Is Harris one of the league's top cover corners, or a product of the system in which he plays? Cian Fahey says the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
16 Jan 2014
by Cian Fahey
Of course, it's not really that at all.
The majority of the media will focus on Manning and Brady instead of focusing on the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. The AFC Championship game will be presented like a tennis match between the two quarterbacks. However, unlike a tennis match, this game will be decided by over 100 people. From the owners down through each front office, coaching staff and the players on the field, football remains the quintessential team sport. The quarterback carries more value than other players, but not enough to ignore everyone else.
Last week we witnessed that the Patriots don't need a big game from Brady to win in the playoffs. The 36-year-old quarterback made important plays, but he completed just 52 percent of his passes for 198 yards without a touchdown and one fumble.
The offense focused on running the ball. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined for 38 carries, 218 yards and six touchdowns. There was no need for the Patriots to turn to Brady because of the productivity they had on the ground. Blount in particular stood out. It's unlikely that Blount will carry in four touchdowns again, but he will still be a key player against the Broncos.
Blount endured an arduous journey before he landed in New England. He went undrafted in 2010 and didn't make a roster out of training camp. The Tennessee Titans waived him before the start of the season before he landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played 13 games for the Buccaneers and had over 1,000 rushing yards, but he lost his starting spot to Doug Martin in 2012.
The Patriots acquired Blount for kick returner Jeff Demps and a seventh-round draft pick after the 2012 season. He wasn't brought in to be a starter, but Ridley's ball security issues, an injury to Shane Vereen, and some strong displays in the regular season earned him a bigger role.
Blount is a huge back with the explosiveness and vision to create big gains. He has a very narrow skill set because he doesn't factor at all as a receiver, but that hasn’t phased Bill Belichick. Unless Belichick decides to pull the carpet out from underneath everyone, Blount should have a big impact.
It's possible that he will even be the primary focus for the Denver Broncos defense.
On the other side of the ball, there is no question who the Patriots defense will be focusing on. Manning set a record for touchdowns during the regular season and led his team to victory over the San Diego Chargers last week. With Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas, the Broncos passing attack isn't just effective, it's versatile and exceptionally sharp. When the Patriots last faced off against the Broncos, during the regular season, Belichick's defense forced the Broncos to run the ball a huge amount.
Including overtime, the Broncos had 47 called run plays. Manning still threw the ball 36 times, but he did so in tough passing situations, completing just 19-of-36 attempts for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Even though the Broncos had a 24-0 lead at halftime, the Patriots kept their safeties deep throughout the whole game. On all but four snaps, excluding plays within 10 yards of their own goal line, the Patriots defense kept both safeties deep. On average, each safety was 11.5 and 12.4 yards away from the line of scrimmage at the snap.
This pushed Knowshon Moreno further into the spotlight.
Moreno finished the regular season with over 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 4.3 average per carry. A lot of his production is a result of his own ability, but he also benefited from playing in a very beneficial situation with Manning and that stacked receiving corps. Against the Patriots he had 37 carries for 224 yards and a touchdown -- that's what happens when the box is there for the taking.
He should have a lot of carries this Sunday also, but the presence of Montee Ball may be more important. Ball had 10 touches for 57 yards against the Patriots during the regular season, but his involvement was cut short after a fumble early in the third quarter. Last week, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 10 attempts while Moreno struggled, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on 23 attempts. Ball isn't dramatically different to Moreno in terms of skill set -- they are actually very similar. Both are very well-rounded players who can contribute in a variety of ways. But Ball appears to be slightly more explosive and he should be fresher at this point of the season. This should make him a better fit to take advantage of the space that the Patriots defense will sacrifice to stop Manning.
Unless Ball fumbles again, he should be heavily involved in this game.
In the first quarter, on the Patriots 21-yard line with a 14-0 lead, the Broncos are facing a first-and-10. Manning comes out in the pistol formation with two receivers and a tight end to the left as well as one receiver to the right. Even though it's first-and-10, deep in Patriots territory, both of the Patriots safeties line up 12 yards off the line of scrimmage.
As the second half of the above image shows, the Patriots have only six defenders in the box. Furthermore, both linebackers are lined up over both offensive tackles and the defensive line is spaced so both defensive ends are in wide pass-rushing alignments. This means that there is vast space through the spine of the defense and the Broncos have enough blockers in position to account for each defender in the box.
At the snap, Manning turns and looks for Ball. Because of the respect the Patriots show to Manning, each safety drops deeper away from the line of scrimmage even as he turns to his running back. While that is happening, the Broncos offensive line and tight end are able to get clean individual blocks on each of the Patriots defenders in the box. This creates a hole up the middle of the offensive line.
Ball very quickly recognizes the hole and is fast through it. He breaks into a vast amount of space with both safeties closing in on him. He attacks the space between both safeties and is able to break past them down to the four-yard line for a 16-yard gain. This is the type of easy gain that comes when you play with Manning. Ball doesn't need to be a special back to put up big numbers. He just needs to use his explosion and be a decisive runner.
Ball isn't a great receiver. He has had a few drops -- and that fumble against the Patriots came on a screen pass. Before that play, though, he did show off his ability to create a big play in space.
Midway through the second quarter, the Broncos were facing a third-and-20 on their own 33-yard line. They run a screen to the right for Ball. The Patriots aren't set up well to defend this screen. They send four defenders after the quarterback and play man coverage underneath with both safeties deep in Cover-2.
The three receivers to the top of the screen who run parallel to the sideline take four defenders away from the play. None of the three in man coverage can see the ball, while the safety drops too deep to react to the screen play. At the snap, both safeties dropped to the first-down marker. This means neither safety is in position to make a tackle on Ball early in the play. The only two defenders who can get to him quickly are marked off on the above image with the red numbers 1 and 2.
Both defenders are well blocked by Broncos offensive linemen who quickly get out in front of Ball. However, an excellent effort play from the defender who rushed the passer from the far side of the field puts him in a position to tackle Ball at the line of scrimmage. Ball slightly alters the angle of his run and uses his acceleration to swerve around him in space. This frees him into the secondary.
Because of how the Patriots set up their defense, Ball's speed and Decker's downfield block are the two keys to the success of this play. Not only does Ball convert a third-and-20, he is completely untouched as he crosses the first-down marker, on his way to a 31-yard gain.
In a game that will be celebrated for its quarterbacks, each team's ability to run the ball is going to be crucial for determining who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
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