Quarterback Tim Tebow and the Broncos pose an interesting challenge with their run-heavy offense. More times than not — as in, the first three quarters of seemingly every game — they've had a tremendously difficult time getting started. However, they can still present problems with their option-style running game.
There are a lot of similarities between the Tebow-led offense and the Wildcat, which Bill Belichick and the Patriots squashed with terrific success in 2009 and 2010. Yet, since Tebow is a natural quarterback — hold the jokes for a second — he's much more apt than former Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown to give a run look before pulling it back and passing. That's where it can get tricky.
The Wildcat was easy to defend because of its simplicity. It was all about gap control and staying with an assignment. More times than not, if the guard pulled after the snap, the offense was running a sweep in that direction. If the offensive linemen stayed in their natural gaps, it meant the offense was running a dive or zone read up the middle. To a large extent, it was that simple.
It's not as easy with the Broncos' offense. First and foremost, it was easy to key on the Wildcat assignments because of the obvious: the defense saw a running back taking the snap. Therefore, with Tebow taking the snap, the Patriots have to be prepared for everything, including a traditional drop-back and his running game.
"You can't look at just one thing in particular," Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher said. "You can't look at one guy or anything. You have to look at the whole scheme of things and see what they're trying to accomplish, what they're doing with their blockers, their receivers and whatnot."
To keep defenses off balance, Tebow will roll out of the pocket with the look of a run, whether it's a keeper or a pitch, and then he can pass it based on the defense's coverage. That prevents defenses from selling out to stop the option, and it's probably the greatest challenge when it comes to fundamentals.
Because of that, the Patriots' discipline in sticking with their assignments is crucial. For instance, if the strongside linebacker takes the tight end, the middle linebacker takes the running back on the potential pitch, and the weakside linebacker takes the quarterback, then it's vital for them to stay in check. It's also important for the defensive linemen to control their gaps and not allow the offensive linemen to create leverage to spring the runner free through a hole. If the offensive lineman can beat the defensive lineman and then get to a linebacker, that's where defenses get in the most trouble.
The trouble can be in the secondary. Denver's wide receivers practice their scramble drill on a regular basis and know exactly where to run when Tebow breaks the pocket. This was the case when the Patriots prepared for the Eagles, so they've gotten a jump on that tactic. But it opens the possibility of the big play because the freewheeling offense can have the advantage, especially if there's a lot of single coverage in the defensive backfield as the front-seven keys on the running attack.
"Our main focus is to be disciplined," Patriots linebacker Tracy White said. "That's what gets a lot of teams in trouble. They make a lot more plays than other teams. Being disciplined, doing your job. If you've got the pitch, you get the pitch. If you've got the quarterback, take the quarterback. Don't try to do extra. Just do your job. That's the main thing we focus on — discipline and doing what you've got to do."
The best tactic for Sunday's game might be overloading the box and forcing Tebow to prove that he can beat the Patriots with his arm. If he can run a balanced offense, the Patriots will be in trouble.
However, the obvious knock on him has been his arm strength and accuracy, which comes from flawed mechanics, both from his awkward throwing motion and panicky footwork. If the defense can dictate the pace, they'll be more likely to make the plays, instead of Tebow.
Force him to put it in the air enough times to where the Patriots can try to make a play on the ball. Regardless of how well he has played in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Tebow has yet to prove he can deliver crisp passes with any amount of consistency. There will undoubtedly be plays for the Patriots to make against his passing style.
One thing to note: Tebow and the Broncos' receivers do a good job taking advantages of soft zone coverages, and he seems to throw it with more confidence when his receivers run hitches and comeback routes. The Patriots, on the other hand, have gotten into trouble this season when they've laid off receivers in zone schemes. So again, a willingness to stay aggressive should be important in each level of the defense.
The Broncos' offense has been fascinating to study this season, but it can be contained with good fundamentals. If the Patriots can remain disciplined against Tebow's unique style, they should be OK in Denver.