This week's "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) features the high-flying Broncos on the road versus the Patriots. Scouts Inc. has all the story lines to watch in this AFC matchup.
Pittman's expanded role
The Broncos have done a nice job disguising their run game by changing formations. This will make it hard for the Patriots to get in the right spot before the snap to stop RB Michael Pittman, who is starting to look like the team's workhorse back. Pittman had 20 carries last week and he is a no-frills runner. He is tough and he can get some yards on his own, which helps behind an offensive line that does not dominate. He is also adept at pass-blocking and in blitz pickup -- which means he is likely to stay in on third down. He has become more than a short-yardage specialist, which was his role early in the season.
Denver's underachieving defense
Denver tries to cover up its defensive deficiencies with a variety of schemes and looks. The Broncos usually play with a 4-3 front, but they will mix in some 3-4 looks. They also like to change things up when they go to their nickel and dime packages by using some unique looks on the backend, which could confuse Patriots QB Matt Cassel. While their defensive production is not very good, this is an athletic unit that matches up well because of its good speed and range. But sometimes that speed and range can get them into trouble with over pursuit.
The Broncos are really pleased with their pass protection in 2008. They have a patchwork interior offensive line and two rookie tackles, but they have only given up a league-low two sacks. Additional help comes from Pittman's blitz pickup and TE Daniel Graham, who is a good pass-blocker when the Broncos use max-protection schemes. Plus QB Jay Cutler can use his feet to avoid the blitz. This is all bad news for a Patriots defense that really struggles to apply pressure.
Hold onto the football
Denver has been sloppy with the ball in recent games and that needs to change versus a New England defense that would love to create turnovers and give its struggling offense a short field to work with. In the Broncos' two losses (Chiefs and Jaguars), they turned the ball over seven times and four of those were fumbles due to poor ball security and careless ballhandling. They cannot afford to make those kind of mistakes against the Patriots.
What happened to Maroney?
Part of the problem with the Patriots' running game is the lack of production by RB Laurence Maroney. For some unexplained reason he looks soft and he doesn't run with any conviction. He struggles to pick up yards after contact and he looks like he would rather run out of bounds instead of taking on a defender. That leaves most of the carries to the trio of Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan. This is not an intimidating run game, which is a problem when you have a young quarterback that is struggling.
Beware of Cutler's mobility
The aging Patriots' defense will likely have trouble with Cutler's mobility. He may be the best bootleg quarterback in the league and he always freezes defenders with a play-action fake before he rolls out. When he works outside the pocket, he is always a threat to run and he only has to read half the field, which leads to easy throws. He loves to throw to his tight ends on a shallow drag in this situation. Cutler can also work out of the shotgun with an empty backfield because his ability to scramble and buy time makes it tough for the pass rush to get to him. This forces the defensive backs to hold their coverage longer, which will be a problem for the Patriots versus WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.
To blitz or not to blitz
The Patriots' secondary used to out-scheme offenses and change looks so often that it was hard to get a feel for what they were going to do. Now they look old and slow, and offenses are going right after the corners because they are not good turn-and-run players. As a result, look for the Patriots to run a lot of Cover 2 schemes, which allows the safeties to help over the top on the perimeter. However, that opens up the middle of the field for underneath routes and takes the safeties out of run support. Plus, their pass rush has been non-existent -- so this week New England may roll dice and blitz to put pressure on Cutler.
Randy being Randy
There are rumblings in New England that WR Randy Moss is not playing with the same excitement that he did a year ago. He is not competing for balls on every play, he doesn't always finish his routes and he doesn't fight to get separation versus press coverage. The Patriots' best chance for success on offense is to find Moss and get the ball to him. If they don't, the Pats will have no explosive element and they will also have a receiver that may lose interest in the game.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.