FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady’s best asset Sunday against the Broncos could be the offense’s pace and attitude.
This was evident in the Patriots’ Week 12 victory against the Broncos, as well as the Chargers’ divisional round loss in Denver. Schematically, the Broncos have put together some decent film this season, which is mildly surprising given their defensive rankings of 22nd in scoring, 19th in total yards and 27th in passing yards.
But the Broncos unveiled some vulnerabilities that Brady should exploit in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. If the Pats push the pace on offense, with the pass or run, they should find success. Really, it’s about being the bully on offense and not fearing what Peyton Manning can do when it’s his turn.
“I think you have to figure out what you do well and then go out there and try to do it the best you can,” Brady said. “This is the game where it matters most. This isn’t a big trial-and-error game. This is, ‘Let’s see what we do well. Let’s see how consistent we can be at it, and let’s challenge them.’”
A lack of self-assurance doomed the Chargers during their 24-17 loss Sunday against the Broncos. Certainly, the Chargers deserved to be confident in their fifth-ranked rushing attack, but there has to be a line between overthinking and maintaining a successful identity.
For instance, the Chargers were too ground-heavy despite running back Ryan Mathews and three offensive linemen dealing with injuries that clearly limited their impact. The runs might have restricted Philip Rivers’ ability to keep his rhythm, as he didn’t trust his reads or make the throws that were available, often deferring to check-downs to running backs when there were windows up the seams and on comeback routes due to off coverages. Some routes were even distinguishable through pre-snap reads.
The Patriots will be different. The Broncos, similar to the Colts, don’t utilize much press coverage, and those free releases off the line always benefit Brady and his receivers because they can set up their routes, particularly the crossing patterns that double as safety valves if the pass rush develops too quickly.
Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola need to exploit Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan in coverage. Both linebackers tend to bite early on routes to make up for a lack of quickness, so double moves can definitely give the Pats an advantage. They can also deploy clearing routes, such as sending Edelman on a drag route to suck in a linebacker before releasing Shane Vereen out of the backfield. The Broncos, against both the Patriots and Chargers, showed some real vulnerabilities in covering running backs in passing patterns.
The absence of pass rusher Von Miller and the Broncos’ best man-coverage cornerback Chris Harris takes stress off Brady in the pocket. That might be beneficial against a Broncos defense that showed more willingness to play man in Week 12.
The Patriots tried to take advantage of that in the second half with more complex routes, and their initial touchdown drive was a great example. Kenbrell Thompkins, lined up in the left slot, capitalized on the opening play by running free on a combo crossing pattern with Rob Gronkowski for a 9-yard gain. Two plays later, Thompkins gained 10 yards on a slant when cornerback Kayvon Webster played with outside leverage, a result of Brady identifying a window before the snap. It happened on the next play when Thompkins beat Harris’ off coverage for a 6-yard out. Gronkowski then got free on another combo crossing route, recognized a late safety and turned it into a wheel route for a 33-yard gain.
Brady was also running a quicker pace on those second-half drives, and the Pats displayed an ability to draw up better routes to beat those man coverages. Again, the Pats saw what worked and dictated the tempo, which works to Brady’s liking.
The other debate surrounds how often the Pats should feed bulldozer LeGarrette Blount against the Broncos’ seventh-ranked rush defense. This season, the Patriots have run on 46 percent of their plays in victories and 31 percent in losses, so balance must exist as they try to weave through that defensive front. It’s still not known if the Patriots can run on the Broncos’ heavy front.
“They’re big inside, and they play tough,” Vereen said. “There’s a reason why they’re in the AFC Championship Game.”
The Patriots will have to adapt, too, because the Broncos like to mix it up with their zone looks. Still, their cornerbacks have struggled to fall into proper depth, and that’s led to receivers finding space in front of the safeties and near the sidelines.
Brady will find those openings, and it’s important to do it at his pace for the Broncos have shown they’ll struggle to keep up.