Patriots vs Broncos: Five Key Matchups

Dec 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots fans hold a sign in reference to quarterback Tom Brady (12) (not pictured) in the second half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 16-3. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Each week the game comes down to the matchups. These are the top 5 match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.

The New England Patriots are coming off a much-needed bye week and travel west to the Rockies to face the AFC West’s Denver Broncos. The Broncos welcome the Patriots to Sports Authority Field at Mile High after losing their fourth straight game and third straight road game. The Denver defense had their worst performance of the season giving up 51 points and 419 yards of total offense to the Philadelphia Eagles.

This week’s matchup will be the primetime Sunday Night game and be broadcast by NBC, It can be seen locally on NBC Boston – 10 or in Southeastern MA and RI on WJAR-10 out of Providence, RI. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with the winner of 15 Sports Emmy Awards and the owner of Pro Football Focus Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work the sidelines with in-game updates.

On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. Kevin Kugler and former Dolphins’ great and 2017 NFL Hall of Fame inductee Jason Taylor will call the game. Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color.

Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways against the Denver Broncos or if the “Mile High jinx” will be back in effect against the Patriots on Sunday night.

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  1. NE CB Malcolm Butler vs DEN WR Emmanuel Sanders

The past three weeks have seen the New England Patriots’ secondary significantly undermanned with just three healthy cornerbacks. With Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore sidelined, the Patriots leaned on special teams aces Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones at cornerback and the duo stepped up along with starter Malcolm Butler.

Now five deep at cornerback with Rowe and Gilmore healthy, the Patriots are at full strength against a Denver offense struggling to move the football. With Trevor Siemian struggling, Denver turned to former starter Brock Osweiler last week against the Eagles. While the Broncos scored their most points since week two, they only got in the end zone after the Eagles had scored over 40 points.

One positive for the Broncos was the return from injury of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Although he was limited to just 29 snaps, the explosive receiver has been slowed by a significant ankle sprain which caused him to miss multiple weeks. Sanders caught just one of five targets in his return and was clearly rusty. The best news for Denver was that they could bring him along slowly and he appears to be back to full strength.

In six regular-season games against the Patriots spanning his time in Pittsburgh and Denver, Sanders has 35 catches for 521 yards. In 2014 and 2015 with Denver he topped 100 yards with 151 yards and 113 yards games before New England slowed him down in the AFC Championship Game in 2015 and their week 15 match-up last season holding him to a combined eight receptions for 110 yards in those two games.

The difference has been the Patriots being able to lock-up Sanders with cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler has the short-space quickness to react to Sanders and stay with him across the field to limit his effectiveness. Butler–seemingly on his way out of New England this offseason, has once again been the most important cornerback in the first half of the season.

Butler needs to be up on Sanders in man-coverage and stay inside his shirt and be aggressive with him. If Sanders is still a half-step slow coming back from his ankle injury, it would be a huge boost the Patriots defense which needs to contain him after seeing him come up with big catch after big catch against their secondary over the past seven years.

  1. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs DEN ILB Brandon Marshall

Of course, when it comes to players having big games against a team, the Broncos are well aware of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. In 2011, he introduced himself to the NFL and the Broncos in the playoffs pulling in ten catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. In 2013, he was huge in the Patriots’ comeback win with 90 yards receiving.

In 2014 he burned the Broncos for nine receptions totaling 105 yards and yet another touchdown. In 2015 he helped the Patriots to an early lead before straining his knee and being carted off the field after hauling in six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. In the AFC Championship game that season, he was back and led a Patriots comeback that fell just short. Gronkowski had eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown.

The Broncos were fortunate last season in that Gronkowski was out for the season with a back injury when they took on the Patriots. Gronkowski has missed just one game this season and appears back at full strength. Gronkowski has 34 receptions in seven games for 509 yards and five touchdowns.

Denver will throw a number of different coverages at Gronkowski and while old nemesis T.J. Ward is no longer in Denver, the long and lean former Boston College safety Justin Simmons will face Gronkowski for the first time in his NFL career. Free safety Darian Stewart will help track Gronkowski on deeper routes, and if defensive coordinator Joe Woods was smart, he would make sure that former teammate Aqib Talib re-introduced himself to Gronkowski.

Fortunately for New England, Denver continues to primarily put the burden on inside linebacker Brandon Marshall. Marshall struggled at times this season. The Eagles were without Zach Ertz last week and their tight ends combined for five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos have been burned by Travis Kelce (133 yards receiving and a touchdown), Evan Engram (82 yards and a touchdown), and Jason Witten (97 yards receiving and a touchdown).

With shutdown cornerbacks in Talib and Chris Harris Jr., teams often go to the tight ends (and running backs) more often in the passing game and the Broncos have allowed the fourth most receptions (47) to tight ends and the second-most yards (623) and second-most touchdowns (five) through the first nine weeks of the 2017 season. Now, they face the best tight end in football this week.

Denver will have to deal with wide receiver Brandin Cooks (three receptions for 98 yards last season against Denver with New Orleans) and fellow speedster Phillip Dorsett and probably use Harris in coverage of Danny Amendola out of the slot. That puts a lot of pressure on Marshall and the safeties to try and slow Gronkowski on Sunday night.

  1. NE RT LaAdrian Waddle vs DEN DE Von Miller

Of course, the Patriots need to keep the ferocious Denver pass rush off of quarterback Tom Brady in order to give him time to get the ball downfield. Of course, the Broncos have had attrition in the front seven. Compare 2015 where they rolled out Malik Jackson, Vance Walker, DeMarcus Ware, Danny Trevathan and Sylvester Williams behind All-Pro edge rusher Von Miller.

So far in 2017, the Broncos have just 19 sacks in eight games with Von Miller accounting for eight of them. Edge rusher Shane Ray was on short-term injured reserve and has played just two games this season without a sack. Shaw Barrett is second on the team with sacks with just three rushing opposite Miller. Interior defender Derek Wolfe has just one sack while journeyman Shelby Harris is tied with inside linebacker Brandon Marshall with two sacks apiece.

For the Broncos this season the pass rush has been Von Miller. Last year the Patriots used running backs and tight ends to chip Miller and a healthy Marcus Cannon held his own keeping Miller from creating havoc and keeping him from compiling a sack in the 16-3 New England victory. This week Cannon has not practiced due to an ankle injury suffered in the second quarter of the game versus the Chargers prior to the bye week and is not expected to play.

The injury to Cannon pushes LaAdrian Waddle into the spotlight as the likely starter at right tackle across from Von Miller. A player they signed after the woeful Lions cut him in 2015 starting across from Von Miller. A player who played just one snap in 2016 will start and face Von Miller on Sunday night.  

Waddle started in week three and played well against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans. In the last game prior to the bye week, Waddle played more than half the game and helped contain Joey Bosa (8.5 sacks on the season but just one versus Waddle).

Waddle has massive size at six-foot-six and 315 pounds but moves surprisingly well for a player of his size. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia considers him starter-quality, and he will be tested this week going against the best pass rusher in the NFL.

  1. NE ILB Kyle Van Noy vs DEN RB C.J. Anderson

Another area of focus for the Denver Broncos in their match-up against the Patriots is the running game. The Broncos have failed to 70 yards rushing in three of their last four games after topping 110 yards rushing in each of their first four games on their way to a 3-1 start. That lack of a running game has put undue pressure on their inconsistent quarterbacks.

The lack of the running game in Denver has the Broncos searching for answers. They made a number of moves in the offseason with that in mind. Veteran right guard Ronald Leary was strong early in the season and has tailed off a bit due to injuries but is still the best blocker on the Denver offensive line. Center Matt Paradis missed a day of practice due to a back issue this week as well. With tackle, Menelik Watson placed on injured reserve the Broncos need as many healthy bodies up front as possible.

Denver’s running backs do not lack talent: C.J. Anderson has been selected to represent at the Pro Bowl in the past while veteran back-up Jamaal Charles is a four-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro selection. Anderson, Charles and backup Devontae Booker all are averaging over four yards per rush and combined average a combined 107 yards per game between the three of them.

Anderson, although fighting through illness and injury this week, is expected to be in the backfield on Sunday night. Anderson is familiar to the Patriots fans due to his overtime touchdown run in November 2015 on the snowy field in Denver on Sunday Night Football giving the Broncos a 30 to 24 win and setting up the rematch in the AFC Championship game in Denver that year.

For the Patriots, their run defense has been inconsistent with injuries robbing them of inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, run-stuffing nose tackle Vincent Valentine, and now their most consistent interior defensive lineman Malcolm Brown is injured and has not practiced this week and likely will not play on Sunday night.

The Patriots’ run defense has allowed 972 yards in eight games (25th in the NFL) and a league-worst 5.1 yards per rushing attempt. New England is 5-0 this season when they have allowed 125 yards or less rushing per game and 1-2 allowing more than 125 yards on the ground.

The pressure to stop the running game of the Broncos falls primarily on inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Van Noy led the Patriots with six tackles last week and is second on the team with 46 tackles. He is responsible for setting the defense with the green dot on his helmet communicating with the coaches on the sideline.

Van Noy has to step-up and maintain his gap discipline and prevent big plays in the running game like Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard rumble in the early stages of the win over the Chargers. The defense did settle down holding the Chargers to 70 yards on 20 carries other than that big play. The New England rushing defense needs to step-up on Sunday night and slow the Broncos’ ground game.

  1. NE DE Trey Flowers and DE Cassius Marsh vs DEN LT Garett Bolles and RT Allen Barbre or RT Donald Stephenson

The New England defense also needs to make Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler uncomfortable in the pocket so he cannot find wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas downfield and make big plays in the passing game. Part of New England’s deficiencies in pass defense has been the lack of a dependable pass rush.

On the interior, Adam Butler and Malcolm Brown each have a single sack, inside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower (now on injured reserve) have another 5.5 sacks and edge rushers Trey Flowers, Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise have 7.5 of the 16 sacks New England has accumulated this season.

The Broncos’ porous offensive line has allowed 28 sacks in eight games — tied with the Texans for the third-highest total in the league so far this season. To combat the loss of right tackle Menelik Watson–who was placed on injured reserve this week and was not playing well, to begin with–the Broncos have signed former Buffalo Bills tackle Cyrus Kouandjio to the roster to add depth at tackle.

Denver invested a first-round draft pick on left tackle Garett Bolles and he has flashed potential along with the usual growing pains as a rookie (he leads the team with nine penalties). Stephenson was signed in 2016 as a free agent, Watson in 2017, and 2015 second-round draft pick was sent to Atlanta this offseason after two seasons as a turnstile in Denver.

Veteran Donald Stephenson has missed three straight games due to a calf injury and his availability for Sunday night is not known. If he does not play, it may be an advantage for Denver as veteran 33-year old Allen Barbre has been their best option at right tackle. Barbre primarily played guard in Philadelphia prior to being traded to Denver at the beginning of training camp. Kouandjio–last seen being run out of Buffalo on a rail after falling and injuring his hip in the offseason and later being found wandering around a field in his underwear–is unlikely to be the answer in Denver.

The New England pass rush needs to make quarterback Brock Osweiler from sitting in a clean pocket and picking apart their zone defense. A rookie left tackle and a mess at right tackle is the best situation New England will get this season for their pass rush. They need to take advantage on Sunday night.

– Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for cover32/Patriots and covers the New England Patriots. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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