Why Denver Broncos’ Saturation Coverage Baffled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots

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A look back at how Wade Phillips and the Denver Broncos used 8-man coverage schemes to confuse the New England Patriots and take away Tom Brady’s favourite weapons in the AFC Championship Game

The most surprising aspect of the AFC Championship Game wasn’t seeing the Denver Broncos awesome defense harass and batter Tom Brady and his New England Patriots offense. It was how the Broncos did it that really stood out.

Coordinator Wade Phillips has always been more commonly known for a willingness to push the blitz button and keep his finger firmly planted on it. But against Brady Phillips went in another direction, the complete opposite one.

Phillips didn’t just rein in his blitzing instincts, he curbed his enthusiasm completely. It meant a season-low blitzing day for the usually blitz-crazed Broncos, as noted by Pro Football Focus:

In fact, Phillips hadn’t been this passive in almost decade, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell:

Yes, the Broncos still hit Brady a season-high 20 times and swarmed in for a quartet of sacks. But it wasn’t the crumbling pocket or hailstorm of hits that left Brady flummoxed at Sports Authority Field on Championship Sunday.

It was Phillips’ use of saturation coverage that really had No. 12 frustratedly searching for answers.

Phillips rushed only three men on 13 of Brady’s 60 pass attempts, per NFL.com’s Brian Baldinger. On each occasion New England’s signal-caller was left to throw against an eight-man coverage shell. Even with all five receivers eligible and running routes the numbers still favoured Denver by three.

Phillips stayed committed to his 3-8 combination even when it meant taking a premier pass-rusher out of the rush. A look at three plays from the first half shows why Denver’s saturation coverage flummoxed the Pats.

Facing 2nd-and-8 on his first drive, Brady had Julian Edelman aligned in the slot on the left, while Rob Gronkowski joined him as an in-line tight end next to left tackle. Danny Amendola was in the slot on the other side, with Keshawn Martin split out wide. James White took up residence in the backfield as the lone running back.

Denver countered with Phillips’ familiar Dime scheme that features three safeties, three cornerbacks and one linebacker behind four front-line rushers.

Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and the underrated Bradley Roby were the corners lined up over New England’s wideouts in press-man coverage at the line.

Safety T.J. Ward joined middle linebacker Brandon Marshall at the ‘backer level and safeties Darian Stewart and Josh Bush formed a two-deep shell behind them.

The Broncos were showing Brady a 2 Man coverage look, man coverage in front of a pair of deep safeties. But two more players would soon be added to the underneath coverage.

Rush end Von Miller peeled off the line to help Ward double Gronkowski. Stewart also rotated from deep to triple the awesome tight end. Bush moved to the deep middle zone so that the coverage became Cover 1 or single-high.

With his top weapon triple covered and Roby plastered to clutch target Edelman in man coverage, Brady had to hold the ball. He finally tried to force it Edelman’s way in frustration but the pass sailed hopelessly out of bounds.

The heavy traffic around the Gronk showed the value of sacrificing a pass-rusher to drop eight into coverage. Phillips had extra people to help bracket Brady’s main man. The densely populated coverage shells also meant the Broncos could clog the inside passing lanes the Patriots love to exploit.

It was a tactic NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks saluted:

Forcing Brady to freeze in the pocket led to the first of Denver’s four sacks later in the opening quarter. New England faced 3rd-and-14 and put Edelman out wide on the right with Gronkowski flexed into the slot on the same side.

Amendola (slot) and Brandon LaFell (wide) took up residence on the left, while White resumed his role as the lone running back.

Phillips again deployed the same “Big Dime” personnel, but this time showed a quarters or four-deep look. Roby and Talib covered LaFell and Edelman respectively, positioned at the same depth as Stewart and Bush, who again split the deep middle.

Harris, Marshall and Ward were stationed at the linebacker level with Harris lined up over Amendola, while Ward took Gronkowski.

Stewart crept down into the intermediate middle to help Harris double Amendola in the seam. Meanwhile, Ward and Marshall created a similar bracket around Gronkowski in the slot on the other side.

Denver had successfully taken away Brady’s two inside receivers, usually his preferred targets on key plays.

Talib, Roby and Bush dropped deep to form a Cover 3 shell behind them, while Phillips had DeMarcus Ware, Miller’s normal co-star in the nightmare’s of NFL quarterbacks, peel off and shadow White in underneath man coverage.

Once again Phillips was prepared to sacrifice a key member of the rush to ensure he kept eight in smothering coverage.

With so many Orange shirts in his throwing lanes Brady had to hold the ball. He soon paid the price when defensive tackle Derek Wolfe took him down for a two-yard loss.

The Broncos were literally daring Brady to throw into traffic. It’s not usually the kind of bait arguably the coolest customer under center in NFL history is ever likely to take. But even a four-time Super Bowl winner can let his frustration get the better of him.

Brady fell into the trap on a 2nd-and-10 play early in the second quarter.

The Pats had Amendola (wide) and Edelman (slot) on the left, while Martin split wide on the right with Gronkowski in-line next to right tackle. White was, as usual, in the backfield.

Denver again showed dime personnel with Ward and Marshall as the linebackers. Talib and Roby were the corners on the outside, while Harris and Bush, the latter rotated from the two-deep shell pre-snap, covered the slots.

With Stewart shifting to the deep middle, the Broncos were now in Cover 1, man coverage underneath a single-high safety.

Bush locked up White coming out of the backfield, while Harris took Amendola and Roby covered Edelman after the two wideouts had criss-crossed out of their breaks. Talib blanketed Martin along the opposite sideline.

But it was what was happening in the middle that again proved interesting. Miller had bailed from his rush end stance on the right and bumped Gronkowski as the hulking tight end released off the line.

Once behind Miller, the Gronk was then met and hit by Ward. The Broncos had put another bracket around big No. 87.

Meanwhile, Marshall hovered underneath to help Harris double Amendola as Brady again found his inside receivers encased in double coverage.

Only this time he just couldn’t resist going to Gronkowski. The ill-advised throw was picked off by Miller to set up Denver’s second and final offensive touchdown of the day.

Not many coaches would sacrifice pass-rushers as destructive as Miller and Ware by turning them into coverage defenders. But Phillips stayed committed to his plan to saturate the passing windows with multiple bodies.

Dropping eight meant the Broncos were consistently able to double the in-breaking routes New England’s offense is built to exploit. It also meant being able to swarm around Brady’s favourite weapon, Gronkowski, early and often.

The smart tactic led to an historically woeful passing day for Brady, according to ESPN Stats & Info:

His offense also went into the tank on third downs, as detailed by the Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN.com:

The Patriots as a team converted two of 15 third-down attempts, good for just 13.3 percent. That’s New England’s lowest third-down percentage in a postseason game under Bill Belichick. The last time the Patriots converted a lower percentage of third downs in a postseason game was Super Bowl XX – New England lost to the Bears, 46-10, and were 1-for-10 (10%) on third downs.

There is historical precedence for the way Phillips kept Brady out of rhythm. The New York Jets applied the same formula back in the 2010 AFC Divisional Playoffs, consistently sending only three and four rushers at Brady while forcing him to throw into crowded zones.

Similar tactics even worked this season. Brady missed on 13 passes and was held to under 300 yards during a Week 9 win over the Washington Redskins. The Burgundy and Gold routinely dropped eight into coverage to crowd the underneath and inside passing lanes.

Phillips repeating history has merely highlighted how much the Patriots need a legitimate deep threat to cap their receiving corps. Until they find one, every team in the NFL shouldn’t view what Phillips did as a fluke, but rather the definitive blueprint for keeping Brady baffled.

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