Broncos hoping to not get confused by New England's defense

Updated: November 1, 2003, 3:03 PM ET

DENVER -- The New England Patriots used a variety of defensive formations and disguised coverages to fluster and confuse Cleveland quarterbacks Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb.

Just imagine what they're going to do Monday night against Denver's Danny Kanell in his second start in three years.

"The thing that makes them unique is they throw so many looks at you," said Kanell, Denver's starter now that Jake Plummer and Steve Beuerlein are injured. "You just don't know what you're going to get. They kind of throw the kitchen sink at you. So you have to be ready for anything."

He's not kidding. Just ask the Browns.

New England managed just Adam Vinatieri's three field goals, but it was plenty with the way the defense was playing. The Patriots had four sacks, held Cleveland to 203 yards and limited the Browns to one first-half field goal in a 9-3 victory.

New England (6-2) has allowed one touchdown and 22 points in its past three games, leading to its first four-game winning streak since ending the 2001 season with six straight wins on the way to the championship.

The key is in the confusion.

The Patriots constantly shift their defensive formations, sometimes lining up with six linemen and other times with all linebackers and defensive backs. It gives quarterbacks a hard time picking up on coverages and makes it difficult for linemen to find someone to block in pass protection.

"You never know, for the offense, what people we have in," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "You don't know if we're playing a 3-4 or a 4-3 or a 4-6 or whatever we're playing. I think we have a lot of versatility with guys."

Not that Denver's defense has been shabby.

A slew of injuries have the Broncos (5-3) backpedaling after a 4-0 start, but the defense has been consistent from the first game.

Denver has allowed one 100-yard rusher and has held four opponents to 14 points or less. The Broncos gave up 28 points in a loss to Minnesota two weeks ago and 26 to Baltimore last Sunday, but three touchdowns were set up by turnovers.

The Broncos are second in the league in total defense, allowing 271 yards per game, but the real proof is how they tighten up in key situations.

Denver is third in the AFC inside its 20-yard line, giving up points just 23 percent of the time. The Broncos also are the league's best at stopping opponents on third down with a 28 percent conversion rate. Denver was one of the league's worst teams in both categories last season.

Not bad for a team that played two games without strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and has lost two of its three starting linebackers the past three weeks.

"I think this is one of the fundamentally best defensive teams that we have seen all year and in quite a while," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It is really an outstanding unit and they are playing very well in all phases of the game."

It just hasn't been enough to make up for the struggles on offense.

The Broncos were clicking to open the season, scoring 30 or more points in their first three games. But they've had to scale back the offense since Plummer broke his foot three weeks ago.

Plummer's mobility kept opposing defenses honest and allowed the Broncos to shift the pocket around and open up more areas of the field.

Beuerlein was stagnant in the pocket before breaking his finger against Minnesota on Oct. 19. Kanell isn't exactly fleet footed, meaning teams could stack the line to stop running back Clinton Portis.

Last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year went over 100 yards in three of his first four games despite a bruised sternum, but he's averaged just 71 yards the past three games.

With Plummer, the Broncos averaged 371 yards and 28 points per game. In the three games without him, Denver has produced just 252 yards and 14 points per game. Last week against Baltimore, the Broncos didn't score a touchdown for the first time since losing to the Ravens 21-3 in a December 2000 playoff game.

It hasn't helped that receiver Ed McCaffrey has missed the past two games with a knee injury and left tackle Ephraim Salaam will be out another week after knee surgery.

"The numbers are what they are," Broncos tight Shannon Sharpe said. "You can't lie. You can't play those numbers and make them fit what you want them to."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index