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Published on 01/12/2012 at Thu Jan 12 13:45.
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Tim Tebow film room vs. Patriots Week 15

CBSSports.com

The Divisional Playoffs game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots presents a number of interesting angles, in both storylines (ahem Josh McDaniels) and on-the-field strategies (containing the Broncos’ version of the option; how to limit the Patriots’ tight ends). Here is how some of the experts break down this Saturday’s pivotal playoffs matchup.

Broncos Offense

Film Room: Patriots vs Broncos divisional preview by Andy Benoit, CBS Sports –

Something to keep in mind is the Steelers had a sound gameplan last week, playing man coverage and using a tepid pass-rush to ensure that Tim Tebow stayed in the pocket. What the Steelers didn’t count on was Demaryius Thomas being able to get by Ike Taylor and Tebow being able to pull the trigger on downfield throws. Those two young ’10 first-rounders both had career days.

The Patriots might bet that the two youngsters can’t do it again.

On the one hand, that’s a smart bet given that Thomas and Tebow were inconsistent all season (Tebow especially). On the other hand, it’s foolish given that cornerback Kyle Arrington – who would draw the Thomas matchup, as Thomas almost always lines up on the favorable side of the left-handed Tebow – is not half the cover artist Ike Taylor is, and given that logic says if Tebow can win against the man coverage of the league’s best pass defense, he can surely win against the man coverage of the league’s worst pass defense.

Expect a tight divisional battle between Broncos, Patriots by Pat Kirwin, NFL.com —

Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee (23) throws a block on Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote (50) as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) looks to pass in the second quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Denver.  (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee (23) throws a block on Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote (50) as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) looks to pass in the second quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Part of the Tebow magic last week was created by the dive option package, which on several occasions had Tebow keeping the ball and running right at James Harrison. The Steelers’ All-Pro looked frozen at the line of scrimmage a number of times and lost containment on Tebow. The Patriots don’t have any outside linebackers as good as Harrison, and they probably will be more aggressive in getting upfield quickly to restrict Tebow’s options. The last time these teams met, Tebow led a rushing attack that finished with 252 yards and three touchdowns, even though New England tightened up its run defense in the second half.

Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots by Bill Barnwell, Grantland —

Willis McGahee (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Willis McGahee (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

What makes scheming even more difficult is Denver’s adherence to the run, particularly in unlikely situations. When defensive coordinators are playing teams that rely heavily upon play-action, they love third-and-a-lot because it takes the play-action out of the game. Who cares about a run fake on third-and-10? Nobody’s ever going to run the ball in that situation! Well, the Broncos do. Tebow’s ability to scramble means that the other team has to at least entertain the possibility of an improvised run, but the Broncos will also call designed running plays on third-and-medium. They did that several times against the Patriots, including a Tebow counter on third-and-9 that went for 19 yards. If you’re not safe from the threat of a running play on third-and-9, when can you be safe?

When you have a big lead in the second half, that’s when, and the Broncos have mostly avoided that situation this season. Against the Patriots, they were actually dominant on offense before three second-quarter turnovers killed their momentum. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots mostly chose to keep their safeties deep and allow them to react to the play call once they saw a handoff or a dropback. That’s partly because Bill Belichick (rightly) has far less faith in his cornerbacks than LeBeau does in his, but also because the Patriots were playing a wide receiver at safety. During their first game against the Broncos, New England started backup wideout Matthew Slater at safety because their regular starter, Patrick Chung, was injured.1 Chung is one of the few above-average players on the New England defense when he’s healthy, so his presence should be a huge upgrade for Belichick & Co.

Patriots Offense

Film Room: Patriots vs Broncos divisional preview by Andy Benoit, CBS Sports –

Denver Broncos cornerbacks Chris Harris (25) and Champ Bailey (24) confer during practice at the football team's training facility in Englewood, Colo., on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. The Broncos are scheduled to playoff the New England Patriots in an NFL divisional playoff game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Denver Broncos cornerbacks Chris Harris (25) and Champ Bailey (24) confer during practice at the football team's training facility in Englewood, Colo., on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. The Broncos are scheduled to playoff the New England Patriots in an NFL divisional playoff game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Greg Cosell, executive producer of the NFL Matchup Show, did an excellent job breaking down the Week 15 film back in December. Cosell wrote that the Broncos focused their coverages on Rob Gronkowski, successfully disrupting his timing by hitting him at the line of scrimmage.

However, that left fourth-round rookie safety Quinton Carter on Aaron Hernandez. Carter, like the rest of Denver’s safeties, is not great in man coverage, which Hernandez proved by posting what were at the time his career highs in catches (nine) and yards (129).

Though still a little green as a route runner (particularly against zone), Hernandez has the movement skills of a wide receiver. The Broncos may choose to defend him with rising rookie nickel back Chris Harris. That would leave safeties and linebackers to cover Gronkowski.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen may figure he can get away with that as long as coverage linebackers Wesley Woodyard and D.J. Williams are once again physical with the second-year superstar.

Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots by Bill Barnwell, Grantland —

While the Broncos dull the senses of opposing safeties with run after run, the Patriots do it with short passes to their receivers before taking shots down the field. The Broncos spent a fair amount of the first game in two-deep coverage with their safeties, hoping that it would limit Brady’s opportunities down the field and allow them to double-star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Naturally, Brady adapted and took advantage of what the defense allowed him, and he did so by manipulating his young charges deep in the defensive backfield.

Playoff Preview: Broncos-Patriots by Kerry J. Byrne, Sports Illustrated —

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) reacts after catching a pass for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Aaron Hernandez scores (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

It’s easily the worst pass defense among the remaining playoff contenders. In fact, it’s something of a statistical miracle the Broncos are even in the playoffs. There have been 56 teams in NFL history with a Defensive Passer Rating of 93.0 or worse. Only two have reached the postseason before the Broncos: the 2004 Packers and the 2008 Cardinals. The Packers failed to win a playoff game. The Cardinals actually reached the Super Bowl. It should be noted that each had a future Hall of Fame QB on offense: Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, respectively.

It’s all very bad news for a Denver defense staring down the barrel of New England’s virtually unstoppable passing attack. Tom Brady already shredded that poor pass defense once this year. In the Week 15 showdown at Denver, he completed 23 of 34 passes for 320 yards, 2 TDs, zero interceptions and a 117.3 passer rating.

There’s no reason to believe he won’t do it again in his own stadium.

Denver’s biggest problem is an inability to generate turnovers: just nine interceptions all year. Compare that to the 23 picked off by the Patriots and 49ers, or the NFL-best 31 hauled in by the Packers.

Brady spark that ignites Patriots’ explosive offense by Jeff Legwold, Denver Post –

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks to throw against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Denver. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks to throw against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Denver. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

As the season has progressed, Allen has been more willing to open up the defensive playbook. But the Broncos have battled their youth and inconsistent tackling at times, especially at safety, where they have played rookies Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore side by side on several occasions. Poor tackling and busted assignments in the secondary hurt the Broncos in their first matchup against the Patriots. …

“They played a great game,” Brady said. “They’re definitely not a team that lines up in one thing and plays that all day. They like to keep things moving, show you certain looks and when the ball is snapped disguise and go into other things. I’m sure they’re going to have some new things we haven’t prepared for to try to make some plays that way.”

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