It might just be the most anticipated matchup of the season: Tom Brady vs. Tim Tebow. One quarterback inspires because he has it all and wins, the other inspires because he has none of it and wins. Let’s break it down.
1. Evaluating Tebow
If you want a rehashing of Tebow’s quarterbacking strengths and (many) weaknesses, or an opinion on whether the Broncos should invest long-term in their unconventional “star”, or a theory about motivation and inspiration and divine intervention, hit the message boards or talk radio. The focus of this post is on what Tebow has shown on film the past few weeks.
In short, he’s getting better as a passer but still has a long ways to go. He’s been very good against Cover 2 looks. He made the Vikings pay for their frequent (and, frankly, mind-boggling) mistakes two weeks ago, and he conjured up several critical late-game completions the week after, when the Bears moved from man coverage to a soft Tampa 2 (where a few goofs by the secondary and a lack of pass-rush killed them down the stretch).
Tebow remains slow in the pocket – in terms of progressions, decisiveness and ball release – and he falls back on sandlot tactics if his first read is not there. This isn’t the worst thing, though, as he’s clearly proven to be clutch in this style. He’s very effective on the move, both as a scrambler and passer. He can extend the play with a unique Roethlisberger-like sense for avoiding and shedding pass-rushers.
But unless the Broncos can continue to win while averaging less than 20 points per game offensively, they’ll need more aerial dimension, progression reads and overall consistency from their young quarterback.
2. Denver’s run game
When offenses put a bunch of bodies on the line of scrimmage, the natural assumption is that they’re relying on sheer human mass to bulldoze the defense and clear a path for the running back. In actuality, what they’re often doing is creating more running options for the back. The more players there are along the line of scrimmage, the more gaps there are for the defense to worry about.
This is why you frequently see the Broncos bring a receiver in motion down to the tight end spot just before the snap; it’s not the receiver’s blocking prowess that the Broncos like, it’s that his presence expands the run front surface. Generally, the defense responds to this by matching players to gaps (in other words, crowding the line of scrimmage).
The brilliance of Denver’s zone-option run is that it forces defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage when there’s still the threat of a pass. Granted, this passing threat is weak – usually only two or three receivers run routes, and defenses are happy to see Tebow throw – but it’s not weak enough for defenders to completely ignore. Thus, they’re distracted ever so slightly from their run-stopping assignments.
More than that, the zone-option presents a myriad of run possibilities on a given play. The ball could go to Willis McGahee, fullback Spencer Larsen, a sweeping receiver or stay with Tebow. And with so many options, the ball does not necessarily have to follow the direction of the blocking scheme.
These are all factors that defenders must mentally process after the snap. That’s not how defenders are accustomed to playing the run.
Also, keep in mind, defenses do not generally account for quarterbacks in the run game; Tebow’s threat as a runner has a wildcat effect that gives the offense a numbers advantage if the D does not bring an eighth man in the box.
3. How the Patriots will defend the run
A smart, fundamentally-sound run-defending front seven can still stymie the zone-option. Usually, it takes two stud linebackers and two stud defensive ends. The Bears and Jets both had these resources and, aside from a play or two, they both shutdown the Broncos’ ground game. The Bears did it out of a base 4-4 (safety Craig Steltz played in the box all game); the Jets did it out of a base 3-5.
Whatever the defensive alignment, the basic principles are the same: the linebackers must see the field well enough to track the ball and identify gaps. More importantly, they must run well enough to catch up to the ball (because, as we’ve examined, defending the zone-option is strict assignment football, where the reads are more details-oriented than in conventional run defense). The defensive ends must have the physical strength to penetrate against one-on-one blocking, as well as the discipline to stay within the strict confines of their edge duties.
It’s unknown whether the Patriots will follow Chicago’s 4-4 scheme or New York’s 3-5 scheme Sunday. They’ve alternated between various defensive fronts all season. More pressing is whether the Patriots even have the personnel. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo is elite, but whoever’s next to him is most certainly not (Bill Belichick has tried a litany of different players here). At left end, Vince Wilfork is obviously a monster.
On the defensive right side, Andre Carter has been outstanding at times, but he may not have the necessary size to trade blows with a left tackle like Ryan Clady for four quarters. If the Patriots go with a 3-5 approach, they may want to rotate massive youngsters Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick at end and use Carter’s flexible movement skills in space (ala Calvin Pace of the Jets).
Keep in mind, the Broncos have a sound rushing attack even without the zone-option. McGahee has a league-leading six 100-yard games on the season, and his front five is capable of winning one-on-one battles across the board. The Patriots got abused last week by a Redskins rushing attack that entered the game ranked 31st.
4. Back to the air
It’s entirely possible that Tebow and the Broncos will be able to move the ball through the thin Mile High air this Sunday. The Patriots’ pass-rush has been more “miss” than “hit” in 2011. Their secondary currently features a journeyman special teamer at strong safety (James Ihedigbo), a wide receiver and career-long special teamer at free safety (Matthew Slater) and another wide receiver at nickelback (Julian Edelman).
That’s the type of lineup you only see when someone is screwing around playing Madden.
If the Patriots bring Ihedigbo into the box, they’ll have to play either Cover 3 (zone) or man-to-man downfield. Because defensive backs must face inside when playing Cover 3, the way to attack them is with outside routes. Broncos wideouts Eric Decker and Matt Willis are effective on these patterns.
In man, cornerbacks must obviously stay with their assigned wide receiver. This season, Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty have simply not done that. Arrington improved his ball skills but has still been exploited. McCourty has been just plain porous.
5. Patriots previous blueprint for Tebow?
We’ve looked at how the Patriots might defend the Broncos offense as a whole. What about defending Tebow specifically? One player who is somewhat similar in style is Vince Young.
The Patriots devised a shrewd gameplan when they faced the Eagles backup in Week 12. Using a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 looks, they focused on keeping Young in the pocket, forcing him to be a passer. They did this by jamming his tight ends and wing/flex receivers with defensive ends and blitzing linebackers.
That disrupted a lot of Young’s quick outlet throws and forced him to make reads downfield. When Patriot blitzers did actually go after Young, they always came from the front side. That way, Young would see the blitz and instinctively scramble to the backside. On that backside would be a defensive end in containment.
At the end of the day, this approach generated three sacks and 21 incompletions for the Patriots defense.
6. Other side of the ball
Even though Tebow has been at his most comfortable throwing against Cover 2, the Patriots would presumably love to play that defense often this Sunday, as that’s the tactic they tend to fall back on when protecting a big lead. The reason Tebow has not had to put together four good quarters of even semi-traditional quarterbacking during this six-game win streak is because no team has managed to jump way out in front against the Denver defense.
New England will certainly look to change that. Expect some form of hurry-up early in the game. Even if playing with a lead weren’t extra important this week, Tom Brady would still come out throwing, as it’s difficult to run against Denver’s base 4-3 (their tackles Broderick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas hold ground well, and their linebackers all cover ground well).
Most offenses would prefer facing Denver’s nickel D. It’s a much easier group to run inside against, and the revolving door at No. 3 slot cornerback has been a weak spot for the Broncos since Day One. The Broncos will likely use their nickel D against the Patriots’ base 12 offense (one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). This will make John Fox’s group somewhat vulnerable to the run, but Fox would rather see Brady handing off than throwing.
Because so much of New England’s offense is horizontal, it’s important for a defense to have as much speed at linebacker as possible. In this sense, nickel linebacker Wesley Woodyard is better suited than starter Joe Mays. What’s more, in nickel, the Broncos can go with three downlinemen and create more space for their excellent inside blitzers, Von Miller and D.J. Williams.
Generating pressure inside is a must against Brady. The only way to disrupt him is to move him off his spot and make him play frenetic. The more Brady moves, the less likely he is to throw between the numbers. That’s critical, as these statistics show:
|Tom Brady 2011 Passing Stats|
|Between the Numbers||Outside the Numbers|
| COMP %
| QB Rating
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 15 games.
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