Scouting Report: What you have to know about Patriots-Broncos

December 17, 2016 - 7:24 am
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[caption id="attachment_79260" align="alignright" width="350"]LeGarrette Blount could get a lot of run this week against the Broncos. (Getty Images) LeGarrette Blount could get a lot of run this week against the Broncos. (Getty Images)[/caption] Everything you need to know for Sunday's game between the Patriots (11-2) and Broncos (8-5) in Denver. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL First, a mea culpa: I was completely wrong last week when it came to New England's run game. I didn't think the Patriots would have the stones to run it as much as they did against the Ravens, and I was stone cold wrong. LeGarrette Blount was immense in the win over Baltimore, leading the way against the toughest run defense in the league. With that out of the way, let me tell you that unless Blount (248 carries, 1,028 yards, 14 TDs) gets the ball 20-plus times against the Broncos, something is amiss. At 29th overall, Denver is one of the worst run defenses in the league, as the Broncos allow 127.2 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Blount and the New England run game is on a roll, with at least 80 yards per game in the last five contests. (That includes 171 rushing yards as a team against the Niners last month.) Expect the Patriots to go all-in on the likes of Blount, as well as James White (33 carries, 132 yards) and Dion Lewis (19 carries, 88 yards) in an attempt to overmatch the Broncos. The real impact should be felt in the second half; if New England is up double-digits in the third and fourth quarter, the Patriots will lean heavily on their big back down the stretch in hopes of getting them to the finish line. A winnable matchup for New England. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL Strength against strength. The Patriots are one of the best passing teams in the league (fourth at 280 yards per game, even without Tom Brady for the first month of the season), while the Broncos boast the best pass defense in the game (183 yards allowed per contest). When you throw in the fact that Brady has traditionally struggled in Denver (he's pretty much a .500 proposition when facing Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips), it shouldn't give you the same level of confidence if he was going up against, say, a Jack Del Rio defense. Denver has more interceptions (12) than touchdowns allowed (10). Aqib Talib and Darian Stewart have three interceptions each, while Von Miller (13.5 sacks) and Shane Ray (6 sacks) lead the pass rush. Additionally, the Broncos' 38 sacks are second in the league to Carolina (39). On Sunday, Brady (69 percent completion rate, 2,876 yards, 22 TDs, 2 INTs, 113.6 passer rating) will look for a variety of targets, including Julian Edelman (79 catches, 126 targets, 791 yards, 2 TDs), Martellus Bennett (48 catches, 62 targets, 614 yards, 5 TDs) and Malcolm Mitchell (28 catches, 42 targets, 358 yards, 4 TDs). Our guess is that Aqib Talib gets Edelman, at least for a sizable portion of the day. And while those guys can't be discounted, it's the running backs out of the backfield who could be the difference-makers on Sunday: the Broncos have occasionally struggled to defend backs in the passing game, and if that remains the case, the James White/Dion Lewis combo (50 catches, 474 yards, 4 TDs for White; 12 catches, 76 yards for Lewis) could be a big focus for Brady and the Patriots' passing game on Sunday. One other potential area of focus for the Patriots: Denver has a fluid situation at inside linebacker, as inside linebacker Todd Davis is returning from a strained oblique that knocked him out of last week's game, while fellow inside linebacker Brandon Marshall has already been ruled out because of a hamstring. With Denver's defensive line and secondary so strong, there could be some vulnerabilities when it comes to short crossing patterns over the middle. WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN THE BALL Denver's run game is just about as bad as its run defense, and so there's not going to be a whole lot of running for the Broncos on Sunday. Denver is 27th in the league in rushing with an average of 93.8 rushing yards per game, and their 3.8 yards per carry is 28th overall. Devontae Booker (149 carries, 511 yards, 3 TDs) and Justin Forsett (6 carries, 17 yards) are the two primary ballcarriers at this point in the season, but that's only because of injuries and ineffectiveness on the part of the other backs who have cycled through the Denver system over the last year. The bottom line here is that given their struggles when it comes to moving the ball on the ground combined with the recent improvements in the New England run defense, it would be a shock if the Broncos did much running. You have to consider the opponents, and the stats do need to be placed in some sort of context. But the change in the New England run defense since the bye has been pretty impressive. Going into the bye, the Patriots were 15th in the league against the run, having allowed an average of 101.6 rushing yards per game. Heading into this weekend's showdown against the Broncos in Denver, they're sixth against the run, giving up an average of 90.2 rushing yards per contest. Again, not exactly high-level competition, but if the numbers had stayed static or even ballooned, we'd be killing them. So it's only right to give them some praise when it's due. WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS THE BALL This is where Denver is going to make its' stand for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Broncos are really bad at running the ball effectively. In the first year of the post-Peyton Manning Era, youngster Trevor Siemian has done an adequate job as the starter: 230-for-376 (61 percent) with 2,730 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passing rating of 89.7. Not great, but not bad. (The one thing we can say definitively is that while Siemian won't remind anyone of Johnny Unitas, the Broncos made the right move going with him instead of Brock Osweiler.) Demaryius Thomas (76 catches, 119 targets, 925 yards, 5 TDs), Emmanuel Sanders (75 catches, 128 targets, 958 yards, 5 TDs) and Booker (21 catches, 29 targets, 153 yards) are his three leading options in the passing game. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have also improved when it comes to pass defense, and while the numbers aren't as dramatic as compared to the run defense, it's still a sign that things are trending in the right direction. Since the bye week, New England has gone from 18th to 15th when it comes to pass defense, with the per game averages going from 253 yards allowed per game to 248 per game. Malcolm Butler leads the team with a pair of interceptions, while Trey Flowers (five sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (four sacks) top a pass rush that has seen a spark as of late. According to the team defense numbers provided by Football Outsiders, the Patriots are pretty much the same across the board when it comes to shutting down a particular position in the passing game. SPECIAL TEAMS Overall, Denver is 12th in the league in kick returns (22.5 yards per return) and 17th in punt returns (8.7 yards per opportunity) Jordan Norwood has done the bulk of the punt return work (8.7 yards per return), while Cody Latimer has served as the closest thing to a primary kick returner (24.7 yards per return). Kicker Brandon McManus is 26-for-30 on field goals and 28-for-29 on extra-point attempts. Punter Riley Dixon is 16th in average (45.6) and seventh in net (41.2). The Patriots got a really impressive performance out of their specialists last week, as Stephen Gostkowski was perfect from the field and Ryan Allen dropped two punts inside the Baltimore 5-yard line. (Gostkowski has put together three straight clean games when it comes to extra points and has hit 13 of his last 14 field-goal tries.) They're going to need that sort of consistency again this week. The return game for New England is a different story: Cyrus Jones can't be trusted anymore, at least not this year, and without Danny Amendola, it will likely be a collective working in the return game. Expectations should be adjusted accordingly. Overall, New England averages 18.9 yards per kick return (tied for 27th) and 7.2 yards per punt return (23rd), with no touchdowns. THE BRONCOS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… they can't figure out a way to make the Patriots a one-dimensional offense. Denver needs to take away either New England's run game or pass attack to be effective. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… they can't protect Brady. New England's offensive line has improved a boatload since last year's AFC title game, both in personnel and health. But they'll need to give the quarterback enough time to get the ball out ahead of Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the ferocious Denver pass rush. If they can, the Patriots will win. If not? It's another story. BY THE NUMBERS: 80 — The first-quarter scoring differential for the two teams. Denver is one of the slowest-starting teams in the league at 23 first-quarter points, while the Patriots are the leagues best with 103 first-quarter points. UNDER THE RADAR PERFORMER: Not sure we can classify a two-time Pro Bowler as an "under-the-radar" guy, but on a defense filled with big names and bigger personalities, Chris Harris Jr. qualifies, at least in this case. The 27-year-old cornerback, who lines up opposite Talib, has carved out an impressive niche since he came out of college as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He has a pair of interceptions this season, and while he's not an elite-level shutdown corner in the mold of some others, he's certainly one of the best No. 2 corners in the league today. He'll likely see a lot of the likes of Mitchell and Chris Hogan on the afternoon, which makes this a matchup to watch. QUOTE OF NOTE: "I just love playing against the Patriots. Tom Brady's the ultimate competitor. I love playing against guys like that. So when I say I hate them, I hate to love them, you know? That's what it is — it's a love-hate thing. I love playing against them, but I hate them at the same time." — Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe on facing the Patriots. Wolfe has something of a checkered past with Brady — he once threatened to eat Brady's children. PREDICTION: This game is going to come down to a few questions: Can Brady direct the offense to a few scores in the early going, build a lead, and set up the running game in the second half? Can New England's offensive line give Brady enough time to operate? And can the depth of the Patriots' coverage guys do enough to slow down the second wave of Denver receivers? That's all going to determine the outcome here. For New England, this is the second of back-to-back games against two of their biggest rivals. Last week, the Patriots answered the first part of the two-part question with a win over the Ravens. If they're able to answer the bell this week on the road in the House of Horrors in Denver, they'll prove their championship character and push the Broncos to the brink of playoff elimination. Call it a win-win. My take? Brady isn't overwhelming, but New England gets two touchdowns and at least four yards per carry from Blount, a big afternoon from Chris Hogan, all while Gostkowski and Marcus Cannon find some measure of redemption for last January's meltdown. Patriots 24, Broncos 21.