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If Patriots defense drops back into coverage again, would Broncos return to run game? 10.31.14 at 9:04 pm ET
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Ronnie Hillman has taken over the role of feature back in the Denver offense. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Ronnie Hillman has taken over the role of feature back in the Denver offense. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

In last year’s regular-season matchup between the Patriots and Broncos, the New England defense routinely dropped deep into coverage, yielding the run to Denver with the understanding that every run the Broncos called was one less chance for Peyton Manning to beat you downfield.

The philosophy meant the Patriots would go on to give up a staggering 280 yards on 48 carries. Knowshon Moreno had a whopping 37 carries for 224 yards and a touchdown, while Manning was 19-for-36 for 150 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception in New England’s 34-31 overtime win.

“The amount of runs we called last year probably surprised me even a little bit — to stick with it that long, [it] probably a lot of other people as well,” said Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase when asked about last year’s contest. “It was good. [Running back] Knowshon [Moreno] had a great day and the line did a great job of opening up the holes, and they were probably a little surprised that we stuck with as long as we did. But at the end of the day we ended up losing, so it didn’t matter.”

So if the Patriots approached this year’s matchup with the same overall philosophy — drop seven into coverage and dare them to run the ball — would Manning and the Broncos respond with a similar tactic this time around?

For a team that has struggled to stop the run most of the season (the Patriots are 25th in the league, having yielded an average of 129.6 rushing yards per game), it’s an odd proposition. But the idea of the Broncos running the ball is far more palatable than Manning slinging it all over the lot.

Gase suggested weather could dictate at least a portion of Denver’s offensive game plan.

“I don’t know if I can call more runs than that — that was a lot,” Gase said of last year’s rushing attempts. “It hurt my soul a little bit, but a lot of it could be dictated by weather. We’ll just see what it is on [Sunday]. It seems like everything keeps changing from day-to-day. When we get up there, we’ll have plans ready to go as far as what we can do. If the weather changes, we’ll make adjustments before the game.”

This year, Broncos have moved on from Moreno. Montee Ball started the season as their lead back, but a groin injury meant that Denver has turned to backup Ronnie Hillman. Hillman is a third-year back out of San Diego State who has made a nice adjustment in taking over the starting role — the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder is in his first full year as a starter, and has 75 carries for 349 yards and a pair of touchdowns through seven games. That includes at least 100 yards on the ground in two of Denver’€™€™s last three contests.

At the same time, Hillman certainly doesn’t possess Moreno’s pedigree. Not that that matters much, say the Patriots.

“They have a system in place,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia when asked about the Denver running game. “Hillman is an explosive guy. He has great speed, great quickness, excellent vision. He can get through the hole in the run game very, very quickly and makes a lot of yards out of some tight spaces.

“It doesn’t really matter which back is in there,” Patricia said. “They come off the line, they block very well, they make sure the gaps are covered, the linemen are covered. [They] do an excellent job with their double teams, trying to work up to the second level and give those backs some room to work. And certainly Peyton Manning does a good job of getting to the running game and keeping things balanced and continuing [to] threaten you with the run game so his offense is wide open as far as trying to get the ball outside to the skill players.”

Read More: Adam Gase, Peyton Manning, ronnie hillman,
Darrelle Revis Report, Week 9: Veteran corner and rest of Patriots secondary face supreme test in Peyton Manning and Broncos 10.31.14 at 12:49 am ET
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Demaryius Thomas got the better of Darrelle Revis on this pass play from 2010 when Revis was with the Jets. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Demaryius Thomas got the better of Darrelle Revis on this pass play from 2010 when Revis was with the Jets. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Each week, we’ll present The Darrelle Revis Report, a look at what’s on tap for the Patriots cornerback. This week, New England will host the Broncos in a matchup that will give the winner the inside track when it comes to supremacy in the AFC.

Last week: In one of the best performances of his relatively short career with the Patriots, Revis was able to render Brandon Marshall a nonfactor in Sunday’s win over the Bears. Revis allowed one catch (on six targets) for 8 yards while working mostly against Marshall.

(There was one play where it’s unclear as to whether or not Revis was the one at fault when it came to coverage — on a quick out to Alshon Jeffery when the Bears had receivers stacked on the right side, Revis was essentially blocked out of the play. The completion to Jeffery led to a 15-yard pickup. He was in the neighborhood, but it was hard to see who exactly was at fault in coverage.)

The Patriots appeared to work in multiple coverage sets throughout the game, with Revis and the rest of the defensive backs throwing different looks at the Bears throughout the contest. For the first time all year, he was almost exclusively on the left side. Of his 60 snaps on Sunday, we had him on the left side for 48 of them, while he was on the right for 12.

In all, by our highly unscientific count, in eight games, Revis has yielded 19 catches on 38 targets for 271 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Looking ahead: Revis and the rest of the New England secondary will face their biggest test of the season against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver has a fleet of talented pass catchers, including wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (47 catches, 767 yards, six TDs) and Emmanuel Sanders (47 catches, 634 yards and four TDs), as well as tight end Julius Thomas (30 catches, 327 yards and nine TDs).

“It’s going to be exciting,” Revis said of the showdown with the Broncos. “It kind of reminds me of back in New York when we played against the Patriots.

“We know what’s at stake. We know Denver is a great team. At the same time, we’re trying to accomplish something like they are too. It’s the battle of the AFC. We understand. We totally understand. It’s two great quarterbacks going against each other. We’re going to have to duke it out.”

Revis has faced Manning three times in his career — twice in the playoffs — and has a 2-1 mark against the quarterback, with his only loss coming in the 2009 AFC title game.
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Read More: Darrelle Revis, Demaryius Thomas, Revis Report,
These unheralded players might steal spotlight in Brady-Manning XVI 10.30.14 at 8:03 pm ET
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Tim Wright has been a valuable red-zone presence this season for the Patriots. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tim Wright has been a valuable red zone presence this season for the Patriots. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — With the 16th showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning looming Sunday in Foxboro, it makes sense that most of the focus has been on the matchup between the two legendary quarterbacks. And while their performances ultimately will tell the story as to which team will win, in their previous matchups there’€™s almost always an under-the-radar performer who helps swing the balance of power. With that in mind, here are eight candidates — four on each side, plus two more who might not be relatively anonymous but could still surprise — who could have a sizable impact in Sunday’€™s game between the Patriots and Broncos.

PATRIOTS

Running back Jonas Gray — The Notre Dame product got his chance to shine Sunday against the Bears and took advantage, amassing 86 yards on 17 carries. The 5-foot-10, 225-pounder might not get the same amount of action this week against the Broncos — one of the reasons Shane Vereen might have been limited last week against the Bears was because he had the flu, but he apparently is better now — but he has earned the right to be part of the mix and certainly will be a part of the action in some form or fashion on Sunday afternoon.

Fullback James Develin — The Broncos defense is threatening on a couple of levels. Denver is capable of doing damage when it comes to getting after the passer with rushers like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but it also is stout against the run with a league-best 72.4 rushing yards per game. That means if the Patriots are going to try to move the chains on the ground (or even do their due diligence when it comes to slowing the Denver pass rush), look for Develin, who routinely has been caving in defenders all season as a blocker.

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Read More: Brandon Marshall, Brandon McManus, Chris Harris Jr., Danny Amendola
DL Alan Branch’s absence from Thursday practice not related to injury 10.30.14 at 4:21 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Defensive lineman Alan Branch (not injury related) and defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) were the only two players who weren’t on the field for the Patriots at Thursday’s practice.

Defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), defensive back Nate Ebner (finger), offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (finger) and special teamer Matthew Slater (shoulder) were all limited in Thursday’s practice, similar to Wednesday.

Here is the complete practice report:

Did not practice
DL Alan Branch (not injury related)
DE Chandler Jones (hip)

Limited participation
S Nate Ebner (finger)
DL Dominique Easley (knee)
OL Cameron Fleming (finger)
WR Matthew Slater (shoulder)

Full participation
QB Tom Brady (ankle)
CB Brandon Browner (ankle)
LB Dont’€™a Hightower (knee)

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

New Patriots LB Jonathan Casillas really wants to play this weekend against Broncos 10.30.14 at 4:08 pm ET
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Jonathan Casillas figures to help out with New England's linebacking depth, as well as on special teams. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Jonathan Casillas figures to help out with New England’s linebacking depth, as well as on special teams. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — Jonathan Casillas hit the ground running this week, both literally and figuratively.

The linebacker, who was acquired by the Patriots from Tampa Bay on Tuesday, has been working to get ready for New England’s game against the Broncos Sunday.

“I’ve been running — I covered about six kickoffs today, full speed,” he said after practice on Thursday with a smile. “You want to test the hamstring out, I think that’s a good way to do it. I feel pretty good.

“Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do,” he added. “[Special teams coach] Scotty O’Brien, as soon as I got here, he’s meeting with me and I’m doing extra work with him just to get caught up to speed, because they want me to go this weekend — and I want to go this weekend.

“I don’t like missing games, whether I’m new or not. I want to play. If I have to play all [on all] four special teams [units] and no defense to all four special teams and just a little defense, whatever that means, then I’m going to do it. I love this game. [Special] teams is something I do pretty well. I’m looking to get out there in all four.”

For Casillas, his best season for the 27-year-old came with the Saints in 2011 when he finished with 43 tackles, three sacks and two passes defensed in 13 games (five starts). In his five-plus years in the NFL, he has played in 55 games (20 starts), and has 138 tackles, three sacks and five passes defensed.

“We’ve known, watched Jonathan for a while,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “Athletic, smart guy. Has played defense — four-down player — played defense and in the kicking game. Been a productive player in New Orleans and Tampa. Played against him, practiced against him. I have a lot of respect for him, his experience, and his versatile skills.”

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Jonathan Casillas,
Deep drive: When Peyton Manning and Broncos look to attack downfield, Patriots have defenders to answer challenge 10.30.14 at 3:23 pm ET
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FOXBORO — When Peyton Manning and the Broncos look to go deep on Sunday against the Patriots, it’ll be strength against strength.

The Denver passing game is one of the best in the league, averaging 297 passing yards per contest, third-best in the NFL. Manning has a fleet of talented pass catchers at his disposal, including wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (47 catches, 767 yards, six TDs) and Emmanuel Sanders (47 catches, 634 yards and four TDs), as well as tight end Julius Thomas (30 catches, 327 yards and nine TDs).

When it comes to looking deep, the Broncos are tied for seventh in the league with 28 pass plays of 20 yards or more. (Indy is first overall with 20.) In addition, Denver is fifth in the league when it comes to pass plays of 40 yards of more with seven on the season. (Washington leads the league with 12.)

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have allowed 210.9 yards per game passing this year (second-fewest in the NFL) compared to 239.0 (18th in the NFL) last year. They’ve also made sizable gains when it comes to defending the deep ball. This year, through eight games, the Patriots remain the only team that has yet to allow a pass play of 40-plus yards. Also, passes of 20-plus yards are down significantly — 74 in 2012 (worst in NFL), 55 last year (tied for 20th), 23 this year (tied for 15th).

“We talk about it, with every [team], that there’s a way to stop it,” said veteran safety Devin McCourty said when asked about some of the specifics in defending the deep ball. “The credit goes to the guys out there on the field, whether it be the guys coming off the edge and maybe somebody was free and somebody makes a big play or the guys in coverage.”

New England went out and spent heavily at cornerback this offseason, and the results have paid off. With the addition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, it has changed the way Manning looks at the Patriots defensive backs.

“With the excellent cover corners, it allows them to do a lot of things,” Manning said. “It’€™s a matter of trying to be good at what you’€™re doing, and you know you’€™ve got to be prepared to handle the different adjustments that they can certainly make you go through during the course of a game.

“Certainly, it’€™s a great challenge playing against him,” Manning added when asked about Revis’ impact. “He’€™s just a top-notch cover corner that has great ball skills and great quickness, hip transition ‘€“ all the characteristics of a great cover corner. So, it’€™s a challenge, certainly. With the receivers we have, we’€™re trying to get everybody involved. To get everybody involved, that keeps the player involved and obviously you spread the ball around, and hopefully that can put pressure on the defense. But if you’€™re throwing against him, you better be accurate and you better be running really good routes.”

Read More: Brandon Browner, Darrelle Revis, Demaryius Thomas, Devin McCourty
Patriots owner Robert Kraft: ‘My thoughts and prayers are with Menino family’ 10.30.14 at 1:54 pm ET
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Patriots owner Robert Kraft has issued a statement on the passing of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

“Today is a sad day for so many in Boston who are mourning the loss of  Mayor Menino. Personally, my three favorite memories were the phone calls that I received from the Mayor after each of our Super Bowl victories inviting the Patriots to celebrate with our fans in downtown Boston. I was so happy to accept his invitations. My thoughts and prayers are with Angela and the entire Menino family today.”

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Robert Kraft, Thomas Menino,
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