The New England Patriots will face a much stiffer challenge this week than their scheduled opponent presents in the Denver Broncos.
In a typical week, the Pats would cruise with the Broncos’ 30th-ranked offense by DVOA struggling against an elite secondary and Cam Newton doing more than enough offensively.
However, New England’s week is far from normal, and Newton’s status for Monday, along with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, is very much in doubt.
Both Patriots stars tested positive for the coronavirus over the last week, shutting down the Patriots’ facility and giving them, at most, one day of practice heading into Monday night’s game.
Newton and Gilmore can return at any time following two consecutive negative tests in 24 hours. Still, it would be surprising to see either of them play against Denver.
Assuming the game goes on as scheduled without the two COVID-positive players, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a decision to make about his starting quarterback.
Whoever starts will need to prepare for Denver mostly virtually, another hurdle, but at least the game was pushed back by a day to hopefully fit in a practice on Saturday.
Patriots backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham each had their issues against the Chiefs, with four combined turnovers and one bone-headed sack before the half that cost the Pats points.
There are a few factors to consider when deciding who will start for the Pats on Monday. The feeling is that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are leaning towards Stidham.
Understanding that it’s hard to ignore the bad plays last week from Hoyer, we got a small glimpse into what the offense might look like in the fourth quarter in Kansas City with Stidham.
Unfortunately, the Patriots probably won’t be able to install much else without practicing this week.
After relying on intermediate and rub routes with Hoyer, the Patriots opened their passing attack up with Stidham, likely a product of the score when he entered the game. Stidham’s mobility to extend plays and improvise, along with superior arm talent, gives the offense more juice.
Here, the Pats set up a deep shot with two vertical routes off play-action, which they used on five of Stidham’s 13 drop-backs. Kansas City drops into a cover-three structure, staying over the top of Harry and Byrd, so Byrd stops down on a comeback with the coverage retreating. Instead of attempting a far-hash throw, Stidham rolls out to make it easier on himself and completes the pass to Byrd.
Stidham also showed a decent feel for reading safety rotations to get to his single-high or two-deep coverage beaters.
Kansas City drops into cover-two on this play, and Stidham immediately goes to the “dagger” concept to his left, a good two-high beater. Edelman clears out the coverage, opening Byrd up on the deep dig route. Although Stidham misses it initially due to uncertainty in the pocket, he extends with his legs and eventually finds Byrd across the field for a 30-yard gain.
The Patriots will need to live with delayed processing and skittishness in the pocket from a second-year quarterback, but Stidham can get back on-script by using his legs and create plays by improvising outside the pocket.
"He's one of the best defensive coaches in the league."
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 9, 2020
Denver’s defense under head coach Vic Fangio presents a significant mental challenge for either Stidham or Hoyer that we’ll get to in the next section. During his appearance on Patriots.com this week, Belichick called Fangio “one of the best defensive coaches in the league.”
Whoever is under center will need to take care of the football and manage the game much better than Hoyer and Stidham did last Monday night.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is one of the most respected defensive minds in football.
Last summer, some of the NFL’s top offensive minds said that Fangio’s defense in Chicago, where he was defensive coordinator under Matt Nagy, was their most difficult matchup.
Fangio’s scheme’s challenge is that he rarely shows the quarterback his coverage before the snap, rotating his safeties as interchangeable chess pieces on the backend.
Fangio will show the quarterback a two-high structure, then rotate into a single-high coverage, or even a combination coverage where they’ll play it differently on each half of the field.
The heavy safety rotations and combo coverages confuse even the smartest of quarterbacks, let alone backups, as we see with Brady above against Fangio’s cover-six scheme on third down.
Fangio will spin the dial, and McDaniels will need to put his quarterback in a position to succeed against several different coverages.
Jets quarterback Sam Darnold had success against the Broncos by hitting crosser routes against their single-high coverages, something we see a lot out of the Pats.
On this play, Denver rotates into a cover-one structure with a weak side rotation, so the Jets send their “X” receiver on the backside across the field. With the clear out at the bottom of the screen occupying the post-safety and an underneath route occupying the low-hole defender, there’s nobody in the middle of the field to provide inside help on the over route.
Here’s another example of how to beat Denver’s post-snap rotations. This time, the weak side safety rotates into the deep-middle while the strong safety plays robber. Darnold makes a leverage throw with the rotation, this time to the branch route from the slot receiver.
The Patriots can attack the Broncos secondary in similar ways by using their safety rotations against them, while also dialing up two-high beaters when they get cover-six structures.
With cover-six, the defense is playing a combination coverage with half the field playing cover-two and the other side playing cover-four. Usually, cover-four is to the passing strength while cover-two is on the weak side. Most two-high beaters try to attack the deep-middle with vertical routes clearing things out, but the hook (MIKE) and curl (WLB) get in the way in cover-six.
One way McDaniels makes it easier on his quarterback is to give them different coverage beaters to each side, presenting them with answers to both single-high and two-high structures.
The Seahawks defense played mostly quarters or cover-three against the Pats in Week 2, so McDaniels gave Cam Newton answers to both tests.
Here, the Patriots are running their branch concept to Newton’s left, a good call against quarters coverage. On the other side, they have post-dig-flat, presenting a good post-safety beater. Newton will work the “branch” side first, and if it’s not there, he comes back to his check-down to the halfback. The Seahawks cover the branch side well, but the post-dig combination clears out of the flat for Burkhead.
Patriots running back James White had eight catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns working the weak-side hook/flat defenders on options routes against Fangio’s Bears in 2018.
Another cover-six beater is play-action passes to the quarters side, because the strong-side safety is often involved in the run fit as a force defender on outside runs. The play-fake will put the safety in conflict and give the offense opportunities up the seam if the safety bites.
Fangio and the Broncos run a complex coverage system with veteran safeties Justin Simons and Kareem Jackson capable of executing different techniques.
Stidham, and, or Hoyer, will need to be sharp, or they’ll be throwing into coverage all night.
Denver’s run defense is currently ninth in DVOA as well, with several underrated players having sound fundamentals in Fangio’s two-gapping system.
The Broncos’ defensive line is built a lot like New England’s, with stout run defenders Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell playing similar roles to interior defenders such as Lawrence Guy and Byron Cowart. Plus, 2018 first-round pick Bradley Chubb is another physical run defender on the edge.
Trying to run right at this group probably won’t get great results, even with the Patriots’ offensive line. Denver’s opponents this season are only averaging 2.7 yards per rush on interior runs.
The best way is to stretch their defensive line out with either wide zone runs, draws, or folding the defense with unbalanced lines to get ball carriers out on the perimeter.
Here, the Steelers use heavy personnel with two tight ends and an H-back to stress Denver’s run fits. They then ran a counter play with the backside guard pulling to the play-side edge defender and folded the defense in half to get James Conner in space.
Pittsburgh also ran draw plays on the Broncos that caused the Denver defensive line to naturally space themselves out because they were initially rushing the passer.
Although the Patriots could probably run on anyone, the power plays will be challenging this week against Denver’s block-eating defensive line.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver’s quarterback situation is also undecided but for different reasons than New England.
Broncos starter Drew Lock suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 and returned to practice for the first time in a limited capacity this week. If it’s not Lock, it’ll be second-year QB Brett Rypien.
Since 2001, first and second-year quarterbacks are 1-36 in road games against the Patriots, spelling disaster for Rypien or Lock.
Rypien threw three interceptions in the win over the Jets, and we’ll get into how New England can bait him into more picks, but first, a little on offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Shurmur runs a west-coast system whose roots stem from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid after coaching with Reid in Philadelphia. The basis of Denver’s rushing attack is outside and inside zone, but Shurmur will incorporate power runs too (more on that later).
Although the Broncos are below league-average this season, Shurmur is also a heavy 12-personnel coach historically, running nub or condensed formations with two tight ends.
Denver tries to create advantageous leverage for tight end Noah Fant with those formations, as the 2019 first-round pick is in the same mold as Kelce or Waller in terms of a pass-catching tight end (note: Fant didn’t participate in practice this week and might miss Monday night’s game).
Shurmur’s passing game has adapted a bit to his personnel, as they try to get big wideouts Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick jump-ball chances downfield. With Rypien, they utilize play-action less, but if it’s Lock, the Pats can expect to see play-action roughly 30 percent of the time.
Last week, the Broncos hunted deep shots with Jeudy and Parker by sending them on straight go balls against the Jets corners, and the two young Broncos wideouts won at the catch point.
However, the Jets defense baited Rypien into a few interceptions by running two-trap coverages. The structure looks like quarters or man, but the boundary corner drops off to play the flat after selling that he’s matching the vertical route.
Rypien spoke about defeating trap coverages when we spoke with him on Wednesday, but Belichick’s success against young QBs often stems from confusing them with disguises.
Cool sequence that led to Stephon Gilmore's interception of Daniel Jones on Thursday night. #Giants gained 18 yards on the same route combination a few plays earlier. Go back to it, and the #Patriots show the same coverage, but it's different. Sound on. pic.twitter.com/i1GWX3zJAp
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 16, 2019
Expect the Patriots to run their version of two-trap, cover-5 “cougar,” which baits the quarterback into a similar throw as the Rypien interception above. Here, Gilmore makes Daniel Jones think it’s man coverage before falling off his man into the flat to jump the corner route.
Jeudy often travels into the slot where he’s a tough cover and runs across the field quite often on over routes, similar to what we saw from Kansas City. New England’s man-match coverages where they pass off those crossing routes might come into play again this week.
The Patriots secondary should dominate this matchup even without Gilmore in the lineup.
As we mentioned earlier, the Broncos are a heavy zone-rushing team that utilizes outside or inside zone on 40 percent of their runs.
The Patriots shut down Kansas City’s outside zone runs out of their 2-4 front thanks to fantastic play from Deatrich Wise and John Simon on the strong side of the formation.
Here are two examples where Wise holds up and attacks the play-side guard with Simon setting a sturdy edge, leading to minimal games for the Chiefs on the ground.
New England got a terrific performance out of Wise, Simon, Lawrence Guy, and the rest of their front against Kansas City, who has a similar scheme. More of the same should do the trick.
When the Broncos go to their power runs, attacking pullers from off the line becomes a priority. Denver will try to double New England’s run-stuffers at the point attack, so it’s up to Ja’Whaun Bentley and company to trigger downhill to get those doubles off their teammates.
Denver’s offense ranks near the bottom of the league in passing (29) and rushing DVOA (21), so the defense should dominate as long as they’re prepared with the COVID restrictions.
1. JC Jackson vs. Jerry Jeudy: with Stephon Gilmore likely out, the Patriots should trust Jackson, who is having a terrific season, on Jeudy. Jeudy runs 84 percent of his routes out of the slot, which doesn’t necessarily fit Jackson’s skill set, but he’s a downfield receiver and a size-mismatch for Jon Jones. Jackson should beat Jeudy up in the line, preventing him from utilizing his quick breaks, while also challenging him on deep throws. Again, expect to see some man-match pass offs as well on over routes.
2. Isaiah Wynn vs. Bradley Chubb: another marquee matchup will take place on the blindside, with two former first-rounders. Chubb is a powerful pass-rusher that uses rip moves and long arms to collapse the pocket. He won’t scare you with speed, but he’s a technician that knows how to use his strengths. Wynn held Chiefs pass-rusher Frank Clark mostly in check last week and will need to bring his heavy anchor and hand usage to the table against Chubb.
3. Pats Interior OL vs. Shelby Harris: Harris jumped off the screen in film review this week as Fangio’s version of Lawrence Guy. He’ll park himself in gaps and take on double-teams while picking his spots to use his explosiveness. Rookie right guard Michael Onwenu will see a lot of Harris, who usually lines up on the formation’s strong-side. That’ll be a fun matchup to watch.
4. Julian Edelman vs. Bryce Callahan: Edelman desperately needs a bounce-back performance after a costly drop last week. The Pats wideout’s drop-rate this season is nearly double his career average. There’s either something physically wrong (knee) or mentally (learning new quarterbacks) with the former Super Bowl MVP. Still, you’d expect a gamer like Edelman to figure things out.
5. Joejuan Williams/Kyle Dugger vs. Noah Fant: there’s a good chance Fant will be inactive due to an ankle injury, but if not, this is a fun young-gun matchup. Although Fant won’t move anyone as a blocker, he can run and presents a formidable downfield threat. The Pats tight end stoppers held their own the last two weeks against Travis Kelce and Darren Waller, and they’ll need to do it again this week.