ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s easy to forget, as Tom Brady methodically completes one defense-crushing pass after another, that there have been times in the meetings between the Denver Broncos and Brady’s New England Patriots that Brady hasn’t been the difference.
Sure, Brady has dropped games on the Broncos such as the 333-yard, four-touchdown effort in 2014, the 344-yard, three-touchdown day in 2013 and the epic 363-yard, six-touchdown day in the AFC Divisional round to close out the Broncos’ 2011 season. But at times the Patriots have simply overpowered the Broncos defense in the run game.
“They’ve done it before," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We know that and we have to be ready if they decide that's the way to go."
With the way the Brady has played this season -- an MVP-worthy 3,320 yards passing and 24 touchdowns in 10 games -- the Patriots haven’t had to rely on the ground game too often this season. They’ve only rushed for more than 100 yards in four games, with their season best being 161 yards in their win over the Washington Redskins.
But Belichick has flexed some run-game muscle against the Broncos in recent years. In 2008 -- Mike Shanahan’s last season as Broncos coach -- the Patriots bullied the Broncos with 257 yards rushing in a game Brady sat out because he was recovering from ACL surgery. Sammy Morris had 138 yards rushing in that game.
The Patriots rushed for 146 yards in the 2011 playoff game, with tight end Aaron Hernandez finishing with 61 of those yards on five carries. The Patriots pounded out 251 rushing yards on 54 defense-numbing carries, as they were led by Stevan Ridley's 151 yards.
“We always want to start things off by stopping the run," linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “That gets us in the situations we want. You never want an offense to get the tempo."
The Broncos have stifled the run for the most part this season. But five teams have topped 100 yards on them, led by the Kansas City Chiefs’ 147 yards rushing in Week 2.
The Broncos have been able to keep most offenses in longer down-and-distance situations, which has forced teams to pass the ball. Three teams have topped 30 carries in the Broncos’ 10 games, all of those coming in the last five games.
Keeping Brady in check will always be Job 1 for a defense, but that can leave defenses without much help in the middle of the field. The Patriots counter that by pounding away with the run, especially in the meetings with the Broncos.
LeGarrette Blount has the Patriots' only 100-yard rushing game this season -- 129 against Washington. The Patriots have been in a two-tight end set or a three-wide receiver set most of the time on first down. They have run the ball on more than 60 percent of first-and-10 plays in the two tight-end set. How the Broncos fare on those plays will likely determine how vigorous the Patriots will be in establishing the run.
“We always say you have to earn rushing the passer," Marshall said. “And our chances at rushing any quarterback, especially one like Tom Brady, go up if we don’t let people run the ball on us. So, we don’t want to let them run the ball on us."