26 Sep 2006
by Ned Macey
Last season, the Broncos became the first team to beat Tom Brady in the playoffs. New England had a chance at redemption in a stadium where they had lost just one meaningful game in the past three seasons. The Patriots defense played well enough to win, but their offense was dominated by a Denver defense that has quietly become one of the best in the league.
The early-season struggles of the Patriots offense have led to talk that the sky is falling in New England. The Patriots' parsimonious ways have apparently made this once-dominant team a shell of its former self. Some are even considering the theoretically rebuilding Jets co-favorites for the division crown.
This massive overreaction ignores that the Patriots have consistently re-invented themselves in recent years. By the time the offense is sorted out, the Patriots will be comfortably cruising to an AFC East title. For a team that won three Super Bowls in four years, it may be a shock to the system that they are not the favorites in the AFC. Still, thanks to a weak division, their playoff prospects are still brighter than those of the team that marched into Gillette Stadium and left with a convincing victory.
The simplest explanation for the game is that the Broncos own the Patriots. Tom Brady is now 1-5 against Denver, with the one win coming in a game where the Broncos started Danny Kanell. Over the past five years, the Broncos have dominated the Patriots, who have dominated the Colts, who have in turned dominated the Broncos.
While this phenomenon is worth noting, the logos on the helmets did not decide this game. The Broncos have now won three times in the past 12 months not because of matchups but because they have been the better team. A more satisfying explanation for the Broncos' victory is that an under-appreciated defense bested an offense still searching for an identity.
In large part because of their playoff failings against the Colts, the consistent success of the Denver Broncos is often overlooked. The team has had one losing season in the 11 seasons Mike Shanahan has been the head coach. They have averaged over 10 wins a year this decade. By our advanced metrics, they have ranked as one of the ten best teams in football five of the past six seasons.
Shanahan, in fact, entered the game with a better winning percentage than the consensus best coach in football roaming the opposing sideline. His 124-75 mark is significantly better than Belichick's 101-78, although Belichick does have one additional Super Bowl championship. Shanahan has only one playoff win without John Elway, but that is as many as Bill Belichick has without Tom Brady.
The two playoff losses to the Colts, in which the Broncos allowed a combined 90 points, have obscured not only the overall quality of the team but even more the development of one of the league's best defenses. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer took over a mediocre defense after the 2002 season. In 2003, Coyer's defense ranked 11th in DVOA. After acquiring Champ Bailey -- in one of the league's all-time win-win trades -- Denver's defense improved to fifth and sixth the past two seasons. Both years they ranked higher than the more well-respected defenses in Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and New England.
The key to the defense is a group of athletic but physical linebackers. Bailey and John Lynch are known quantities. A number of stories have been written about the seemingly bizarre decision to import the Cleveland defensive line a year ago. Meanwhile, Ian Gold, Al Wilson, and D.J. Williams form one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL in relative anonymity.
On this particular Sunday, it was the defensive line that did the heavy lifting. They took on the physical New England offensive line and eliminated the running game. When the Patriots were forced to the air, the athletic linebackers harassed the Patriots' talented tight ends. Brady completed only seven of 16 passes intended for tight ends.
Denver's defense was at its best on Sunday, completely eliminating the New England running game and playing solid coverage. A year ago, they harried Brady into multiple mistakes with relentless blitzing. According to Football Outsiders' game-charting project, Denver blitzed more than any team in football during the season and held true to that philosophy in the playoffs. This year, they focused on the run and forced New England to beat them through the air. With seven men in coverage, Brady had few open receivers.
With 24 Brady passes falling incomplete, the departure of Deion Branch was the easy excuse for the Patriots' struggles. I disagree with the decision to let Branch go, but too much virtual ink has already been spent on that subject to belabor the point here. While his departure weakens the team this season, they still have enough weapons to get it done on offense.
Branch's departure necessitated a transition to a run-first offense. Over the first two games, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney combined for 69 carries and 304 yards. The Patriots were clearly intent on repeating that success on Sunday. They ran Dillon and Maroney on five of their first seven and 11 of their first 20 plays. Unfortunately for the Patriots, those 11 rushes netted only 22 yards.
Corey Dillon was injured shortly thereafter, and from that point forward, the Patriots turned almost exclusively to the air. They had some immediate success, driving into field goal range only to see the field goal blocked. (While Stephen Gostkowski's two blocked field goals are a cause for concern, few have mentioned the fact that 33-year-old Adam Vinatieri has battled nagging leg injuries all season.)
The third quarter saw the passing offense stall, as Brady rarely had open receivers and was unable to connect with those that were closely guarded. The passing offense finally put the ball in the end zone on a ten-play drive all through the air. For the game, the pass offense was far from perfect but certainly not the primary problem. No turnovers, no sacks, and about six yards per play is good enough on most days when you only need 18 points.
Obviously more is expected of a passing game led by Brady. New England's passing attack should improve as Doug Gabriel gets acclimated to his new team and as Chad Jackson gets healthy. Still, their success is dependent on their ability to run the ball. With Dillon, Maroney, and a quality offensive line, they have the potential to have a dynamic rushing offense.
This switch in philosophy is nothing new for the Patriots. In 2001, the Patriots played conservative and rarely threw the ball. In 2002 and 2003, they featured a short passing attack and rarely ran the ball. The arrival of Dillon in 2004 was accompanied by an increased emphasis on the run and a sudden partiality for the deep ball. Brady's yards per attempt increased from 6.9 to 7.8. Last season, injuries to Dillon left the offense on Brady's shoulders, but the deep-passing attack remained. Without explosive wide receivers, this year's game plan appears to be pound the ball on the ground and work short passes to keep the defense honest. Brady's early yards per attempt is back down to 6.6.
While the offense is likely to be less dynamic than it was the past two seasons, it should not prevent the Patriots from repeating. The defense is better than a year ago, and the simple truth is that the rest of the division is not very good. The Jets are 2-1, but victories over Buffalo and Tennessee are hardly marquee wins. If they can beat the Colts this weekend, you will hear more about the Jets in this space a week from now. Such an outcome is unlikely. For those with short-term memory loss, the Jets were dominated at home for much of the game by these very same Patriots a week ago. A fluke play and a nice comeback made a one-sided game appear close on the scoreboard.
In Denver, they will relish this victory, but much work remains. Not all the problems of their first two lackluster games have been solved. Jake Plummer played better, but in reality, most of his success came on two big plays to Javon Walker. Opponents will keep a safety on Walker's side in upcoming weeks, and on most teams, the safety will be able to at least tackle Walker shortly after he makes a catch.
The Broncos have scored only 36 points in three games. The offense will get better, but for the first time in the Shanahan era, this team likely will be carried by its defense. With a fierce schedule -- six games against teams that have not lost yet -- the Broncos may still be fighting for a playoff spot when the inferior Patriots are resting for a home game. But the Broncos need not fear a trip to Foxboro for a playoff rematch, thanks to one of the best defenses in the league and a history of success in New England.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
102 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2006, 11:17am by Starshatterer