Sports

Broncos’ defense has changed, but is it for the better?

You may have heard that Peyton Manning has replaced Tim Tebow as the Broncos’ starting quarterback this season.

But that’s not the change for Denver that likely will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium.

It’s on the other side of the ball.

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In two meetings against the Broncos last season (regular season and postseason), Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 49 of 68 passes (72.1 percent) for 683 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 1 interception for a passer rating of 149.8.

Brady was unstoppable in the 45-10 playoff victory, completing 76.5 percent of his passes for 363 yards, and tied an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes. The Patriots set a franchise playoff record for points and total net yards (509).

The Broncos couldn’t cover the Patriots, and they couldn’t get to Brady. In the two meetings combined, Brady was pressured 13 times. That’s about average for one game. In the playoff game, the Broncos pressured Brady just five times despite blitzing on 37.5 percent of the snaps.

Since then, former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has replaced Dennis Allen (Raiders coach) as defensive coordinator.

The Broncos also brought in two new secondary players. Right cornerback Tracy Porter replaced Andre Goodman, who is no longer in the league after getting torched by Deion Branch on a 61-yard touchdown pass. And Mike Adams replaced veteran Brian Dawkins (retirement) and Quinton Carter (knee surgery).

Have the changes worked? Not yet, judging by the 31-25 loss in Week 3 to the Texans, when Matt Schaub threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns, including plays of 60 and 52 yards on terribly blown coverages by Porter and Adams.

The Broncos held Carson Palmer to 202 yards and zero touchdowns in a 37-6 victory last Sunday, but that’s the Raiders.

A closer look at the Broncos:

OFFENSE

The Broncos are still coordinated by the impressive Mike McCoy, who is deft at changing his scheme to fit his personnel (think Tebow). McCoy has adopted much of what Manning was comfortable with in Indianapolis, but has kept an element of the run game with Willis McGahee, who has battled rib injuries and constantly goes in and out of the game.

Lance Ball is the usual backup, but third-round pick Ronnie Hillman has received more playing time. He has some moves in space, but doesn’t play as fast as his timed speed (4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash).

Manning has completed 64.7 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns. He looks like his old self when he gathers before throwing. But get him off-balance and he really floats the ball now.

The Broncos love their “11” personnel with McGahee, tight end Joel Dreessen/Jacob Tamme, and receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley/Andre Caldwell.

Denver has used a flanker bubble screen to the gazelle-like Thomas for big plays this season. Tamme is a tweener as a tight end/receiver.

The offensive line was dealt a big blow when center J.D. Walton was lost for the season last week. Former Patriot Dan Koppen takes over, and against the Texans he performed about the same as in his final camp with the Patriots: He had trouble sustaining blocks one-on-one, and didn’t move well to the second level. But Koppen is smart, tough, and can make up for his limitations with his mind.

Left tackle Ryan Clady is back to playing at an All-Pro level after being inconsistent in 2011. Left guard Zane Beadles is solid. Both right guard Manny Ramirez and right tackle Orlando Franklin struggle at times.

DEFENSE

Del Rio blitzes more than Allen (60 percent of the snaps against the Raiders), and likes to bring athletic weak-side linebacker Wesley Woodyard and nickel back Chris Harris from the slot.

Del Rio also has his front doing a lot of walking around before the snap, which has caused issues for Brady.

Right end Elvis Dumervil and strong-side linebacker Von Miller were not healthy at the end of last season, but they are now, with a combined 5½ sacks. They dominated against the Raiders. Second-round pick Derek Wolfe becomes an inside rusher on passing downs.

Tackles Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, and Mitch Unrein are weak spots in the middle. Newcomers Porter and Adams are big weaknesses in the secondary, and free safety Rahim Moore also has problems in coverage.

Left cornerback Champ Bailey is still stellar. Middle linebacker Joe Mays returns from a one-game suspension.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Broncos don’t threaten on returns with Omar Bolden (kickoffs) and former Jets safety Jim Leonhard (punts). Expect the Patriots punt team to be alert. Broncos coordinator Jeff Rodgers takes chances with some unorthodox calls, and they blocked a punt against the Raiders.

Kicker Matt Prater has a huge leg, and Rodgers is not afraid to call fakes (pass against Raiders was incomplete).

Punter Britton Colquitt (48.0 average/44.0 net) is one of the AFC’s best.

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