The Notebook: Running games, pick plays & other lessons from the Broncos' AFC Championship

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White digs into the film from Denver's AFC title game, and finds a team that isn't going to be easy to beat in the Super Bowl.

Right off the bat I want to say the Patriots made a huge mistake not committing to the run early in the game. After several games in a row where the running game, and LeGarrette Blount in particular, carried their team to victory, it made no sense to go back to slinging the ball around just because the weather permitted it. This offense had evolved into something else those last few games, and asking those guys, including Tom Brady, to all of a sudden go back to a wide open system just didn't make any sense. It certainly appeared that a handful of guys on offense were a little rusty, first and foremost Brady himself.

Let me explain what a commitment to the run means to me while I'm at it. I know some of you will point to the stat sheet and retort that the Patriots DID run the ball, they just weren't successful at it.

Horse shit!

Being committed to running the ball means you start every drive, every series of downs, with a run. That in and of itself gives you options on second down. You can run it again or throw it and then run on third down. When you pass on first down unless the result of the play is a first down, most of the time you have limited yourself to one run on that series of downs. That goes double (not literally) for when the pass falls incomplete, triple (not literally) when the quarterback is sacked.

As a defensive guy I can tell you that we almost ALWAYS geared up for a run after an offense had an incomplete pass on first down. There's generally a high percentage of runs on those plays to insure the offense A) gets the clock moving and B) gets some positive yards on the drive.

The problem with that is with us geared up to stop the run on second down after an incomplete pass on first down, A is sure to happen while B rarely happens. Of course, it didn't help that Blount wasn't getting much on those second down opportunities. He rarely stood a chance with his blocking and with the way Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was playing on Sunday. Again, when you know its coming its much easier to stop.

Prior to this game, running the ball had opened up so many things for the Patriots in the passing game off play action. You might fool a defense early on play-action pass, but if you keep passing on first down, those linebackers aren't going to keep taking the cheese. That means those routes weren't going to be as open as usual, and on a day when Brady uncharacteristically struggled with accuracy issues, tighter coverage certainly didn't help.

The Broncos pass rush also showed up in crunch time and ended some plays that may have otherwise produced some points, whether continuing the drive or going in for a touchdown. The fact that Brady couldn't break contain and make something happen with his legs, unlike either of the quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game, is something to keep in mind when thinking about the Broncos' Super Bowl matchup against the Seahawks going forward.

As for the Broncos on offense, Peyton Manning looked like he went to see the wizard. I can't remember a time when I have seen him sharper in the last two years than he was Sunday. Not only was he sharp physically with his passes, but Manning also appeared to win the chess match with Bill Belichick's defense. Time and again Manning took what the defense offered rather than getting greedy and throwing into traffic. That includes the times when he looked up and saw the middle open and audibled to a run instead of trying to make the perfect throw against man coverage across the board.

I wouldn't say the Patriots were helpless against Manning, they still made their share of plays after all. But listen, just about every Manning target was on the money including at least one touchdown dropped by Julius Thomas. The one thing that jumped out to me about the rest of the offense is that on the vast majority of plays everyone was doing the little things that help you win close games. Running routes precisely, especially the pick routes, to insure somebody got open even if it wasn't them. That is something the San Francisco 49ers could learn from because not doing the little things hurt them quite a bit in the other game.

As for the visual breakdowns, I did a bunch of them this time. Crucial plays made the cut of course. I also included some plays that were interesting. Hope you enjoy!

These go in the order the plays happened during the game.

Nowhere to run

As I said it earlier, it was definitely slow going for Blount (blue) early on trying to run the ball. The Broncos employed several different strategies to slow him down. This time the outside linebacker Danny Trevathan (yellow) and middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard (red) exchange gap responsibilities so as to free Woodyard to make the tackle.Blount

The Patriots are running zone to their right and thus into the exchange "blitz."

Blount2

Woodard is unblocked and tracking Blount as he presses the hole.

Blount3

Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide.

Star-divide

The Patriots had a chance here for a nice gain, but as I referenced earlier Brady was off almost the whole game.

Brady_miss

This appears to be one of those route combinations meant to open things up for the shallow crossing route (red line). However, the skinny post (yellow line) to the offense's right just happens to be open.

Brady_miss2

The crossing route is going to be open also, but that skinny post would definitely get the Patriots a first down and then some.

Brady_miss3

Unfortunately, the Patriots did not even get a first down out of this play.

Star-divide

This was just a nice play design to get Eric Decker open on a crossing route.

Decker_cross

Decker is running the shallow crosser (red line). Welker is picking underneath him (blue line), and the other wide receivers to that side are running clear out routes (yellow lines).

Decker_cross2

This is actually the play where Welker gets roughed up a bit trying to pick the linebacker in the middle.

Decker_cross3

If you look really closely at that blue circle ... well, yeah, maybe Welker did want some get back after this.

Star-divide

Early on the Pats were pretty good against the run as well. Here linebacker Dont'a Hightower comes away with the tackle for loss, but it was really just a bad decision by the left guard on who to block.

Ht_tfl

The Broncos wanted to block down with the left tackle and pull the guard frontside to try to open up the C gap outside the left tackle. A good idea, but. ...

Ht_tfl2

The left guard (red circle) has a decision to make here, should he help the tight end on the defensive end (what he did), or go ahead and pull up in the gap to the linebacker, Hightower (yellow line and what he should have done)?

Ht_tfl3

But like I said before, it sounded good at the time.

Remember that Knighton guy I referenced earlier? He blows up this counter running play with the help of teammate Shaun Phillips, and once again Blount has nowhere to run.

Blount_counter

This is how the blocking is supposed to look with the right guard (red line) pulling left to help lead up for Blount.

Blount_counter2

Unfortunately for the Patriots, Phillips and Knighton (blue circles) are about to be be very disrespectful to their blocking scheme.

Blount_counter3

Knighton has already beaten the left guard inside and is blowing up the pulling right guard. Phillips is in the process of rag-dolling the tight end.

Blount_counter4

Once again, like a broken record, Blount has nowhere to go.

This is a function of not running enough early in the game. He never had a chance to get in rhythm. His offensive line never was afforded the opportunity to adjust to the Broncos' scheme. Blount had five carries all game, none after halftime. That is simply unacceptable. And stupid!

Star-divide

Remember that shot Brady took downfield to Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater? Yeah, that was a lot closer to a touchdown than I thought when watching it live. If the Brady we are used to seeing was playing Sunday, I really do believe it would have been six, provided Slater would have made the catch, of course.

Star-divide

One of the heroes of the Patriots' win last week over the Colts was rookie linebacker Jamie Collins. I thought Collins would have a big day against the Broncos because of the skills he exhibited in that victory. He did make his fair share of plays, but several times the Broncos and Peyton Manning were able to take advantage of how the Patriots were using him. He was partially responsible for that Manning completion to Demaryius Thomas on a post early on in the game.

Dthomas_post

Thomas is the redline. Notice that I have also pointed out Jamie Collins pressing Julius Thomas at the line on the opposite side of Thomas. That is going to hold the safety on that side of the field for fear that Julius Thomas will beat Collins deep.

Dthomas_post2

The safety to D. Thomas' side rolled down to defend the quick slant lane. The safety on the other side (white circle) is, like I said, stuck over the top of Collins.

Dthomas_post3

Once D. Thomas clears the safety to his side the window is just too big for the safety on the other side to get over and make a play on the ball as he runs a post. That play was the Broncos and Peyton using what the Patriots like to do against them.

Star-divide

Chandler Jones quietly had a pretty good game and forced some holds that simply weren't called by the referees. Here, Jones grabs Manning just as he is releasing a ball that is probably going to go to Decker for a touchdown if its trajectory wasn't affected by that pull.

Decker_miss

It's going to be another pick play for the Broncos. Julius Thomas is going to run an out route and just so happen to pick off a Patriots defender along the way. Decker is going to sneak in behind Thomas then break inside away from the pick.

Decker_miss2

As you can see from this picture, for a second there is a big traffic jam.

Decker_miss3

Suddenly Decker breaks inside, and whaddya know, he is open with nothing but green grass in front of him.

Decker_miss4

Peyton can't get the ball to him because Jones is impersonating a TSA agent and tugging on him.

Decker_miss5

Make no mistake, Decker is wide open in this situation. He is inside and in front of the closest defender to him with nobody inside of him. With no pressure, Manning makes that throw 100 out of 100 times.

Star-divide

Another missed opportunity by Brady here.

Brady_off

For whatever reason the Broncos are still inclined at this point of the game to fall for play-action fakes. Brady ends up throwing the ball to Edelman (red circle) who runs deep across the field, but he was too long on the pass. Keep that dude in the yellow circle in your sights though.

Brady_off2

The Broncos defenders with a chance to defend deep on this play are in blue circles. It damn sure looks to me like the yellow circle is a lot more wide open for an easier throw than Edelman was.

So bad throw and bad decision.

Welker's pick play

OK, so we get to the infamous Wes Welker pick play. Infamous because, for one, it took out the Patriots' best man-to-man corner on a day when the Patriots were obviously committed to playing man-to-man on the majority of passing downs. That was a huge loss for them.

Secondly, it was infamous because Belichick came out the day after the game and said it was the worst pick he had ever seen and claimed Welker was definitely trying to take Talib out.

After watching film of the collision, I won't go as far as to say Welker was trying to take Talib out. What I will say is that Welker tried to run a pick earlier in the game and got blown up by a Patriots linebacker. I don't know if he was looking for revenge, but generally on pick plays like this one, the receiver tries to nudge the defender off with their inside shoulder (inside = closest to the defender) or run right down the middle of them.

Welker, on the other hand, turned and used his outside (outside = furthest away from defender) to pop Talib right about at his midsection.

Welker_talib

Here is a shot at the point of contact from the wide angle. Action is at the red circle.

Welker_talib2

Here is a different angle from the end zone. You can kind of see what I mean about Welker cross body blocking Talib here.

Welker_talib3

Needless to say its not normal to see a guy get flipped over on a pick play. Dirty?

Maybe. Still, I am not going to say Welker was out to injure Talib. If that was the case, why not just go at his legs? I'm just saying.

Star-divide

Jamie Collins almost made a huge play early on in the game and during the broadcast the play didn't even merit a replay to see how close he came to picking off Peyton Manning.

Peyton_collins

Basically, Collins got a really good jump on Decker's crossing route, and was in good position to pick it off.

Peyton_collins2

How close? This close. The only thing that stopped that from being an interception is Decker's high level of awareness to knock the pass down. So close and yet so far ...

Star-divide

Here is one of those holds that Broncos left tackle Chris Clark employed on Jones that wasn't called.

Den_hold

Yeah bruh, that's a hold.

Den_hold2

And Clark didn't care, he kept holding on for dear life.

No flag -_____-

Star-divide

Peyton Manning looks up and sees that although he has a running back beside him in the backfield, there are no Patriots linebackers in the middle of the field. He then calmly audibles to a run, hands off to Knowshon Moreno and stands back to watch the magic happen.

Moreno

Four corners in the game leaves one linebacker. That's Hightower and he is ...

Moreno2

... all the way over on the defensive right at the line of scrimmage (blue circle). Why?!

Moreno3

Moreno might add Hightower on his Christmas card list next year for this, lol.

Moreno4

Here is what it looked like from behind. No linebackers and two gaps open in the middle. Hmmmm.

Moreno5

Either Hightower just freelanced on his own on this play -- who knows -- or maybe it wasn't just the players the media should've been asking about going to a city where weed is now legal.

Yeah, I said it.

Star-divide

After Wildcard Weekend, I drew up a play in my Notebook that the Eagles ran to score a touchdown near the goal line against the Saints. The Broncos used a very similar route combination concept to score a touchdown against the Patriots.

Te_td

Julius Thomas (yellow line) is going to cross behind the formation on the snap and continue on out to the flat. So many touchdowns near the goal line happen when somebody doesn't cover the guy to the flat, that sometimes when defenders see a guy going out there and it doesn't look like they're covered, they will drop their coverage and pick up the flat route.

Te_td2

The problem is sometimes teams are smart enough to leave another guy just outside the tackle box in the end zone (red circle) and tell him to sit there and wait for everybody to leave the area.

Te_td3

The Broncos end up with three guys on different levels who are all sorts of open. Good for them, very bad for the Patriots. Too easy.

Star-divide

One Bronco that stood out on defense all day, aside from Knighton, was Danny Trevathan. He made a ton of plays and was very physical. Here is a prime example.

Trevathian

This is an old-school ISO. First, Trevathan (red circle) jacks up the fullback back into Blount (blue circle).

Trevathian2

Then, he got off the block and made the tackle. That's what you call a grown man play right there.

Star-divide

Mama, there goes that man again. Here is Knighton, just blowing up a running play for the hell of it.

Blount_lz

This is supposed to be a simple lead zone with a cutback.

Blount_lz2

But when your offensive line gets pushed back this much and can't cut to the backside, there isn't usually any light at the end of that tunnel. And there wasn't.

Star-divide

The Broncos were all over Brady all day, and finally they got to him for a sack.

Brady_sack

Realistically, only the wide receiver with the yellow circle is potentially open on this play. Not much Brady could do on that one.

Star-divide

I wanted to draw up another neat route combination that the Broncos used to get Demaryius Thomas open on a quick slant.

Dthomas_slant

The slot wide receiver on the opposite side from Thomas is running a shallow crosser, and the running back is running a route toward the flat. Those two routes draw up the underneath coverage.

Dthomas_slant2

Now all Thomas (red circle) has to do is beat his corner inside. In fairness, Alfonzo Dennard shouldn't have been on Thomas; he's simply too small. That's where the loss of Talib hurt the rest of the game.

Dthomas_slant3

Because as you recall Thomas was in no mood for showing pity.

The Broncos went right back to Thomas up the seam on another nice route combination.

Dthomas_seam

This time the outside receiver (yellow line) runs a deep-in route to occupy the safety and let Thomas get open up the seam.

Dthomas_seam2

The safety to that side and corner (blue circles) double the clear-out route, while Thomas (red circle) now just has to clear the underneath defender.

Dthomas_seam3

Which SURPRISE, SURPRISE [Gomer Pyle voice] he is able to do with relative ease. The Broncos were playing chess on offense. The Patriots, stuck with man-to-man gameplan and their best man-to-man defender felled by injury, were playing checkers for most of the game.

Star-divide

As with the Slater deep ball earlier, the shot Brady took down the field to Austin Collie could've and maybe should've resulted in points. Collie was a lot more open than I thought watching live, because the safety to his side hesitated for no apparent reason.

Collie

Collie just runs a simple go route with an outside release. This is the moment during the play when the safety to his side (blue circle) decided to false step and hesitate. That's usually all it takes.

Collie2

There it is. Collie isn't wide open, but he is damn sure open.

Collie4

You can see better from the end zone shot how wide open Collie was at the point where the ball (red circle) is flying over his head. The safety (blue circle) might make the tackle here, but he wouldn't have been a factor on the catch. If just one of these deep balls would've been completed...

Star-divide

One of these kids is doing his own thing; one of these kids is not the same.

I'm not going to say it was definitely the safety's fault on Demaryius Thomas's side that he scored this touchdown. However, I am pretty damn sure the play would have turned out better for the Patriots if the safety on No. 88's side mirrored what the safety did to Welker on that play.

Dthomas_score

See those two dudes with yellow circles 'round them? They're working together. You could even call what they did "teamwork." The dude with the red circle and the dude in the blue circle got their wires crossed, it seems.

Dthomas_score2

And when Peyton is feeling good, oh, he's gonna make you pay your f'n beeper bill.

Star-divide

This play wasn't a big deal, but it was funny to me, so I included it. The Broncos have their backup defensive tackle Mitch Unrein drop back to the middle as a spy. The Patriots just so happen to be sending Danny Amendola over the middle on this pass.

Den_spy

This is what it will eventually look like. Unrein is the blue line and Amendola is the yellow line.

Den_spy2

Wait, maybe they can sneak it in behind Unrein's back since he was looking the other direction first.

Den_spy3

Or not. As Amendola dropped this pass I could almost hear him repeating those words of wisdom spoken by Ricky Watters so many moons ago:

"For who, for what?"

Star-divide

Patriots rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was drafted to be a playmaker. In college, he was a guy who would go up and snatch the ball out of the air over the outstretched hands of the opposing secondary players. He didn't make a big splash this season, as he was slow to learn the playbook and beset by injuries, but he still does have that ability. Brady has to give him a chance to make a play on this pass after Dobson's double move worked.

Has to!

Brady_dobson

This is the end zone shot first. The Broncos defender in the blue circle is not even the guy who was beat on the double move. He is the safety from the other side who came over after he saw the other guy get beat. That guy bringing up the rear at about the plus-18? Just decide if you want to have butter or jelly on that toast.

Brady_dobson3

This is how it looked right after the double move and the guy who got beat is now wearing the blue circle. So many missed opportunities for points it's not even funny. And here I was thinking it would be Manning who would have trouble with the deep passes. Sheesh.

Star-divide

Oh, that's just Knighton, who looks to be a cheeseburger away from fo hunnit pounds, making a sweet inside move and sacking Brady at a crucial moment in the game.

Brady_sacked

The Broncos know Brady can't beat them with his legs, so both Knighton and the end to his side go inside. Knighton won so fast that the only guy who might've been open (yellow circle) on this play, isn't really open right now.

Brady_sacked2

Down goes Brady again. I circled the down and distance markers to drive home the point if you didn't get it before that having a mobile quarterback would have certainly helped on this play. Don't kill the messenger.

Star-divide

This is the play I mentioned earlier where Julius Thomas got open in the end zone with the help of a pick, Peyton dropped a perfect pass into his arms ... and Thomas dropped it.

Jthomas_miss

Yet another pick play, this time the wide receiver is picking for Thomas who is running a fade from the slot.

Jthomas_miss2

Everything is bunched up just like the Broncos like it.

Jthomas_miss3

Julius Thomas (red circle) breaks to the back corner of the end zone and...

Jthomas_miss4

... drops an absolutely perfect pass for Peyton.

Side note: Everybody is going to be talking about how physical the Seahawks secondary is before the Super Bowl. I hope people spend an equal amount of time fretting on how closely the refs will be calling these pick plays. The Broncos have that ish down pat, and if they're allowed to do it all game its gonna be a looooong day for the boys in teal.

Star-divide

At this point the clock was running down and the Patriots were desperate to score as quickly as possible and give themselves a chance to get back into the game. So, they dialed up this quick little hook pass to Edelman with attractors outside of him to make sure he was open.

Edelman_td

Doesn't look all that complicated.

Edelman_td2

But it was certainly effective.

Star-divide

Another play that might be soon forgotten is this one where Peyton Manning just about sold the farm for 10 cents on the dollar with a pick six.

Peyton_almost

See that guy in the yellow circle running up the middle of the field wide open?

That's the guy Peyton should be throwing to.

See that guy in the red circle covered like a bed in the middle of winter? That's Demaryius Thomas.

And that is who Peyton tried to throw it to.

Just imagine if that had been a pick six. WOOOOO LAWD THE NARRATIVES!!!

That play just reaffirms the fact that sometimes it's better (for all of us) to be lucky than good.

Star-divide

One thing I didn't like about Collins's play against the Broncos this past Sunday was he didn't really try to jam Julius Thomas at the line even though he was lined up in press coverage out wide with him several times during the game. Near the end of the game Thomas made him pay for that.

Jthomas_moss

Why they would have the safety try to cover Collins's back deep from the other hash is beyond me. It was over after he didn't get a jam at all. Too much room outside between Collins and the sideline. With no contact Collins was beat by alignment for all intents and purposes no matter how athletic he may be (he is damned athletic by the way, 41" vertical at the combine).

Jthomas_moss2

It's already over here, the only question is how many yards will Thomas get before Collins hawks him down. Turns out it was quite a few.

That play points to the fact that Collins, while a play maker, is still raw on some details. I still think he is going to give folks nightmares next year with an offseason to pick up on some veteran pointers on how to play the position and really maximize his potential.

Star-divide

To have any shot at coming back the Patriots players were going to have to go above and beyond the call of duty to get the job done on every play the rest of the way. Such is the case with this Tom Brady touchdown RUN to pull the Patriots to within 10 points of the Broncos.

Brady_td

I thought the delayed slant up the offense's left (red line) was open.

Brady_td2

I guess Brady didn't want to chance it though as he decided to run it in himself.

That play seemed to fire up the Patriots momentarily. All they had to do was convert the two-point play and after playing pretty mediocre all day they would be within one score.

To quote Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Two_point

Here is how the blocking was supposed to look for the two-point play. Basically just a belly up the middle where you leave the widest man unblocked. Least smart move of the day.

Two_point3

There's Knighton (red circle) again pushing the line back and closing down the running lane inside. Oh look, there's the unblocked defensive end (red circle) too. Wonder if he is going to miss the ...

Two_point4

NOOOOOOPE.

Tom Brady haz a sad.

Star-divide

The Patriots still had a shot to force the Broncos to punt the ball back to their offense and Brady for one last gasp attempt at a comeback. The Broncos faced a fourth-and-2 at the 17 and decided to go for it with about 1:19 left in the game. All the Patriots had to do was make a play and they would have the ball back. Still down 10, but hey!

Yeah, not so much.

Like I've said several times, Jamie Collins didn't have an outstanding game, but he made quite a few plays. This particular play, he will want to forget right away. Collins_blowd

The Broncos decided to insert Unrein in the game at fullback and have him lead up on Collins. Sometimes you eat the bear ...

Collins_blowd2

... sometimes the bear eats you. Getting lifted off your feet and knocked to your knees is never fun. Can't imagine anything worse than having it happen on the last play you participate in for that season.

Well, that's that. I'm pretty sure I went a little overboard this week, but I hope everyone is entertained nonetheless.

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