The Patriots face the Broncos in Week 12 of the NFL season, and for the first time in a long time, a game between the teams of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is all about defense, not quarterbacks.
When teams that employ Tom Brady and Peyton Manning get together, the ultimate team sport unfairly gets boiled down to a quarterback battle. I mean, there’s even a book by New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers out on the “rivalry.” (I’ll give it to Gary that the rise of both quarterbacks at the same time helped to transform the NFL into the pass-heavy game we see today).
And even heading into Sunday night’s Patriots-Broncos matchup, with Manning relegated to watching from the sideline as he deals with plantar fasciitis, the conversation about this game will inevitably turn to the quarterbacks. Is Brock Osweiler following in Brady’s 2001 footsteps? How will Brady get it done with his weapons and line beat up? What is Osweiler’s ceiling? Can anyone stop Brady?
Breaking news: the attention on Sunday night should be on the two defenses facing off, not the quarterbacks, because those units are special.
They are No. 1 (Patriots) and 2 (Broncos) in scoring defense. They are 1 (Broncos) and 2 (Patriots) in sacks. The Broncos also lead the league in total defense, passing defense and are second in defensive passer rating (74.2).
In other words, even if we had Manning vs. Brady at full strength, this matchup would still be a defensive matchup.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In today’s NFL, we should relish it and embrace it.
A few things to keep an eye on when the defenses are on the field:
• The contrast in styles: Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has engineered dramatic improvement in every scheme he’s taken over since leaving Buddy Ryan and the Eagles after the 1988 season, uses a simplified one-gap defensive system that turns his players loose, and he loves to blitz (fourth in the league at 39.9%, compared to 22.8 and 26th last season under Jack Del Rio, according to ProFootballFocus.com). Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia use a simplified hybrid system that alternates between two- and one-gap principles, a scheme that accentuates the positives of each player and minimizes their weaknesses.
• Man coverage: Both teams play a ton of it (Broncos’ Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, and Patriots’ Malcolm Butler are among the league’s best) but will use it to affect the quarterback differently. Phillips likes to use the extra defender (not needed if you’re not playing man coverage) to speed up the quarterback by sending an extra rusher. The Patriots prefer to use the extra defender (usually Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty, but it depends on the game) to load up the box against the run and then mix up coverages. On one play the extra defender will help double a valuable target, for example, Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders. On the next, the extra player will pick up the tight end so the inside linebacker can rush the quarterback in place of the end, who has dropped into coverage against a running back.
• Edge rushers vs. weakened tackles: The Patriots have a rotation of three ends (Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard; all three are on the field in subpackages) that is highly effective against the run and the pass. Because of injuries, the Broncos are down to their third left tackle (Ryan Harris) and second right tackle (Michael Schofield). The Broncos have three outside linebackers (DeMarcus Ware, if healthy, Von Miller and Shaquil Barrett) that are as good or better. Patriots are down to their second left tackle (Marcus Cannon), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been in and out of the lineup.
• Inside pass rushers: Tackles Malik Jackson (quickness) and Antonio Smith (strength) of the Broncos are tough matchups inside for different reasons. Patriots second-year tackle Dominique Easley possesses exceptional quickness and has improved with every snap. Sheard’s return from injury has given the sub package pass rush more juice. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower (Patriots) and Brandon Marshall (Broncos) are standout rushers for the position when they’re asked to blitz.
• Tough against the run: Both teams are determined not to let an opponent’s running game dictate the tempo. The Patriots are eighth and theBroncos ninth in FootballOutsider.com’s run defense rankings.
Certainly the quarterbacks will get some of the spotlight on Sunday night, and that’s valid. It will be interesting to see if Osweiler can build on his debut and navigate a Patriots’ defense that usually feasts on inexperienced quarterbacks. Brady is driving for a third NFL MVP award and defeating this Broncos defense (rated first by FootballOutsiders.com when factoring in opponents and game situations) on the road without Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and perhaps Danny Amendola could be the feather in his cap.
But make sure you leave room to appreciate the two defenses because, at least for this Manning-Brady “matchup,” they should be in the starring roles.
Wet Blanket Report
Burying Johnny: This week Johnny Manziel was demoted to third string when, on the precipice of getting a trial starting run for the rest of the season, he was caught partying during the Browns’ bye week. I don’t have a problem with coach Mike Pettine’s decision. The Browns are trying to teach Manziel, who was already on thin ice from last season’s debacle, a lesson that will make or break his career: Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job. This is harsh, but it’s tough and needed love. But those people already writing off Manziel (and he may indeed be done in Cleveland) need to check themselves. He’s still a talented player with rare instincts, and he’ll have at least some success as soon as he gets it. The Browns are trying to accelerate that process for their and his benefit.
Officially crying: Look, line judge Gary Arthur screwed up when he blew an inadvertent whistle that negated a possible big play for the Patriots on Monday night against the Bills. Big time. But inadvertent whistles happen (although this is the first time I’ve seen it on a pass). Let’s not go overboard with conspiracy theories, New England. Stuff happens. It’s not like you weren’t helped out on the play. While it’s possible Amendola might have scored a touchdown on the play, with Rob Gronkowski blocking the lone Bills defender down the field, Amendola could have easily been tackled from behind (like he had been most of the night) at midfield by Bills cornerback Ronald Darby, who stopped running when the ball was in the air. Instead of following the letter of the rule and redoing the down because Amendola was not in possession of the ball when the whistle blew, the officials ruled Amendola had caught it, and then correctly tacked on another 15 yards for a personal foul against the Bills’ bench. The Patriots wound up with the ball at the Buffalo 40-yard line, when they could have had it at their own 46 (no pass, personal foul on Buffalo), or at midfield (if Darby tackled Amendola). The Patriots were hardly aggrieved. In fact, if the shoe was on the other foot and the officials had ruled incorrectly to give a New England opponent an extra 14 yards, the entire region would be more outraged than it is about being robbed of a touchdown.
Peyton in 2016: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk and NBC Sports reported that Peyton Manning has told teammates he intends to play in 2016, be it with Denver or elsewhere. I have no reason to doubt Florio’s report—I’m sure a teammate heard or implied that from something Manning said—but I highly doubt Manning has made a determination on his future because he realizes he’s in a year-to-year situation at this point in his career. Manning contemplated retirement after last season at least briefly, according to sources, but decided to return after getting some rest and assessing his health. He’ll go through the same process this off-season.
Concussion Case: Anything and everything you say about Case Keenum remaining in the game after obviously suffering a concussion late against the Ravens is totally valid. The most ridiculous thing was how Rams head trainer Reggie Scott talked to Keenum and didn’t leave the field with him when ordered to vacate by the officials. “[Scott] got out there and he spoke to Case. He questioned Case, and Case said he felt OK,” coach Jeff Fisher said. Oh, the player said he was OK. In that case … Isn’t that part of the reason why we have a concussion problem in the first place, that players don’t look out for themselves? Fisher was doing too much passing of the buck to the trained injury spotter. His trainer failed Keenum. Period. When in doubt, leave them out. That was the NFL’s policy in a memo released in 2011. Scott should be suspended without pay at least a game or two for such gross negligence.
Falcons coming back to earth: After winning their first five games, the Falcons have lost four of their past five, with the one win a 10–7 decision over the Titans, who were being quarterbacked by Zach Mettenberger. Did you know that the Falcons haven’t played a team that is currently over .500? The Buccaneers (5–5) are the best team, record-wise, Atlanta has played to this point. While the Falcons are an improved team, I think we know now, especially with a bad home loss to the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts after the Falcons were winning 21–7 in the third quarter, that the reports of their rebound this season were a bit exaggerated.
Texans defense: Have to hand it to Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who looked like he would soon be out of work when the Texans trailed the Dolphins 41–0 at halftime on Oct. 25 (this was three weeks after the Texans trailed the Falcons 42–0 in the third quarter). Since that point, Houston has allowed two touchdowns and six field goals in 14 quarters. The Texans lead the league in third-down defense (26.4%) and have won three straight and four of five.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 11 injuries?
Ravens QB Joe Flacco (ACL/MCL, injured reserve): For the first time since Flacco’s rookie season in 2008, someone else will start a game at quarterback for Baltimore: former Texans starter Matt Schaub. He last started in 2013 for Houston and threw 10 touchdowns against 16 interceptions the previous two seasons. Jimmy Clausen, who played for offensive coordinator Marc Trestman in Chicago, was claimed on waivers.
Ravens RB Justin Forsett (broken arm, injured reserve): Baltimore’s season from hell continues with the league’s 10th leading rusher (641 yards) being lost. Lorenzo Taliaferro was previously put on injured reserve, so fourth-round pick Javorius Allen, the team’s third back, gets the call. Allen had 67 yards rushing (22 carries) and 48 yards receiving (five).
Colts LT Anthony Castonzo (sprained right MCL, week to week): This is a big injury, especially with a 40-year-old pocket QB in Matt Hasselbeck. Castonzo is the best and most consistent player on that line, and the Colts will have to play musical chairs to replace him. During the game last week, the Colts moved Joe Reitz from right to left tackle, Jack Mewhort from left guard to right tackle, and Lance Louis into the LG spot.
Humanitarian of the Week
Apparently, on a normal visit to Target, Gilberry purchased a PlayStation console and games for a father and his children, according to an Instagram post. “The kids and dad were going crazy and the mom was in tears. I was big fan of him before but I'm a even bigger fan now. What a stand up dude,” wrote the poster. “I saw Wallace walking in the store with these kids and dad chasing after him. When I walked by a few mins later, I heard the dad and kids going crazy. Later when he walked by I told (Gilberry) that was a bad -ss move. He said thanks, ‘Everyone needs to be blessed.’”
Apparently this isn’t a rare occurrence for Gilberry, who was undrafted in 2008 out of Alabama, has spent time with three other teams and is in the final year of a contract that pays him $2 million this season: a Reddit post has other acts of Gilberry’s kindness.
10 thoughts heading into Week 12
1. Good thing the Eagles are kicking off the Thanksgiving football slate against the Lions, who have rushed for more than 81 yards twice this season, because Philadelphia lost the ability to stop the run. Through the first six weeks, the Eagles were tied for second in the league with 3.5 yards allowed per carry. In the past four games, they have surrendered 204, 134, 99 and 283 yards. Losing rookie inside linebacker Jordan Hicks proved huge because veteran DeMeco Ryans doesn’t look healthy and Kiko Alonso is way too hesitant.
2. I would expect Cowboys rookie defensive back Byron Jones, who had to play cornerback last week against Miami with Morris Claiborne hurt, to be shifted back inside against the Panthers to help limit tight end Greg Olsen, Cam Newton’s most reliable and important target. Jones did good work earlier this season against Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
3. I have been very impressed by the progress of Bears ILB Shea McClellin this season, particularly against the run. In his fourth season, the former first-rounder out of Boise State has finally found a home. McClellin was miscast earlier in his career, first as a 4–3 end and then as a 3–4 outside linebacker, and the Bears declined their fifth-year option on him before this season. But he never complained, and now defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has hit on something just as McClellin enters unrestricted free agency. Someone will pay him starter’s money now.
4. After missing five straight games, cornerback Prince Amukamara will return for the Giants against Washington, meaning New York is finally (relatively) healthy on that side of the ball. After getting Robert Ayers and Jason Pierre-Paul back and now adding Amukamara, the Giants could be ready to climb out of 31st in the league’s defensive rankings.
5. Maybe it was a Super Bowl hangover, or the atmosphere around the Jets, or a combination of both and age (30). Whatever the reason, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis has not been the same player as he was with the Patriots last season. It appears he didn’t come into this season in his normal tip-top shape because he’s been a shade slower in coverage.
6. After getting off to a rough start in his first four games, Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston has really elevated his game since. Winston has demonstrated the potential that he showed at Florida State, especially his cerebral side. He’s seeing the game much better as it has obviously slowed down for him. To have that happen in the six- to 10-game range in his rookie season is a great sign.
7. Conventional wisdom would have the Raiders’ defense slowing after pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended for the season. But rookie Mario Edwards did a great job picking up the slack against the Lions, as he looked strong and fluid at the point of attack. Edwards is in for a good matchup against Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan this week.
8. Russell Wilson was much-improved against the 49ers, but he’s going to have to be better against the Steelers. There will be voids in Pittsburgh’s secondary if Wilson throws in tempo with the offense. He needs to see the game clearly or else Pittsburgh’s excellent defensive line is going to get to him. Wilson might not be able to dance around in this one.
9. On a related note, we’ll see if the Seahawks’ defense has really improved from its early-season struggles (the Cardinals ripped through them in Week 10, but otherwise the unit had been better of late). The Steelers’ offense, even without Le’Veon Bell, is a handful and is coming off a much-needed bye for Ben Roethlisberger.
10. The Patriots’ offensive line could have another rough matchup against a Broncos’ defense that has many of the same pressure concepts under Wade Phillips as Rex Ryan did with the Bills with one exception: Phillips likes to blitz a lot. That would be a mistake against Tom Brady, and it would also be a mistake if Phillips doesn’t break character and use extra resources to limit TE Rob Gronkowski (Phillips doesn’t like to do that).