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Upon Further Review: Broncos vs. Patriots

Posted Jan 21, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason reviews the Broncos' performance against the Patriots in Denver's 26-16 win in the AFC Championship Game.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- So you're worried about the chilly conditions that are a near-certainty for Super Sunday. And you're probably wondering about the wind speed, and whether the Broncos' showdown with the Seattle Seahawks will take place in gale-force gusts like the ones that blew the Denver offense off-course in Foxborough, Mass. on Nov. 24.

Put those concerns on pause. The Broncos are different now than they were then. 

The offense has more ways to move the football. The last two games, it has controlled the clock, limited the total number of possessions and extended the ones they had. Their scoring drives in the postseason have used 40 percent more plays and take 69.4 percent more time off the clock than they did in the regular season. 

And the offense showed Sunday that if you give them a wide opening underneath to prevent outside and intermediate passes on third down, it is willing to go to the ground and expose you there. The Broncos' paths to victory continue to multiply, and although the rest of the offseason that begins in two weeks will be welcomed, it's a bit of a shame that this offense can't continue evolving and finding different passages to optimal production.

"EFFECTIVE BALANCE"

It's wise to refer back to those two words offered by offensive coordinator Adam Gase, because the Broncos' offense was never going to have what used to define balance between the run and pass: a 50-50 split. 

The Broncos have run on 44.0 percent of their postseason snaps -- 4.1 percent higher than their regular-season rate and 2.7 percent above the league regular-season average. Some of this is due to game situation; the next postseason deficit the Broncos face will be their first this winter.

But a successful conversion of a third-and-10 at the New England 39-yard-line with 10:31 left in the second quarter shows how the quest for "effective balance" has created yet another option.

In the regular season, the Broncos had 44 third downs of 10 or more yards. They kneeled down on three of them at the end of games, leaving the pass-run ratio at 39-to-2 in that scenario. They converted 11 of the 39 third-down pass plays, and neither of the runs.

But they had not quite faced a defensive alignment like the one the Patriots offered: two safeties standing at least 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage -- four yards past the line to gain -- and no linebackers in the box behind the defensive line. Beyond the line and safeties, every other defender was lined up outside against Denver's receiving targets.

This left an acreage behind the line of scrimmage, and made the call to hand off to Knowshon Moreno obvious. Assuming the blockers could win their battles off the snap, the only thing that could stop Moreno from the first down was an open-field stumble. 

The threat of the run on third-and-long could give the Seahawks pause in 12 days, and might force their defense to play more to the inside, and their safeties closer. If that happens, then the Broncos will have a better chance for a deep third-and-long connection, because now, this kind of run is a potent threat.

ELIMINATING THE RUN: IT STARTED WITH TERRANCE KNIGHTON.

It wasn't that the Patriots did not want to run the football with LeGarrette Blount on Sunday, although they did want to diversify from the divisional round, when they handed him the football on 24 of the 26 non-kneeldown snaps he played. 

But it became apparent from the first carry that he would not have the same gaping holes he had against Buffalo in Week 17 and the Colts on Jan. 11. His first carry went for no gain. Paris Lenon made the tackle, but he had the lane to do it because Knighton occupied two blockers, leaving Lenon as the free man in the box. All he had to do was meet Blount.

Blount's next carry went for just one yard, and was stopped by Knighton, who persisted and worked past two blockers to bring the beefy back down by the ankles. 

Knighton was in for four of Blount's five carries. On three of them, he drew two blockers. The only time the Patriots devoted one man to him, he easily corralled Blount in the backfield for no gain on a first-and-10 with 4:57 remaining in the second quarter. Blount did not carry the football again.

Knighton's fourth-down sack in the third quarter was fairly simple, by comparison. He was one-on-one against left guard Logan Mankins, used an upper-body move and was gone. No one was picking him up, Tom Brady was crushed, and the Broncos' ability to control the clock and extend drives meant that the Patriots' chances of a three-score rally in the 17-plus minutes remaining were remote.

ProFootballFocus.com graded out Knighton at a plus-5.6 rating for the game -- a massive rating for a defensive tackle who played just 26 snaps (44 percent). The limited work enhances his effectiveness by keeping him fresh against offensive linemen playing every snap, and could continue to be an advantage for him against Seattle.

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