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Discipline key in defending against Broncos

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 14, 2011
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Yes, the Patriots play the Broncos Sunday.

And, yes, Tim Tebow is the quarterback that has helped them win six straight games.

But if the Patriots are to leave Invesco Field with a victory, it won’t be because they stopped Tebow.

He’s the least of the Patriots’ worries.

New England will need to score and score early against a good defensive unit, and play the most disciplined game they’ve played all season up front on defense.

What they are about to face in the Broncos offense is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Denver has the league’s top-ranked rushing offense (156.2 yards per game). In their last nine games, the Broncos are averaging 187.1 yards per game - the most in team history in a span of nine games.

And the Broncos have had some very good rushing teams the past 20 years.

What’s helping them now is they are using a varied attack that is extremely hard to prepare for in the middle of the season.

The Broncos certainly will use a traditional running game for stretches, but the bread and butter is what you see on the collegiate level: the read option.

The Broncos will put Tebow in a modified shotgun and will either have two running backs on either side of him, or tailback Willis McGahee behind him and a dive back (fullback or another running back) beside him.

This is where it gets tricky for defenses. They have decide how to defend the dive back, Tebow and McGahee.

The Chargers are a 3-4 scheme with similar personnel to the Patriots.

After struggling early to defend the read option early in their 16-14 overtime loss to the Broncos, the Chargers found some success by changing their approach.

San Diego sent the outside linebacker to take out the dive back, who Tebow will fake or hand the ball off to first. That would be strong-side linebacker Rob Ninkovich for the Patriots.

Then the inside linebacker, which would be either Dane Fletcher or Jerod Mayo, would be assigned to defend Tebow.

Then it’s up to the rest of defense, especially the cornerbacks and safety (James Ihedigbo has been playing almost exclusively around the line the past two games) to defend the possible pitch man, McGahee, if Tebow gets rid of the ball.

It Tebow keeps it, he’s a better runner than the defense thinks.

“I think he’s instinctive, I think he has great vision, he’s physical and I think he’s a little faster than he looks,’’ said NFL Films producer Greg Cosell. “There are times where you think he’s going to be tackled, that someone may have an angle, and he’s able to avoid that. So I think he’s a very good runner.’’

McGahee is tied for the NFL lead with six 100-yard rushing games.

What the Patriots will aim to do is jump on top early and take the Broncos out of their rushing offense.

This will be a step up in competition for Denver. During its winning streak, they’ve faced quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Tyler Palko, Mark Sanchez, Philip Rivers, Christian Ponder, and Caleb Hanie.

The Broncos’ defense is led by their excellent right end, Elvis Dumervil (7 1/2 sacks) and rookie strong-side linebacker Von Miller (11 1/2 sacks). Miller will play end in sub packages and is terrific. He was the second overall pick in the draft.

Coordinator Dennis Allen served for two seasons under Gregg Williams in New Orleans, so he brings the same type of aggressive style. Allen likes to blitz and will send corners at will.

Robert Ayers is a solid strong-side end but isn’t a great pass rusher. Middle linebacker Joe Mays can defend the run but he’ll get beat against the pass. Weak-side linebacker D.J. Williams can be a force in pass rush. Marcus Thomas is very tough inside at tackle. Brodrick Bunkley played well against the Bears as the other starting tackle.

Cornerback Champ Bailey is still an elite player. Former Dolphin Andre Goodman seems to have a knack for the big play on the other side, but is coming off a concussion. Chris Harris is decent in the slot. Former Patriot Jonathan Wilhite is used for emergencies.

Veteran safety Brian Dawkins (neck) was hurt last week against the Bears. Rahim Moore replaced him and struggled. Quinton Carter is the free safety.

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