The Patriots travel out to Invesco Field in Denver this week in the last game before their bye week and the end of the grueling start to their season. A win would send the still banged-up Patriots into the bye with a very respectable 4-2 record given what they have faced. A loss, while not devastating, would hurt in that it would come against what is certain to be an AFC playoff rival. That being said, it appears the Patriots will have some opportunities to make plays on both sides of the ball this week.
Patriots Offense Vs. Denver Defense
On offense, the Patriots should have the chance to make plays both running and passing this week. Running the ball, the Patriots will come up against a Denver defense that is fifth in the NFL against the run. Denver’s defensive line certainly has a lot of talent on it. A lot of it, however, has been underachieving talent in the past. Guys like Courtney Brown and Gerrard Warren, both of whom start for Denver, came into the NFL highly touted guys and very high draft picks. Both have been somewhat rejuvenated in Denver, particularly Warren who has two sacks and has been disruptive. Also on the front line is Trevor Pryce, who is a top-notch NFL player and has had an outstanding career. The only problem is he is coming off major back surgey that kept him out of all but two games last year. He’s been sluggish so far this year and has yet to accumulate a sack. Against the run, these guys can be handled and I expect to see the Pats to try to keep it balanced. Corey Dillon with twenty plus carries should afford the Patriots a good opportunity to win.
The best part of the Denver defense is its linebackers. They have three very good, very fast guys who start. They are Ian Gold, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams. Gold is a speedy coverage linebacker, Wilson is a tackle machine in the run game and Williams is a super-athlete who is good all around and may be among the fastest linebackers in the NFL. The Patriots are probably better off trying a power running attack with a lead blocker on this group. That being said, looking at the talent in the front seven for Denver, its not an overwhelming group despite the good stats they have produced so far. The Patriots should be able to run the ball.
They also should be able to throw it. The Denver secondary scares nobody. Champ Bailey is a good corner, no doubt. But he is also banged up and listed as questionable. Additionally, although good, he is slightly overrated and the Patriots can compete throwing on his side. On the other side is a 5’8″ rookie Darrent Williams who is confident and cocky. He’s played pretty well so far, but this is a matchup the Patriots may be able to exploit repeatedly Sunday. Look particularly if they can get the physical David Givens matched up with the smallish Williams. Nickle back Lenny Walls the Patriots torched a number of times back in 2003 when these teams met. John Lynch and Nick Ferguson are the safeties and both are solid players, but not spectacular cover guys. I expect the Patriots to move the ball in the air as well and if they do not turn it over they should have no trouble scoring some points.
THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE VS. THE DENVER OFFENSE
Denver, as they always have, likes to try to establish the run. They have used a combination of running backs so far. A look at the guys they got doesn’t exactly strike fear in these eyes. Mike Anderson is a solid back who lacks great speed, but is physical and will work for the tough yards. He has good cutting ability and can find an opening if its there. He can catch a pass if called upon. The other main back, Tatum Bell is a skinny speed burner. Lacking any power whatsoever as a runner, he still can burn a defense with his speed, which is world class. He is unlike any back Denver has had in their glory years because he simply can not run with power. Still he’s dangerous because of his speed if he can get a corner or out in space. He has had fumble troubles in the past and the Patriots should try to exploit that.
The Denver offensive line is a strength, as it usually is. However, it may not be quite as strong as the units they have had in the past. Long time offensive line coach Alex Gibbs has moved on and is now with Atlanta. Their best player on the line, Tom Nalen, is aging and not quite the player he once was. Ben Hamilton is another good player up front, however. The other three guys don’t blow anyone away, though, and the Patriots talented, physical and big defensive line should match up well assuming everyone is healthy and makes the trip.
Quarterback Jake Plummer can make plays both running and throwing. He’s dangerous when he is rolling as he could take off and run for a first down or hit a play down the field throwing. Given the Patriots secondary troubles, this is a major area of concern. However, Plummer is mistake prone and will force throws when pressured. The Patriots simply have to do a better job making Plummer rush his decisions this week or he’ll kill them. If they can get guys in on him, they should end their turnover drought. Its unclear to me how to best do that, by blitzing or hoping your linemen dominate the individual matchups. Unfortunately, the latter has thus far proven disappointing this year for the Patriots and they may have to try to get a bit creative with some blitz schemes to try to disrupt and bother Plummer.
The Denver receiving corp is nowhere near as impressive as its been in years past. Rod Smith is still there and is still a solid NFL weapon, but he lacks his old explosiveness. Ashley Lelie can make plays, has speed and size, and can get deep but is inconsistent. The backups are average guys and not impressive. The tight ends, Stephen Alexander and Jeb Putzier are pass catching types, though the Broncos haven’t looked too much in this direction so far this year. Denver head coach Mike Shannahan does involve his tight ends in the passing game, however, and the Patriots will have to look for this in the Denver game plan given some of the coverage struggles of their linebackers and safeties.
THE PATRIOTS VS. DENVER ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Patriots have shown improvement in this area in recent weeks after a poor start. Bethel Johnson has looked good on kick returns, as has Ellis Hobbs. Back in 2003, the Patriots got a huge kick return in Denver from Bethel Johnson that led to a score just before halftime and which shifted momentum to the Patriots in a game they came back to win. Denver kicker Jason Elam is a top-notch kicker, particularly in Denver. Punter Todd Sauerbraun is among the top punters in the NFL. Darrent Williams is dangerous on returns and is averaging over 13 yards per punt return.
The bottom line on this game is the Patriots match up well with Denver. That isn’t to say it won’t be a tough game. Any game in Denver will be tough, given the crowd, atmosphere, mile high altitude and the fact Denver usually plays well there. But the Patriots should be able to move the ball as effectively as they did last week, if not more so. Denver’s offense, while efficient and having avoided turnovers so far, isn’t the explosive Denver offense of years past. I see the Patriots cruising to a fairly easy victory this week 30-17.