Broncos bigs provide stern test for Patriots running game

Hyoung Chang/ Denver Post
It's no secret the Patriots current offense is built around it's ability to run the ball. After an adjustment period following the loss of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have heavily emphasized the run. The results have been impressive, as a red-hot LeGarrette Blount has gobbled up 431 yards and 8 touchdowns in the team's last three games, carrying the offense in the process.

However, that strategy will be put to the test this week against the Denver Broncos, as the Broncos finished the regular season ranked 7th in the league against the run. Some of that was due to Peyton Manning, as opponents often had to abandon the run early after falling behind (the 26.2 carries per game they faced was the eighth fewest in the league), but statistics suggest that Denver was generally a stout run defense whenever they were tested. They gave up a measly 3.9 yards per carry, a figure identical to both the Seahawks and 49ers, while surrendering just 101.6 yards per game on the ground, all figures that rank amongst league leaders.

Even scarier is the fact that Denver actually appear to be improving at stopping the run. They come into the AFC Championship game having held four of their last five opponents under 100 yards rushing for the game. The Chargers, like the Patriots, came into Denver on the strength of a rediscovered ground game, but left with their tails between their legs after being held to 65 yards in the game (albeit with starting tailback Ryan Matthews only managing 5 carries on his injured ankle).

Oddly enough, an injury suffered to starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson against the Patriots back in Week 12 was a catalyst to the team's improvement. Vickerson was in the midst of a good season for the Broncos, but his absence pushed 2013 first round pick Sylvester Williams into the starting lineup, where he has been a revelation for their beat up defense. The 313 pound Williams responded with by far the strongest play of his otherwise quiet rookie season, picking up 2 sacks in the season's final five weeks while being a stout presence against the run.

Williams has the benefit of playing next to behemoth nose tackle Terrance Knighton. Generously listed at 335 pounds, the man formerly known as "Pot Roast" has turned his career around after having discipline issues in Jacksonville, starting all 16 games for the Broncos while providing excellent run defense. At his size, Knighton is nearly impossible to move without double teaming him, occupying blockers that otherwise would be disrupting Denver's speedy linebackers.

How the Patriots deal with those linebackers will be key to getting the running game going. Denver favors speed over power in their linebackers; none of the starters weigh more than Nate Irving's 245 pounds, but all three are physical and athletic, capable of running sideline to sideline and making plays. The Patriots offensive linemen are athletic themselves and often asked to reach the second level, with Nate Solder particularly standing out in that department.

Whether by scheme or simply by execution, it will be imperative for the line (including excellent blocking TEs Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui) to keep Denver's linebackers from shooting the gaps and disrupting plays in the backfield. If they can create creases in the defense and allow Blount and/or Stevan Ridley to get a full head of steam going, the power of those running backs will then favor New England to consistently get yards after contact against Denver's undersized linebackers.

Just as the Patriots have used multiple running backs in an effective rotation, Denver has done so with their depth on the defensive line. Former Charger Shaun Philips has been a godsend, providing much needed pass rush and solid run defense in the absence of Von Miller, but he's merely one of the team's four ends in the rotation. Malik Jackson and former first round pick Robert Ayers have both been solid, while former Patriots draft pick Jeremy Mincey chipped in with a sack of Philip Rivers last week. Mincey was signed midway through December (he had been cut by Jacksonville for disciplinary issues) due to the absence of starter Derek Wolfe, who hasn't played since Denver's matchup with the Patriots after suffering "seizure-like symptoms" on the team bus.

A look back at that Week 12 game shows that New England had some issues moving the ball on the ground, but much has changed for both team's since then. Neither Wolfe nor Kevin Vickerson have appeared in a game since that matchup, with Vickerson being replaced by Williams and Wolfe largely  by a combination of Jackson and Ayers. Likewise, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 6 carries that Sunday night, as each player was benched after an early fumble. The rushing load was improbably placed on Brandon Bolden's shoulders (13 carries, 58 yards, 1 TD); Bolden has since fallen out of the running back rotation thanks to Blount's emergence.

There's no doubting that Denver's big boys up front represent a much tougher test for the Pats than the sieve-like Colts and Bills they've run over recently. However, a closer glance at the Patriots season shows that they've been effective running the ball nearly all year, including in matchups with statistically tough defenses like Carolina and Baltimore.

While the scoreboard (and by that, I mean the defenses ability to keep Manning and co in relative check) will certainly impact the Patriots playcalling, in the end their ability to run the ball will fall on the offensive line's shoulders. X's and O's can help put players in position to succeed, but this game will still likely hinge on whether Logan Mankins and his linemates are up to the task of physically winning their matchups with big, imposing players like Knighton and Williams.