The Puncher’s Chance
DENVER — If the Broncos win the Super Bowl, there’s a good chance Bradley Roby’s punch will go down as the defensive play of the year in the NFL. You’ve seen the replay by now: The Steelers are driving, up 13-12 with 10 minutes left, when Fitzgerald Toussaint took a handoff to the left sideline where Roby, the corner, was being blocked and held by Darrius Heyward-Bey. Roby shot a left jab at the swinging football with the precision of a dentist extracting a tooth. The Broncos drove the length of the field, scored and added a 2-point conversion to go up seven.
Three days later, Peyton Manning was still talking about it.
“I was blessed to be in that position,” Roby told The MMQB on Wednesday afternoon. “Everyone keeps talking about it. This morning, Peyton said to me, ‘That play was phenomenal. It saved everything.’
“I said, it was really lucky.”
Said Manning: “We’ll take it anyway we can, right?”
This Broncos win was different than the rest. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, playing without all-pro wide receiver Antonio Brown (concussion), put up just the second 300-yard passing performance against Denver’s No. 1 ranked defense all season. It was an unwelcome aberration considering the next opponent: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and a recently healthy Julian Edelman, who had 10 catches against the Chiefs in his first game back from a foot injury. With those three on the field, the Patriots are 9-0 with 24 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
Compound that with the prospect of Denver’s top corner, Chris Harris, dealing with a shoulder injury, and you have a recipe for another 300-yard performance against a Broncos team that can’t afford it.
Enter Roby, the 31st pick in the 2014 draft. Standing 5-11, 195 pounds, Roby has emerged as a reliable third corner in a league that has put a premium on the job in the past decade.
“You’re in sub personnel groups so much more than you’re in base,” says Broncos defensive backs coach Joe Woods, “so really having a third corner is essential.
“The biggest thing with Rob’ is experience, because he has all the athletic tools. Right now, he’s hitting his peak. All the guys in the room can see that.”
Against Pittsburgh, with Harris obviously ailing from a shoulder injury suffered in the regular-season finale, it was Roby who took his place when just two corners were on the field. When everyone is healthy, Roby enters the game in sub or nickel packages and Harris slides in to play the slot, his expertise. Denver is expected to trot out that same lineup as Harris’s effectiveness is monitored. If he struggles, Roby is likely to take up the slot role after spending several games there this season.
It’s been a whirlwind season for Roby, Denver’s second-rated corner after Harris by Pro Football Focus. Roby says he’s gone from failing to apply film study in game-time decisions to becoming a student of the game.
“There were things on the field at the beginning of the season I wasn’t even looking at, things like studying splits and understanding down and distance tendencies,” Roby says. “I didn’t play the right technique, but now I feel like I prepare better for games.”
The numbers back him up: Opponents have a 84.2 passer rating with two touchdowns and an interception this season when targeting Roby. Last year, in a limited role, he allowed seven touchdowns and a 96.9 rating. That Roby is in this position, having been gradually assimilated into a championship-caliber defense, is both a function of Denver’s perennial success with Manning and some gutsy draft strategy on the part of Broncos GM John Elway.
A couple weeks before the 2014 draft, Roby was cited in Ohio for operating a vehicle while under the influence, having fallen asleep in a parked car that was reported to have been driving dangerously that same April evening. Roby pled guilty to a lesser charge, but the damage to his draft stock was done.
Devastated at the time at not being the top corner, the Ohio State standout was drafted late in the first round by the Broncos.
“A lot of things happened to me towards the end of my college career that didn’t really sum up who I am, and it was at the point when they’re really judging you for who you are,” Roby says. “But I always tell people now it was a blessing because obviously I needed to be around guys like this, on a team like this.
“So many guys leave here and tell me you just don’t know how good it is there. This place sucks. The coaches stuck. Everyone is fighting each other. Real fights! But that’s not here. It’s a brotherhood. If I didn’t do that, I probably would’ve went higher, to not as good of a team. I might have been the top corner, looked on early to make plays, and I probably wasn’t ready for that last year. Instead I’m in a room with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris and T.J. Ward, learning from the best.”
Just how much Roby has learned will be on full display Sunday afternoon.
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The most intriguing matchups of the weekend
Broncos CB Chris Harris vs. Patriots WR Julian Edelman
Let’s say Harris plays this entire game with his injured shoulder. (He told the Denver Post he “played with one arm the whole game” last weekend vs. the Steelers). Harris likely will be slotted across from Edelman, whose return after a half-season on the shelf from a foot injury was a triumphant one against Kansas City in the divisional playoffs. His 10 catches for 100 yards came on an astounding 16 targets, most for him since Week 2. Six of those 10 catches came over the middle, with Edelman benefiting from rub routes and/or holes in a zone defense as Kansas City seemed content to rush four defenders and let Brady pick them apart. That was working for the Chiefs when Edelman was finding his rhythm and dropping footballs early, but not once he and Brady rediscovered their groove. If anybody on the Broncos roster is capable of keeping that from happening again, it’s Harris, who played a team-high 97% of Denver’s defensive snaps this season. He’s the rare No. 1 corner who lives in the slot in nickel and dime situations, in part because Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby can struggle there, and in larger part because Harris is so damn good at it. But how good can he be, with open field to his left and right, with just one arm?
Panthers NT Kawann Short vs. Cardinals C Lyle Sendlein
Arizona’s offense keeps opponents honest by taking deep shots, which require a consistent pocket and room to step forward, something Sendlein has struggled to provide in recent weeks. In re-watching Arizona’s regular-season finale against Seattle, I counted seven occasions on passing downs when Sendlein was either driven back into Palmer’s face by a Seattle lineman or sidestepped by a blitzing linebacker. Next up for Sendlein: Kawann Short, a pass-rushing savant at 310 pounds with six sacks in his past six games. Short gave Seattle left guard Justin Britt hell in the 31-24 divisional round victory, so expect Short and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to zero in on Sendlein, an eighth-year starter in Arizona lauded more for consistency than skill. Also, you can expect Short’s matchup with the rest of the interior line to factor heavily in Arizona’s efforts to run the ball, which have resulted in just 67 yards combined in the previous two games against the Seahawks and the Packers.
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Five things I’ll be watching for this weekend
1. The blitz-happy Cardinals face an MVP-sized roadblock. It might surprise you to know that in the 207 occasions opposing defenses have seen fit to blitz Cam Newton on dropbacks, he’s run the ball exactly eight times, per Pro Football Focus. He’s been sacked just 16 times in those scenarios, thrown a league-best 18 touchdowns, and his passer rating against the blitz (118.1) is significantly better than against your standard four-man rush (89.7). Much of this success stems from the relationship between Newton and tight end Greg Olsen, who has yet to meet a defensive back or linebacker who can consistently check him in a 0-coverage scenario. Now, while the average team utilizes five or more pass rushers about 30% of the time, the Cards blitz 45% of the time, most in the NFL. This has become an increasingly risky strategy without do-it-all DB Tyrann Mathieu (ACL) on the field. The trick for the Cardinals will be creating organic pressure in nickel situations against a Panthers offensive line with few glaring weaknesses. Attacking Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers, who gave up six sacks in the second half of the season (including three in Weeks 16 and 17) will become a priority if this game becomes the shootout some expect it to be. In that scenario, the unheralded but solid rush-OLB Markus Golden will be a key contributor for Arizona.
2. The Denver weather forecast. Here we go again. When game-time temperature is below 40 degrees, Peyton Manning is 0-5 in the playoffs with five touchdowns and nine interceptions, and whether Manning will admit it or not, it matters. You can’t tell me a quarterback who struggles to feel his fingertips and wears a glove on his throwing hand isn’t adversely and significantly affected by freezing temperatures and precipitation. The current forecast for Mile High at 2:40 local time Sunday is hovering around 40 degrees with 6 mph winds and about a 30% chance of rain. That’s not as bad the 18-degree day two-plus years ago when Manning and the Broncos thrashed the Titans and Manning famously told a radio host, "whoever wrote that narrative can shove it where the sun don't shine." Then again, these Patriots aren’t the 2013 Titans. Expect Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to offer Manning single-high safety looks with vulnerability deep down the sidelines. Regardless of temperature, Manning has completed just 10 of 42 passes traveling more than 20 yards in the air, with just two of those completions coming when Manning throws across his body down the left sideline. It’s been a no-mans-land for Peyton dating back to 2013, his second season in Denver.
3. Kurt Coleman in the crosshairs. The Carolina safety has been having a rough month, surrendering two game-changing touchdowns in his past two games played, at Atlanta and vs. the Seahawks. The first, a 70-yard bomb over his head to Julio Jones, put the Falcons on the board and on the way to a 20-13 Week 16 upset. Coleman, playing two-deep safety, was beat before he tripped and fell to the ground as Jones caught the ball. The second big play came in man coverage against Seahawks rookie Tyler Lockett during the divisional playoffs. Lockett sprinted past Coleman down the right sideline for a 33-yard touchdown that spiked Seattle’s divisional playoff comeback hopes. If there’s a weak link on this defense at the moment, it’s Coleman, who sprained his foot in December and has been a step behind ever since. Now he faces the fastest wide receiver group in football and a quarterback in Carson Palmer who attempted more passes traveling at least 20 yards in the air than all but two other quarterbacks in the NFL, and more than any playoff-bound passer in 2015.
4. Where Rob Gronkowski lines up. Seldom do the Patriots encounter a defensive coordinator with the perfect anti-Gronkowski game plan. When Gronkowski is split wide, the back shoulder throw on third down is essentially indefensible—all you can do is hope Brady is off on the throw, which he can be. And while there was no clear formula for stopping Gronkowski this season, two teams had success with very different strategies. The Bills in Week 11 held Gronk to two catches for 37 yards by jamming him with multiple linebackers when he lined up in a three-point stance, and, oddly enough, playing man on the outside with nimble cornerbacks who looked comically short next to the tight end. In Week 17, the Dolphins held Gronkowski to two catches for 18 yards on the strength of one performer—6-1, 215-pound strong safety Rashad Jones, who shadowed Gronk across the field and benefited from an inspired performance by an underrated Miami defensive line. What both teams did in common was disturb Gronkowki’s release at the line of scrimmage, often with more than one defender. If the Broncos go the Miami route, the obvious candidate for shadow coverage would have been strong safety David Bruton, until he broke his leg in December. Current safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart have neither the coverage pedigree nor the size to thrive on a consistent basis with that sort of mandate, so look for Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to run with various zone and man matchups with an emphasis on disrupting Gronkowski’s releases.
5. Mike Shula and the gas pedal. Seattle’s less-than-stunning comeback after falling behind 31-0 last weekend in Carolina is the latest in an ongoing trend for the Panthers, who have witnessed opposing teams mount similar second-half assaults all season (the Colts, Packers and Giants all come to mind). Defensive lapses aside, Carolina’s relative struggles with the lead (relative, because, they did go 15-1 in the regular season) can be explained with a closer look at the offensive play-calling of Mike Shula, whose stock took a quantum leap in Cam Newton’s MVP season. Among the Final Four teams, Carolina is the only one that significantly tempers its aggression in the passing game with the lead. When trailing, the Panthers average 8.9 yards per attempt, vs. 6.9 with the lead. By comparison, the Cards average 8.4 with the lead and 7.9 without it. The Patriots, with their quick release attack, average 8 yards per attempt with the lead and 7.1 without it. The conservative shift allows Panthers opponents to stack the box, holding a running game that averages 4.7 yards per rushing attempt when leading to 3.5 when trailing, again, the biggest disparity among the Final Four.
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