FOXBORO, Mass. — One of Bill Belichick’s biggest strengths as a defensive mastermind is his ability to gameplan his New England Patriots into neutralizing a team’s best offensive weapon.
But, what happens when a team’s top two options are having nearly identical seasons? That’s the dilemma the Patriots face this weekend as they travel to Denver to take on the Broncos and their top receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Thomas has 76 catches for 925 yards with five touchdowns, while Sanders has 75 catches for 958 yards with five touchdowns.
“You’ve got to have some kind of plan for it,” Belichick said Wednesday. “You’ve got to figure out how you want to handle it. It’s a lot easier when you only have to worry about one guy, but when you have two guys like that it definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense.
“There’s a lot of other things you have to stop. Not every pass goes to one of them but if they hit a big one that could be the end of the drive, too. So yeah, they’re tough to defend.”
Despite losing twice to the Broncos last season, it would be shocking if the Patriots don’t deploy the same gameplan they used last year to stop Sanders and Thomas. Cornerback Malcolm Butler tracked Sanders, while Logan Ryan took on Thomas. Butler allowed nine catches on 15 targets for 147 yards with two pass breakups combined in the two games while covering Sanders, while Ryan allowed two catches on 13 targets for 41 yards with five pass breakups against Thomas.
Given Ryan’s success against Thomas, the Patriots might even choose to give more help to Butler. The Patriots also could choose to use Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty back deep since the Broncos have struggled to run the ball recently.
It also will be evident almost immediately what Belichick and the Patriots think about Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian. If they rush him heavily, they’re essentially treating him like Los Angeles Rams rookie quarterback Jared Goff, whom the Patriots forced mistakes out of by bringing heavy pressure. Blitzing will mean the Patriots don’t feel Siemian, who has 58 rushing yards on the season, is a scrambling threat.
“You have to take all of those things into consideration — how much you want to give up the rush to cover, how much you want to give up the coverage to rush,” Belichick said. “If you balance it, how much you can balance it, how light are you somewhere else, so you’ve still got to stop the running game.”
Without a third weapon on offense, with a young quarterback under center and a leaky offensive line, the Patriots’ defense seems well stocked to stop the Broncos’ offense. But much of their success will be dependent on whether Butler and Ryan can continue to limit Sanders and Thomas. History is on the Patriots’ side.
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