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Broncos threw a curve

By Greg A. Bedard
January 10, 2012
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It’s been less than a month since the Patriots defeated the Broncos, 41-23, at Sports Authority Field Dec. 18.

What’s changed about Denver since that time entering Saturday night’s playoff game at Gillette Stadium?

Up until Sunday night, not much.

But what the Broncos showed offensively in their 29-23 overtime victory against the Steelers - specifically quarterback Tim Tebow - makes them a potentially more dangerous opponent this time around.

“This was far and away his best, best game,’’ said NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, who has studied the coaches’ film on Tebow all season. “I mean, I don’t think he’s thrown the ball this well ever.’’

It definitely caught the Steelers by surprise, and understandably.

In two games after facing the Patriots, Tebow completed 19 of 51 passes (37.3 percent) for 245 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions for a rating of 24.6 in losses to the Bills and Chiefs.

There was little surprise that word leaked out that the Broncos had at least entertained some thought of getting backup Brady Quinn ready to be inserted into the game against the Steelers.

“Tebow had been awful the last three games prior,’’ Cosell said. “I mean, really awful. To the point where in his last game against Kansas City, there was a level of almost embarrassment to watching him. You felt almost badly because he was so bad. But you have to give credit where credit is due. There’s nothing on tape to suggest that he would do that, so that’s why the Steelers chose to play that way.’’

The Steelers stacked the box around the line of scrimmage to stop the run and Denver’s read option attack. It worked. The Broncos only rushed for a 3.9 average and had two runs of 11 yards as the biggest gainers.

But that left the Steelers playing a lot of Cover 0 - man-to-man in the secondary without a safety to help behind the play.

What the Steelers didn’t account for was Tebow being able to hit five passes that went for more than 30 yards, including the game-winning 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime to receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Tebow finished 10 of 21 for 316 yards and two touchdowns for a rating of 125.6. Amazingly, it wasn’t like the Broncos’ run game was putting him in a good position. On 24 of his 26 dropbacks, he faced at least 7 yards to go for a first down.

Tebow had yet to show that ability with his arm, so it’s good for the Patriots he showed it against someone other than them.

“In some ways you could argue it benefits the Patriots because they got to see this,’’ Cosell said. “They’re not going to be the ones who are going to get surprised by it. They wouldn’t have played Cover 0 like that anyways, but it just adds another element to it now and you can guarantee Bill [Belichick] will drive that home.’’

The Steelers certainly did not play well defensively, but Tebow made throws he normally does not make against them.

On the 30-yard touchdown to Eddie Royal in the second quarter, Tebow actually pump-faked down the middle to hold the safety and threw the ball before Royal, who made an outstanding catch, had gotten past the cornerback, William Gay.

“I thought that he showed some improvement,’’ Cosell said. “I thought for the first time that I can recall, he made a couple of anticipation throws. Now, the people who have made their mind up on Tebow will say that’s lucky. I’m just watching the tape. The touchdown to Royal he actually pumped down the middle and then threw it to Royal well before he was open. It was an NFL throw. He threw it before he was open. He was never open. It was a very good throw. If Tom Brady made that throw to Deion Branch, we’d say what an amazing throw.

“Tebow made some throws in this game. If you play well in this league, it’s ultimately because of the way you throw it. If he didn’t make those throws - let’s say he was wildly inaccurate like he had been - we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We’d probably be talking about Pittsburgh.’’

The Broncos were more effective against the Steelers because Tebow is better throwing against man without a safety lurking.

“One adjustment I noticed was the Broncos decided to take some deep shots off their staple play-action plays, which I thought they hadn’t really done,’’ Cosell said. “All their play-action throws were sort of those quick in-breakers which had them have success against New England. ‘Shot’ plays were featured more than in any previous game. They were taking shots in this game. They were going to try to get over the top.’’

The Patriots don’t have to worry about that because Belichick rarely plays without at least one deep safety because his scheme is predicated on not giving up big plays.

One thing the Patriots did better than the Steelers in facing Tebow was rush him effectively. Against New England, Tebow was only allowed to hold the ball one time more than six seconds. The Steelers let him do that six times.

Tebow had his moments against the Patriots (11 of 22 for 194 yards), but most of it came early against man-to-man coverage or late when the game was out of reach. The Patriots were more effective when they played more zone, or at least when they mixed up the coverages more.

Teams Tebow struggled against “played man free [man-to-man under a deep safety], press man free, rushed four with a controlled rush [to keep Tebow in the pocket] and kept an extra defender, normally a linebacker, right in the middle of the field, so he was available to react to Tebow,’’ Cosell said. “That’s the way the Bills played him, that’s the way the Chiefs played him for the most part. And he didn’t throw it well at all.’’

The Patriots’ offense is their best defense because of their ability to score points and put pressure on the opponent to do the same.

That’s more important against the Broncos, who gain confidence the longer they hang around.

“The Patriots are going to have to score in this game,’’ Cosell said. “You have to make it so all that option stuff doesn’t matter.’’

The Patriots have one more factor to their advantage: the weather. With a predicted game-time temperature of around 19 degrees Saturday night, this will be the coldest game Tebow, a born and bred Floridian, will have played in his life. Game-time temperatures were 35, 35, and 40 degrees in Tebow’s previous three starts.

“He doesn’t have a whole lot of arm speed, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with it,’’ Cosell said. “The cold makes for a deader ball. You know Tom Brady won’t have a problem with it.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com.

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