ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** You've heard it all week: it's all about the suddenly explosive ground game when it comes to stopping the Patriots.
Yes, 250-pound LeGarrette Blount is running effectively, and presents a threat that was rarely utilized in New England's overtime win over the Broncos in Week 12. After a fumble on his second carry that night, he didn't touch the football again; since then, he has rebounded to become a perfect complement to the Patriots' blocking power up front.
"That is a big, physical runner," said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. "He plays his game well. He knows his strengths and he knows his weaknesses, but he plays to his strengths a lot. We are going to try to keep him contained."
Added defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: "He's more of a downhill guy so we'll try to hit him before he gets going."
But the Patriots' abrupt change must be noted with caution. As quickly as they transformed their offense into a run-first, ground-and-pound attack, it could change back.
What could herald the change is the play-action. The Patriots' longest pass last week, a 53-yard Brady-to-Danny Amendola connection, came via a play-action, with wide separation coming after Colts safety LaRon Landry lost his balance after he fell for Brady's play-fake.
This is why Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning often refers to play-action as the "third phase" of the offense. If the Broncos over-react to the run, Brady and his receivers are capable of using it to devastating effect. That successful play-action came immediately after the Colts had trimmed the Patriots' lead to six points; New England used the successful pass as propulsion for a touchdown drive that built their lead back to 14.
That's why the Broncos know they must stop the run: not only to limit its effectiveness, but to help remove the play-action from the equation. If they can do this, they will be free to focus on coverage on the back end and attack up front.
"Eliminate the run. That's the rule of the NFL. Always annihilate the run first," said Broncos defensive end Jeremy Mincey. "It's a run-first league. Everybody says it's a pass-first league, but when it comes down to the nit and the grit, at the end of the day, it's the run game.
"That's what got them here, and it's what they're going to stick by…Even with Tom Brady, you've got to stop the run first."
In the Patriots' 43-22 romp over the Colts on Jan. 11, the intention of the Patriots depended on their personnel. They ran on 24 of the 26 competitive plays for which Blount was on the field (he was on the field for an end-game kneeldown, his 27th snap of the night). They ran on 17 of 24 plays that Stevan Ridley played, but on just five of 23 during which Shane Vereen took part.
But those tendencies could be flipped around. That's the flexibility the Patriots have, and it's why the Broncos can't afford to overplay the possibility of inside handoffs to Blount when he's on the field. Otherwise, they'll have safeties and linebackers out of position, and get beaten over the top on play-action.
If Knighton, Sylvester Williams and the other defensive tackles can defuse handoffs just after the snap, the Broncos have a chance. If not, and the Patriots can continue their ground success, the Broncos defense will have to adjust -- while also not getting caught over-correcting.