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Thrown off by Tebow?

He gives defenses unique challenge

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 12, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Plenty of adjectives flow from the Patriots when they’re asked to describe what kind of quarterback Tim Tebow is. One stands out, though, uttered by almost everyone.

Unique.

Built like a fullback, shifty, a load to bring down, frequently looking for an excuse to run instead of throw, Tebow has a skill set that doesn’t really resemble that of anyone else who plays quarterback in the NFL. Facing him, then, brings familiarization, which can lead to success.

Because he has been in the league only two seasons and has yet to be Denver’s full-time starter in either one, there are a number of teams that have yet to see Tebow. The Patriots get their second shot at him in less than a month when the Broncos visit Gillette Stadium Saturday night for an AFC divisional playoff game.

Tebow wasn’t exactly a non-factor in New England’s 41-23 win at Denver Dec. 18, and with Willis McGahee rushing for 1,199 yards this season, he isn’t a one-man offensive machine. But how the Patriots handle the sturdy lefthander with the suspect arm could go a long way toward deciding whether they advance to the AFC Championship game.

“He’s just a tough, tough guy to prepare for,’’ said defensive line anchor Vince Wilfork. “You can speak all day about how tough he is and how elusive he is, but it really doesn’t matter until you face him. When you face him, you really figure out this dude is like a running back.

“He’s a big dude, he’s a strong guy. I knew we talked about it, but man, I didn’t realize. Just the physicalness, his stature, he’s just a big guy. I’ve seen some big guys over the years, but he’s probably one of the biggest and one of the toughest and probably one of the strongest that I’ve faced.’’

Tebow was Denver’s leading rusher last month against the Patriots, with 12 carries for 93 yards and two touchdowns. He added 194 passing yards, completing 11 of 22 throws. A typical Tebow game, if such a thing exists.

Based on his most recent game, though, the Patriots might need to be ready for the Broncos to move the ball vertically, and through the air. Unlike the Steelers, who stacked as many as nine defenders near the line of scrimmage in a bid to thwart Denver’s top-ranked run game and force Tebow to win the game with his arm instead of his feet.

Which he did, throwing for a career-high 316 yards - on just 10 completions. A quarterback who has faced constant criticism about his throwing mechanics and inaccuracy put himself in the record book, becoming the first player in NFL playoff history with three completions in the same game of at least 50 yards, including the 80-yard game-winner to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.

If the Patriots’ game plan didn’t include a proper respect for Tebow’s throwing ability before, it probably does now.

“You can see definitely with the last game, just taking more shots down the field,’’ defensive back Devin McCourty said. “They definitely threw more vertical passes.

“No matter what anybody said - ‘They can’t throw the ball, they can’t make vertical [passes]’ - I think they went into each game confident.

“I don’t think the Pittsburgh game was the first time that they’ve made big plays. They’ve done that all throughout the season.’’

The Patriots had success the first time against Denver after defensive end Andre Carter went down with an injury on the last play of the first quarter and they switched up their fronts. \

The Broncos scored the first three times they touched the ball and had 225 yards a minute into the second quarter, but could muster only 168 yards - and just 7 points - over the final 44 minutes. Tebow, who started the game by completing four of his first five passes, ended 7 for 17 and was sacked four times.

Same defensive approach?

“Each team plays their own defensive scheme against them, whether it’s Buffalo or Kansas City or Pittsburgh,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “We have our scheme. We’ll take some things from each game that we’ve seen and try to apply it to what we do.

“They have a good mix offensively. If you play everybody up there, they’ll go downfield. If you drop everybody off, they’ll take what’s underneath and run the ball. What they do offensively is a little bit unique.’’

There’s that word again. Like before, Tebow will be a unique presence on the field. Like before, the Patriots are hoping to neutralize his impact.

“He’ll go anywhere. We know this guy can make a lot of plays and get the ball to some playmakers also,’’ Wilfork said. “We have to play with good technique, trust our technique, trust one another.

“Do that and we’ll be OK. When you don’t do that, it’s just that little crack or that little second. You might not think they can find it, but a good team and a good player will find it. I think guys understand that.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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