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The Patriots ran over the Denver Broncos and handled the return of Peyton Manning on Sunday. Here's a look at what they did well and what needs work.
How many of you had that one down?
Patriots catch a big break early, run their offense to perfection, get some play making from their defense, run up a big second half lead, get knocked back a bit, sweat out a giant fourth quarter comeback attempt, get one last huge play on D, shift into victory formation and beat Peyton Manning.
We'll believe you if you say so. The Pats 31-21 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday followed that script, or one similar to it, in the way so many other games they've played against Manning's teams (and was almost identical to the last one he played at Gillette Stadium, two seasons ago with the Colts). Why would you assume otherwise?
Regardless of how it turned out, this was a very nice win for the Pats. Their offense continues to be an absolute wagon (a whopping 89 plays, a franchise record 35 first downs, 444 total yards, 251 more on the ground, four scoring drives of at least 12 plays and 80 yards), with Tom Brady at or at least near, the peak of his powers. The defense is just good enough to put itself in position to make crucial plays at crucial times (three more forced turnovers, two in the second half, one in the final five minutes). Both units, in concert, were able to take advantage of some questionable decisions by the Broncos. And for the most part, Bill Belichick and his staff are pretty much locked in.
It's a pretty impressive formula, one that has the Pats at 3-2 and two field goals (one missed, one barely made) from being 5-0. Not everything was perfect in this game but more than enough was just right and that, combined with some very good luck, was all the Pats needed in moving into sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
So with that, let's get into this week's report card.
Fast, faster and fastest. Those were the three speeds at which the Pats offense operated in this game. Setting the actual numbers (23-of-31, 223 yards, one TD) aside, Brady was absolutely fantastic in steering the wagon, running the no-huddle like the best conductors lead the most accomplished orchestras. The Pats slowed things down a bit in the fourth quarter up by 24 points but until that point, they ran more than 75 percent of their snaps out of the no-huddle, including 33 of 40 in the first half. The Pats knew that moving that quickly would surprise the Broncos and it did, to the point that one Denver defensive player even admitted after the game how off-guard it caught them. Behind it all was Brady, who, in concert with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, mixed the run with the pass at his discretion all afternoon. His TD pass, a wide open toss to Wes Welker on which he froze everyone with a perfect pump fake to the right, was a thing of beauty. He also made some absolutely astonishing throws, one in particular a rocket to Brandon Lloyd to the goal line that was placed at about 1,000 miles per hour between two defenders with the window being about the size of an apple. It was one of the best throws Brady has made in a long time, perfectly in keeping with the kind of game he played. If you'd like, you could get on him about his tendency to feel pressure where there is none and duck out of the way of no one. He did that a couple of times. But he also engineered those four long scoring drives that kept Manning off the field and choked the life out of the over matched Denver defense. Brady mastered this game as he so frequently does. Manning is still great, but Brady is better.
Running Backs: 4.5
It bears repeating for the umpteenth time. Stevan Ridley is the man. He is the best running back the Pats have had since Corey Dillon and even though he is smaller than Dillon, he runs so similarly to him, it's slightly uncanny. Ridley exploded against the thin Broncos defense to the tune of 151 yards and a TD on 28 attempts (5.4 YPA). In addition to being fast and shifty and oak-like strong, he's capable of video game-esque moves, as he showed on a sick, 360 spin down near the goal line on one of the Pats' two second quarter scoring drives. His late game fumble, which gave Denver life, was a bit of a stain on his game and would have potentially left him wearing the goat horns had the Broncos won. Ridley, who also fumbled last week against the Bills and famously was buried by the coaching staff after a couple of crucial ones last season, needs to shore this part of his game up. He's too good and too important now for Sunday's fumble to knock him from the top of the depth chart. Nonetheless, this was a huge day for Ridley, who has proven his worth and then some. Brandon Bolden had another nice day, albeit nowhere near his performance against Buffalo. But he still broke a couple of big gainers, finishing with 54 yards on 14 attempts. Little Danny Woodhead showed his talent and importance once again, both on another scramble drill by coming back to a running Brady, taking the dump off and turning it into a 25-yard gain and an amazing 19-yard gain on a third-and-17 that featured a perfect cut back and some excellent blocking downfield. And don't forget Shane Vereen, who actually got into his second game in a row and softshoed into the end zone on his only carry. Believe what you're seeing with this running game. It's not a gadget or a gimmick. It's the Pats taking advantage of match ups, playing tough and physical and giving their offense more overall options. They accumulated the third most rushing yards in Belichick's entire tenure. Great stuff.
Wide Receivers: 5
It's nearly impossible to predict what the Pats will do on a week to week basis, which is why it would be foolish to try to guess Welker's role once Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman return from injury. But it's not foolish to hope (wish, dream, etc.) that everything will stay exactly the same because once again, Welker is arguably the most indispensable receiver in the league. 13 more catches, so many of which went for first downs or came on third down or both, and all made to look so easy, so seamless. Welker has 30 catches in his last three games (19 of them for first downs), went over 100 yards all three times and added his first TD of the season against the Broncos. And on Woodhead's big 19-yard run, Welker sprung him for the final chunk of yardage that ensured the first down. He may not be on the team next year but for as long as he still is, fans should cherish every moment. There aren't many better. Lloyd was also very good again, although he saw far fewer targets than Welker. Once more, he showed his incredible talent and acumen, especially on the goal line catch. The concentration required to bring a pass like that in with two defenders bracketing and bearing down is noteworthy, as is his ability to catch the ball in mid air, like his smiling TD grab last week in Buffalo. And don't forget Deion Branch, whose one catch was a 25-yarder on third-and long that kept a drive moving, and also provided some important blocking outside in the running game. Hard to ask much more of the receivers than what the Pats got in this one.
Tight Ends: 3.5
Rob Gronkowski, between his nagging injuries and his changed role with Hernandez out, is not the same player as he was last season. It hasn't really hurt the Pats yet, mostly because so many other guys have stepped up and because Gronk has been so essential to the team's success running the ball thanks to his superior blocking skills (on full display over and over again against Denver). And while he did have a couple of good grabs in this one, he also had another penalty, giving him four on the year. Gronk is an invaluable part of the Pats offense and when Hernandez returns, he will likely get more chances to catch the ball, assuming he stays healthy. There's something different with him up to this point, though. Also, it was a bit of an off-day for Daniel Fells, who blocked well but dropped a couple of very catchable passes.
Offensive Line: 4
Yet again, the run blocking was sparkling. Across the board, the Pats were able to control the line of scrimmage to the tune of 251 yards at 4.6 yards per clip On Woodhead's big run, the hole was so big that Logan Mankins was running free downfield, looking for someone to body slam. The left side has been the stronger one in this running game, where Mankins, Nate Solder and, most of the time, Gronk are taking people apart and you can even see right guard Dan Connolly pulling from time to time. But everyone deserves credit for this aspect of the Pats attack. When the Pats passed the ball though, things weren't quite so clean. Ryan Wendell had some issues up the middle and Sebastian Vollmer looked a little too rigid at times to keep up with Denver's terrific linebacker Von Miller. Miller had two sacks and two more hits on Brady, registered five of his seven tackles for a loss and forced Ridley's late fumble. In other words, there's no shame in giving up a big game to such a good player. But there were still too many times when Brady was under pressure which probably explains his ducking from pass rushers who weren't actually there. It was mostly a very good game for this group but the pass protection warrants watching going forward, especially if Mankins and Vollmer, both of whom left early with injuries, miss any more time.
Defensive Line: 4.5
Rob Ninkovich. Is he a defensive end or an outside linebacker? Or both? The answer to those questions is, yeah, sort of. But for the sake of this section, we'll call him a D-lineman and then say that he was the most valuable, important player on the Pats defense. He got to Manning twice, once for his second strip sack in as many weeks and that play probably put the Pats over the top. On Denver's first play following Brady's TD keeper that gave the Pats a 24-7 lead, he made it around the right edge and drilled Manning from behind, slapping the ball free in the process. It rolled around for a couple seconds before Vince Wilfork, who has such a great nose for the ball, fell on it to give the Pats possession in the red zone. Ridley would score two plays later, giving the Pats a very comfortable cushion. Ninkovich would outdo himself a little later though. After Denver cut the lead to 31-21 and was driving to make it a one-score game inside of five minutes to go, Manning checked into an inside run to Willis McGahee, who was stood up after two yards and stripped by Ninkovich from the left. Jermaine Cunningham fell on the ball and the game was over. It never gets old, watching Ninkovich dialing up sacks and forcing turnovers the way the Pats previous No. 50, Mike Vrabel, used to do. The fact that Ninkovich is such an overachiever, coming from out of nowhere in 2009, makes it even sweeter when he comes up this big. Wilfork and Kyle Love did a solid job in the middle; once again, the only time the Broncos really moved the ball on the ground was when those two were resting and Ron Brace was playing blocking sled. And Chandler Jones may not have had a sack but did bat down a pass at the line and get after Manning a couple of times. The line is probably the Pats biggest strength on defense and they showed it again in this game.
Playing without Dont'a Hightower, things were shaken up for the backers a touch, with Brandon Spikes seeing a lot more time in sub packages and Tracy White getting the start before leaving with a foot injury. The results were mixed. Again, the Broncos never really got their running game going, although they didn't really try to. Jerod Mayo was very active early, blitzing up the middle more than once and hurdling McGahee to record a sack. But in coverage, he looked like he was standing around a handful of times. Manning barely threw the ball further than five yards for a lot of the first half, choosing instead to focus on short crosses, slants and in cuts to his tight ends and slot receivers more often. It worked reasonably well and resulted in two of his three TD passes (the first of which went to tight end Joel Dreesen and had Mayo completely out of position). The Pats looked to abandon the extra pressure approach in the second half, with the front four mostly responsible for getting after Manning and neither Spikes nor Mayo did anything that bad or that good. Lots of tackles, a couple of big moments and a few plays they'd like to have back. That was the day for the Pats' LBs.
Defensive Backs: 2.5
What is there to say about Devin McCourty? What kind of player is he? It's tough to think of many players who can look so good and so bad so closely together so frequently. McCourty played decently on Sunday, can clearly run with most receivers when he's not beat off the line and is a very good tackler. But his lack of ball skills and technique in some areas in absolutely confounding. The fact that he's now in his third year in the league and still is incapable of even slightly turning his head on deep, one-on-one throws is inexplicable. Maybe he'll learn some day; until then, look for opposing QBs to continue to throw at him as much as they can until he proves more consistently that they shouldn't. Sterling Moore made up for getting completely singed on that first quarter deep throw to Demaryius Thomas by running Thomas down and knocking the ball out, a play that changed the game's complexion, even that early. But he was beaten often, so much so that rookie seventh-rounder Alfonzo Dennard saw his first action of the year and was arguably the Pats best DB, breaking up a third down play in the second quarter and staying right with his man on two very proficiently played chances down the deep left sideline later in the game. And Patrick Chung continues to be a non factor, once again, taking lousy angles to the ball and being multiple steps late in coming over the top to help. It's starting to get really difficult to remember Chung ever having a truly, impactful performance. Tavon Wilson and Kyle Arrington were both fine and Wilson gets a big thumbs up for seamlessly replacing the injured Steve Gregory and doing it well. Giving up a 70 percent completion rate, 345 yards passing and three TDs isn't going to cut it most weeks though. Once again, as has been the case pretty much every week for going on four years now, the secondary is by far this team's weakest link.
Coaching/Special Teams/Intangibles: 4.5
Mundane day for both kickers. Stephen Gostkowski easily handled his only chance and that was nice to see, even if it was a chip shot. On punt coverage, losing White hurt as his replacement, Nate Ebner, took a holding penalty when he was easily run by. He's got work to do. And here's a fun game for you: play over/under with the folks you watch Sunday's game at Seattle with and set the line on .5 for the number of kickoff returns the Pats bring out past their own 20. Then take the under. You'll win every time.
Belichick admitted after the game that he botched the clock management on the 93-yard drive that ended the first half, running successive, quick runs from the Denver 2-yard line instead of calling his last time out between the two plays to set up a better short yardage, power package. The non-move cost the Pats four points, though it didn't come back to haunt them. And on that fourth-and-5 choice to go for it from the Denver 37 and 8:17 left, he had to have thought that picking up three yards and not getting the first down was the same as potentially punting the ball into the end zone and getting only 17 net yards. There was enough time left, a long enough field and a big enough lead at the time to make second guessing the decision easy. The fact that Brady was sacked and fumbled the ball well into Pats territory was the worst case scenario and shouldn't be considered when assessing the move, which was justifiable, but not the right call.
But other than those two blemishes, it was field day for Belichick, McDaniels and company, who ran circles around Denver coach John Fox and his defensive coordinator, the terrible Jack Del Rio. The no-huddle, fast-paced offense was overwhelming for Denver, which couldn't keep up at all until the Pats slowed down to bleed the clock in the fourth quarter. It helped the Pats immensely that McGahee lost that fumble and dropped an easy, wide open toss on a fourth-and-1 earlier in the final frame. And there were a couple of calls most likely made by Manning on which he checked into running plays that really cost the Broncos, especially given the massive inconsistencies on the part of the Pats secondary.
Still, Belichick has overseen an interesting evolution of his team's offense, one that should only become more layered as the season progresses. If the front seven on defense continues to play well and cover for the suspect secondary, this could be another special year for the Pats. There's no one better to lead the charge.