Truth be told, it’s been a long time since our pass defense swarmed like I saw the infuriated bee hive of Broncos swarming Patriot*** receivers in the 2015 AFC Championship. Cue nostalgic tears for Sam Madison and Pat Surtain.
I’ll be the first to admit that our defensive personnel likely cannot pull off this game plan because we do not have the talent. The tenets of the Broncos’ game plan, however, combine both complexity and simplicity - and they used their plan to devastating effect. Here’s what I noticed in that game, and why I think it’s the most successful blue print I’ve seen to date in stopping the Patriots*** offense.
They Rushed Four Most of the Time
You’d think the Broncos dialed up exotic blitzes, but it was just good old-fashioned spectacular DL play. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware got routine pressure on Tom Brady, and the Patriots*** OL was overmatched. The key to the whole puzzle is being able to win one-on-one match-ups against the Patriots*** line.
The Miami Dolphins have used this game plan almost exclusively for at least the last 5 years. We’ve also had above-average DL’s and have a tendency to give the Pats*** fits in Miami.
Thank you, New York Giants. This part of the blueprint has been available for quite some time.
They Dared the Patriots*** to Throw Deep
This is perhaps the most important caveat of the whole game plan. The Broncos’ unique bracket coverage was facilitated by their willingness to let Brady sling it deep. And wouldn’t you be more confident in coverage if you knew your defensive line would incite as much havoc as it did!
Although it almost came back to bite them when Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards on 4th and 10 late in the 4th quarter, the game plan ultimately succeeded. The Broncos did not seem concerned with the Patriots*** being able to get downfield. The short passing attack is the life and blood of the Patriots*** offense, and the Broncos were able to interfere with the rhythm of the Patriots*** offense by stifling their chain movers: Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and whoever is coming out of the backfield.
They Bracketed East and West, Not North and South
(I wish I had more access to specific game tape, which would be more helpful in my explanation. I’m cheap, yo!)
Most pre-snap reads in the AFC Championship showed the Broncos in Cover 2 man or Cover 1 (not depicted, but very analogous to Cover 0 except that there is 1 safety playing middle field). But almost all of the plays turned into cover 0, only without the blitzing aspect - everyone stayed in coverage. In other words, the Broncos would show up with 2 deep safeties, but then rush them into the frenzy, usually within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, to enact their own brand of bracketing.
Julian Edelman is a master at the ins, outs, option routes, and finding the holes in a zone within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The inherent level of understanding between Brady and Edelman is impeccable - if there’s a crease or a one-on-one matchup, they are going to exploit it. The Patriot*** RB’s were equally strong at getting matched up on LB’s and running the same routes. Gronkowski, of course, is a match-up nightmare all his own.
Broncos safeties were essentially sitting near the hash marks, and waiting for these breaking cuts, usually the out-breaking routes. The goal was simple: the inside person (whether that be LB or CB depending on the formation) sat on the inside shoulder, forcing everything outside and down the field. They did not have to overcompensate, because they knew another defender would be employing the complementary mindset. In other words, the safeties who initially showed a cover 2 or 1 look, came up to play the outside shoulder and anything deep. As the game wore on, and saw how quickly the pass rush was getting there, the Broncos safeties became even more aggressive in bracketing to the outside and shorter in depth.
Within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage, when you saw Edelman or Gronkowski running a route, you’d see someone to their inside and someone to their outside on nearly every play. In basketball, if a guy is lighting you up, but does not have a height advantage on you, you play east and west bracketing to try and prevent him from catching the ball and force everything behind you. The baseline is your friend, and he has no inherent advantage gaining access to a deeper position on the court without height. In a scheme where you ignore the deep pass, you can bracket more aggressively east and west and that’s exactly what the Broncos did.
To reiterate, the Broncos were not worried about the deep pass and “doubled down”, knowing their pass rush and match-ups on the boundary would prevent most deep passes from happening. The east and west bracketing forced Brady to throw into tighter windows, which was exacerbated by a relentless Broncos pass rush. One can only deduce that the Broncos had elite communication on that day when it came to bracketing, noticing how receivers were “handed off” to another with such precision, especially if they came across the entire formation.
The injury to Dion Lewis hurt the Patriots*** execution, and the ultra-athletic Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan helped manage the middle of the field better than most LB units in the NFL. Not only did they stick with RB’s, but for the most part, ran step for step with Gronkowski, which masked any opportunities the Patriots*** had without the east-west bracketing system in place - for example, when they tried lining up Gronkowski out wide.
Finally, the Patriots*** one-dimensionality caught up with them, carrying the ball 17 times to spite 56 passing attempts. And finally, someone had an answer for the Patriots*** incessant proclivity for dinking and dunking. Let’s hope the Miami Dolphins were taking notes, and despite a lack in talent compared to the 2015 Denver Broncos AFC Championship defense, let’s hope we are able to incorporate some of this winning formula into stopping the Patriots***.
As Tom Brady becomes older, the Patriots*** will rely more and more on their well-oiled machine of short passing. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather steal the crown than peacefully wait for our turn.
I’ll settle for stopping that screen on 3rd and 18 to start off, though. One step at a time, Dolphins fans!
Phins Up from the SUTTON family!