LeGarrette Blount and LeGarrette Blount and LeGarrette Blount and

Denver Broncos Run D vs. New England Patriots Run O an underrated matchup


New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) runs against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley form one of the league’s best running back duos in between the tackles, and both put on a clinic last week against the Indianapolis Colts to spearhead the team’s blowout victory. Being able to control the football by running effectively is one thing, but simply stomping all over the opposition due to a ridiculously efficient ground game is another. Blount had 24 carries for 166 yards and four touchdowns, and Ridley, who is the team’s most talented back, had two touchdowns and some hard-nosed running of his own. The duo were as powerful as ever, and running with that kind of power and replicating that performance is a key for the Patriots.

Although the Pats won in dramatic fashion when the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots faced off in the regular season, one of the most notable takeaways from the game was just how badly the Pats were manhandled up front by the Denver Broncos running game. Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards and nearly won the game for the Broncos with his hard-nosed rushing, which put the Patriots in a tough spot. Center Manny Ramirez is a first-year starter at the position, but he’s been even better than Dan Koppen could have ever hoped. Ramirez, in fact, has been arguably the best center in the league this year, and his run blocking has been a joy to watch for fans who actually care to watch good blocking. The man plays the game with a real mean streak at center, and he’s a road-grater in its purest form. He simply manhandled Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, and what he did to Vellano is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia when not on the gridiron.

We talk a lot about how the quarterbacks are going to impact this game, but there’s much more to this matchup than just Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, even if this is what grabs headlines. Because if you’ve followed these two teams closely, you’ll see that both sides love to have a balanced offense that takes pressure off of their quarterbacks and asserts their skill on the ground. Both the Patriots and the Broncos can run the ball very effectively, with the Patriots strength on the ground born out of necessity since they don’t have nearly the same talent that the Broncos do at wide receiver (or tight end with Rob Gronkowski out).

The Patriots defense has already received a taste of the Broncos rushing attack and Moreno at his finest, but the Broncos run defense hasn’t been tested by a rejuvenated LeGarrette Blount. While Blount has always had the talent and was excellent as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was never given a chance to shine until this season with the Patriots. After having a mediocre start to the season, Blount has warmed up ever since, coincidentally, the Houston Texans game following the win over the Broncos. Blount, in fact, was even more impressive in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills than he was last week against the Colts, and he’s really broken out.

Plenty of credit goes to Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears for enabling Blount to break out and have some more big-time success again, and Blount is finally running like his 6’0″, 247 pound frame (that’s what he’s listed, at least) suggests. Although he was the biggest running back to not be a power back in TB (he sucked on goal-line carries), he was a big-time home-run threat with underrated elusiveness. Blount came into the season with “bulldozer” as a misnomer, but today it’s clear that he deserves that title now that’s running with a lower pad level (thank you, Ivan). His agility and power are a blend worthy of admiration, and he’s peaking at the right time given that he’s set to hit free agency.

But how do the Broncos stop both Blount and Ridley from getting things going in between the tackles? Well, they match up pretty favorably against the run. The Broncos had a top ten run defense in the regular season, and they definitely showed no signs of regression last week without Von Miller against the San Diego Chargers. Knowing that Ryan Mathews would be a big part of the Chargers gameplan, the Broncos shut him down and really won the battle up front in the trenches. The Patriots, however, have two healthier backs coming into Sunday’s game, and they are also more bruising than Mathews.

Danny Trevathan, Terrance Knighton, Robert Ayers, and Malik Jackson have been excellent run defenders throughout the season for the Broncos, and they are all going to play especially key roles in bottling up the Patriots ground game up the middle. These guys will all have to play like they did last week and all season long, with the work of the latter three names being most important since they are on the defensive line. Against power backs, it’s all about eating up blockers and allowing the linebackers to shoot the gaps in a quick but disciplined manner. That’s where Trevathan comes in, and it’s been remarkable watching the well-rounded, hyper athletic LB breaking out into a solid starter on the Broncos defense.

The Broncos, per Football Outsiders, were the best team in the league at stopping runs up the middle by allowing just 2.9 yards per carry against, and “Pot Roast” Knighton has been a huge, under-appreciated (outside of Colorado, that is) part of it. This is a guy who more than earns his hefty nickname by swallowing up blockers, and he’s a huge reason why the Denver Broncos are so good at stopping runs up the middle.

Although the Patriots 1-2 punch of Blount and Ridley is a great one and was incredibly dominant against the Colts, they could meet their match against the Broncos run defense, which has been stout despite the loss of guys like Miller and Kevin Vickerson. This is a deep, underrated group that has talent and showed off their ability to stop runs last week. It’s too bad some haven’t taken notice, because the Broncos have been stout at stopping runs up the middle all year long. Unfortunately for them, they are a tad vulnerable on the outside, so I think the Patriots need to bounce their backs outside a bit and give the explosive Shane Vereen an uptick in carries. The Broncos interior run defense vs. the Patriots interior running game is a strength-on-strength matchup, so offensive linemen like center Ryan Wendell could ultimately be the X-Factor. Wendell was an elite run blocker last year before falling down this season, so I would consider him a “sleeper” player worth watching.

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