Commentary

Expect a Pats-Broncos chess match

Will quick Denver defense create problems for New England?

Updated: October 14, 2009, 2:57 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week they talk Patriots-Broncos ...

Reiss: The New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos on Sunday and this should be fun. Let's start dissecting this one on the sidelines.

Bruschi: This is going to be an interesting game to watch because both of these coaches will be in a chess match. This is a thinking man's game this week. Josh McDaniels, I'm sure he's been in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's ear in terms of the ins and outs of the Patriots' offense and the adjustments they can make off his looks. Even before that, I'm sure Mike already had great background on the Patriots' offense, going up against a similar offense in training camp, so he'll be familiar with what the Patriots do. On the other side of the coin, the Patriots' defense will be looking at film of the Broncos this week and seeing plays that are similar to what they are used to seeing in training camp. So this game is all about wrinkles and adjustments coaches will make to counteract the schemes and defensive or offensive looks. A big key will be the sideline adjustments that coaches will make. You come out the first series, see what the team is running, and as soon as that series is over you're making adjustments on the fly. How good is Josh McDaniels at doing that? How good is Mike Nolan? We already know Bill Belichick is the best at making sideline adjustments.

Reiss: As you said that, I had flashbacks to games against Eric Mangini's New York Jets teams from 2006-08. Several of those games seemed like chess matches too, and the Patriots didn't always come out with the desired result.

Bruschi: For me, I don't have the Mangini feeling, though. I think McDaniels is an example of how you exit an organization. He's done nothing but praise Coach Belichick for making him the coach he is, all the way to donning the hoodie on the sideline as a sign of respect. That feeling never existed in the Belichick-Mangini rivalry. There was always that bitterness from the way he left for the Jets.

Reiss: But would you agree about the chess match in those games?

Bruschi: I see this one as a little more intriguing, because McDaniels was the offensive coordinator. He was always creative in the ways he called games, the variations in the way plays looked different but got the same thing accomplished. So it's more of an offensive mind versus Coach Belichick, instead of a defensive coordinator.

Reiss: Before we get into breaking down the game, any final thoughts on the Patriots' victory over the Baltimore Ravens?

Bruschi: When I think of that game, I think of how well the team played overall. The special teams made big plays, the defense made big plays when it had to, and the offense was balanced. So it was a great team effort. One thing that stands out is the whole postgame reaction regarding the roughing-the-passer calls. It always seems like the Ravens have excuses when they lose a big game -- whether it was the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular season with Santonio Holmes at the goal line, the Patriots' win in 2007 when Bart Scott threw the penalty flag into the stands, or this most recent game. When they lose, it's never about how they got beat, it's about how they were cheated and the calls that didn't go their way. That bothered me about a team I feel like was, and still is, one of the best in the league. I don't think you can become a championship team until you own up to your losses and realize you got beat. They should worry more about winning games than about the officials.

Reiss: I'd agree that the Ravens didn't come across well, but I guess I am in the minority in that I thought the officials could have kept the flags in their pockets on all three plays -- two against the Ravens, one against the Patriots. I understand the rule, and technically the two hands-to-the-face calls were legit, but it just seems to me that there should be some flexibility there based on the force of the contact. What do you think of the roughing-the-passer rule?

Bruschi: As a defensive player for 13 years, I wish the defenses could tee off on quarterbacks, but it's just not that way. It's above the knees and below the shoulders. I don't agree with the rule, but you have to play by the rules.

Patriots offense versus Broncos defense

Bruschi: I watched the Broncos-Cowboys game twice, and focusing on that defense, one thing stands out to me: pursuit. Every single player in an orange jersey was chasing the ball wherever it was. The speed of the front seven is evident, so the question is: Can the Patriots handle the quickness of the defensive front? This front is legitimate. At the same time, I don't think they've played anybody yet. The first game, they won on a miracle play, an 87-yard reception by Brandon Stokley. They beat Oakland, and Oakland is Oakland. They beat Cleveland, and everyone knows the problems Mangini is having in Cleveland. And they beat Dallas, which was a game I expected them to win because Dallas is not a good team right now. This is their toughest test, against that Patriots' offense. Having said all that, they are allowing only 6.5 points per game, and that has to be respected.

Reiss: In terms of style of play, the Broncos play a 3-4, but it's a different type of 3-4 than the Patriots have played against in the past.

Bruschi: The defensive front averages about 300 pounds, and with that comes quickness. And with quickness comes more movement. This isn't a two-gap defense like you've seen in New England in the past. You see defensive linemen penetrating gaps and inside linebackers playing off them. So this isn't the Richard Seymour-Vince Wilfork-Ty Warren-type of two-gappers up front.

Reiss: At outside linebacker, four-year veteran Elvis Dumervil -- a fourth-round draft choice in 2006 out of Louisville -- jumps off the stat sheet. He is tied for the NFL lead with eight sacks. And as a former linebacker, you've also spoken highly of their two inside linebackers, D.J. Williams and Andra Davis, who are tied for the Broncos' lead with 31 tackles apiece.

Bruschi: Davis came over from Cleveland and I always enjoyed watching him play. He really understands the 3-4 concepts: where is the fit versus the run, how to flow. On Dumerville, it's not like his sacks all came against one guy. His consistency is showing. He had four against Cleveland, which tied a Broncos record, but then added two apiece the past two weeks. Five of his sacks have come on third downs. He's making a name for himself this season. How many people had heard about him before this year?

Reiss: The Broncos are also turnover-driven, as their plus-7 differential (10 takeaways, 3 giveaways) is tied for the NFL lead. You can't mention that defense without tipping the cap to cornerback Champ Bailey, and it also looks like safety Brian Dawkins has added a lot -- on and off the field.

Bruschi: You still see Dawkins showing range, and that's something for being in the league as long as he has, now in his 14th NFL season. I see similarities to what we talked about a few weeks ago with Tony Gonzalez. He has the know-how, and has a point to prove. With Champ Bailey, this is the best cover corner in the league. He has incredible ability to go along with his length. He had one play on the sidelines versus the Cowboys that was one of the best interceptions of the season so far. The big question is will they match him up against Randy Moss? We'll see. You don't want to challenge Champ Bailey too many times. I'm sure Tom Brady remembers that long interception from the playoffs in 2005.

Reiss: Before we move on to the next part of the matchup, any thoughts on the Patriots' offense and what we've seen to this point? We know your thoughts on Joey Galloway and Wes Welker from Sunday's "Bruschi on Tap" piece, so let's cover some other areas.

Bruschi: Balance. They are not falling on their sword and saying "Let's just throw the ball." I think they realize now that this is not 2007, and you don't need to throw it 50 times a game. Maybe they got caught up in that early in the year, thinking that Brady's back, let's throw it all over the yard.

Reiss: From an individual standpoint, Laurence Maroney is a hot-button issue. That was a disappointing effort Sunday against the Ravens.

Bruschi: Everyone is upset with Laurence Maroney right now. Last week, I saw nothing good from him. He's still sort of dancing in the holes. Right now, he is not the best running back the Patriots have. With Fred Taylor's ankle keeping him out, they still have BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and we know the good things he's done with the ball. As for Maroney, I believe this coaching staff isn't close to giving up on him. He's still young, and youth is valued from a management perspective. I think they still feel they can possibly turn him into the running back they want.

Patriots defense versus Broncos offense

Reiss: In terms of this aspect of the matchup, let's start with the Patriots.

[+] EnlargeDarius Butler
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesRookie defensive back Darius Butler played a big role in the Patriots' win over the Ravens last Sunday.

Bruschi: I thought the defensive coaches did a great job finding the right time to dial up pressure against the Ravens, mixing it up real well. That creativity, and sprinkling in blitz packages, will need to continue. When I look at the Patriots' defense, I think there is one noticeable thing missing: That big play, that big scoring play, the interception return for a touchdown, the scoop and score of a fumble for a touchdown. They've had a few fumble recoveries and the one interception, but to take that next step, they need to turn those turnovers into points.

Reiss: Anyone in particular catching your eye?

Bruschi: Darius Butler, the young cornerback from the University of Connecticut, had big pass breakups at critical times in the game. And Brandon Meriweather is starting to show that he can be a player in this league. He's showing range, with closing speed, and explosion through ballcarriers and receivers that he didn't show early in his career. Early on, he might have been thinking too much. He didn't have the concepts down. Now you can see he's more comfortable and you can see the confidence when he makes his break and explodes to the receiver. His path from A to B is very confident, it's assertive. He knows where he is supposed to be, and now the ability is kicking in.

Reiss: And it looks like linebacker Jerod Mayo has a chance to be active for this one. It doesn't take an expert to know that would be a big boost for the Patriots.

Bruschi: Yes, but the one thing I'd say is that even if Jerod dresses for the game, it is still going to take him a couple weeks to regain form.

Reiss: So maybe they'll just ease him into the mix, but one of the stats that amazes me is that Gary Guyton has played every snap but one this season. Talk about a growing experience. They probably want to ease some of the load off him. On the other side, what do you see from the Broncos offense?

Bruschi: I think you start off looking at quarterback Kyle Orton. He is doing a great job at managing the game and not making mistakes. I'm surprised he hasn't thrown an interception yet because of the lack of accuracy he showed in the Dallas game with down-the-field throws. I think he is extremely accurate on short passes. The longer the throw gets, the less accurate he becomes and I think that's something the Patriots will try to take advantage of, squeezing those check-downs a little tighter. From a running back perspective, Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, that's a two-headed beast. They run hard and are featured in the screen game, Buckhalter with eight catches, Moreno with four.

Reiss: We'll keep an eye on Buckhalter's health. He did not practice with an ankle sprain and might not play.

Bruschi: Then there's tight end Daniel Graham. He is a great blocker. When he played with the Patriots, he was counted on to set the edge. If he wins those matchups, the Patriots will have problems. If the Broncos run to the outside, they'll be running over him, so handling his physical presence will be a key. Adalius Thomas versus Daniel Graham, that's a matchup of two strong men, right there.

Reiss: Patriots fans will also see familiar faces on the offensive line, as Russ Hochstein could start at left guard in place of Ben Hamilton (hamstring) for the second straight week. Receiver Jabar Gaffney is second on the team with 12 catches.

Bruschi: And, of course, this defense is going to have to deal with Brandon Marshall. It's been sort of a rebirth. He was a cancer to the team early on in training camp, and now he's hugging his head coach in news conferences after a game. I think that's a prime example of how good of a job McDaniels has done as a head coach, knowing when to cut ties with a player, like Jay Cutler, and knowing when to mend fences. That's very difficult for a young coach to learn to do. It seems like he was taking notes when he was in New England, because Belichick is the best at doing that. Josh has done so well, so early. I'm happy for him. It's refreshing to see a young coach know how to deal with controversy early in his career.

Reiss: That sort of brings us back to where we started. It seemed like a lot of people didn't want Josh McDaniels to succeed in Denver, and maybe that was because of his age. But one thing I can say from my time covering McDaniels when he was with the Patriots -- he's an excellent football coach, and someone who is very easy to like, personally. Good for him. Overall, this should be a lot of fun. Let's end with one possible X-factor in the game: special teams. I thought the Patriots had a great start to the season in that area, but it looks like they've slipped a bit from a consistency standpoint. The Broncos have thrived in part on good field position.

Bruschi: Covering kickoffs, the Patriots rank 29th in the NFL. Covering punts, it's 24th. I do think it's important to point out that the kickoff coverage team created two fumbles that turned out to be two of the biggest plays of the season so far. But, no question, they need improvement. Summing it all up, I know first-hand how tough it can be playing in Denver. This is going to be a great challenge for the Patriots.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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