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Can Manning muster one more Super Bowl appearance despite his diminishing arm strength? 
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. This week needs no introduction: it's the AFC Championship game and Peyton Manning is once again the last man standing between Tom Brady's Patriots and another Super Bowl appearance. Brady v Manning will dominate the pre-game narratives, but the real challenges will lie elsewhere for the Patriots. The Broncos boast arguably the league's best defense and a zone rushing attack that has given the Patriots fits over the years. Furthermore, they'll be playing in the mile high confines of Invesco Field, where Brady is 2-6 with a couple of ugly playoff losses in his career. Games don't get much bigger than this one, so I'm dividing the scouting report into two posts, with this one focusing on the offense. Lets dive right into the matchups that should play out on the field come Sunday.

Denver offense

It seems bizarre to say this about Peyton's Broncos, but the offense has been the weak-link of this team all season. They ranked middle-of-the-pack in most major statistical categories this year, including scoring (22.2 ppg, 19th), yards (5,688, 16th), first downs (314, 19th) and net yards per passing attempt (6.2, 21st). Turnovers were a huge part of the problem, as only the lowly Titans and Romo-less Cowboys committed more giveaways than Denver's 31. This was largely thanks to the quarterback play, as the Broncos threw only 19 touchdown passes against a league-high 23 interceptions. Manning himself finished second in the league with 17 interceptions despite only starting 9 regular season games.

With Manning's play deteriorating this year, the Broncos offense became incredibly reliant on their rushing game to keep the chains moving and the down-and-distance situations favorable. Including the playoffs, the Broncos are 9-1 when they reach 100 yards on the ground and just 4-3 when they fail to do so. They rushed for a respectable 4.2 yards per carry during the regular season and have improved throughout the season. Over the past 8 games, they've averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 131 rushing yards per game.

Anderson will run right through arm tackles
Denver's two headed backfield of CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have split the carries pretty evenly, despite Anderson being the more effective of the two. A powerful, no-nonsense downhill runner, Anderson averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry this season, including a season-high 113 yard effort against the Patriots back in week 12. At 5'8" and 224 pounds, Anderson has a compact, squatty-build which tacklers will bounce off of if they don't bring both fundamentals and physicality to their tackling efforts. Poor tackling was a major part of the Patriots breakdowns against Anderson and the Denver running game in that regular season matchup. The tackling was pretty good last week against the Chiefs, but the possible absence of linebacker Jamie Collins bears monitoring.

While Anderson powers through would-be tacklers, Hillman is more likely to run around them. The fourth year pro has explosive speed, making him a threat to turn any given play into a long gain. Like Anderson, Hillman runs hard and has a good feel for Kubiak's blocking scheme, which is the classic "one cut and go" zone that churned out 1,000 yard season after 1,000 yard season from multiple anonymous backs during the Mike Shanahan era in Denver. With him being more likely to bounce a run outside than Anderson, setting a good hard edge will be essential when he's in the game. His speed makes him particularly dangerous in space, which Denver will try to take advantage of with the occasional screen pass.

Speaking of Kubiak's zone scheme, the Pats will have to do a much better job of defending against it than they have in the past. Recent memory includes that Week 12 game and last year's nailbiter against Baltimore in the playoffs (Kubiak was Baltimore's offensive coordinator), both games in which the opponent was able to move the ball on the ground. However, a closer look reveals that this is a long-standing trend: Belichick's defenses, which are predicated on gap control up front, have struggled against those zone concepts.



The basic zone stretch run is an incredibly simple concept. The entire line fires out in the same direction and gets a hat on a hat, often with a double team on the playside defensive tackle to ensure movement. Instead of running through an assigned gap, the running back has the freedom to cut through whichever gap opens up. When executed well, it's incredibly tough to defend, leading to repeated demoralizing chunk plays on the ground.

There's really no magic scheme to counter zone blocking either. Stopping this style of rushing attack simply requires excellent play up front. Can the defensive tackles (mostly Malcom Brown and Alan Branch) hold their ground and not get moved by the double teams they'll surely face on Sunday? Can the defensive end trio of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard set and maintain a hard edge, squeezing down against the grain of the play and limiting the back's space? Can the linebackers stay unblocked and clean up the plays the defensive line does give up? They certainly have the talent to do so, but going out and doing it on the field is a different story. Check out SuperbowlCommercials for some good entertainment before the Game Day!

Linebacker play is often key to stopping these concepts, which only heightens the importance of Jamie Collins' availability. The Patriots were stingy in Week 12 when they had both Collins and Dont'a Hightower, but shifted to sieve-like when Hightower was lost to a knee sprain in that game. Hightower's downhill physicality will be a huge asset in this game (I could see Patricia calling more run blitzes than normal to try to blow up Denver's runs before they have a chance to set up), but there will be a considerable talent drop off if Collins can't go. The next man up would likely be Jonathan Freeny, whose tackling will surely be effected by playing with a cast over his dislocated wrist. The rest of the depth chart consists of special teams players: Jon Bostic, Dekoda Watson and local hero Darius Fleming.

Stopping the run is particularly important this week because of Denver's inability to protect the quarterback. Few offensive lines have been hit with as many injuries as Denver, and that attrition has had obvious effects on their play on the field. Not only will running the ball well allow Denver to stick to their preferred run-heavy play calling, but it will also keep the down and distances managable, avoiding the obvious passing situations that could expose their replacement level talent at tackle, where they're down to their third and fourth stringers.

The plan this season was for veteran Pro Bowler Ryan Clady to once again protect Peyton Manning's blindside, with rookie and left tackle of the future Ty Sambrailo getting a year of training on the fly at right tackle. Instead, Clady was lost for the season to injury before training camp had even broke, and Sambrailo made it through three ugly games at left tackle before he too was lost for the season to injury. As a result, veteran swing tackle Ryan Harris has been forced into left tackle duty, where he's been one of the worst starters in football. He's still somehow been the better starting tackle on this line, as 2014 third round pick Michael Schofield has been atrocious in protection on the right side. The Patriots stable of pass rushers has a major on-paper talent advantage matching up against these two, and they should be expected to dominate.

The interior of the Denver line is slightly better, although still below average overall. Former Eagle Evan Mathis is by far Denver's best offensive lineman. While just average in protection, Mathis graded as the best run blocker amongst all guards in football by Profootballfocus this year. That makes him the opposite of fellow starter Louis Vasquez, who has been Denver's most consistent linemen in pass protection but a poor run blocker. The weak spot of the interior is rookie center Matt Paradis, who spent much of that Week 12 game getting manhandled by Alan Branch. Look for the Pats to attack him with twists and stunts, as well as disguised pressures from Hightower and, if he's out there, Collins.

When Denver does decide to pass, I could see the Pats go with a pretty simple game plan. Denver's passing play book is pretty limited with Manning under center. Due to his diminishing arm strength, there aren't many 'shot' plays down the field. Instead, there's plenty of quick receiver screens mixed in with basic hitch and slant combinations, routes short enough that Manning can consistently complete them even without getting much zip on the ball. Pittsburgh turned out to be an advantageous matchup for him because they typically play a soft zone that gave him and his receivers enough space to work that short stuff.

Can Butler limit the acrobatic Sanders?
With two excellent corners and a bevy of talented safeties at their disposal, New England should stick with what got them here: sticky man-to-man coverage. I would expect the matchups to stay about the same, with Malcolm Butler taking the shifty Emmanuel Sanders and Logan Ryan on the bigger Demaryius Thomas. While they won't play the same coverage throughout the game (doing so is essential suicide against the cerebral Manning), I'd expect them to largely play aggressive and physical, give little cushion, disrupt the timing of the short passes and dare Manning to beat them over the top.

The one caveat to that strategy is the amount of responsibility placed on Butler's shoulders. With the Ryan/Thomas matchup requiring safety help shaded in that direction, he'd be on an island for much of the game against the dangerous Sanders. Butler has had an excellent season in his second year, but Sanders beat him several times in the Week 12 matchup. He'll have to come up with one of his best performances to keep Sanders, who finished the year with 76 catches, 1,135 yards and six touchdowns, in check. Not only does Sanders have enough speed to beat a defense deep, but his shiftiness makes him a tough tackle in space. Butler's strong open field tackling will be put to the test in this one.

Ryan memorably dominated that matchup back in Week 12, with Thomas catching just one pass all game in an ugly, drop-filled performance. He'll need to dial it back to that level, as he's struggled for about a month now in coverage. The Chiefs had success attacking him last week despite their lack of proven pass catching talent, and there are few receivers in the league with more talent than the freakish Thomas. Blessed with size (6'3", 230), blazing speed and length, Thomas is a prototype number one receiver. He can beat you deep and win in contested catch situations down the field, but he's also a nightmare to tackle when he gets the ball in space. Denver will try to take advantage of that with quick receiver screens, often out of bunch formations which require his defender to sift through traffic just to get a hand on him.

Ryan's tackling and physicality are not in question, but his coverage down the field recently has been. He'd undoubtedly have help over the top on nearly every play against a receiver of Thomas' caliber, likely from either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon. Ryan's technique took advantage of that help masterfully in the last meeting, as he'd often sit under Thomas' route to play him right into the double team. His ability to replicate that performance will be key to preventing the star receiver from making amends for Week 12's dud performance.

Those top two receivers make up the bulk of Denver's passing game production. The last time these teams played, they were making a conscious effort to incorporate the recently acquired Vernon Davis into their offense. Drops and an inability to grasp the offense have since led to his benching, leading Owen Daniels and Virgil Green to split the reps at tight end. Daniels is a reliable pass catcher who has spent his entire career in Kubiak's offense, but the 33 year old has clearly lost a step from his Pro Bowl seasons with the Texans. Green on the other hand is a good blocker who is used sparingly in the passing game. Patrick Chung has eliminated far more dangerous tight ends than these this season, and will be counted on to bring his usual sticky man coverage on the Denver tight ends.

No one has particularly emerged as Denver's third receiver either. Many were projecting a breakthrough season for former second round pick Cody Latimer this year, but he's barely gotten on the field. Instead, it's been a three-man group of veterans Jordan Norwood and Andre Caldwell (yes, bug eyed Reche's brother) along with youngster Bennie Fowler fighting for snaps and targets. Norwood appears to have the slight edge in playing time this season, but the gap isn't particularly great. When the Broncos do go three wide, Justin Coleman will likely take whoever is out there from this group. I wouldn't predict a lot of 3 wide though, as going with more multiple tight end sets could help the running game for the Broncos.

In short:

This is an offense with some significant talent at the skill positions, but also some serious flaws. Bill Belichick has always built his game plans around taking away the opponents strengths, forcing them to beat him with the things they don't do as well. That approach be very advantageous if executed well against these Broncos.

Key to it all will be stopping the run. Without much of a vertical passing game and a poor pass protecting line, Denver needs to minimize it's exposure to obvious passing situations. When they run the ball well, it opens up a lot of options for an otherwise limited offense, When the run is shut down, opposing defenses can sit on their short passing game and suffocate their offense. Peyton's limited arm strength and mobility allows the defense to get away with defending less of the field than they did against the stronger armed and more athletic Brock Osweiler. If the Patriots can take away the run, the onus will be on Denver's skill position players to dominate and for Peyton to hit throws he's struggled to make all year. Players like Thomas and Sanders will make a play or two: they are too talented to be held down all game. However, can they do so consistently enough for Denver to move the ball and outscore the Patriots offense? I'd take my chances.

Ned Brady 1/22/2016 03:22:00 PM Edit
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