- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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Brady's going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after all. Brady was behind center when the Patriots went undefeated in the 2007 regular season, the league's only team to ever finish a regular season 16-0, and Brady's won three Super Bowls.
But even as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator wraps both his head and his game plan around stopping Brady, Del Rio knows he has to live with an old scouting adage. He has to trust his eyes.
And his eyes have seen the Patriots earn some glory by pounding the rock over the past three games, including New England's win over the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday night in the AFC's divisional round.
"So that's definitely some of the tape that's fresh in our minds," Del Rio said. "They have made a concerted effort to be the more physical team and have done so and so we understand that we can't allow that to happen.”
In a 41-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 of the regular season the Patriots rushed for 142 yards. In a 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 they rushed for 267 yards. And in the win that earned them a trip to Denver for the AFC Championship Game, they rushed for 234 yards. It appears to be a late-season adjustment from Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But the Patriots certainly have a history when it comes to pounding away at the Broncos defense.
Especially if the Patriots believe they can find some room against some of the Broncos' specialty packages on defense, including the nickel (five defensive backs). Last season the Patriots pounded out 251 rushing yards against the Broncos on 54 carries in a 31-21 New England win. The Patriots gained 140 of those yards on runs against the Broncos' nickel package out of a warp speed no-huddle offense that kept the Broncos from getting themselves out of the personnel grouping or making any substitutions in it.
In that game the Patriots kept the Broncos in the nickel, even on early downs. New England ran the ball 21 times on first down against the Broncos nickel look -- 14 of those were in the first half.
Earlier this season, the Patriots choose to run the ball, at least some, against the Broncos nickel package. In the first three quarters of the Nov. 24 game -- which New England won 34-31 in overtime -- the Patriots had 65 of their first 87 rushing yards against the Broncos' nickel package.
At the moment Belichick is using the 250-pound LeGarrette Blount and the 220-pound Stevan Ridley to do much of the heavy lifting in the backfield. Blount has eight rushing touchdowns in the past three games, including four last weekend in the win over the Colts. Blount, in particular, has overwhelmed the safeties who have tried to tackle if the Patriots offensive line can get him through the defensive line at the point of attack.
It puts tackling at a premium.
"Now they've got those guys up there and they're trying to run the football," said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "I think they're averaging around 200-some yards within the past two games. So when they get in there, you know what kind of mentality it is. It's a smash-mouth game, and you've got to be ready to come downhill."
However, it will take at least some adjustment for the Patriots if they choose to try to pound away at some of the Broncos' specialty looks on defense. Del Rio hasn't traditionally answered with the Broncos' nickel or dime packages until offenses go to three wide receivers in the formation.
But over the past three games, the core of the run-first look from New England, the Patriots opened in a two-tight end look against the Ravens and opened games against the Bills as well as the Colts with a two-back look. The Broncos have been better defending the run out of their base 4-3 defense.
"I think you've just got to know your personnel," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "When Ridley is in there, he's more of a threat to bounce it outside with his speed. Blount will come in there and hit it downhill. So you've just got to know who's out there and know the formations and know what they like to do and things like that. Then they've got (running back Shane) Vereen, who comes in, who can line up at receiver and line up in the backfield. It's tricky, but ultimately we've just got to do what we do and play gap-sound defense and tackle."
It's also meant that Brady has had 14, 14 and 13 completions over the last three games with just two touchdown passes.
"Oh, of course yeah they can still throw it," said Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips. "... Play(-action) pass shots and some of the quick game they do out of opened-up formations. Tom is one of the top quarterbacks in the league, so when you have a guy directing it like that obviously you're going to be very good at it, but the thing they really are doing is physically they are getting after people, they're winning the battle in the trenches and running the ball right at people with Blount doing a large portion of the running. ... But we know they can come right at you, come right at you and then try to take advantage of you and put the ball down the field, too. We know it's a challenge and we have to be up to the challenge."
7dEric D. Williams