ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos roared through the first six games of the season, piling up the points and wins, Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio often preached composure to his defensive players, that how they went about their business week to week was far more important than getting swept up in the team's successes.
It is the same tact Del Rio has taken as he addresses the whole team these days in the wake of Sunday night's loss in New England. That the players should keep the ebb and flow of opinions about the Broncos' postseason prospects on the outside and get to work inside the building.
"I know everyone is going to ride that roller coaster, last week we're the greatest, this week not so good," Del Rio said. "We'll just keep working at it."
And after a long look at the video from Sunday night's win, here are some thoughts on the team's defense and special teams:
Del Rio has said he would prefer to use a lot of personnel combinations to both improve the Broncos' ability to create the match-ups they'd like on defense as well as to keep everyone in the defensive meeting rooms engaged and involved through each week with the lure of at least some playing time. Nowhere has that been more evident of late than in the secondary. Against the Patriots, Del Rio used a variety of groupings, even before Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie left the game at halftime with a shoulder injury. Del Rio used Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr. at the cornerback spots in the base defense at times and used Harris Jr. and Quentin Jammer at the two cornerback spots in the base as well against some of the Patriots' bigger personnel groupings. And Del Rio had used both combinations at cornerback in their base 4-3 look before the Broncos had played 10 snaps in the base in the game. The Broncos also had a grouping in the base defense on a first-and-10 play early in the game that didn't include either linebacker Von Miller or Rodgers-Cromartie. The play was an incomplete pass. Miller then entered the game on the next snap, sacking Brady and forcing a fumble. Wesley Woodyard was only linebacker who was on the field for every defensive snap for the Broncos -- 87 in all. That first quarter snap was the only one Miller was held out. But Woodyard, Miller, Danny Trevathan, Nate Irving and Steven Johnson all played snaps at linebacker at varying times in the game, Irving, with 15 plays, usually when Miller was moved into a defensive end spot while Johnson played one snap.
Given the success the Patriots had after halftime with pick plays -- with the receivers as well as wheel routes from their running backs hooking out of the backfield -- the Broncos can expect more of the same in the coming weeks. Few coaches bring out the copycats like Bill Belichick. The Patriots made a concerted effort to free their receivers against the Broncos' man-to-man coverage with a few more high-traffic routes, something the Broncos do on offense regularly to get their receivers free. The Patriots were particularly effective getting tight end Rob Gronkowski free by crossing him with another receiver, especially down the field when the Broncos were trying to cover him with one of the safeties.
The Patriots were down to a third-string right tackle in the first quarter after Marcus Cannon left with an ankle injury. With Sebastian Vollmer already on injured reserve and Cannon out of the lineup, the Patriots moved Will Svitek into the right tackle spot. Even with that the Broncos were not particularly effective generating pressure from that side of the formation, even when they flipped Miller to that side in longer down-and-distance situations. After sacking Brady three times in the first half, two of those before Cannon left the lineup, they did not sack Brady in the second half or overtime. The Patriots did use two tight ends at times to help things along and Svitek is no newbie -- it's his eighth year in the league -- but the Broncos should have been able to make a little more of the situation whether it was from Miller, Robert Ayers or Shaun Phillips.
It was a raw and difficult night for punt returners -- both teams lost possession on a muff from their top punt returner -- but the Broncos' Trindon Holliday has now muffed a punt against Indianapolis, San Diego, Kansas City and New England over the past five games. The Broncos only lost possession on the one against the Patriots', but it was obviously a trend headed the wrong way before Sunday night. Things are tighter down the stretch and into the postseason and few things change momentum like a special teams gaffe, both for the team that forces it or commits it. Holliday spent plenty of extra time in training camp and the offseason catching punts and perhaps it's time to break out the JUGGS machine again. The Broncos need him to be decisive about when he is or isn't going to field a punt, and to keep his elbows in when the makes the catch.
Many offensive coaches around the league would prefer for Denver not to be in their base defense -- because of the Broncos' team speed and their bigger front. In their first seven snaps in base defense against the Patriots the Broncos forced two fumbles to go with a sack. They scored on one of the fumbles -- Miller's 60-yard return -- and Terrance Knighton returned the other fumble to the Patriots' 10-yard line. The Broncos scored two plays later.
The play that gave the Patriots the field position for their game-winning field goal in overtime came down to both communication and execution. Wes Welker had to make the call sooner -- the Broncos use the word "Peter" to signify everyone needs to get away from a kick -- to make sure all of his teammates had a chance to stay clear. And Tony Carter, whose leg the ball hit, has to be aware of where he is on the field. He was moving laterally in front of Welker just before the ball hit his leg. He had an opportunity to see he was close enough, even if Welker waited slightly too long to make the call. Or as Del Rio put it; "Certainly, Wes would say, ‘Hey I've got to be more emphatic getting the guy out of there' and then Tony I'm sure would say, ‘Hey I've got to be more aware there.' ... It's just one of those fluke deals that can occur. We work hard and practice that to ensure it doesn't and it just got us -- it bit us there."