Here are five things you have to know about the Broncos, who will travel to Foxboro this weekend for a game against the Patriots.
1. Their receiving depth will present the greatest challenge of the season for the Patriots.
No team New England will face all season will feature the sort of depth in the passing game that the Broncos do. Denver has three legitimate threats in wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (47 catches, 767 yards, six TDs) and Emmanuel Sanders (47 catches, 634 yards and four TDs), as well as tight end Julius Thomas (30 catches, 327 yards and nine TDs). If you’re doling out defensive assignments for the Patriots — with the understanding that it won’t be purely man coverage all afternoon — it might come down to Demaryius Thomas-Darrelle Revis and Sanders-Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy), while the bigger Brandon Browner could be assigned to try and slow down the sizable tight end Julius Thomas. (Linebacker Jamie Collins has struggled in coverage for much of the year, and had plenty of issues trying to slow down Thomas in last year’s AFC title game.) Everyone knows Peyton Manning’s greatness (2,134 passing yards, 69 percent completion rate, 22 TDs and only 3 picks through seven games), but on the flip side, if there’s a pass defense in the AFC that can slow down the Broncos, it just might be this one. This year, through eight games, the Patriots remain the only team that has yet to allow a pass play of 40-plus yards. They’ve allowed 210.9 yards per game passing this year (second-fewest in the NFL) compared to 239.0 (18th in the NFL) last year. Also, passes of 20-plus yards are down significantly — 74 in 2012 (worst in NFL), 55 last year (tied for 20th), 23 this year (tied for 15th). Simply put, the Patriots went out and got Revis and Browner for games like this. They are difference makers, and need to play as much on Sunday. (One more idle thought: Will we see the Patriots try and imitate Seattle’s Cover 3 approach on Sunday, going with press coverage off the line and a single safety deep? Food for thought.)
2. They are really good against the run.
The best way to beat Manning is to keep him off the field, and New England can accomplish that with some extended drives. At the same time, don’t expect anything like the 15-play scoring sequence it had last week against the Bears, the longest scoring drive of the season, because when you’re talking about the Patriots trying to control the tempo against the Broncos, it’s easier said than done. New England has lead back Stevan Ridley sidelined for the season, while the Broncos are the No. 1 run defense in the league, having yielded an average of 72.4 rushing yards per game. (Over the last four games, Denver has allowed 191 yards on 67 carries in that stretch — 2.9 yards per attempt.) It’s understandable that the Patriots probably don’t want to go toe to toe with the likes of Terrence “Pit Roast” Knighton, so there could be some misdirection when they try and run the ball with a cast that will include Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden. There’s also the possibility the possibility of utilizing the short passing game, trying screens and quick outs with short and intermediate routes. It would help Brady get the ball out as fast as possible, keep the tone and tempo in the hands of the Patriots and keep Manning and the Denver offense on the sidelines as long as possible.
3. They do a terrific job getting after the quarterback.
As is the case with the Patriots’ secondary and Denver’s offensive options in the passing game, this contest will present the biggest challenge of the year to New England’s offensive line. With center Bryan Stork back, as well as Dan Connolly returning to one of the guard positions (both spent time on the shelf because of concussion issues), the Patriots likely feel a little better about the state of the offensive line. But at the same time, the Broncos front seven is as tough a group as the Patriots are likely to see this year. DeMarcus Ware (6-foot-4, 258 pounds) and Von Miller (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) have a combined 16 sacks through seven games, the most for any NFL duo. They will present a stern test to not only the fortified interior, but also for tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder. Both have played better as of late, but have yet to face the sort of combined pressure that Denver is capable of delivering. As a counter, expect New England to try and run some counters and misdirections in an attempt to slow down the pass rush.
4. If there’s an area of offensive uncertainty — not weakness, but uncertainty — it’s the running game.
The Broncos lost Knowshon Moreno in the offseason, but in typical Denver fashion, it simply plugged in another running back. Ronnie Hillman is a 23-year-old in his third year in the league out of San Diego State. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder is in his first full year as a starter, and has 75 carries for 349 yards and a pair of touchdowns through seven games. That includes at least 100 yards on the ground in two of Denver’s last three contests. Hillman took over for Montee Ball, who went down with a groin injury earlier this year. (Ball is not expected to play Sunday against the Patriots.) As a team, the Broncos’ running game is relatively pedestrian — Denver is 21st in the league, averaging 101.4 rushing yards per game. This sounds strange when you’re talking about a team that has struggled to stop the run most of the season (the Patriots are 25th in the league, having yielded an average of 129.6 rushing yards per game), but the idea of the Broncos running the ball is far more palatable than Peyton Manning slinging it all over the lot.
5. They have done relatively well when it comes to minimizing damage done by elite-level tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski figures to be the center of the New England passing game on Sunday, as the big tight end is on a hot streak the likes of which we haven’t seen in a few years. In his last four games, Gronkowski 27 catches for 411 yards and four touchdowns. However, the Broncos have some experience this year when it comes to high-flying tight ends. San Diego’s Antonio Gates (five catches, 54 yards, two touchdowns), San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (two catches, 21 yards) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (four catches, 81 yards) weren’t exactly silenced when they faced the Broncos, but all three ended up with stat lines well below their season average. If their work earlier in the year is any indication, Denver will likely use a combination of defenders in trying to slow down Gronkowski, a group that includes safeties T.J. Ward and Rahim Moore and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. (Patriots fans will remember Ward as the guy who put the season-ending hit on Gronkowski last year, which likely provoked this stare from Patriots coach Bill Belichick.) One stat to throw into the mix when you’re talking about the Broncos and Gronkowski: in three career games against Denver, Gronkowski has 15 catches for 178 yards and one touchdown.