EDITOR'S NOTE: This week, independent analyst Andrew Mason will take a closer look at five players to watch in this Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Up first: Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos and Patriots met Nov. 24, LeGarrette Blount was buried on their depth chart; he carried the football twice. On his second snap, he fumbled after gaining 9 yards, and he didn't see the field after that.
But that fumble -- his second in 82 carries to that point of the season -- did not send him into exile deep on the Patriots' depth chart. The next week, he carried 12 times, his highest total since rushing 14 times in a Week 3 rout over Tampa Bay, which traded him to the Patriots during last year's draft.
His 166-yard, four-touchdown explosion last Saturday had built quietly through much of the season, but became noisy when the Patriots began emphasizing him in Week 16 at Baltimore, when he carried 16 times -- 11 of which were run from inside the tackles.
Befitting the 250-pounder's skill set as an inside threat, Blount has not been utilized extensively a threat in the passing game; he has just two receptions this year and just 23 in his four-season career -- although he does post a decent 8.8-yard average on those catches, and in space, could be a mismatch against a smaller outside linebacker.
Blount's strength up the middle ensures that defending him represents a different challenge than what the Broncos faced Sunday against the Chargers. San Diego prefers to get to outside the tackles, and preferably to outside the numbers, putting an emphasis on the ability of Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan to set the edge, with some help from safeties advancing forward.
With Blount, New England excels at taking advantage of a spread-out defense to send him up the middle. Nineteen of Blount's 24 carries against the Colts last Saturday were between the guard spots, which puts the onus on the defensive tackles to win their duels at the line of scrimmage.
This is where the Broncos could dearly miss Kevin Vickerson, who suffered his season-ending hip injury against the Patriots in Week 12. They will need a solid performance from rookie Sylvester Williams to supplement the play of Terrance Knighton, who is likely to draw extra attention from the Patriots' interior blockers.
The Patriots' success on the ground in their 31-21 win over the Broncos in Week 5 of the 2012 season could also empower them to continue the ground-and-pound tactics they've displayed in recent weeks. That game showed the Patriots' attack at its most lethal; when the Broncos began dropping more defenders into coverage after being challenged in the first half, Brady simply handed off to his stable of running backs, and the Patriots racked up 140 yards on 29 carries after halftime to grind down the Broncos' resistance.
Denver's defensive tackles weren't the factor that the Broncos needed to contain the run that day. Their play in the second half of the season offers optimism that the success of October 2012 might not be repeated -- but only if Knighton and Williams can maintain their form and continue their disruptive play off the snap.