The Patriots are one win away from returning to the Super Bowl with a chance to be the first team to repeat since the 2003-2004 Patriots did the trick. But to do so, they’ll have to beat the Denver Broncos in Mile High, a place where they’ve not played their best football.
Facing the Broncos offense, the big key to victory is to slow down the Denver running game that features Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. After a slow start, the Broncos running game got going down the stretch and averaged over 134 yards per game in their last seven contests.
Having linebacker Dont’a Hightower back and healthy will be a big key here. Hightower is a big bruiser who can fly up in fill the gaps in the running game and still be athletic enough to help in coverage. A look at the stats of the earlier Denver game this year speaks loudly of his value. Denver averaged 2.9 ypc while Hightower was in and 8.8 ypc with three touchdowns after he left via injury.
But even with a limited Peyton Manning under center now, the Broncos still have a potent pass attack. So expect to see a lot of the Patriots ‘Big Nickel’ package with Pat Chung playing a key role. In the Pats big nickel, they bring in an extra safety (Duron Harmon) to play an extra defensive back to go along with Chung and Devin McCourty.
Bill Belichick, never one to go with conventional wisdom, first started this trend a few years ago and now most of the teams in the NFL have followed suit. The key to making it all work rests with Chung, who takes the place of a linebacker down low in the box and has to be aggressive in run support and cover tight ends.
Belichick was ahead of the curve as with the influx of athletic tight ends into the NFL, the Patriots defense in coverage was always susceptible to the tight end. But by replacing a linebacker with a safety instead of a corner, he turned the tables. That’s why the Patriots kept six safeties out of training camp and they’re being successful now.
Chung has been instrumental in this role and has had an outstanding season. After his first stint with the Patriots ended badly, he left via free agency for Philadelphia and had another bad season that ended up with him being released. Belichick reached out to him and vowed to use him to his strengths this time around and with better supporting casts around (McCourty, Harmon), they can play Chung closer to the box and allow him to excel …and he has.
McCourty and Harmon (remember the cries of “bust” when he was drafted?), have done well in the back end of the secondary which allows Chung to either play up in the box, line up on the tight end or sometimes against the slot receiver. They mix things up at times and bring McCourty up to cover the slot at times too with Harmon as the lone deep safety.
Look no further than the Kansas City game last weekend as proof that it works. Against the Chiefs’ 12 (1-RB, 2-TE, 2-WR) or 21 (2-RB, 1-TE, 2-WR), personnel packages, Belichick and Matt Patricia countered with their big nickel look and Chung quietly had a fantastic game. Not only in run support but in shutting down Chiefs’ TE Travis Kelce.
Kelce, the KC athletic tight end also known as ‘Baby Gronk’ is used in much the same manner as the Pats use Rob Gronkowski. He had a big year for KC with 72 catches for 875 yards and 5 touchdowns. He followed that up with a stellar showing against the Texans in the AFC Wild Card game catching 8 passes for 128 yards.
On Saturday Chung took him out of the game; Kelce was relegated as a non-factor and had just six catches for a mere 23 yards. This was while providing solid support in the running game up in the box. With Jeremy Maclin limited with his ankle injury, the taking away of Kelce from the KC offense was a huge win for New England.
Now the Patriots face the Broncos with both Hillman and Anderson in the running game and each can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. The run defense starts with the big men up front; Alan Branch had a solid game against the Chiefs and they’ll need he and Malcom Brown to slow things at the point of attack. Highower will a big factor in trying to slow that running game.
But with the uncertainty of Jamie Collins with his back injury and Jerod Mayo being placed on IR on Tuesday, look for the Patriots to go with their big nickel package. If they’re successful, much of that will have to do with the play of Chung. He may not be getting a ton of recognition for it, but his value is well-known with the coaching staff.
And if they do their job on Sunday, they’ll be packing their bags for Santa Clara.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2015 NFL Season 2015 Patriots Season Big Nickel package Bill Belichick C. J. Anderson Chandler Jones Denver Broncos Devin McCourty Duron Harmon extra safeties Jordan Richards Malcolm Butler Matt Patricia Nate Ebner New England Patriots NFL Pat Chung Patriots Patriots edge rushers Peyton Manning Rob Ninkovich Ronnie Hillman Tavon Wilson