ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- What was a necessity could now be voluntary, a choice, against the Denver Broncos’ defense.
The New England Patriots, with a long list of injuries at wide receiver, were the most effective opponent of the season when it came to specifically targeting running backs and tight ends in the passing game because they had to -- they didn't have the manpower in the game at wide receiver.
So, the Patriots consistently put the Broncos' fleet group of linebackers, that same group that had vexed offense after offense, into coverage situations down the field.
“Teams are trying to scheme us up with tight ends and running backs trying to avoid me and [cornerback Aqib] Talib,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr said. “Every week we have to be ready for all of their tight ends and all of their running backs.’’
Despite the fact the Broncos held New England to just 39 yards rushing on 16 attempts, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady still threw for 280 yards. It was the second-highest total against the Broncos’ league-leading pass defense -- Detroit’s Matthew Stafford threw for 282 yards in Week 3.
And Brady did it by repeatedly targeting those Broncos linebackers out wide, in space, in pass coverage. Patriots tight end Scott Chandler caught a touchdown pass with Broncos linebacker Von Miller in tow, and running back Brandon Bolden was responsible for a 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown when he got behind linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Overall, 18 of Tom Brady’s 23 completions in the game went to tight ends or running backs, and his top two options -- tight end Rob Gronkowski and Chandler -- were targeted 10 and 11 times, respectively.
“We know people are going to do it,’’ Harris said. “When you think about what they might do, they know it’s tough to move the ball and that’s what offenses have tried.’’
The Broncos will face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and the Chargers throw the ball -- a lot -- to their running backs and tight ends. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers leads the league in attempts with 463, and he’s the only quarterback in the league to have already topped 300 completions (317).
And Chargers running back Danny Woodhead’s 569 yards receiving is the most by any running back in the league. Three of the Chargers top five pass catchers this year are Woodhead (52 catches), tight end Antonio Gates (33 catches) and fellow tight end Ladarius Green (29 catches).
Rivers has targeted all three players at least 41 times this season, and Woodhead has been a particularly high-percentage bet, having turned 67 targets into 52 catches.
“We have to stop the run first, as always, but he’s one of those quarterbacks I’ve talked about,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He can beat you throwing the ball. He had one game where he had 500 yards passing and no interceptions. That’s incredible. I know Philip pretty well. I was there with him. We drafted him when I was there. He’s a great competitor, great person, but he’s also a great competitor.’’
And on Gates’ impact, Harris said, "He just has it. He has the fundamentals all the way down. He's been riding that same wave his whole career. He's still making plays. He's still killing guys on the same routes since I've been here. I mean, five years and he's still running the same routes and still kills guys.’’
The Chargers, like the Patriots, have been a one-sided affair at times on offense. They’ve had four games this season in which they’ve rushed for fewer than 70 yards, and the Chargers have had five games in which they’ve had 20 or fewer rushing attempts.
That means they’ve been Rivers-centric, and the Broncos expect more of the same.
“To be the best, you've got to face the best,’’ Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “Last week, we had the No. 1 passing offense [in New England]. This week, we have the No. 2 passing offense. It's definitely a challenge for us. I think we're all excited for it.’’