ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The numbers say the New England Patriots' defense has 18 sacks in the past four games, more than any team in the league over that span.
The numbers also say Peyton Manning is one of the most difficult starting quarterbacks in the league to sack. Despite some worries in the public domain about the Broncos’ pass protection, Denver’s offensive line has fared well overall. The only quarterback to have started every game this season and been sacked fewer times than Manning’s 13 is Detroit Lion Matthew Stafford (12). However, the concern is that Manning has taken a handful of hits to his ankles, including a high ankle sprain to his right ankle that he is still getting treated for each day.
In some ways the Patriots have picked the low-hanging fruit with their the pass rush. They sacked Geno Smith four times on Oct. 20, Ryan Tannehill six times Oct. 27, and Ben Roethlisberger five times Nov. 3. They happen to be the three-most sacked passers in the league, with Tannehill at 41, followed by Roethlisberger (36) and Smith (34).
The Patriots got to Cam Newton three times in the loss to Carolina this past Monday night.
In the past, Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has been a thorn in the Broncos’ side. In last season’s 31-21 Patriots’ win, Ninkovich had a sack and two forced fumbles, including one on running back Willis McGahee deep in New England territory that effectively ended the Broncos’ comeback attempt.
Ninkovich plays with an edge, doesn’t give up on plays, and often comes back to get the sack even after the tackle believes he had kicked him out past the quarterback. Chandler Jones, the other defensive end, leads the Patriots with nine sacks, including five in the past four games, and has the kind of speed-to-power skills people like in edge rushers. The Patriots, who are missing defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly , and linebacker Jerod Mayo -- all are on injured reserve – have created some pressure in the middle of the field with rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is tied with Ninkovich with five sacks.
Belichick has often tried to create pressure with three- and four-man rushes against Manning to keep as many resources in coverage as possible. As a result, the Patriots have often tried to create mismatches by bringing rushers from off the ball, a cornerback or safety, so the Denver offensive linemen will have to be aware of players coming from out wide in the slot, or on a delay from deeper in the formation.
But most often it’s simply Ninkovich and Chandler Jones pushing the edges, and Chris Jones holding his ground in the middle.
“Their edge rushers don’t get the pub a lot that these other guys get, but they do a great job,’’ said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “It’s their constant effort to get to the quarterback. And then scheme-wise, they have some things that cause problems, and they free up players and they’ll get some clean runs to the quarterback.’’
With the Patriots’ injuries in the secondary, it could be difficult for New England to get too aggressive against Manning in the rush, but the Patriots have had some success against Manning in the past by disrupting the receivers in their routes and getting Manning to hold the ball long enough for their rushers to get there. The Broncos will need quality days from left tackle Chris Clark and right tackle Orlando Franklin to keep Manning as clean as they did last week when the Broncos held the Chiefs without a sack.
With the Broncos having run 77.4 percent of their offensive snaps, including penalty plays, out of a three-wide receiver look, it is imperative Clark and Frankling hold the edges. Against the Chiefs last week the Broncos had a season-most 36 carries in the run game to try and slow down the Chiefs' front, but still ran 75 plays out of a three-wide look. The Broncos figure to see if they can do the same against the Patriots and hold up in front of Manning.