Oct 072012
 

In the end this game turned out almost exactly as I expected it to. The teams exchanged early touchdowns before the Patriots asserted control over the game for two quarters, and then the Broncos played a frenzied fourth quarter to close the gap to ten points and make the score respectable. And while the Broncos left some opportunities on the field Sunday, including two blunders by Willis McGahee, the game really wasn’t as close as it seemed at the end.

While Peyton Manning outdueled Tom Brady on the stat sheet, it was the Patriots’ dominance in the run game that once again stole the show for the Patriots. Stevan Ridley led the way with 151 yards on 20 carries, while the Patriots amassed 251 total rushing yards on the day and a team record 35 first downs. Brandon Bolden ran for 54 yards and Danny Woodhead added 47, including a huge 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 play that was instrumental in an early third quarter score as the Patriots opened up a 24-7 lead and turned the Broncos into a one dimensional team for the rest of the contest. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense limited McGahee to just 51 yards on the day. Turnovers were again a problem for the Broncos, as they turned the ball over three times compared to the Patriots’ one.

The Broncos looked like they were going to get off to a fast start when Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 43 yard pass play, but the ball was jarred loose by Sterling Moore, who recovered the ball and got the Patriots out of early trouble. After the teams traded punts, the Patriots then drove 84 yards on 12 plays, with Brady eventually connecting with Wes Welker for the first points of the day. The Broncos struck back on the next possession, scoring early in the second quarter when Manning found Joel Dressen for a one yard touchdown pass. The Patriots then began to force their will on the Broncos, taking 14 plays and 6:08 off the clock before Shane Vereen scampered in the last yard for a 14-7 Patriots lead. It was a lead that the Pats would not relinquish.

After the Broncos downed a punt on the Patriots’ two yard line, Brady engineered a 16 play drive to close out the scoring in the first half. Branden Bolden broke off a big 24 yard run and Ridley added a 14 yard run, and the Pats appeared primed to end the half with another touchdown. But a brilliant tackle by Von Miller stopped Bolden for a four yard loss and the Pats were forced to settle for a field goal, going into the half up 17-7.

The defenses asserted themselves at the outset of the second half, forcing each team to punt. But then the Patriots seized control of the game with yet another long, 16 play drive that took over six minutes, and ended with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a 24-7 lead. On the very next offensive play, Rob Ninkovich sacked Manning and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork. Three plays later Ridley ran for an 8 yard touchdown and a 31-7 lead, and it looked like the rout was on.

Of course playing against Peyton Manning means the rout is rarely if ever on, and Manning began leading the Broncos with some urgency, putting together a 10 yard drive in three and a half minutes that resulted in a beautiful two yard touchdown reception by Eric Decker, and the lead was cut to 31-14. After the Patriots were forced to punt, the Broncos moved the ball to the Patriots’ 47, where they faced a critical fourth and one. Manning hit McGahee for an easy first down play, but McGahee lost concentration and dropped the ball, giving in back to the Patriots with 10:54 remaining. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos’ 37 and faced a 4th and 5. Rather than punting for a short net gain, the Patriots decided to seal the win. Instead, Brady was sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Wesley Woodyard that resulted in a Patriots fumble and a 20 yard loss in the resulting scramble. The Patriots recovered, but it was Denver’s ball on downs. Manning then needed just 6 plays to connect to Brandon Stokely and cut the lead to 31-21.

The Broncos then decided on an ill-advised squib kick instead of kicking away, giving the Patriots great field position at their own 39 yard line. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos 37 after a big 20 yard run by Ridley, who then fumbled on the next play after Mike Adams jarred the ball loose and recovered it for the Broncos. The Broncos needed two scores and Manning completed three of his next six passes to get the Broncos to the Patriots’ 14 yard line, but then Rob Ninkovich came up with his second big impact play of the game, knocking the ball out of McGahee’s hands on the next play, which Jermaine Cunningham pounced on to seal the Patriots’ win.

The victory was Brady’s ninth in 13 games against Manning, but it was the running game and timely defense that propelled the Patriots to victory. Wes Welker caught 13 passes on the day for 104 yards and one touchdown, showing that the rumors of his demise were definitely premature. Rob Gronkowski caught four passes and Brandon Lloyd three as the Patriots’ balanced attack kept the Broncos guessing throughout the game.

Here’s how the game broke down –

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots rushing attack dominated the Broncos all afternoon,  with Ridley averaging 5.4 yards per carry on his way to 151 yards, and Bolden and Woodhead combining for another 101 yards. Patriots’ blockers were able to seal the edge all day to get outside, and inside runs routinely turned up positive yardage. The Broncos had no answers for the Patriots’ ground game today. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

While it was not a performance for the ages, Brady was generally sharp, connecting on 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown pass. Brady was sacked four times on the day, as the Pats had difficulty with the Broncos’ edge rushers. But time and again when Brady needed a play, he found Wes Welker, who seemed to torch the Broncos at will. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos ran:

Willis McGahee was held to 51 yards, and the Broncos overall only managed to rush for 70 yards, and only 3.0 yards per carry. McGahee had one run of 11 yards and Manning scrambled for another 10, but otherwise the Patriots’ snuffed the Broncos rushing attack.. Once the Patriots secured the lead, the Broncos abandoned the run for the remainder of the game, until a key fumble by McGahee sealed the Broncos’ fate. The Patriots knew that shutting down McGahee early would be a key to victory, and they got the job done. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos passed:

What I said in my preview turned out to be true. Manning started out sluggishly, figured things out as the game progressed, put up huge stats and still lost the game comfortably. Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, and was sacked only twice but one of those was a turnover that led to Patriots’ points. Demaryius Thomas had a solid day, catching 9 passes for 188 yards. Jacob Tamme added six catches and McGahee five, but it was Eric Decker’s pretty grab of a two yard Manning touchdown pass despite excellent coverage from Devin McCourty that should see time on the highlight reels. Advantage: Broncos

Special Teams:

Both kicking units had good days, as both Britton Colquitt and Zoltan Mesko were able to turn advantages on field position for their respective teams. Neither return unit made any major errors. Advantage: Tie

Key Moment: Danny Woodhead’s 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 that helped the Patriots open the game up to a 17 point lead in the third quarter

Game Ball: Stevan Ridley’s 151 yard performance has established him as a bona fide lead back in the Patriots offense and one of the top ten backs in the NFL in this early part of the season

Game Note: Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for the first time this season, and was involved in breaking up a few passes, including a key third down play to Brandon Stokely that forced a Broncos punt. The highly talented player dropped to the seventh round based on character issues, and the Patriots may have found themselves a diamond in the rough.

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.

Aug 142012
 

I know the preseason generally means nothing, especially for consistently good teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, after the first week of the preseason, I would be a little nervous if I am a Steeler fan. Why, because that offensive line is just plain bad.

The Pittsburgh Steelers used two early picks to draft offensive linemen David DeCastro (#24; 1st round) and Mike Adams (#56; 2nd round) in order to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright for the upcoming season. Well, after watching the first preseason game, the Steelers may want to clean up a few things, especially the offensive line because they were dominated in their game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The play was sloppy and Big Ben was not protected well at all. Was this just first game jitters or something more? And was this game a precursor to the season?

I thought the David DeCastro selection was an excellent choice as he did a fine job of protecting Andrew Luck at Stanford. With great surprise to me, against the Eagles, DeCastro did not hold up as well as expected and was pushed around. As for Mike Adams, I thought he was a reach in the second round and felt he would not do a good job of protecting Roethlisberger as Adams always struggled against speed rushers and those with brute strength. As a Ohio State Buckeyes fan, I watched Mike Adams get beat like a drum every week. If he was not getting beat, he was holding or had a false start that would stop a drive. Depending on which stats you read, Adams gave up between 1.5 to 3.5 sacks in the game to the Eagles.

Many will say, it is just the first preseason game, aren’t you overreacting ? I don’t believe so. I think that DeCastro will solidify his spot on the line and progress as appropriate. As a guard, he will provide a strong inside presence and will help the Steelers running game. In time, I think he will become an above average pass protector as well. However, Adams is going to be a liability. Again, he struggles with speed and brute strength. Go back to the tapes in college and watch as he gave up a number of big plays. I also did not find him to be a great run blocker. So, if I am the Steelers, I would be sure not to leave Mike Adams on an island.  If that occurs, I have a feeling that Ben Roethlisberger is going to be running for his life all year-long.