In order to become the top seed of the AFC Playoffs, the Denver Broncos had to rely largely on the defensive schemes and coaching of Wade Phillips in order to overcome an aging and weakening Peyton Manning. Defense was the key to much of Denver’s success this season, and it is a significant reason as to why the Broncos will represent the AFC in this year’s Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers, champions of the NFC. Against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the Broncos stepped a little bit back from their normal defensive identity by cutting back on the blitz packages, and it worked like a charm.
The Broncos, who led the NFL in sacks during the regulars season with 52, knew it might be more wise to step away from bringing the blitz as often as they typically like in order to make sure Brady had less field to scan and use to his advantage. As a result, the Broncos blitzed less in the AFC Championship Game than they have at any point this season.
The Broncos blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time yesterday
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 25, 2016
It turned out that played into Denver’s advantage in a way perhaps few would have expected. Denver still managed to sack Brady four times, including 2.5 credited to Von Miller, but even when the Broncos weren’t getting a sack, the defense was still getting some licks on the New England quarterback, and they didn’t even take a single unsportsmanlike penalty while doing so (as was suggested should be the strategy by Danny Kanell)! The Broncos defense put together 20 hits on Brady during the game, which Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated reports is the most any quarterback has been hit in a game since 2006.
Per official stats, Denver's 20 QB hits was the most for any team since 2006.
— Doug Farrar (@BR_DougFarrar) January 25, 2016
Only two other teams scraped together double-digit hits on Brady in a single game this season. The Philadelphia Eagles led the league on hits on Brady with 12 before Denver had their way with the Patriots offensive line and Brady on Sunday. The AFC East rival Buffalo Bills also put 10 hits on Brady this season. In their earlier meeting this season, the Broncos hit Brady nine times en route to handing the Patriots their first loss of the season.
AM RT: Tom Brady’s hits this season, game by game pic.twitter.com/9vuTFGTVSy
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 25, 2016
When the Broncos did blitz, it had an impact. No blitz was as critical to the success of the Broncos on Sunday than the all-out blitz called on New England’s late two-point conversion attempt. With the Broncos bringing pressure, Brady had no time to see a wide-open Rob Gronkowski. Brady’s pass was tipped by Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby picked off the pass to secure the victory for Denver.
Now the focus will be on figuring out how to effectively use the blitz against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.