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Are Peyton Manning's Broncos now a ground-and-pound offense? And who is the Patriots' 2014 MVP: Gronkowski or Revis? (But not Brady?) Plus, five things to watch in Week 16

By Greg A. Bedard
December 18, 2014

Have the Broncos gone away from Peyton Manning and become a (gulp) power-running team? Who’s the most valuable player for the Patriots, Darrelle Revis or Rob Gronkowski? Those questions and more, along with five thoughts on Week 16 in this edition of Settle This.

As always, your input is valued so send over any queries to talkback@themmqb.com or tweet at me (@GregABedard).

Have the Broncos become a power running team? Feels to me an awful lot like the 2013 Patriots. #SettleThis

—Eric Paulson (@epaulson89)

Good question. Well, there’s no question they have run the ball a lot more of late. In the first 10 games, the Broncos passed the ball on 62 percent of their snaps, and ran it 38 percent of the time. In the past four games, it’s almost completely flipped. The Broncos are passing 44 percent, running 56 percent.

And they’re running it better. After averaging 3.7 yards per carry in the first 10 games, they’ve averaged 4.5 yards per carry since.

So they’re running it more often and more effectively. Does that make them a power-running team? I wouldn’t say that. Being a power-running team would imply, to me, that that’s how they will win games. When push comes to shove in the playoffs, the Broncos are going to be passing more than running. I would say they’ve become a more balanced team, almost out of necessity, for a couple of different reasons.

For a three-game stretch—Patriots, Raiders and Rams—the Broncos got way too pass-heavy (74 percent/26 percent split). Of course, it was necessary against the Patriots (the Broncos trailed 27-7 at halftime), but it didn’t need to be that way against the Rams (they didn’t trail by more than two scores until there was 4:44 remaining) or Raiders (they led 27-10 early in third quarter). Being so one-dimensional was having an adverse effect on an offensive line that was searching for continuity in personnel. As a result, Manning was getting pressured—and he does not react well to pressure (it can be argued he has a lower pressure threshold then fellow aging pocket passers Drew Brees and Tom Brady).

Look at the following chart, with data from ProFootballFocus.com, showing the pressure Manning faced before and after Denver’s two losses in three games. The Patriots, Raiders and Rams part of the schedule resulted in Manning facing pressure on over 20 percent of his dropbacks in back-to-back-to-back games for the first time all season. Not coincidentally, the Broncos lost two of those three games.

Opponent Drop backs Pressures Pressure Pct. W/L
49ers 39 5 12.8% W
Chargers 38 7 18.4% W
Patriots 63 16 25.4% L
Raiders

46

15

32.6%

W
Rams

59

14

23.7%

L
Dolphins 39 3 7.7% W
Chiefs

37

9

24.3%

W
Bills 23 2 8.7% W
Chargers 23 4 17.4% W

 

In my opinion, the Broncos realized after the Rams loss that they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing if they wanted to settle down the offensive line and limit Manning’s wear and tear. I also think, with the way Manning threw the ball starting with the Patriots game, there might have been an injury issue (perhaps tendonitis or fatigue) and he needed to be put on a pitch count. As an added bonus, getting the run more involved would help them later if they had to travel to New England for the AFC Championship Game (looked that way after losing to the Patriots).

So the Broncos are running more than they pass of late, and they’re running it well (and I expect that to continue this week against a Bengals defense that is ninth in FootballOutsiders.com’s pass DVOA but 30th against the run). Still, I’m not ready to say they are a power-running team. I think it was born out of necessity for a time, but could flip in the playoffs.

MVP of the Patriots season: Revis or Gronk?

—Malene Eriksen (@malene_chica)

What, no love for your boy Tom Brady? Just kidding, and I think you were right to leave him off. This is a tough question that doesn’t have a clear answer, but here’s my take… and I’m going to use some recent history to back me up.

I’m going with Rob Gronkowski for a couple of reasons.

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There’s little doubt that Darrelle Revis has completely changed this defense for the better. They are running a scheme, thanks to his presence, that is light years ahead of where they had been in recent years, and it gives them a much better shot of knocking off the best quarterbacks in the league. Having Revis has allowed players like Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington and Jamie Collins to play roles and encounter matchups that accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. (As an aside: Collins has improved so much over the course of the season and is so good at this point. His improvement might have happened anyway, but I think Revis accelerated the process). For example, Chung is a safety in name only. He is basically a linebacker who plays the run and linebackers. You will rarely see him standing in the deep part of the field, which is good considering his struggles there got him run out of New England and Philadelphia in back-to-back years. Without Revis and his ability to take out the best opposing receiver, Chung would have to play in the back more as the Patriots would be forced to play more zone coverage, at least in base defense.

But when the Patriots fell short of a championship the last three seasons, their defense wasn’t the problem. New England allowed 26 (Broncos), 28 (Ravens) and 21 (Giants) points in season-ending losses the past three years. The Patriots’ offense averaged 15.3 points per game in those losses. That’s not going to get it done.

The other theme in those three losses? Not having a healthy Gronkowski. When he plays, he completely changes how a defense schemes against the Patriots and it opens the offense for everyone else (not to mention what he adds in run blocking). Just look at this season. With Gronk in a limited role coming back from ACL surgery in the first four games, the Patriots were 2-2 and scored less than 21 points three times. Since he’s been a full go, the Patriots are 9-1, scored 21 points or less once (the loss to the Packers) and are averaging 36.2 points. Of course there are other factors, especially along the offensive line, but Gronk was the biggest.

Revis played in all the games, by the way, including when the Patriots allowed 33 and 41 points to Ryan Tannehill’s Dolphins and Kansas City’s Alex Smith, respectively, in the two early losses.

One more reason I’m taking Gronk. If I had the choice of trying to with the Super Bowl, by getting through the likes of the Seahawks, Packers, Broncos, Ravens and Steelers, and could only have either Revis or Gronk, I’d take a healthy Gronk in every matchup, especially the favored Super Bowl matchup against the Seahawks. That would make him most valuable in my book.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images Rex Ryan will try to befuddle Tom Brady and Co. one last time. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Week 16 nickel package

1. It’s probably a good thing that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be a little more motivated than usual against the Buccaneers after his subpar performance in a crucial loss to the Bills. The Packers are winless in two games at Tampa under Mike McCarthy, including a 38-28 defeat in 2009 that was, without question, the low point of the McCarthy-Rodgers tandem. The Bucs were 0-7 entering the game and had lost a league-high 11 consecutive games. The Packers dropped to 4-4 that day, making them 10-14 (.417) since Brett Favre’s retirement after a 13-3 season in ’07. The day after that game, the team had a “Come to Jesus” meeting. Green Bay won its next five games and 7 of 8 to finish 11-5. Since that loss to Tampa, Rodgers is 78-19 (.804) as a starter.

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2. It’s going to be a little sad watching Rex Ryan’s Jets face off for likely the last time against the Patriots. New York had quarterback and offensive problems (its own doing), but no defensive scheme consistently made Tom Brady work harder over the past six years than the one enacted by Ryan. (Sniff) We’ll never scheme this way again in the AFC East.

3. Much of the focus will be on the high-scoring offenses when the Colts and Cowboys meet in a big matchup, but I’ll be hoping for two marquee defensive matchups: Colts CB Vontae Davis vs. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, and Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick vs. Colts WR T.Y. Hilton. They are all among the best at what they do. Should be fun to watch.

4. The Saints are like Jerry’s “two-faced” girlfriend in that episode of Seinfeld: sometimes they look great, other times they are hideous. I’ve given up trying to figure out which squad we’ll see. This much is obvious: the NFC South race is no beauty pageant, that’s for sure.

5. The overreaction to Johnny Manziel’s first career start has been, predictably, out of control. It’s one start. The more troubling thing is what Fox Sports broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt said about the network’s conversation with Manziel to SI’s Richard Deitsch. “I thought he gave a pretty honest answer; he said you can’t really compare my work habits to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady,” Burkhardt said. “Manziel said this week he put in maximum effort, that he worked his tail off, and that hopefully it was going to show. He was pretty honest with us on the fact that he put in all this work this week and maybe not for the whole year. He came off very honest, maybe even a little naïve. John [Lynch] brought up all the great quarterbacks and said they do what Johnny did this week every week.” This is what I and some NFL teams feared about Manziel. He has so much going for him, but talent only gets you so far, especially at the quarterback position. Greatness (or even being good) isn’t a once-in-a-while thing, it’s an everyday thing. Until Manziel understands that, he’ll continue to look unprepared and out of his depth.


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