By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return home on Sunday to take on the Denver Broncos and old nemesis Peyton Manning at 4:15 p.m. in Foxboro.
Last week- The Patriots used a huge second half to blow out Buffalo 52-28 while the Broncos behind a big day from Manning thrashed division rival Oakland 37-6.
The two teams met twice last season with the Patriots coming out on top both times, 41-23 in Denver and 45-10 in the playoffs in Foxboro. However, both games featured Tim Tebow at QB for the Broncos.
This one will have the added drama of a Tom Brady – Peyton Manning matchup and all the resultant hoopla that always surrounds the game when the two play against one another. Usually a Brady – Manning matchup consists of one or both teams coming in undefeated and had connotations of home field advantage at stake. So if the past is an indicator, this game, like so many others may be another one score game. And with no further ado, it’s on to the matchups…
Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots offense showed how balanced and deadly it can be when everything goes right in their dismantling of the Bills. Running between the tackles, a lot of it on the Bills sub-defense, the Patriots gashed them to the tune of 247 yards. While expecting that kind of performance every week is very unrealistic, it highlights the balance the team is looking for.
Both Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden gained 100 yards and it made the Patriots passing game find huge holes in the Bills secondary. The offensive line dominated the Bills front four at the point of attack and got a good push all game long.
Denver is doing a great job of stopping the run, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and 87 yards per game in rushing defense. In the middle, DTs Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson eat up blocks and allow the LBs to come in and make plays. Joe Mays returns from a one game suspension and will bolster the defense.
It will be an interesting matchup to watch how the New England OL does at the point of attack this week. The key here is patience, Josh McDaniels has to stick to the running game and try to again take advantage of some of the lighter sub-packages.
Broncos Running Game-
Willis McGahee is having a very good year so far in 2012, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, having Manning at the helm at QB certainly doesn’t hurt as opponents have to remain honest. The Broncos will want to get him going and make things easy for Manning in terms of down and distance.
It is nearly impossible to use any of the stats from last year, as this offense resembles nothing from last season’s spread option attack. But the Denver OL certainly had its way with the New England front seven in the first half of that matchup.
The Patriots run defense shut down Buffalo’s rushing game until that game was out of hand and this will be their goal this week. It isn’t known if LB Dont’a Hightower will be available for this one after pulling a hamstring last week in Buffalo.
One interesting matchup will be Broncos backup C Dan Koppen against DT Vince Wilfork. Koppen returns to Foxboro to take on his former team, where he won all 3 New England Super Bowls as the starting center. Pressed into service when J.D. Walton went down with a broken ankle, Koppen was his normal reliable self last week in Oakland. He and Wilfork practiced against one another for years, so both know each other as well as anyone. Watch to see if Koppen can handle Wilfork alone or needs help.
But the guy to watch in this game, especially against McGahee is MLB Brandon Spikes. Spikes is an instinctive downhill player and in the running game, he’s outstanding. Spikes will be looking to blow plays up in the backfield, last week he caused two fumbles (one inside the Patriots 5 yard line), both of which New England recovered.
Patriots Passing Game-
The Patriots passing game has been an evolving one so far this season, Aaron Hernandez was being groomed to be the focal point until he went down with an injury. Then the curious decision to try to force feed Julian Edelman the ball as the #2 WR produced little until he too went down with an injury.
Now they’ve gone back to what works best, work Wes Welker underneath and TE Rob Gronkowski on matchups against LBs and safeties with Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch split wide to keep defenses honest.
Denver has two good corners in the ageless Champ Bailey and new guy Tracy Porter who can take away the game outside the numbers. Porter is a gambler who likes to lay off a bit and break on the ball for a turnover. They also have two outstanding pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller who can definitely get after the QB. Denver has 10 sacks thus far this season. The matchup between Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer against Dumervil and Miller will bear watching. Twice last season, the Patriots did a good job and kept the rush off of Brady. And twice Brady tortured the middle of the Denver defense scoring 40 points + on both occasions.
That is where the Patriots will attack, the middle as neither safety Rahim Moore or Mike Adams can stop Gronkowski. They’ll need help in the middle and from the pass rush. That is the key to the offensive game plan for New England. Keep Brady upright and attack the middle of the field.
Broncos Passing Game-
First of all, forget all the “Manning has no arm strength anymore” mantra that some people are writing about after a bad first half against Atlanta a few weeks ago. On Sunday Manning dissected a Raiders defense to the tune of 30-38 for 338 yards and 3 TDs and looked like the guy that wore blue for so many years.
The majority of what has plagued Manning thus far this season is unfamiliarity and rust. He didn’t throw a football for over a year while recovering from neck surgery and it will take time. Is his arm the same then? No, but he can still make all the throws he needs to and he’s getting his timing down with a fleet of new receivers.
The Broncos have a good group of WRs in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Stokely and tight end Jacob Tamme. The Broncos like to pass on mostly screens, swing passes, and pick plays where they open up short crossing patterns. Manning and Denver like to attack the middle of the field also (sounds familiar).
The Patriots secondary is struggling again, at the top of the list is corner Kyle Arrington. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick had nearly a perfect QB rating throwing against Arrington last week. Devin McCourty rebounded with a strong game last week but has been criticized a lot as well this season. But the real problem besides breakdowns in coverage has been the play of the safeties and the linebackers in coverage.
Pat Chung and Steve Gregory both had poor games in Buffalo. Bad angles, late breaks and bad tackling and coverage added up to a 350 yard game for Fitzpatrick. The four interceptions helped mask what otherwise would have been a total nightmare for the secondary.
They’ll have to play much, much better against Denver and Manning if they are to come out on top this week. One area that they could use some help in is the pass rush. But for the most part this season, there hasn’t been any. The Patriots re-signed LB Bobby Carpenter which should help with coverage in sub-packages especially on the tight end.
The question is, do the Patriots try to force the issue and bring pressure on Manning or sit back in zones all game and make him pick his way down the field? Well if the first quarter of the season is any indication, they won’t blitz much at all.
The Raiders tried to cover the deep part of the field and Manning only threw down field (10 yards+) a handful of times. But Manning had wide open check-downs where he picked them apart underneath. Guaranteed the Patriots are watching that film closely.
Both teams are very solid in the kicking department, and despite Stephen Gostkowski’s two missed FGs in the first half last week when the game was still in doubt, he didn’t have a total bad game as both he and P Zoltan Mesko took away the very dangerous return man Leodis McKelvin by limiting his opportunities (0 punt returns, 1 KR return).
However, Gostkowski’s recent struggles kicking field goals have got to be a concern now for the Patriots coaches. His miss of a very makeable kick against Arizona as time ran out, was the difference between winning and losing. Coupled that with two misses in Buffalo, the question has to be asked, what is going on with normally very reliable kicker?
Denver has two outstanding kickers in their own right in K Matt Prater and P Britton Colquitt. Colquitt has averaged 48 yards per punt in the rarified Rocky Mountain air, but he is very good at sea level as well.
Both teams have very solid coverage units and less than stellar return games. With Edelman out with a hand injury, Wes Welker has been returning punts and Devin McCourty with kickoffs but neither has really stood out. Jim Leonhard and Omar Bolden have been Denver’s returners and again, neither has made much of an impact yet.
The Patriots return home after playing three of their first four on the road. They are traditionally an extremely solid team at home. The team is coming off of a big win in Buffalo and many of the writers around the team have commented that the team feels that is ready for a breakout and move forward.
While Denver is a new location for Manning, the Patriots know full well how tough the matchup will be against him on Sunday. Their preparation level will have to be high as he always seems to have a big game against them.
This will be an entertaining game to watch as are all of the ones where Brady and Manning go against one another. Fast friends in the off-season, but intense competitors on the field, this is one of those games fans of the game should cherish as these type situations are not going to be around too much longer.
This will be another close game as these always seem to be. I think that the Patriots will stop the Broncos running game and force the game into Manning’s hands. But Manning has figured out the Bill Belichick defense, and they haven’t fooled him with their coverages in a long time.
If they plan on showing one coverage and switching to another, they have to be disciplined enough not to show their hand too soon or he’ll recognize it and throw elsewhere.
The one area the Patriots defense will have to look for are those crossing routes and pick plays that the Broncos have been using to great effect. Perhaps by bringing back Carpenter at LB, he can help remedy that situation.
On offense, I do think by mixing it up the Patriots will be able to run the ball and that by doing so it will open up the middle of the field even more. The key will be in trying to catch the edge rushers coming up the field and running at them. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden will find the going tough but I think their production will pick up in the second half.
Denver has a smaller, athletic defense, they play fast and aggressive. The Patriots will have to go to a lot of no huddle and wear them down. I think Brady will attack the safeties with Gronkowski and Wes Welker always presents a unique challenge.
This one will be close but I think the Patriots hold serve at home, both Brady and Manning will have very good days, but the running game makes the difference. Patriots 31-24