A look back at how Wade Phillips and the Broncos turned the Patriots’ game plan upside down in the AFC title game.
Get ready for the Disrespect Super Bowl. While counting down the days until we hear about the Broncos getting no credit, and the Panthers feeling miffed because they and their quarterback are lightning rods for criticism, we’re going to discuss Carson Palmer’s future, a possible rift in Green Bay and an all-star game with no stars. But first, we’ll take one more glance back at Sports Authority Field, where the Patriots were stunned and the Broncos triumphed.
Dating back to last season, the Patriots were a perfect 15–0 with four postseason victories when receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski were both in the lineup. That included a 28–24 triumph in Super Bowl XLIX over the Seahawks, which had the league’s No. 1 defense in points, total yards and passing yards, and No. 4 in defensive passer rating (78.8).
During those 15 games, the Patriots averaged 33 points per contest and won by an average of 15 points. Quarterback Tom Brady completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 324.7 yards (7.8 yards per attempt) and threw 40 touchdowns against nine interceptions for a passer rating of 105.9. New England never scored fewer than 27 points and had a third down conversion rate of 51.2.
Yet on Sunday, against a Broncos defense that was No. 4 in points, No. 1 in total and passing yards and No. 3 in defensive passer rating (77.7), the Patriots were essentially stopped in their tracks in a 20–18 loss.
After completing 12 of 25 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown in a breathless fourth quarter, Brady finished 27 of 56 (48.2%) for 310 yards (5.5 yards per attempt) and two interceptions for a passer rating of 56.4. The Patriots converted two of their 15 third downs (13%).
The Patriots traveled to Sports Authority Field as three-point road favorites and looked just about unstoppable ahead of the AFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Broncos. How did it happen? After reviewing the game film, here are some of the factors that stood out:
• Old Wade got them: Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was 1–5 in his career against Tom Brady, including three-straight losses, before the Broncos beat an Edelman-less squad 30–24 in overtime earlier this season, a game in which the Patriots held a 21–7 lead in the fourth quarter before Chris Harper muffed a punt. Brady completed 23 of 42 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 99.3.
In that game, Phillips pretty much followed the book that’s been written on his defensive tendencies. The Broncos played a lot of Cover-1 man coverage with double teams on key receivers on crucial downs, but they didn’t blitz much—Denver normally blitzes around 40% of the time.
In the Broncos’ divisional round win over the Steelers, Denver didn’t do anything flashy in coverage against the spread formations that New England favors when Edelman, Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are in the lineup together.
Knowing Phillips’s tendencies and the way the Broncos defend spread formations, the Patriots set their game plan for the AFC title game, and it was likely a continuation of what they did during the regular season and in the previous weekend’s win over the Chiefs. The Patriots had to feel confident in their plan and how they expected the Broncos to counter, because why else would they take the ball first? Obviously they wanted to take the crowd out of it and make Peyton Manning play the game on their terms early (i.e. throwing from behind). If they didn’t think their approach would be successful, they would have deferred and banked on their defense setting up favorable field position.
Then the ball was kicked off in Denver, and everything turned upside down for the Pats. Phillips went against his tendencies in every facet. He blitzed just 15% of the time, and he rushed only three defenders 14 times. The Broncos in the first half rushed a different combination at Brady, in personnel, numbers or technique, on every snap. In the secondary, the Broncos mixed coverages almost as often. The Broncos often threw additional bodies at Gronkowski, and occasionally they’d send a lurker to help on Edelman. On second- and third-and-longs, Phillips often rushed three and played one deep safety with six defenders underneath in match man and zone coverages in an effort to take away Brady’s quick, short passes.
Up front, the varied rushes kept the Patriots’ inexperienced line guessing on every snap. And the variety of coverages made the looks very cloudy for Brady. The Broncos executed the plan nearly flawlessly. Brady normally knows exactly what he’s doing before the snap. In this game, it was clear he never had a grasp of what was going on.
• Failure of imagination: In many ways, Phillips’s game plan was nearly identical to the one Rex Ryan used when the Jets upset the Patriots in the divisional round five years ago. And just like then, you could say part of the Patriots’ issues could be blamed on a failure of imagination. No one had ever defended the Patriots’ offense, led at the time by coordinator Bill O’Brien, like Rex Ryan had. Last Sunday, Josh McDaniels suffered the same fate.
The Patriots’ offensive staff sets the game plan from what they see on film and from various data. They know, if they want to run a play out of a certain formation, that it’s likely the Broncos will defend it with a certain strategy based on how they’ve done it in the past. The whole call sheet is put together that way. And that works 99% of the time.
The problem comes when a coordinator goes against all his tendencies, just as Phillips did. Obviously no one asked what to do if that happened during the Patriots’ game-planning, because they clearly didn’t have any answers ready.
Brady struggled badly. He didn’t see the game clearly, and that was even before the pressure on him became a huge issue and sped him up. Yes, the Broncos had a great plan, executed it and the aim was to confuse the Patriots. But Bill Belichick was absolutely correct when he said, “I wouldn't say it was anything that was, you know, revolutionary to football. It was well executed, well designed, well coached. They did a good job.”
There were several occasions during the game, especially in the first half, that Brady didn’t see open receivers (Edelman five times, Gronkowski four) or decided against throwing to a better matchup. An example was the third-down sack that ended the Patriots’ third drive. The protection against a three-man rush was great, and Edelman and Gronkowski were both open. But after looking hard at Amendola and Brandon LaFell, Brady was sacked from behind after 5.31 seconds of scanning Denver’s zone coverage. Also, on the play before the game-changing interception by Von Miller, Brady could have dropped a pass in over the linebacker to Gronkowski (or hit LaFell on a slant) but hesitated instead and was taken down as he released the ball by Miller, who was barely touched by Josh Kline.
• Lack of a running game: It didn’t take long for it to become clear that the Broncos were going to counter the Patriots’ one back, one tight end, three receiver package with dime personnel: six defensive backs. You have to be able to run against that, or else the quarterback will essentially be playing with one hand tied behind his back. A consistent running game would also slow down the opponent’s pass rush because it would have to account for it. But just like against the Jets in 2011, the Patriots couldn’t—and then didn’t—run the ball.
With 12:31 left in the third quarter, the Patriots had a great inside run called against the right defense, and it should have busted big. But center Bryan Stork failed to seal defensive end Malik Jackson (whom the Patriots couldn’t block all day), and James White gained just two yards. After that, New England basically packed up its running game. It also didn’t try any of the jet sweeps that worked so well against the Chiefs, which the Broncos struggled to defend against the Steelers. Again, that was something that could have slowed the rush but wasn’t used.
Without a ground game, the Patriots’ first-down offense was terrible, which set up their struggles on third downs. The Patriots faced second down and eight yards or more 69.2% of the time on Sunday. That’s a recipe for disaster.
• The Broncos whipped them: All of that being said, if you simply win your one-on-one matchups, chances are good that your team is going to win. And the Broncos won just about all of them when their defense was on the field. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was matched up often against DeMarcus Ware, gave up 4.5 quarterback hits and seven total pressures. Right tackle Marcus Cannon, whose primary responsibility was Von Miller, gave up a sack, 1.5 hits and 6.5 total pressures. Kline (five total pressures and two stuffed runs allowed) was so whipped by Jackson that they had to swap him with rookie right guard Shaq Mason. On and on it went.
The crowd was absolutely a factor. That stadium was a buzzsaw from the opening kickoff to the final kneeldown. That the Patriots had to use a silent snap count, however, was not a factor until late in the game. As for that much-discussed Miller sack with 6:42 left in the third quarter, extra tackle Cam Fleming was put in a terrible spot: Positioned one yard off the line of scrimmage, he couldn’t see the snap count, which allowed Miller to go by Fleming before he could get out of his stance.
All in all, it was a sensational day for Phillips and the Broncos, and one to forget for Brady, McDaniels and the Patriots.
Wet Blanket Report
Palmer’s not going anywhere: Yes, Carson Palmer was bad in both of his playoff games this season, and the Cardinals are going to need to ready a succession plan for their 36-year-old starting quarterback quickly. But he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. There should be no talk of replacing Palmer. He, Arians and the Cardinals just need to get better.
McCarthy not happy with Thompson?: The esteemed Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Mike McCarthy is “fed up” with GM Ted Thompson’s refusal to add veteran players. That may be true. It’s certainly understandable that McCarthy would feel that way. But Thompson runs the show up there, and not much is likely to change.
In defense of the Patriots’ ex-O-line coach: Everyone wants to leap to the conclusion that Dave DeGuglielmo was fired by the Patriots because of the AFC Championship Game. Maybe that is the reason, but I doubt it. For one, he helped the team secure its first Super Bowl title in 10 years last season. Despite having Logan Mankins traded and having to start 2014 with Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey at guard, the Patriots allowed just 26 sacks allowed last year were the fifth-fewest in the league. This year, there were a ton of injuries and he had to start three rookies on the interior for much of the season. I’m willing to wager this was more personality related. “Googe” was a big, loud personality in a building where quiet worker bees are more the norm.
The Panthers are a force: We’ll be writing more about this next week in California, but we couldn’t let the moment go without congratulating the Panthers on their 49–15 victory over the Cardinals. There’s nothing fluky about that win, or this team. Carolina is a juggernaut.
Walk on, Peyton: NFL Films caught Peyton Manning telling Bill Belichick “this might be my last rodeo.” Hope he sticks to it. Win or lose, this is the perfect way to go out. Glad he took our advice and didn’t end with that dreadful loss to the Colts last year. You’ve done enough, Peyton, and we’re all grateful for having the opportunity to watch you play.
The Pro Bowl is terrible: You know things are bad when a coach pulls out with an illness, as the Packers’ Mike McCarthy did yesterday. We’re kidding (a little) because McCarthy would be there if he could, but what about the countless players that passed on the NFL’s all-star game? Look, there’s no easy answer. Football can’t have a showcase in the middle of the season, nor can it loosely resemble the real game in an exhibition format as well as the other major sports. Maybe the Pro Bowl should just go away. If the true stars of the game aren’t going to show up, then what are we trying to accomplish?