Broncos' pass defense faces a challenge Sunday
ENGLEWOOD, COLO. — The chatter began almost immediately after the Broncos and Patriots learned of their impending rematch. There was the talk of Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski getting away with pushing off. There was talk of the Broncos' defense aiming for his legs when making a tackle. There was the labeling of New England quarterback Tom Brady as a "crybaby," a comment that inevitably led to photoshopped New York tabloid covers.
But buried under the pile of barbs and cheap shots is a reality: The Broncos' league-leading pass defense (199.6 yards per game) faces a huge challenge Sunday — one it had a taste of in its previous meeting against New England and one the Kansas City Chiefs were unable to solve in their divisional playoff loss Saturday.
Pressuring Brady, a quarterback known for his lightning-quick release, is not only a point of emphasis, but a necessity if the Broncos are to advance to Super Bowl 50.
In the Broncos' overtime victory over the Patriots nearly two months ago, Denver's defense was without edge rusher DeMarcus Ware (back), and lost defensive end Sylvester Williams and safety T.J. Ward to ankle injuries early.
But arguably the biggest voids were felt on New England's side, as Brady's options downfield were limited because of injuries to receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The Broncos' depleted defense pressured Brady throughout, rushing four defenders on 20 of his dropbacks and holding the Patriots to 5 yards or fewer on 18 of those plays, according to Football Outsiders.
When both Edelman and Amendola returned for the divisional playoffs, their impact was obvious, Edelman's especially.
In the regular season, Brady's time to throw averaged 2.35 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. But with Edelman by his side Sunday, Brady needed only 2.19 seconds.
"It's just one of those things where you just try to get your hands up, get to him as fast as you can or run to the ball and make tackles," Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson said. "A quarterback is going to throw it fast because they respect our rush, as they should, but we just have to try to make plays in different ways if they want to get rid of the ball fast."
Brady's quick release, coupled with his offensive line's improved play, kept the Chiefs at bay; Kansas City's defenders not only failed to sack him, they hit him only once.
"The challenge with Brady, I mean he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league," outside linebacker Von Miller said. "Sometimes he doesn't even need an offensive line. It's just that connection with Gronkowski, and that connection with Edelman and Amendola and all those receivers that he has is just instantaneous."
By comparison, the Broncos' defense — a group that tallied a league-high 52 sacksin the regular season — recorded three sacks and 13 hits on Brady in their last meeting, while holding the Patriots' offense to two of 13 third-down conversions and only 39 rushing yards.
And against the Steelers in the divisional playoffs, the Broncos pressured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on nearly 48 percent of his dropbacks and recorded 20 hurries, per Pro Football Focus, while adding three takedowns.
"It's hard to drive the ball 12, 13 plays down the field, because they have so many dynamic players, guys who can intercept the ball, strip the ball from the quarterback, they've got rushers, they have linebackers who can cover, big, physical defensive front that makes it tough to run the ball," Brady said Wednesday. "That's why they're the best in the league."
But Roethlisberger found some success against the Broncos' defense, capitalizing on a left shoulder injury to cornerback Chris Harris. For the past two games, Harris has played with only one fully functioning arm, limiting his ability in coverage because he has difficulty making a tackle. Against Pittsburgh, he gave up an uncharacteristic 70 yards on four catches.
Known for their stifling man coverage, the Broncos loosened the reins in the defensive backfield, giving Pittsburgh receivers extra cushion which led to the Steelers picking up 191 yards after the catch. Patriots' receivers ranked fourth in the league for the most yards after the catch (2,430) in the regular season. Any sign of weakness by the Broncos' secondary surely will be exploited.
There is no blueprint for containing a quarterback such as Brady, but there are some takeaways from the Broncos' recent victories over the Steelers and Patriots.
Takeaways that might be veiled behind the pregame rhetoric.
"You never know what you're going to face, but we know how great of a player [Brady] is," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "He has his weapons back intact, so that's a big challenge for our defense."
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