In the end the Broncos presented the worst matchup for the Patriots in this year’s playoffs.
Not many people suggested that a week ago after Tom Brady and the Patriots moved the ball at will against the Chiefs.
Kansas City had won 10-straight games to close out the regular season then crushed the Texans 30-0 to open Wild Card Weekend. But with Brady once again armed with a healthy trio of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots looked unstoppable while disposing of the Chiefs in the Divisional round.
On the strength of their reloaded passing attack, nothing was going to slow down the Patriots in route to Super Bowl 50…Or at least that’s what the masses believed.
With exception to the Giants, not many teams have gotten the best of Brady in the postseason. But the only way to consistently slow him down is to create so much pressure that not even the future Hall of Famer can keep his head above water.
Many thought that Brady would march into Denver, light up the scoreboard, and send Peyton Manning home a loser one final time. But Manning was simply an ancillary character. The primary reason why the Broncos will be playing on Super Bowl Sunday next week is because DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller put on a pass-rush clinic, plus the Pats became undone by the very thing that makes them invincible.
The Patriots want to spread you out, strike quick with precision and accuracy, then keep their foot on the gas in efforts to break your will. Part of what makes their offense so complex to defend is their use of five-receiver formations, a multitude of variations of the same play, and the wideouts’ ability to diagnose coverages as quickly and proficiently as Brady. This too is why so many receivers fail in New England – the system is difficult to learn.
But New England’s system, that high-octane, seemingly unstoppable force, is also what doomed the Patriots on Sunday.
There are many benefits to using five-receiver sets, especially when your quarterback gets the ball out of his hands as quickly and as accurately as Brady. But sending out five receivers on routes also means you can only use five-man protections. And when your offensive tackles play as poorly as New England’s did on Sunday, that’s how your signal-caller gets hit 20 times through the course of a game.
Miller and Ware turned Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon into turnstiles. Between them, Miller and Ware have a wealth of pass-rush moves but they mostly dominated with pure speed. Their first step was so quick that there were multiple times when Vollmer and Cannon couldn’t get to their slide step before the defensive ends were bending the arc and closing in on Brady.
Now, there are multiple ways to slow down a pass rush. Offenses can use a tight end or running back to chip defensive ends to help linemen, and screens can also be effective when a defense is overly aggressive.
But what’s often most effective? Running the ball with success.
When teams can run between the tackles, it slows outside pass-rushers because they have to account for the inside run. Get too wide and the pass-rusher will take himself right out of a play. Cheat by crashing hard inside and pass-rushers send an open invitation to the opponent’s offensive coordinator to start mixing in outside runs.
It was surprising to see Josh McDaniels’ reluctance to use a running back to chip Denver’s pass-rushers and buy Brady more time in the pocket. But McDaniels couldn’t do anything about New England’s lack of a running game.
Neither Dion Lewis nor LeGarrette Blount were going to suddenly emerge from the tunnel in order to save Brady from taking a pounding. And it’s not as if the Patriots could morph into the Panthers at halftime and start running the ball out of power sets. Even if they did, it’s unlikely Steven Jackson was going to have some sort of revival.
So the Patriots stuck with who brought them to the dance: Brady and their spread offense.
Even without a running game and the amount of hits he had to absorb, Brady nearly pulled it off, too. Had he not missed an open Gronkowski on that failed two-point attempt at the end of the game, perhaps New England would have rode its fourth-quarter momentum to a victory in overtime.
But in the end it once again was the defense that lifted Broncos. Ware and Miller were relentless, but they weren’t a two-man wrecking crew. Even when Brady did have time to throw, the pass rush eventually got to him anyways because the back seven was superb in coverage. (Gronkowski still lit up the stat sheet but he earned every yard he gained while fighting through constant jams and bracket coverage.)
This wasn’t the first time the Patriots succumbed to a team with a fierce pass rush. But it’s not often that an opponent can turn a game into a mismatch vs. Brady and Co.