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Broncos look to shut down Tom Brady’s targets

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez stretches

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez stretches for a touchdown as New York Giants strong safety Kenny Phillips defends during the second half. (Nov. 6, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Wes Welker led the league with 122 catches this season. Rob Gronkowski set an NFL record with 18 touchdowns by a tight end.

The Denver Broncos bottled up both of them last month.

No worries. Tom Brady just targeted his other big tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who responded with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown in New England’s 41-23 wipeout of the Broncos.

That’s the thing about Brady; he has a way of spreading the wealth.

“It’s Tom Brady,” Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said with a shrug. “He’s good for a reason.”

And especially good at finding the open receiver.

With the Broncos (9-8) clamping down on Welker and Gronkowski, Brady simply turned his gaze toward Hernandez. Brady also hit Chad Ochocinco for a 33-yard TD, the only one the flamboyant receiver had in 2011.

Brady doesn’t lock in on a target or betray his intentions with his eyes. That’s why rookie safety Quinton Carter won’t stare into the backfield when the Broncos face New England (13-3) on Saturday night in an AFC divisional playoff game. Brady is a master of deceiving defensive backs with his eyes.

“You just have to play,” Carter said. “If you see something, go take a risk here and there. Go make a play.”

The Broncos had what they thought was a solid scheme against the high-scoring Patriots.

Bailey helped keep Gronkowski in check, limiting the talented tight end to just four catches.

In the middle of the field, undrafted rookie cornerback Chris Harris shadowed Welker and held him to just four catches.

Normally, that might be enough to derail the high-scoring Patriots.

Not even close.

All the attention on those two left Hernandez free to roam around the field. Covered mainly by linebackers, Hernandez had a memorable day at the office.

For Denver, it’s back to the drawing board. With a new tactic that will almost certainly include more focus on Hernandez.

“We’ve got to have a better plan of who our matchups are, where those matchups are and how we’re going to defend them,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good plan for how we’re going to defend those guys.”

Namely, tackle better. The Patriots sprang free from a lot of would-be tackles, leading to big gains.

“You see a lot of short throws, and then there you go: missed tackle here, missed tackle there, a guy makes you miss,” Bailey said. “I mean, they’ve got a lot of good players who can run after the catch and if we don’t limit that ... we can see what can happen because that’s what happened in the first game.”

Not only that, but the Broncos realize they must apply more pressure to Brady. He can’t get too comfortable in the pocket.

Sort of like they did last weekend with Ben Roethlisberger in an overtime win against Pittsburgh. The Broncos sacked Roethlisberger five times by throwing the “kitchen sink” at the Steelers. They showed formations and stunts they hadn’t run all season.

“We are going to do whatever else it takes to try to slow these guys down,” Allen said. “There are not a lot of guys that have been able to slow them down a whole lot.”

Especially Welker, who had one of his worst games of the season against the Broncos in one of the best years of his career. His 1,569 yards receiving were the most in team history.

Yet Harris kept him in check, even earning a little praise from Welker after the game.

“Said I had a bright future,” beamed Harris, who played at Kansas. “It’s definitely fun to go out there and battle the No. 1 receiver. He’s a great player. He’s going to get his catches.

“I’ve got to challenge him every play.”

That’s what the Broncos did with Gronkowski as well. The big, physical tight end drew different looks with even Bailey lining up on him despite giving up nearly six inches in height and more than 70 pounds.

Then there’s Hernandez, whom Brady found open time after time. Hernandez is often overshadowed by Gronkowski, but he had quite the season, too, finishing with 79 catches.

“See, I don’t think Hernandez gets the credit he deserves,” Bailey said. “Yeah, Gronkowski has some numbers, Welker has the numbers. But Hernandez, when you watch him on tape, I mean, he runs routes just as good as any tight end in the game. So, he’s a guy who definitely deserves more credit than he gets.”

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