Broncos vs. Patriots: Denver D can’t underestimate Tom Brady’s new (and old) weapons

Two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game face off this Sunday — again.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will face off for the 16th time and it will be a matchup that every fan of football — no matter where your loyalty may lie — can appreciate.

Last year, in their regular season matchup, Tom Brady led the Patriots to the biggest comeback win in the Patriots history after they lost fumbles on each of their first three possessions and were down 24-0 at the half. Brady completed 81 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns in the second half to pull off the feat — a 34-31 overtime victory over Manning’s Broncos.

In last season’s AFC Championship Game, Peyton Manning got redemption by beating the Patriots 26-16. He kept Brady on the sideline –€“ and his offense on the field — for over 35 minutes of the game. Throwing 43 passes for 400 yards, Manning killed the Patriots using the "death by a thousand tiny cuts" method — short, strategic, smart, accurate passes.

Who’s the better quarterback? That’s like asking who’s the better sculptor — Michelangelo or Bernini? Both are two of the greatest of all time that masterfully carve up their mediums and leave behind masterpieces that will be relished forever.

There are dozens of angles in a matchup between two of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, but being that just about everyone had written the Patriots off — even calling Brady "washed up" — after a shaky start, it will come down to how Brady and the Patriots offense can handle a much-improved Broncos defense.

The Patriots offense fired on all cylinders in last week’s game, so here is what the Broncos defense needs to avoid.

Success against off-man coverage:

If there’s one thing that Brady and New England have done over the past decade better than anyone in the NFL, it’s picking the weak link — usually one player — on the defense to attack until that weak link proves that it would behoove the Pats to attack elsewhere. Last week against the Bears, Brady chose to pick on rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller, who entered the game with a broken hand and a hip pointer.

The Bears stubbornly continued to play man-to-man coverage against the Patriots, and Fuller insisted on playing off-man (8-to-9 yards away from his receiver before the snap) despite getting repeatedly burned. It’s quite possible he did this because he couldn’t play any type of press or tight zone with his hand injury, but you can’t repeatedly show Brady that coverage or he will tear you up. LaFell — who had four catches in the first quarter alone — and Brady torched Fuller.

Fuller eventually left the game and was replaced by undrafted rookie Al Louis-Jean, who became the new target. Snap after snap –€“ like Fuller –€“ Louis-Jean kept playing man-to-man coverage from the off position, and Brady and LaFell simply played pitch and catch. LaFell finished the day with 11 receptions for 124 yards and one touchdown. Here’s a shot of Brady hitting LaFell (bottom of the screen) on the money with ease in the second quarter. Take note that LaFell simply ran a skinny post away from the cornerback’s outside leverage. If the cornerback had played with inside leverage, LaFell would have run a 10-yard out route. He did this all game long:

The Broncos have what Brady and the Patriots may see as a weak link in their secondary too — if for no other reason than his lack of experience alone –€“ in Bradley Roby. While the rookie has shown flashes of his potential, he’s still a rookie. Whereas the Patriots used two tight end sets on almost 60 percent of their snaps to keep the Bears’ depleted linebacker corps on the field, look for the Patriots to use a heavy dose of three wide receiver sets against the Broncos to get the rookie Roby on the field to attack him.

Whether it’s Roby, Aqib Talib, or Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos’ defensive backs will have to change up their man-to-man tactics. Playing off-man will be fine, but it’s imperative that they change it up by playing press and press-bail as well to keep Brady from carving them up as easily as he did the Bears.

Gronk is hitting stride

In the first four games of this season, Gronkowski had 13 receptions for 147 yards. In last four, Gronk more than doubled that amount of production with 27 receptions for 411 yards. The beast has awoken from his slumber.

Watching Gronkowski on tape, he’s elevated his route-running game even more in 2014. Whether it’s against off-coverage or press, all great tight ends have the uncanny ability to separate from the defender out of their breaks. This is what my former teammate — Tony Gonzalez — did so well, and it’s the part of Gronkowski’s game that looks to be getting even tougher to defend.

If you play in the off position, the good tight ends run right at you until you either open your hips (thinking he’s running a deep route) or stop your feet. When you do either of those things, they break off their route and suddenly separate from you. Even though they are bigger and slower than smaller, quicker defensive backs, the great tight ends have a deceiving burst. Check the left side of this clip from coaches tape and you’ll see the safety walk down to play Gronkowski from an off-man position. Take note of Gronk’s ability to burst out of his break, accelerate and separate from the defender: 

If you play press coverage against the good tight ends, the result often isn’t any different. The advantage in press coverage is getting your hands on the tight end to try to disrupt the timing of the route. The disadvantage is often a reach disadvantage. Think of two boxers in the ring, but one has a much greater reach and is able to jab at the shorter-armed defender without ever letting him get close. The great tight ends are adept at pushing off — which is a penalty — and using their reach advantage while making it look like a casual bit of hand-fighting. They extend and burst out of their break with their long stride, and the next thing the defender knows, they’re three yards away from the ball when it reaches the tight end’s hands. Watch this safety try to defend Gronk with a perfectly placed pass from Brady:

It’s clear that Gronkowski is becoming an even greater force to be reckoned with. In film study, I didn’t see the Bears double the Pats’ beastly tight end once. Broncos safeties are going to struggle covering Gronk 1-on-1, so the best plan of attack may be to bracket (double-team) him and let the corners try to be the heroes on the outside. When playing Brady, you might as well take away at least one threat and hope that the other players step up and make plays.

PEYTON'S PLACE

Against the Bears, Brady made it the Gronk & LaFell Show. He completed 30 of his 35 attempts — with two-thirds of his completions going to Gronkowski and LaFell. The duo finished with 273 yards and four touchdowns combined and almost all of their production came against man-to-man coverage. If the Broncos are going to do something that no other AFC team has done in the regular season since Nov. 30, 2008 — beat the Patriots in Foxboro — their defense is going to have to shut down an offense that is picking up serious steam. The best part of Denver’s defense is that they have Peyton Manning scoring points for them, so they likely won’t have to shut down New England’s offense completely — just enough. In order to do so, their best shot would likely be to change up their man-to-man coverage techniques often and take Gronkowski out of the equation.