FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ offense is rolling again as it heads into a game against a team whose defense it dominated twice last season.
Since then, of course, the Denver Broncos have made significant changes in the unit that allowed an average of 43 points and 480 yards in those two meetings.
But did they improve enough to control an attack that became just the second in NFL history with a 300-yard passer, and two runners and two receivers who gained at least 100 yards in the same game — last Sunday’s 52-28 win over the Buffalo Bills?
“The more balanced that you can be, then the less (the defense) can say, ‘Well, we’re just going to concentrate on this one thing,”’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “because you’ve shown them too many other things that they have to defend.”
The Broncos (2-2) have a new coordinator, Jack Del Rio, and four new starters on defense — cornerback Tracy Porter, safety Mike Adams, tackle Justin Bannan and end Derek Wolfe. And they still have pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
That defense was solid in last Sunday’s 37-6 rout of the Oakland Raiders, allowing just 237 yards. But Tom Brady and the Patriots (2-2) pose a much more formidable challenge on Sunday. They beat the Broncos 41-23 in December and 45-10 in the divisional playoffs in January.
Denver’s defense, though, isn’t the same. It blitzes more than it did last year and has given up fewer than 285 yards in three of its four games.
“They’re active. They’re very fast. Their secondary is quite different than what we played back in January,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Denver’s former head coach. “We have to do a good job of trying to defend, if you will, all the different things that they throw at you and try to make sure we stay out of long-yardage situations and hopefully can try to settle the gam e down that way.”
But when Dumervil and Miller apply pressure and cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Porter cover their men closely, Brady likely will have more trouble connecting with his outstanding receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“They’ve got two fantastic pass rushers and then they have two fantastic corners,” Lloyd said. “It’s kind of a rare combination when you see multiple extremely talented players on the defense and they’re both playing in complementary roles, putting the pass rush on the offense and then two cornerbacks who can cover in tight coverage and can make plays when the balls thrown out there.’ ‘
After much speculation about his diminished playing time in his first two games, Welker caught eight passes in a 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and nine against Buffalo. He has 25 receptions, tied for second in the AFC behind A.J. Green’s 27. Lloyd also has 25.
The Broncos’ losses have come against two of the NFL’s three undefeated teams — 27-21 at Atlanta and 31-25 to Houston. In the season opener, they beat Pittsburgh 31-19.
“The Broncos are a good defense,” Belichick said. “They’ve played against some very good offenses and given them plenty of problems. They give you a lot of different looks.
“I think they’ve definitely improved in the secondary from where they were last year when we played them, get their hands on a lot of balls. They’re active, played man coverage. Wolfe’s definitely helped them up front (and) they’ve got two of the best edge guys in the game in Dumervil and Miller.”
With all that, though, the Denver defense will be going against the No. 1 offense in the NFL. It gained 580 yards against Buffalo, fourth most in team history, and is averaging 438.3 yards in its four games. Brady completed 22 of 36 passes for 340 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Patriots overcame a 21-7 deficit against the Bills with 45 points in the second half, 31 of them in the fourth quarter.
“We need to do a better job starting the game and that’s what we’re focused on,” Lloyd said, “starting the game, staying out of long yardage situations, being more productive on second and third down.
“We’re not going to sit here and take any moral victories about how we performed in the second half because our first half was not what we expect to perform like on Sunday.”
And that comes down to consistency.
The Patriots lacked that in dropping under .500 for the first time in nine years when it lost two straight games. That streak ended in Buffalo when they scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions.
“That’s a big point of emphasis — our consistency, our consistency in practice,” Brady said. “If you can make the play once, you should be able to make it twice and three times and four times, or else it’s a concentration issue. We’re trying to get better at that in practice and see if it can carry over into a 60-minute game.”