranking fourth among tight ends with 2.01 Yards per Route Run. Manning has thrown for more than 300 yards in every game this year except for the Jacksonville game where he threw for 295. This passing offense has looked completely unstoppable in 2013, and the Patriots’ defense will have done its job if it can limit Denver to field goals in the red zone.
The unenviable task of defending Denver’s group of receivers got even tougher for the Patriots this week, as starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard underwent knee surgery, and has already been declared out for this game. With Aqib Talib clearly still limited by a hip injury, New England will need great performances from its depth corners in order to pull out a win on Sunday. If Talib is unable to go, the Patriots will be left with Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, and Marquice Cole as the only corners on the roster. Arrington has been solid this year, but he does his best work in the slot, while Cole is a career special teams player who will be badly out of his element against any of the Broncos’ receivers. Though he is currently our highest-graded safety, these injuries may force Devin McCourty (+18.3) to move back to his original position of corner, where he played capably last season before moving to safety. On paper, the Broncos have a huge advantage in this matchup.
Broncos Offensive Line vs. Patriots Defensive Line
Given the attrition that the Patriots are facing in the secondary, their best chance of slowing down Manning is to pressure him consistently. Denver proved last week that this is easier said than done, holding the Chiefs’ phenomenal pass rush without a single hit or sack.
Even without Ryan Clady, the Broncos lead all offensive lines with a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 84.2. Chris Clark has filled in admirably for Clady, and Orlando Franklin and Clark rank second and sixth, respectively, in PBE among tackles. The team’s best lineman has been guard Louis Vasquez (+18.5), who has yet to allow a sack or hit on Manning. Manning makes the lives of his linemen easier by getting rid of the ball more quickly than any other quarterback; no QB has a faster time to attempt than his 2.3 seconds. Between the pass blocking ability of the linemen in front of him and the speed that the ball leaves his hand, getting pressure on Manning has been nearly impossible for most teams this year.
New England currently ranks 31st in our cumulative pass rushing grades, and the group will need to step up their game in a major way this week. Not one of the defensive linemen currently on the roster has a positive pass rushing grade, and the group has been inconsistent in that area all year. Chandler Jones has 11 sacks, but has yet to develop into the relentless, every-down threat that the team needs him to be. The Patriots very seldom blitz, but they had great success blitzing both linebackers and defensive backs in their win against Miami earlier this year. Given the impact that this game could have on playoff seeding, it would not be a surprise to see defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pull out all the stops again in order to keep Manning from tearing apart a secondary that could be missing up to three starters.