It’s no secret the Bronco’s secondary is a physically imposing group, superior in size to each of the Pats offensive weapons outside of Rob Gronkowski. But the Pats have been here before, having three times in the postseason gone up against the league’s #1 defense. And every time it has produced a W for New England. So why be concerned now? Or should the Patriots even be concerned at all.
I’m gettting ahead of myself here. Of course they should. But if the Pats can play within their offensive scheme Sunday, there will be few chances for Denver to slow them down.
Play inside the numbers
The Chiefs headed into last Sunday’s match-up as the top interior passing defense in the league. Able to maintain their zone integrity and keep pace in man-to-man. So how did the Pats tear them apart?
By playing right into Kansas City’s hands
On a 1st and 10 from New England’s own 31, KC lined up in a Cover 1. The core premise of the Cover 1 being the funneling of receivers inside the hash-marks. The “1” standing for the Free-Safety, operating in the field’s deep middle-third; where the outside corners-positioned to take away vertical and sideline routes- hope to corral the receivers towards “centerfield.”
The Chiefs thought to have a perfect scheme to combat the Patriots inside attack. But the Pats were not deterred. In fact it was quite the opposite.
Pre-snap the Chiefs are playing a “sagged-off man,” hoping to counter New England’s spread offense and take away the “chunk plays” Brady often completes to a Gronk running free down the seam.
As Gronk lines up as the inside receiver in the “trix formation”, KC sees the Pats attempting to clear out space for Gronk to run vertically up the hash, there-by taking advantage of his match-up with a linebacker, only to find a poaching safety over the top.
But the Pats don’t take the bait. Instead, Brady has Gronk run a quick arrow route to the outside, forcing linebacker Josh Mauga to tail him to the sideline. Meanwhile, Julian Edelman (stacked underneath the wide-man James White) runs an 8-yard inward slant, rig
Due to the defensive back’s neglecting to press, Brady has the space to deliver the ball to Edelman before the dime-back can get there.
Essentially, the Chiefs coverage back-fired. The goal was to funnel the receivers inside, which is exactly what the Pats planned to do and eventually did. However, KC was banking that Gronk would be the primary target and Brady would lick his chops at the Linebacker match-up before realizing the Free-Safety was tracking the ball.
Instead, Gronk served as a decoy. A way to clear the hashmarks not for a vertical route, but a crossing receiver. KC’s only hope was outside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who would’ve been able to cut-off the passing lane if his assignment-Danny Amendola- was funneled inside. Amendola however- like Gronk- cleared to the sideline and forced Johnson to initially pursue. Giving Brady just what he wanted; an un-obstructed passing lane over the middle.
The Pats are not an offense that stretches the field vertically. There are no AJ Greens, no Demaryius Thomas type players in Foxboro. Instead, New England must stick to what NFL analyst Bucky Brooks has dubbed their “spread and shred” attack to best the Broncos. Pittsburgh’s Martivis Bryant, Sammi Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey each had more than 20 yards after the catch last Sunday. A stat-line boding well for New England who rank 4th in YAC for the 2015 season. Expect OC Josh McDaniels to put the Pats WR’s in open space at Mile-High, likely through pick-and-rub routes inside that neutralize the Bronco’s pressing physicality at the line of scrimmage. For by running Amendola or Edelman underneath one another, it forces the defense to sag-off the line, the corners now scared to get caught in the pick trap.The Pats WR’s will lose out on a jump ball and fall flat on a fade, but in the open field and when cutting between the hash-marks, few teams are more effective at springing their players loose.
Use the speed. Run the spread. Negate the size.
Gronk will likely be matched up with 6’1” cornerback Aqib Talib this Sunday, Talib the only corner with a chance to challenge Gronk’s combination of speed and size. However, it is possible Talib will match-up with Julian Edelman (5’10”) for part of the day, a match-up New England must exploit as Talib- as physical as he is- lags far behind Edelman in the speed/agility department. Assuming DB Chris Harris Jr. is healthy enough to go, the Pats could see Harris Jr. covering Edelman in the slot, hoping Harris’ 4.40 speed and equivalent height/weight can keep Julian at bay between the hash-marks. However, if Harris Jr. isn’t 100% (still a game time decision for Sunday), Kubiak will place him across the line of scrimmage from the Pats #3 wide-out; Danny Amendola.
The solution to Denver’s size is in shallow-option routes, allowing the Pats agile receivers to seek out the open space revealed by the spread. As the season progressed the Broncos begun incorporating more and more zone looks into their defensive scheme, expect to see that Sunday as Denver will likely give Brady a combination of both zone and man-to-man coverage. However this is less to confuse #12 and more to give Denver’s DB’s a chance to negate the Patriots’ agility advantage in man-to-man match-ups. For in a zone scheme the success relies less upon the receiver vs. corner and more the QB’s ability to find and carve up the coverage pockets. But as Peter King reports for Monday Morning QuarterBack, the Broncos’ zone schemes are still fraught with mismatches- particularly between the numbers where a majority of zones inherently rely on the LB’s to defend the intermediate space- right where New England’s receivers prefer to pick-up yardage. If the Pats can spread James White or Rob Gronkowski wide, Denver’s DB’s will be pre-occupied. Leaving Edelman, Martin and Amendola in the slot against linebacker’s Brandon Marshall and Danny Travathan.
Isolate Gronkowksi, but not like we're used to.
Having a corner on Gronk will not deter Brady from going his way, nor should it. Gronkowski will likely be double-teamed over the top at which point it is advantage Denver. But if the Pats bring Gronk inside, #87 can essentially box out his one-on-one coverage while the rest are focused on the Pat’s slot targets.
Take this 3rd quarter first down for New England in the Divisional. Gronkowski is split wide to the bottom of the screen, the Chiefs (playing man-to-man) assigning 6-footer Tyvon Branch to the Tight End. For like Denver, KC is confident in their DB’s size and therefore ability to defend Gronk one-on-one. The reason of course being that Brady will look to take advantage of Gronk’s 6’6” frame with a fade route, hopefully ignorant to the safety help over-head.
But what happens when the big man cuts inside and isolates the corner in man-to-man? On this particular play, New England has halfback James White slotted underneath Gronk. Upon the snap, White clears to the sideline and takes his assignment (LB Derrick Johnson) along with him. Meanwhile, Lafell, Amendola and Edelman line-up to the left side of the formation, Lafell and Danny clearing up field whilst Julian cuts in and then back out again.
The Chief’s confidence in their man-to-man bites them here. For naturally their corners stick to their assignments, those who essentially act as nothing more than space-clearing decoys for a cutting Gronk in the middle.
And it’s too easy for New England. Gronk a proverbial power-forward backing down a shooting-guard.
Aqib Talib will act as such a guard on Sunday, safety TJ Ward his “help-man” in the deep “perimeter” of the field. But if Gronk sticks to the “paint,” to high-efficiency routes in a cleared-out middle, Denver is in trouble.
By Cam Mellin