The aerial attack Tom Brady leads is a horizontal stretch passing offense, attacking all three short areas of the field -- left, middle and right -- while rarely throwing downfield. Of Brady's passes this season, just 18 percent were thrown more than 15 yards downfield in any direction. We saw this in the first Broncos-Patriots game. Only eight of Brady's 50 attempts were downfield shots, while he threw at least 12 passes into each short area of the field.
Over the course of the season, Harris was the Broncos' most-targeted defender on short passes. He was very effective there, recording an excellent Success Rate of 62 percent ( defined here) and only allowing 5.3 yards per play in coverage according to Football Outsiders game charting. He was also the Broncos' only defensive back to be active in all three short areas, with at least 16 targets each listed as left, middle and right.
By comparison, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, whose absence from the second half in Week 12 seemed to key New England's comeback, performed nearly as well in coverage on short passes (65 percent Success Rate, 5.4 yards per play), but only had three plays in the regular season in coverage in the middle of the field. The short middle area was the province primarily of linebackers Wesley Woodyard (who was good) and Danny Trevathan (who struggled).
That speaks to the broader question of how the Patriots choose to play the Broncos, and vice versa. The Patriots used three or more wide receivers on only 15 of their 72 offensive snaps against the Colts after doing so 55 percent of the time in the regular season. Against the Broncos, the Patriots used three wide receivers 54 percent of the time, although it is worth noting they played three wide receivers only 47 percent of the time when they came back in the second half and overtime.
In the Week 12 matchup, the Broncos defender in coverage most frequently was Woodyard, whom we have listed in coverage on 12 passes. He did well on passes over the middle, but the Patriots took advantage of him on the outside. Following that game, the Broncos made a lineup change. Woodyard played every snap that game but now plays only in the nickel, with Nate Irving and Paris Lenon getting snaps in the base 4-3.
Neither Irving nor Lenon has performed particularly well in coverage by our metrics, albeit in small, unreliable sample sizes. The Patriots could probably have even more success attacking them in the pass game than they did Woodyard in Week 12. Alternatively, the Patriots could play three wide receivers, force the Broncos to play nickel, and perhaps attack Kayvon Webster, whom Brady exploited after Rodgers-Cromartie went out, or Quentin Jammer, who struggled against the Chargers. Either way, the Patriots should be able to find a favorable matchup to exploit through the air, and they will probably need to, given the quality of Denver's run defense even without Miller.