It’s Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady week in the NFL, and that should mean a lot of passing. Both Manning and Brady are clearly still elite quarterbacks, and both defenses will have their hands full trying to limit the array of offensive weapons on the field.
There is no secret formula to beating Brady and the Patriots, but there is one formula that seems to work on elite quarterbacks: quick pressure from the front four and press-man coverage with deep safety help. It’s a recipe that has been successful against Brady in the past.
The Broncos appear to have the personnel to slow down the Patriots, although they could struggle to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots safeties have struggled in recent weeks, and that trouble could continue against Manning, who is starting to get on the same page with his wide receivers.
The Patriots have a stout front seven and should be able to limit the rushing attack of Willis McGahee and make the Broncos one-dimensional, so expect this to be a passing-oriented game. The one wild card is the newly-established running game in New England, but Denver’s front four has been surprisingly stout against the run so far this season.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker have all proven to be extremely explosive offensive players in the NFL. The Broncos should consider themselves lucky tight end Aaron Hernandez is not expected until next week.
Slowing down that many weapons is obviously hard, and few defenses have the personnel to match all of that talent. The Broncos are no exception.
That doesn’t mean a well-designed plan can’t slow down Brady. If the Broncos can successfully slow down Brady, they will take their chances against the running game.
One way teams have attacked Brady is by using press-man coverage and pressuring with the front four. The press and pressure combined disrupt the timing of the passing game and keep Brady from getting the ball to his options. AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz informed me that the Pittsburgh Steelers successfully executed such a plan last season.
The Steelers rush four with five players playing man coverage. One linebacker (5) is rushing when he is responsible for man coverage on the running back, putting just a wrinkle in the defense that makes Brady think. The Steelers leave two safeties deep for help in case the pressure doesn't arrive.
LaMarr Woodley plays the role that Von Miller will need to play and gets around the right tackle quickly. Brady needs to find a receiver quickly, but half of his receivers are still stuck at the line of scrimmage.
Brady wasn’t given much time and his receivers weren’t getting open because of the press coverage, and the result was a sack. Of course, it’s not always that simple.
The Patriots are also running the ball, which forces the defense to commit another play at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals used a similar strategy to the Steelers, but they had to respect the run. That meant the Cardinals used a single safety over the top and another linebacker at the line of scrimmage.
Three of the four defensive backs are going to play press with the safety dropping deep and reading Brady’s eyes.
The defensive back bites on the play action, which means he allows Welker to get behind him. Brady has a clean pocket and plenty of time to find Welker down the seam. The safety is still reading Brady and doesn’t realize Welker is wide open.
By the time Welker makes the catch, the safety is still on his heels. If the pass rush doesn’t get to Brady, Denver’s safeties have to read and react quickly to Brady’s throws.
Welker is tackled by the cornerback and not the safety, who should have seen the entire play developing in front of him. If the pass rush doesn’t get to Brady, the receivers will eventually work behind their defenders and exploit the play of Denver’s safeties.
The Broncos need big games from Elvis Dumervil, Miller, Rahim Moore and Mike Adam to successfully limit Brady, as well as solid press coverage on the outside by the cornerbacks.
In order to send Miller and maintain enough players in coverage, the Broncos will have to compensate by shuffling the defensive line. Don’t be surprised if rookie Derek Wolfe has his snaps reduced against the Patriots and the Broncos bring in an additional defensive back like Tony Carter or Jim Leonhard.
An elite quarterback knows how to manipulate the safeties and use any missteps to his advantage. Manning has been the definition of an elite quarterback for over a decade.
Manning took advantage of Oakland’s safeties last week when they were respecting the outside receivers and found Joel Dreessen one-on-one with a linebacker for a touchdown down the seam. I detailed the play earlier this week, and Frenz detailed a similar play that the Buffalo Bills used against the Patriots last week.
Of course, the safeties can be exploited in other ways, particularly if they take bad angles to the ball. That’s just what happened in the third quarter last week when Donald Jones took a slant 68 yards for a touchdown.
Jones works inside the coverage of the cornerback on the slant, which is a very difficult route to defend in man coverage.
Patrick Chung takes a poor angle to Jones by first taking two steps forward and then trying to run laterally to bring down Jones from behind. The other safety turns his back on the middle of the field and sinks deep, respecting the outside receivers.
Chung’s poor angle allows Jones to slip past him and also slows down his teammates who are giving chase. Steve Gregory is playing very deep and now sees that he’s the last line of defense.
Unfortunately for Gregory, open-field tackles are not easy when you get all of your momentum going in one direction. Jones loses little speed by cutting back toward the sideline. If Gregory had not been so far out of the play, he might not have had so much of his momentum going in one direction and could have saved a touchdown by keeping the play in front of him.
This is a play the Broncos could easily run with Eric Decker in the slot and Demaryius Thomas running a go-route that forces Gregory to the outside and deep.
Manning will figure out a way to exploit the safeties and make big plays against the Patriots secondary, whether it means throwing down the seam or letting his receivers test tackling angles in open space.