ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Don't moan about injuries to the Patriots defense. Whatever your team has absorbed, theirs has endured at least as bad, if not worse.
The losses of longtime stalwart defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo to a torn Achilles tendon and pectoral muscle, respectively, could have crushed a defense that also lost defensive lineman Tommy Kelly to a knee injury.
It hasn't -- yet.
But with three key secondary components all limited in Thursday's practice -- safety Steve Gregory and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard -- New England's defense finds itself in a similar predicament to the one the Broncos faced in early October.
Midway through the Week 5 win over the Cowboys, the Broncos defense appeared to hit its breaking point. Von Miller was suspended. Champ Bailey was out for a fifth consecutive game. And in that game, Robert Ayers, Wesley Woodyard and Chris Harris Jr. were all injured. Predictably -- and quite understandably -- the defense nearly collapsed, and was only saved by timely pressure from Derek Wolfe and an alert break on the football by Danny Tevathan.
Nevertheless, the 48 points conceded by the Broncos that day raised a simple question: in a league where "next man up" is now a mantra, does there come a point where you run out of capable "next men?" The Broncos were right on the precipice of that seven weeks ago; the Patriots might be in the same spot with another injury or two.
Overcoming injuries is what the Patriots have done best in the Bill Belichick era, which helps explain 12 consecutive winning seasons, the last 10 of which have seen double-digit wins. The Patriots have pumped up their edge rushing to compensate for the other absences, and have found a potentially elite pass rusher in second-year veteran Chandler Jones.
ATTACKING THE QUARTERBACK
No team has more sacks in the past five games than the Patriots, both in raw tally (18) and ratio (one sack every 9.39 pass plays, well above the league average of one every 14.86 pass plays).
It must be noted that their four opponents in that span -- the Jets, Dolphins, Steelers and Panthers -- are all among the league's most sack-prone teams; they are four of the seven clubs to allow a sack more often than once every 12 pass plays. But Broncos Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase sees the Patriots' recent pass-rushing form as a testament to their strengths, rather than their foes' weaknesses.
"It's probably more what they're doing defensively. Their edge rushers don't get the (publicity) a lot that these other guys get but they do a great job," said Gase.
"It's their constant effort to get to the quarterback. And then scheme-wise, they have some things that cause problems and they free up players and they'll get some clean rushes to the quarterback."
No one has had more of those rushes than Jones, who has racked up six of his 9.5 sacks this season in the last five games. Four of those sacks came at the expense of the Jets' Geno Smith; among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass plays this year, none has been sacked as often. But he's also posted sacks of Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Drew Brees, and has easily justified New England's first-round investment in him last year.
Physically, Jones has excellent body control and quickly recovers from being knocked off-balance. His sack of Newton at the end of the first half Monday offers evidence of this. With Nate Chandler squaring up to block Jones, the defensive end rocks back and forth, works outside of Chandler and then recovers his balance in time to engulf Newton.
His sack of Brees was different, but also showed his recovery; he was pushed outside by left tackle Charles Brown, but then found his footing in time to surge toward Brees for the sack.
In both of those sacks, the offensive lineman, for a fleeting moment, might have thought he had the one-on-one duel won. Taking Jones out of the play often requires a second or third collision after the snap, because of his adeptness at recovery.
The Patriots will blitz, and when they do, it's most often with Dont'a Hightower. But the primary thrust of their pass rush and the reasons behind its improvement rest in the defensive ends, where Jones and Rob Ninkovich have provided a needed boost to the pass rush.
- Once again, the Broncos are preparing for press coverage, even with the Patriots' secondary coping with injuries. But wide receiver Eric Decker knows the Patriots' strategy will go beyond that.
"We've seen a lot of press coverage throughout the year. We've seen safeties over the top. I think teams in general are going to mix thins up coverage-wise -- maybe blitz more," said Decker. " So we've just got to be ready for everything and we know that we have to fight through those things. And we practice it against some of the best cornerbacks -- I think -- in the league here in practice."
- Talib's health will impact New England's tactics. Opposing quarterbacks have a 37.8 collective rating when throwing at him this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and he has not allowed a touchdown catch since Week 1. But with a hip injury hindering him Monday at Carolina, he was beaten for six catches.
- A particular area of concern has been third down for the Patriots. Their struggles in this area have resulted in opponents eventually moving the chains 44.7 percent of the time they get into third downs (a figure that includes successful fourth-down conversions); this is sixth-worst in the league.
- New England's run defense has given up 4.96 yards per rush in the last three weeks. In the four games since losing Mayo, the Patriots have permitted 136 rushing yards per game, an increase of 17.17 yards above their per-game rate when he played this year.