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The New England Patriots will head into Mile High and knock off the AFC's No. 1 seed behind an indefensible offense that is poised to shred the Denver Broncos' star-studded defense. Given some time to break down the All-22 Coaches Film on both units, here are three reasons why Wade Phillips and the Broncos will be overwhelmed by the Patriots' explosive offense in Sunday's AFC Championship Game:
1) The Patriots' "spread and shred" attack is unstoppable.
For all of the Patriots' versatility as an offense, the attack is at its best when Tom Brady's sitting in the shotgun as part of a spread formation. Whether it's a one-back set with a 2-by-2 or 3-by-1 alignment, or a variation of an empty formation with running backs and/or tight ends positioned on the outside, the Patriots create headaches for opponents when they open things up and allow Brady to pick apart coverage with precise "dink and dunk" throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
According to NFL Media research, Brady tossed 71 percent of his pass attempts fewer than 10 yards in the air -- and most importantly, he connected on 71.5 percent of those throws with a 26:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With the Patriots assembling a WR corps full of ex-punt returners adept at weaving through traffic, New England feasts on poor tackling on the perimeter.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round, the Patriots' spread formation created all kinds of problems for the NFL's hottest team. New England easily controlled the game from the start behind a magnificent performance from Brady in the pocket. The 16th-year pro connected on 28 of his 42 passes for 302 yards and a pair of scores. While those numbers are typical for the four-time Super Bowl champ, Brady's efficiency in directing a spread offense behind a suspect offensive line is a testament to his keen awareness and ultra-quick release. Reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from the performance, I noticed that most of Brady's passes were released under 2.25 seconds, which makes it nearly impossible for the pass rush to get a clean lick on the quarterback. Moreover, the quick-rhythm throws are challenging for defenders attempting to shadow receivers utilizing "off" technique (defenders positioned at 7 or 8 yards away from the line) or bump-and-run tactics.
On first-and-10 from the 31-yard line, the Patriots are aligned in an empty formation, with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman positioned to the right as WR3 and WR2, respectively. The Patriots are running a simple slant concept with Edelman and James White running slants, while Gronkowski executes an arrow route. Based on the coverage (Cover 1-man free), Brady will read the defender opposite Gronkowski to determine where to throw the ball. When Josh Mauga chases Gronkowski to the flat, Brady fires a dart to Edelman for an easy 13-yard completion (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
On the next play, the Patriots remain in an empty formation, but Brady is focused on Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell to his left. The duo is executing a stick concept (slot runs a 5-yard out, outside WR runs a go route) with Amendola instructed to run away from man coverage. The Chiefs have a nickel blitz called off the edge with Ron Parker disguising man press coverage before rushing through the C-gap. Brady quickly spots the blitz and targets Amendola on the quick out before the pocket collapses. This play results in a 16-yard gain and Brady avoids contact despite a heavy pressure call from the defense (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Later in the drive, the Patriots align in a "trix" formation, with Gronkowski positioned on the single-receiver side. He is instructed to run a hitch against Eric Berry to take advantage of "off" coverage. When Brady spots the space between his top target and the defensive back, he fires the ball out to Gronk for an easy completion. Although this only nets 3 yards, it sets up a play that results in a touchdown later in the game -- a play we'll address later in this piece (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Broncos certainly are familiar with the Patriots' spread tactics, having knocked off New England in an overtime battle back in Week 12. Despite missing Edelman and losing Gronkowski during the game, Brady finished the night with 280 passing yards and three touchdowns. Without his primary weapons on the field, he directed the majority of his passes to tight ends and running backs to exploit their favorable matchups against Denver's linebackers.
While that is certainly a tactic Phillips must prepare his defense to face in Sunday's rematch, the Patriots also could incorporate parts of the game plan from their 2014 meeting with Denver to light up the scoreboard in the AFC Championship Game. During that contest, Brady torched the Broncos for 333 passing yards and four touchdowns, deftly directing the Patriots' spread offense in a 43-21 win. He connected on 33 of his 53 pass attempts, with Gronkowski and Edelman combining for 18 receptions, 194 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Given that production, the Patriots would be wise to throw the ball around the yard with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
2) Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola create chaos.
New England's fast-paced approach and diverse scheming certainly will test the Broncos' defense, but coming up with a solid plan for neutralizing a crafty WR corps is the biggest challenge facing the AFC's top seed. The Patriots are 10-0 this season when Brady has his top three weapons; the production is staggering when the trio is on the field.
Gronkowski is unquestionably the most dangerous playmaker in the unit. (One of the most dangerous playmakers in football, for that matter.) He overwhelms linebackers and safeties with his rare combination of size, strength and athleticism. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds with a rugged game, Gronk mauls opponents with his physicality and superior length. Defenders are unable to fight around his box-out tactics, making him just about unstoppable in the red zone, where Brady frequently targets him on back shoulder fades:
Although the Patriots certainly take advantage of Gronkowski's superior physical dimensions in tight quarters, it is his versatility and athleticism that makes him nearly impossible to defend. He is an agile athlete with superb route-running skills. Gronkowski has a keen understanding of how to set up defenders with stutter-steps and fakes, and the Patriots take advantage of these skills by placing him in spots where he can win against one-on-one coverage. Most importantly, they set him up by using complementary "shot" plays off their base routes.
Against the Chiefs, the Patriots repeatedly targeted Gronkowski on hitches on the backside of 3-by-1 formations. Brady would check to the play at the line of scrimmage using various hand signals to tell Gronkowski the route. On the initial drive, Brady tossed a 3-yard hitch to Gronkowski after an audible (a play detailed above). And playing off that in the third quarter, Brady uses a dummy signal to help the Pro Bowl tight end score his second touchdown of the game.
In the play depicted just below, the Patriots are aligned in a trix formation with Gronkowski positioned on single-receiver side to the left. He is instructed to run a hitch-and-go. Eric Berry anticipates a hitch, based on his previous experience in the red zone, and jumps the route when he sees Gronkowski flash his hands to the quarterback. When Berry bites hard on Brady's pump fake, the four-time Super Bowl MVP lobs the ball to the front corner of the end zone for an easy score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Gronkowski now owning the NFL record for most receiving touchdowns by tight end in the playoffs (eight), the Broncos have to play close attention to his whereabouts on every single down.
While that plan is certainly sensible, based on the All-Pro tight end's success, the presence of Edelman and Amendola complicates matters. These two are crafty route runners from the slot, and their quickness poses problems for defenders when the Patriots use them on option routes or crossers between the numbers. Thus, opponents attempting to bracket or double-team Gronkowski run the risk of getting picked apart on an assortment of quick routes from either receiver.
Edelman, in particular, is a dangerous playmaker on option routes. He not only has explosive short-area quickness, but displays the patience and savvy to use different speeds to lull defenders to sleep during routes. With the Patriots frequently positioning him at WR2 or WR3 on empty or spread formations, Edelman is able to take advantage of "two-way" releases and potential picks to shake free from defenders. Considering Brady's remarkable anticipation and timing, Edelman's ability to create a little separation makes him a nightmare to defend without clutching or grabbing his jersey at the line. Given the amount of targets that routinely head in his direction (Edelman was targeted 16 times last Saturday), it is hard to keep the feisty pass catcher from impacting the game when New England operates from the spread.
With three options to feature on the perimeter, plus a couple of backs to target out of the backfield, the Patriots' offense is a nightmare to defend in a "win or go home" contest.
3) Steven Jackson is the X-factor for New England's running game.
Plenty of veteran evaluators raised their eyebrows when the Patriots signed Jackson near the end of the season, but the 12th-year pro could rise to the occasion with the title on the line. Despite rushing for just 50 yards on 21 attempts during the regular season, Jackson is the kind of power back Bill Belichick typically relies on during the playoff push. He still flashes enough power to run through arm tackles in the hole and his nose for the goal line (69 career rushing touchdowns) could come in handy in key moments for the Patriots:
Against the Chiefs, Jackson didn't play a pivotal role due to the team's desire to throw the ball around. But his ability to line up in the "dot" position as the Patriots' four-minute back could help New England play keepaway from Peyton Manning in the late stages of the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots might decide to test the interior of the defense with an assortment of power runs directed between the tackles. While Bolden will be a part of that equation, Jackson's experience, toughness and physicality could make him the man of the hour on Sunday.