Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots: Can Bill Belichick Stifle Peyton Manning Again?
Defensive mastermind Bill Belichick will try and thwart Peyton Manning again. (Photo: ibtimes.com / James Dudko)
The NFL's No. 1 defense couldn't stop Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos record-setting offense last week. Now the coach who has been the quarterback's nemesis will get his chance.
When the Broncos make the trip to face Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots this week, Manning is likely to be among the most nervous travellers.
Despite already throwing for 34 touchdowns and recently topping the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning won't be eager to return to New England. It is after all the sight of some of his most infamous days in an otherwise stellar career.
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He was famously dumped out of the playoffs in both 2003 and 2004 after horrific performances in New England. Manning's nightmares on the East Coast were inspired by the devilish scheming of Belichick.
The three-time Super Bowl winner is a walking encyclopaedia of defenses who always seems to have the answers to stopping Manning when nobody else can.
Belichick has masterminded 10 wins in 16 meetings with Manning, and many of them featured the same, alarmingly simple formula. In short, Belichick ruthlessly denied Manning the middle of the field.
The deep middle, specifically the hook and curl zones, is the area Manning just loves to attack. But Belichick's defenses have always bracketed his receivers down the seams.
They have taken away inside routes and used steady pressure on the interior of the pocket to force Manning away from the middle.
He has instead, often been forced to throw risky passes to the sideline, where opportunistic defensive backs have usually been lying in wait.
No team in the NFL has been more adept at forcing Manning into mistakes than Belichick's Patriots.
But can they really do it again, especially with the Broncos in such hot form? Two factors suggest Manning might have the edge this time.
Firstly, he has become more patient and expansive in how he attacks coverage. In particular, the Broncos have devised a lethal set of screen passes to combat man coverage.
Regularly leaving defenders deep in the seams will make the Patriots vulnerable to these screens.
Belichick's defense is also ravaged by injuries, especially in the two areas any unit needs to be strong to stop Manning.
In the secondary, Belichick will be without aggressive cornerback Alonzo Dennard. Star cover man Aqib Talib is also far from fully fit. The Pats could also be missing starting safety Steve Gregory.
Fielding a threadbare defensive backfield against Manning and receivers like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and ex-Patriot Wes Welker, is a recipe for disaster.
The New England defense is also missing plenty of talent up front. Hulking tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are both out.
Without the push they create in the middle, Manning could have a clean pocket to step up into and deliver his precision strikes. A clean release of the ball is one thing Manning cannot be allowed to consistently enjoy.
Belichick will have to use all of his creativity to try and thwart Manning with limited resources. But realistically, what can he do when missing so much talent against the league's best offense?
One schematic move he might try is to focus on one of Manning's key weapons. Belichick is often fond of focusing his efforts on a team's star player, or a single dangerous play.
He successfully frustrated Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, by taking premier tight end Jimmy Graham away. He should do the same to the Broncos own "move" tight end, Julius Thomas.
The athletic marvel has emerged to become the X-factor defenses can't properly account for. Thanks to a potent blend of size and speed, Thomas is a matchup nightmare at every level of a defense.
Manning has come to rely on the fleet-footed 6'5", 250-pounder when teams get physical with his wide receivers. Talking that safety valve away by doubling up on Thomas, is a risky, but necessary move for Belichick.
He should also tweak his defensive fronts to put his best pass-rushers in the middle. Rush end Chandler Jones can move inside and he has the best chance of applying immediate pressure and preventing Manning from stepping up.
The Patriots also like to blitz linebacker Brandon Spikes through the middle. They will have to be selective about showing blitz against the quick-thinking Manning, but can't shy away from creating pressure inside.
Even with his mercurial mind working in overdrive, Belichick simply might not have enough weapons to slow Manning down this time.
Although he has done it so many times before that Manning certainly won't be resting easy before Sunday.