ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski had the bulbous statistics and the Pro Bowl selections. Yet it was Aaron Hernandez, a tight end who would be a star on almost any other team but lurks in the New England shadows, who dealt the Broncos their most damaging blows in a 41-23 defeat in Week 15.
How — and why — will that be different in the rematch Saturday at Gillette Stadium?
“I think we’ve got to have a better plan of who our matchups are, where those matchups are and how we’re going to defend them,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. I think we’ve got a pretty good plan for how we’re going to defend those guys.”
A plan is one thing. Execution is another. That was the Broncos’ problem last month, which left multiple players citing communication breakdowns, missed tackles and blown assignments as reasons why they rarely stopped the Patriots.
“I think (tackling and missed assignments) are the two primary things,” Allen said when asked what the defense needed to improve. “When you go back and you look at the tape, we made a lot of mistakes defensively.
“(A) missed tackle here, (a) missed tackle there, a guy make you miss,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “They’ve got a lot of good players who can run after the catch and if we don’t limit that, I mean, we can see what can happen because that’s what happened in the first game.”
Yardage after the catch (YAC) has been a staple of the New England offense. Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez rank first, fourth and ninth in the league in YAC this season; the Broncos, by comparison, don’t have anyone in the top 20. When dismissing running backs from the metric, Gronkowski is second behind Welker, while Hernandez rises to sixth.
“One busted coverage and tackling played a huge part of it,” said safety Quinton Carter. “The catch wasn’t that many yards, it’s the run after. So we have to tackle better.”
Sound tackling was a point of emphasis this week, Carter said. Nevertheless, the Broncos’ tackling has improved the last three weeks, as has their communication and assignment soundness as the defense adjusts to the absence of Brian Dawkins, who missed the Patriots game and has only played one quarter since.
As Carter and third-year veteran David Bruton settled in as the safeties beginning with the Week 17 loss to Kansas City, the issues have been mostly fixed in the last two weeks.
Although the Patriots represent the most daunting challenge they’ve faced, Bailey expects the Broncos’ problems of three and four weeks ago to remain solved.
“Oh, they’d better be. They will be, I know that for a fact,” Bailey said. “We’re not going to make all the mistakes we made the first game.
“The thing is, now you’ve got to go stop them. Whether you’re in position or not, they still have good players. So, you’ve got to find a way to stop them. One thing about it, you just can’t help them along the way.”
If the linebackers and defensive backs hold up their end of the work in coverage, Denver’s pass rushers up front might have a chance to generate pressure — which they had scant opportunity to do in December.
“(Pass) rush and coverage go hand in hand,” said defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who still managed a thunderous sack of Brady in the second half of that Dec. 18 defeat. “We need to do a better job rushing. (If we get some better coverage as well, I think we can get to (Brady).
“(If) everybody does their job and executes, it will give us a good chance.”