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Inside the matchup: Patriots at Broncos

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  December 17, 2011 09:52 PM

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In an effort to get a little bit more inside the game, Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, will give us his insight on the intricacies of the game. Look for his analysis before each game.

BREAKING DOWN THE BRONCOS' OFFENSE

What a week of football analysis this has been, as myself and the Boston Globe NFL experts analyze last week’s thriller between Denver and the Chicago Bears in preparation for this weeks game against the Broncos. Quarterback Tim Tebow (once again) led an incredible comeback to win the game for the Broncos, and I’m not even sure how to explain it.

I suppose I could start with the offensive line of the Broncos, which has played really well this year while adapting to the power offense that is seen in Denver nowadays. The line, which consists of athletes who are known for their quality work in zone blocking, has done well handling the blocking schemes, which feature a lot of man blocking, that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has implemented. Because of the way the offense is run, deceptively would be the word to describe it here, the pass blocking has been a bit tough to figure out, with the line working in both man and zone blocking protections.

The passing game of the Broncos has been quite intriguing, with it being limited because of Tebow’s slow development at the quarterback position. McCoy has used a lot of action in the backfield, such as play action in the fake jet sweep variety, to the strong side of the offensive formation and then throw routes to the backside, which is where its unexpected.

By being action oriented in the backfield, it has simplified the reads for Tebow, who is really relying on a single read and then leaving the pocket, preferably to the left side, to make a throw that moves the chains. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films said on Yahoo!‘s The Shutdown Corner podcast, Tebow is a “one read thrower” and once that’s taken away, the passing game breaks down. The passing game relies heavily on fake action to get an isolated read for Tebow.

When we have seen Tebow strictly drop back and throw from the pocket, he’s struggled hitting targets, as his footwork has been poor and he’s inaccurate. He’s much better outside the pocket, as he can improvise and distort coverages as defensive backs lose their assignments when the receivers start working back to the Broncos quarterback. Some of the pass concepts they’ve called include Hi-Lo, which has a Shallow route underneath with a Dig route behind it, Smash concept (Hitch by outside WR, Corner by inside) and Dig-Post (Dig on one side, Post on the other -- used to attack aggressive safeties in Cover 4 for example).

smash-lions-590x430_original_original.jpg
(Smash concept)

Moreover, the attention grabber for many fans (and experts) has been the Broncos running game, which really doesn’t use a lot of different personnel groupings -- three main ones were seen against Denver last week to be exact -- but the alignment of the players is what has caused some trouble for defenses. Denver’s aforementioned personnel mainly consists of 11 (1 back, 1 TE), 12 (1 back, 2 TE) and 21 (2 back, 1 TE) groupings.

An example of a multiple look from a single personnel grouping is the 21 group, which has two backs and a tight end. The Broncos have gone to this and used it in a traditional way, with I formation and the tight end inline, to a Shotgun split backs look, which has each back to a side of Tebow in shotgun while the tight end is either inline or flexed (3 yard split) out, to a Pistol set, which has Tebow in Shotgun set with a back next to him and one behind him while the tight end can again be inline or flexed out, to finally an Empty set, with each back and tight end aligned out of the backfield and as a threatening vertical pass catcher. All of this is a lot to handle because defenses have to declare their keys and how they will defend it.

Along with this comes the option run game, which is really a pain because it stresses the defense to play assignment football, which is another way of saying it makes the defense stop and think, consequently causing them to play slower.

The Broncos option run game consists of various things, such as Speed Option (Tebow and a RB run to same side, with Tebow reading the defender in a bind), Zone Read (backside end unblocked and read by Tebow), which are all a pain but it doesn‘t end there. The offense also has base runs, like any other team, that cause problems because of their quality run blocking, and these runs include but are not limited to Power (backside Guard pulls) and Toss Crack (receiver comes down hard on LB or DE and crack blocks him, allowing playside Tackle to pull and lead the way for RB).

http://www.nfl.com/videos/denver-broncos/09000d5d8243899c/Tebow-s-offense

Despite a limited passer dropping back with each pass, the Broncos offense is a handful because of their deceptiveness and their ability to run the ball to put Tebow in manageable third down situations. The run concepts used complement each other well and can be difficult to counter because of the backfield action.

BREAKING DOWN THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE

While quarterback Tim Tebow gets all the publicity and has done some good things for the Broncos, the Denver defense is the one that truly deserves the recognition as they have really stepped up their game after struggles early in the season. I don’t think it’s the Tebow effect – although his confidence in them and vice versa helps - but rather the execution effect. Simply put, the Broncos defenders are executing their assignments and keeping the team in the game for all four quarters (and overtime) because of it.

The Broncos defense likes to send blitzes, often seen through the interior gaps with linebackers, while playing several fronts that include Over (weak side Guard uncovered), Under (strong side Guard uncovered with SAM linebacker on the line to the tight end side) and Okie (3 man front with both Guards uncovered). With these fronts being led by players like defensive ends Elvis Dumervil and rookie outside linebacker Von Miller, it poses a lot of problems and wreaks havoc on offensive lines.

Miller, in particular, is problematic because of his exceptional first step, versatility and athleticism. His ability to explode off of the line of scrimmage and knock back pass blockers in an effort to get them off balance (often successfully done), has become worrisome for offensive line coaches. On top of this, his ability to line up all over the front seven and in all of the gaps causes issues because he’s too quick for interior blockers. He does an excellent job of using his hands to slap the hands of pass blockers away and create a free path to the quarterback.

With these fronts, the Broncos mix in several personnel packages, much like other defenses. Some of these packages include nickel and dime personnel groupings, which have five and six defensive backs. The reason for these additional defensive backs packages is to create better coverage paths to quarterbacks as they send the blitz as well as to match up (hopefully) evenly with the offenses personnel groupings.

Along with these personnel packages, the defense plays a variety of coverages to counter the opposing teams passing game. Thus far, the defensive backs of the Broncos have done well in matching up in man coverage as well as attacking the ball downhill in zone coverage, as seen against the Vikings earlier this season.

The Broncos man coverages include Cover 1 (Man-Free), which is viewed as a man coverage despite a roaming free safety in the middle of the field, Cover 1 Robber (man coverage with two defenders in the intermediate and deep levels of the middle of the field in zone) and Cover 2 Man (man underneath with two safeties over the top splitting the field into halves).

cover1 robber.png
Cover 1 Robber (image courtesy of Smartfootball.com)

Their zone coverages is not limited to but consists of pure Cover 2, cornerbacks are flat defenders, and Cover 3, which has many variations.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Broncos DBs vs. Patriots TEs - I do not know how the Broncos will defend Rob Gronkowski. Maybe bracket him -- double coverage -- or look to re-route him early and often before releasing him into a safety. Regardless, he’s going to make an impact, and Denver’s got to figure out how to stop him. Aaron Hernandez is also an interesting matchup because of his ability to do some things after the catch, and he could be an X-factor in this game.
  • Patriots DL vs. Broncos OL - This mainly focuses on the interior offensive line of the Broncos, particularly C J.D. Walton and LG Zane Beadles. Walton has had issues this season with powerful defensive tackles and in this game, he matches up with Vince Wilfork, who as many know is a pretty big guy but also pretty quick for his size. Guard Zane Beadles can get caught bending at the waist, thus lunging, which his something to watch for.
  • Patriots Contain and Tackling vs. QB Tim Tebow - The way to defend a mobile quarterback like Tebow is to use contained rushes, meaning applying pressure wide of the pocket and forcing Tebow to stay in it. The Patriots will need to do this to keep Tebow in his least comfortable area, the pocket, and force him to beat them with his arm. If he does escape, the Patriots have to be able to tackle him. He’s a big guy who is willing to take some punishment as well as dish it out, but the low man always wins and tackling fundamentals will be key here.
  • WR Demaryius Thomas vs. Patriots DBs - Thomas is a big wide receiver at 6-3, 235 pounds and he runs well. He’s got the speed to attack vertically, as we’ve seen in the past, and one of the ways the Broncos use him to attack vertically is through Post routes off of play action. The Patriots safeties have to be aware of this. The Patriots defensive backs as a whole also have to tackle Thomas after the catch because he has some ability to do damage.
  • Spying on Tim Tebow - The Bears did this with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, two exceptional linebackers, with some success. The linebackers still dropped to their designated landmarks and played coverage but they also kept their eyes glued on Tim Tebow and for the most part it worked. The Patriots may not always have a spy on Tebow but they will at times in this game for sure and the goal of the spy defender is to stay disciplined because Tebow can be a problem outside of the pocket. If the defender stays disciplined, there’s a better chance of defensive success.

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For more on the Patriots defense, read Alen's blog post at The Score. Follow Alen on Twitter at @Dumonjic_Alen.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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