When the Patriots run
Do you miss BenJarvus Green-Ellis? Probably not. But if you do, there’s a guy named Brandon Bolden who is doing a pretty neat impersonation. The undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss (sound familiar?) was downright beastly against the Bills. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder has shown excellent vision and pop. He cuts once, finds a hole, and powers through. He lowers his shoulder and takes on all comers — he left several Bills with hurt bodies and hurt feelings last Sunday. Stevan Ridley runs with a high energy level. Ridley (5-11, 220) has good leg drive and vision. He shows deceptive strength (will break through arm tackles) and good acceleration at the second level. Diminutive Danny Woodhead is quick, instinctive, and a more-than-willing blocker. The offensive line was particularly impressive last week — especially considering Logan Mankins was out. Center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Donald Thomas seemingly took all the right angles and consistently drove back defenders. That group will be banging heads with a trio of tackles who have underperformed: Justin Bannan (strong but slow), Kevin Vickerson (big and quick), and Mitch Unrein (smart but unathletic). Middle linebacker Joe Mays is undersized (5-11, 250) and underrated. An instinctive player with a nonstop motor, Mays is always around the ball and will launch himself into ball carriers with reckless abandon.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady didn’t feel much pressure last week thanks in large part to stellar performances from tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, who helped make Bills pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson nonfactors. That kind of effort will be needed again because the Broncos can bring the heat. Elvis Dumervil has an explosive first step and employs a variety of stuttersteps, head fakes, and spin moves to beat blockers and beat down quarterbacks. Brady, who has been playing at a particularly high level, will use quick options to stay upright and keep the chains moving. Option A will be Wes Welker. The slotman is quick off the line, finds soft spots quickly, and generally catches everything thrown his way. If he’s not bumped off his route at the line, he will pick up yards in chunks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski uses his size, strength, and surprising quickness to get open. He’s a demon down the seam. Using the quick-strike attack will put the defense on its heels and open things up for Brady to take some shots downfield to Brandon Lloyd — and maybe even Deion Branch. Lloyd has great acceleration, hands, and body control. Champ Bailey is still playing at an elite level — he’s as close to a shutdown corner as there is in the NFL. Fellow corners Tracy Porter and Tony Carter will struggle and safeties Mike Adams and Rahim Moore often look lost.
When the Broncos run
Willis McGahee just keeps getting better. The 6-foot, 235-pounder has been rejuvenated since arriving in Denver last season after it appeared his career might be over after three lackluster seasons in Baltimore. McGahee, who has overcome two serious knee injuries and questions about his desire, possesses quick feet and outstanding vision and power. He hits creases like a tailback and he hits linebackers and safeties like a fullback. McGahee has excellent balance and plays to the whistle on every play. Lance Ball (5-9, 215) runs low and with good balance but lacks power and elusiveness. Rookie Ronnie Hillman (5-10, 190) is one to watch. The third-round pick is a smooth strider with excellent vision and agility. He moves well laterally and has deceptive power. Old friend Dan Koppen (smart and scrappy but has lost a step) mans the middle. He will not enjoy Sunday’s reunion with massive (and nimble) tackle Vince Wilfork, who beats defenders with quickness and power. Left guard Zane Beadles (love the name) has good size (6-4, 305) and smarts. Right guard Manny Ramirez is powerful but doesn’t always appear fully interested in the task at hand — also an apt description of a more well-known Manny Ramirez. Destructive and instinctive linebacker Jerod Mayo is always in the middle of the action. It’s almost as though he’s playing an adult version of “kill the man with the ball.”
When the Broncos pass
Peyton Manning remains one of the smartest players in football history. Among the most prepared quarterbacks of all time, he has tremendous presnap recognition and is a master at audibilizing out of his original play in order to exploit mismatches. He has lost some of the zip on his fastball — he never threw the tightest spirals, but now his tosses look particularly wobbly. Manning is still extremely accurate and does a great job leading receivers and putting the ball on their back shoulders. Manning lacks athleticism — he’s about as mobile as a fire hydrant — but he gets rid of the ball quickly and rarely absorbs bit hits. Behemoth tackles Ryan Clady (6-6, 315, and smart and strong) and Orlando Franklin (6-7, 330, and strong and quick but can be beat on stunts) are solid. Manning is still getting used to his receiving stable. Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) has a nice blend of size and speed. He gets off the line quickly and will use his strong hands and explosive acceleration to gain separation and make tough catches. Eric Decker (6-3, 218) has good size and reliable hands and runs precise routes. Brandon Stokley is a solid route runner with good speed, great hands, a fearless attitude, and a great rapport with Manning. New England’s pass defense has been suspect at best. If safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are consistently out of position (like they were in Buffalo), Manning will shred this secondary.
Broncos’ key player: Von Miller
An exceptionally explosive player, the second-year outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid is very instinctive and athletic. He moves well laterally and makes plays from sideline to sideline.
How he beats you: With quickness and power. Miller reads defenses quickly, adjusts accordingly, and pounds bodies. He’s adept at slipping blocks and jolting quarterbacks.
How to shut him down: Run right at him. Miller tends to overpursue — and he’s hellbent on getting to the quarterback. When sacks aren’t available, he sometimes loses interest.
BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Comfort level. Peyton Manning needs to target old reliables Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme to get into a groove. Then go for the home run to Demaryius Thomas.
2. Keep banging away. Use all the backs — Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, and Ronnie Hillman — to keep the clock moving and the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands. Denver can’t win if it’s a shootout.
3. Send everyone. The Broncos love to blitz. So bring the ends, the linebackers, and even the corners and safeties to keep the offensive line — maybe even Brady — guessing.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Cut that meat. The pass rush has looked good at times and mediocre at others. Big efforts will be needed from Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jermaine Cunningham to keep Peyton Manning in check.
2. Tackle boxes. Tom Brady’s outside protectors, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, must be active and aware. The Broncos love to disguise their blitzes, so adjustments will have to me made.
3. Balance sheet. It’s a key every week — for a good reason. If the Patriots can run the ball effectively, Brady becomes even more dangerous, and that’s a scary thought for defensive coordinators.