ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- This past week the Denver Broncos defense had to neutralize the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster in the run game. But Charles, at 199 pounds and McCluster, a wide receiver-running back hybrid at 170 pounds, presented a challenge that was based on speed and quickness.
But when the New England Patriots line up against the Broncos defense, particularly the Broncos linebackers, this Sunday night they will offer an entirely different challenge in the run game. While certainly quarterback Tom Brady's ability to throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski will be on the front burner for the Broncos in any defensive game plan, the fact the Patriots can trot out big back after big back will be cause for major concern as well.
Especially after last season’s meeting between the two teams when the Patriots pounded out 251 yards rushing on 54 carries. It’s why the Broncos held Brady to 223 yards passing, sacked him four times and still lost by 10 points last October.
Last season it was the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Stevan Ridley, with 151 yards as well as the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Brandon Bolden, with 54 yards, who did most of the damage. The two are still in the Patriots’ rotation, but head coach Bill Belichick has also added the 6-foot, 250-pound LeGarrette Blount to the mix.
And in recent seasons, Belichick and the Patriots' offense has routinely forced the Broncos to play smaller on defense in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) and then hammered away with the running backs out of a spread formation. In last October’s game, the Patriots ran 33 times against the Broncos’ nickel package and gained 140 yards. They added 19 more yards rushing against the dime.
It means Broncos linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan, who usually play in the two linebacker spots down the field in the nickel when Von Miller is moved into a pass-rushing role, are going to have to be up to the challenge.
The Broncos can’t let the Patriots control the tempo with the run game. If Brady has the benefit of any sort of run game, the Broncos will have a long night. The Patriots also spread it around. Six times this season Blount, Rodley and Bolden all got carries in the same game.
The Patriots have also added Shane Vereen, who missed eight games with a left wrist injury, to the mix. Vereen, who had 101 yards rushing in the season opener, is a threat as a receiver as well. Though he has played in just two games this season, Brady has targeted him 21 times in the passing game.
It’s a lot to do for the Broncos, but their chances of handling the Patriots offense will increase mightily if Woodyard and Trevathan can keep those Patriots backs in check.