FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When considering how the New England Patriots effectively slowed the Denver Broncos' lethal offense in Sunday's convincing 43-21 victory, Rob Ninkovich's critical second-quarter interception provides a nice X's-and-O's snapshot of the plan.
This was all about the "interchangeable defense."
For most of the game, the Patriots played a 4-2-5 nickel that had Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers as hybrid end-of-the-line players. Their job was to work in concert with off-the-line linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower to take away Peyton Manning's go-to play -- the over route paired with a shallow crosser.
To simplify, this is how the defense approached things:
If Collins or Hightower rushed up the middle -- they showed quite a bit of pre-snap pressure looks over the center in the game -- it was on Ninkovich or Ayers to drop back into coverage in their place.
If Collins or Hightower backed out into coverage, then Ninkovich and Ayers would play more of the traditional defensive end role.
"You have to change it up," Ninkovich explained. "Having [Hightower] and Jamie, those guys can get inside and rush well on backs and also on guards, and when they do that, you have ends that can drop back and cover. So you're able to switch things up and it's all interchangeable."
On Ninkovich's interception, Collins rushed up the middle so Ninkovich dropped back into coverage. Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders ran a shallow right-to-left crossing route, but Ninkovich was more concerned with the over route from receiver Demaryius Thomas.
"Through the week, we knew they run a lot of crossing routes, but it's not the shallow crossing route that is the No. 1 target. It's the shallow route that pulls you up to get the over routes in there," he said.
"He'd rather throw the over than the shallow cross, so you let that [cross] go. [Sanders] ran a quick under and I just knew that he was going throw that over so I just backed straight up and he threw it right to me."
Manning, it seems, never saw Ninkovich on the early second-quarter pick.
"I thought that was a critical play," Manning admitted. "That definitely gave them a lot of momentum."
Indeed, the Patriots turned the interception into a quick touchdown to go ahead 13-7 and they never trailed again en route to a blowout that has them in the conversation as one of the NFL's best teams. The Patriots entered Week 9 having scored 60 points off turnovers, most in the NFL, and produced two touchdowns off turnovers against the Broncos.
"That was a huge play," coach Bill Belichick said of Ninkovich's interception. "We had pressure up the middle from Jamie [Collins] and it was a combination of team defense -- pressure and coverage. Rob, as we've talked about many times, has a great instinctiveness for finding the ball. He's got that sixth sense."
While the Patriots were effective in the front six with their "interchangeable defense," it helped that it was paired with physical play from the secondary.
Mixing their calls between man and zone coverage, cornerback Kyle Arrington said players focused on "holding their water" by attempting to give Manning the same pre-snap look despite ultimately mixing their coverages.
Arrington was effective matched against Wes Welker, while Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner (third-quarter interception) and rookie Malcolm Butler all made plays on the ball. The Patriots finished with a season-high eight passes defensed, as safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty were also active.
So just as the Patriots were doing things differently up front, there was also a similar element of the chess match in the secondary.
"We just switched things up, disguised very well. The whole defense did," said Revis, who was targeted with success on the Broncos' first touchdown drive before locking down his assignment the rest of the way. "We just gave him different looks to not just be stale out there. If you are stale against Peyton, he'll figure it out just like that and tear a defense apart. We just wanted to mix it up and we did a very good job disguising very well across the board."
While the players get the credit for executing the plan, not to be overlooked is the coaching staff that drew it up. While some might look at Manning's final stat line (34-of-57 for 438 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) and assume he had a big day, that was anything but the case.
That's a credit to Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the team's defensive assistants.
"It was a great game plan and our coaches are very smart at game-planning," Revis said. "They've played Peyton in the past numerous times. We had them down in this one."
Players pointed to better on-field communication between them as a key -- which was fine-tuned on the practice field -- and it wasn't long before they realized the plan had a good chance at success.
"We knew when [Manning] was at line of scrimmage and didn't know who was dropping and who was rushing, and he didn't know what to check to, because he's trying to check to that perfect play," Ninkovich said.
There weren't many perfect plays for the Broncos.
Credit the "interchangeable defense" for that.