How Can The Patriots Defeat Denver’s Pass Defense?

Steve Balestrieri
December 15, 2016 at 11:30 am ET

All-22 Film From Atlanta May Hold the Key

Facing the #1 pass defense of the Denver Broncos is always a tough task, for the Patriots, facing them in Denver makes it even tougher. The thin air of the Rocky Mountains has been a tough place for Tom Brady and the Patriots and this week will be no exception.

So how will the Patriots and Josh McDaniels decide to attack the vaunted Denver pass defense this week? Well, we know that the game plan will feature more of the running game, an area that the Broncos defense has struggled in this year. The answer to the passing dilemma may rest with the running backs as well.

We rolled back the tape of the Denver Week 5 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. In that game, while the Broncos excellent tandem of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris at cornerback kept the Falcons duo at WR of Julio Jones and Mohammad Sanu in check, it was the backs who did the major damage for Matt Ryan.

Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman had a combined 286 yards from scrimmage during Atlanta’s win in Denver that day. Freeman did the bulk of his work on the ground, grinding out 88 yards and a touchdown. While Coleman was devastating thru the air catching four passes for 132 yards and a score. Atlanta mixed up the run and pass well that day and the combination of the two backs along with fullback Patrick DeMarco took advantage of matchups. The Falcons attacked inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis by isolating them in coverage.

The Patriots have three backs with LeGarrette Blount, James White and Dion Lewis who the Pats use in much the same way along with fullback James Develin. It comes down to getting the right matchups and execution.

Here’s a look at the Coaches’ All-22 film from NFL Gamepass that highlights how Atlanta was successful.

Coleman 48-yard Pass Play: On the Falcons first possession, they go with three wide receivers with the tight end aligned in line on the right. Two receivers are bunched together on the left. Ryan moves Coleman out to the right slot where he’s isolated on a linebacker. Denver is playing man coverage with two deep safeties in a Cover 2.

At the snap, the three wide receivers run deep patterns taking their coverage with them down the field. After chipping the edge rusher, tight end Jacob Tamme runs a shallow cross with Coleman. Coleman runs underneath and gets a free release when both Broncos defenders get caught up in the legal pick play by Tamme.

Coleman runs a short 4-5-yard slant and Ryan hits him with the pass easily in stride. With the receivers clearing out the coverage, there is a huge gap in the middle of the field. Coleman catches the pass and turns up the field, where the safeties are much too deep to influence the play.

Freeman 14 Yard Pass Play: During the same opening drive, the Falcons once again, used their running backs in a mismatch against the linebackers. This time Ryan flexed Freeman out to the left slot where he was aligned with Marshall. Denver this time is in a Cover 3 where the safeties again take deep drops.

At the snap, Freeman runs a dig route where once he gets the ball from Ryan, about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, he reverses his run and cut back to the outside where he picks up about 8-9 more yards on the play.

Coleman 31-yard Touchdown: Coleman later burned Marshall badly for a deep touchdown pass from Ryan where the safety seemed to be in double coverage on Jones to the outside.

Atlanta lines up with three wide receivers, with two to the left and one to the right. Coleman moves to the left slot giving Atlanta three receivers on one side where he’s again in single coverage with Marshall.

At the snap, Coleman blows right by Marshall, who is chase mode. Ryan lays the ball out perfectly for Coleman at the 10-yard line. Safety T.J. Ward who was providing deep coverage to the outside can’t react in time and Coleman has the touchdown.

Coleman 49-Yard Pass Reception: Atlanta got aggressive at their own 25-yard line by going five wide with three wide receivers, the tight end, and Coleman split out to the slot on the right. Denver is in man coverage with a single deep safety, Ward in the middle of the field.

Davis gives Coleman a nice cushion but froze flat-footed at the snap, perhaps the crowd noise distracting him. Coleman blows right by him and is wide open down the sideline. Once again Ryan delivers the ball perfectly and Ward is late in getting over. The result was another huge gain for the Falcons.

The Patriots can use White and Lewis in similar ways this week, they can show run and motion them out to the outside where they’ll have single coverage on the linebackers. White has functioned almost as a slot receiver at times and is excellent in blitz pickup. Lewis is more of a runner out of the backfield than White is and is also good at catching passes out of the backfield. They give Tom Brady plenty of options in the passing game.

While this may not be a great statistical week for wide receivers, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell due to the strength of the Broncos cornerbacks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Brady can’t have a successful day throwing the ball. White and Lewis will probably factor big into this week’s game plan.

The “X-Factor” for the Patriots is tight end Martellus Bennett. If the offensive line can hold up well enough, Brady can get him more involved in the passing game. There he can also create mismatches on the linebackers and force the safeties to get more involved with him, which will allow others the opportunity to win one-on-one battles.

The difficulties of facing the Denver pass defense is daunting, especially with the way New England has played there in the past but not impossible. It will require a good game plan and the players to execute it. This should prove to be a very intriguing chess match to watch. Wade Phillips defense, which likes to be aggressive going against Brady and the Patriots on Sunday, what better way to spend the afternoon?

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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