Grounds for concern

Patriots will have to corral NFL's top rushing offense

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 13, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Ten minutes into their game against the Patriots last month, the Broncos were on pace to rush for 798 yards. Two drives, 11 carries, 133 yards. Two touchdowns.

Denver made it look easy, piling up runs of 19, 25, 29, and 32 yards in the early burst. Of the 11 carries, six were over the right side of the offensive line, two went left, three up the middle. Four players - running backs Willis McGahee, Jeremiah Johnson, and Lance Ball, and quarterback Tim Tebow - combined for the carries.

No surprise, really, considering the Broncos led the league in rushing this season, averaging 164 yards per game. Against the Patriots in Week 15, they had 167 after the first quarter.

Passing might be the primary reason the Broncos beat the Steelers in overtime in their AFC wild-card game - Tebow threw for a career-high 316 yards - but look for Denver to focus on its strength tomorrow night at Gillette Stadium.

Unless the Patriots prove they can stop the run, the Broncos will use a steady stable of capable carriers, hoping ball control and rushing yardage can help them keep pace in an intriguing divisional playoff game between teams with very different offensive styles.

“Any time you can run the ball and be No. 1 in the league, you have to be physical,’’ said Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “I’d put them at the top of the list, one of the tougher teams.

“They are one of the better teams out there at being tough and being physical and being able to establish a run game.’’

The Patriots did a decent job neutralizing Denver’s rushing attack after the first 15 minutes of last month’s game. Gashed in the first quarter, the Patriots allowed just 85 yards over the final three, and flipped the game in their favor by forcing three second-quarter turnovers, all fumbles.

Still, the 252 rushing yards by Denver were the most allowed all season by the Patriots. It was part of a season-ending streak in which New England gave up at least 100 rushing yards to its last four opponents. The Patriots won all four games, however.

Denver’s rushing attack last month against the Patriots was dealt a blow when McGahee left the game late in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. He returned, but had just two more carries. By then, the Patriots had assumed control.

McGahee enjoyed a revival of sorts in his first year with the Broncos, rushing for 1,199 yards and a 4.8-yard average. It’s his first 1,000-yard season since 2007, when he gained 1,207 yards with the Ravens.

“He’s a good player,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He’s a tough guy to tackle, he’s got good speed. He hurt us when he was in there, but we got hurt by the other backs, too. We have to do a good job with whoever they put in there.’’

Tebow averages 5.4 yards per attempt and is second on the team in rushing yardage; his 660 yards almost equal BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who led the Patriots with 667. Ball (402 yards) and Johnson (77) are complementary pieces; the Broncos mostly go on the ground with McGahee and Tebow.

“They’ve got good running backs,’’ said Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who recovered a fumble, made four tackles, and chased down Tebow for a 28-yard sack late in the game.

“Last time we played them, they had a couple of big runs on us, so we’ve got to try and not let that happen, do what we can to get our offense the ball.

“Obviously they’ve got Tebow in the backfield, so he poses a big threat just because he’s not your ordinary quarterback that’s just dropping back. A guy like that is able to run and make plays with his feet, so we’ve got to make sure outside we have good leverage on the quarterback, and keep him inside and contain.’’

The Patriots should get an assist tomorrow - two, in fact - with that tough task. Neither linebacker Brandon Spikes nor safety Patrick Chung faced the Broncos last month because of injuries, but both played in the regular-season finale. With Denver’s offensive line and its famed zone blocking scheme creating running lanes, Spikes and Chung could get lots of opportunities to make plays.

“Spikes is a great run stopper, and Chung is very physical in the secondary,’’ Ninkovich said. “When you can have two guys that are as physical as both of those guys are on the field, it can only help your defense out.’’

It might start with Tebow, but the Broncos’ running game is strong enough to give the Patriots trouble. Until McGahee got hurt and the Patriots made some adjustments, Denver ran the ball at will against a defense that has taken its lumps all season.

How New England’s run defense does against the league’s best rushing attack might be the most interesting part of tomorrow night’s chess match. Most pivotal, too.

“We can’t have one guy trying to get these guys down,’’ Wilfork said. “We have to have two, three, four guys at times getting to the ball and making sure they’re on the ground.

“They can all break tackles, they can make things happen with their legs. If we can’t do that, we won’t be happy.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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