- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Let's talk about the main question of the week: How can the Patriots possibly slow down Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense?
Here are some thoughts:
Sub package game: Because the Broncos are primarily a three-receiver offense, this will put the Patriots in their sub packages almost exclusively. The Patriots have been in their sub packages 64.6 percent of the time this season. There will likely be a mix between the nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (6 defensive backs) in the game and I'd trend toward the dime.
Personnel report: Given the reliance on sub packages, the health of the secondary is the big issue this week. Let's assume cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) is out, while safety Steve Gregory (right thumb) and cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip) and Kyle Arrington (groin) are in. Still, with the shaky health situation, it requires some tweaks ...
McCourty to CB; promote from practice squad: This is a game I'd move to Devin McCourty from safety to cornerback. The thinking is that you want one of your best defensive backs executing one of the key parts of the plan -- winning at the start of receivers' routes with physical play. Plus, there is growing confidence that rookie Duron Harmon can handle things at safety alongside Steve Gregory. Also, with insurance/depth in mind, a promotion of either cornerback Justin Green or safety Kanorris Davis from the practice squad would make sense.
Adopting similar concept from second half of Dolphins game: With cold temperatures and the possibility of wind in the forecast, the idea is to duplicate, in part, what the Patriots did in the second half of their 27-17 win over the Dolphins on Oct. 27. That means focusing coverage on the middle of the field and forcing Manning to make throws to the outer areas (where Talib and McCourty would be matched up against Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker). One difference is that there won't be as heavy of a percentage of blitz calls, with the primary disruption coming with physical play against receivers at the line.
Arrington-Welker matchup with Super Bowl Cruz-type feel: Planning for a McCourty-Talib combination at cornerback on the outside leaves Kyle Arrington primarily in the slot against Wes Welker. But Arrington will have help in the matchup, similar to what we saw in the Super Bowl when he played well against Victor Cruz.
Playing with a lighter box: In the front five or six, I'd lean toward the 3-DE package on a more regular basis, almost daring the Broncos to run. That means Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter/Michael Buchanan would join the combination of nose tackles Isaac Sopoaga/Joe Vellano/Chris Jones to form the four-man line. If it's a dime, Dont'a Hightower is the lone linebacker. It's a nickel, it's Hightower and either Brandon Spikes (if healthy) or Dane Fletcher.
SUMMARY: Based on the Patriots' available personnel, we'd argue this type of approach would give the Patriots the best chance to slow down the Broncos' attack. Moving McCourty to cornerback for this game could be the key.