ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been considered by his peers to be one of the league’s best defensive minds, particularly in how he coaches, and arranges, the players in the secondary.
His defenses understand what quarterbacks want to do in a variety of situations, and they play with discipline, almost no matter who is on the depth chart. But his cornerbacks and safeties in particular have always been well-schooled and able to take the lessons from the classroom on to the field.
The talent in recent years may not rival some of his first teams in New England when he had the likes of Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison in the secondary, but they often get it done when they need to. Even this season, despite a variety of injuries, the Patriots have succeeded in keeping teams out of the end zone enough to be 7-3.
Sunday, however, the Patriots will face an offense often with four or sometimes five receiving targets in the pattern. The Denver Broncos play with the kind of balance that few, if any, teams can match. After 10 games, they have three players with at least nine touchdown catches and four players with at least 45 receptions (and running back Knowshon Moreno has 37 catches). That is next-level spread-it-around.
How Belichick deploys the players in his battered secondary, and how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning deals with it, will have a lot to say about how things go Sunday night. Belichick has routinely picked coverage over pressure when facing Manning through the years, even rushing as few as two or three players at times to get as many people in coverage as possible.
But Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib has a hip injury and cornerback Kyle Arrington has a groin injury. Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have matched Talib on an offense’s best receiver at times this season, but if he isn’t 100 percent Sunday and is still in the lineup, it would be a lot to ask of him to trail Demaryius Thomas for an entire game.
Arrington has played as the slot corner when the Patriots are in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) – most teams line up in either when facing the Broncos’ three-wide-receiver look – and that would put him across from Wes Welker much of the time. The Broncos believe they will see both Talib and Arrington in the lineup Sunday night.
Patriots safety Steve Gregory has a fractured finger, did not play in the Patriots’ loss to the Panthers this past Monday night and remains a question mark for Sunday's game. The Patriots will also be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Broncos because of a knee injury.
It all means Belichick figures to mix and match in coverage with plenty of zone looks. If history holds true, the Patriots will try what several teams have done with the Broncos this season: knocking receivers out of their routes early with plenty of the physical stuff.
The Colts and the Jaguars disrupted the Broncos’ offense some with the tactic, and Denver's receivers will have to be ready to play through it and get themselves in the right spots.