1. Stop the Run - Let's start off with some numbers:
40 attempts for 144 yards. 3.6 ypc average.
30 attempts for 146 yards. 4.9 ypc average.
That should give a base idea for how this match-up turned out. The Patriots won this battle with great gap discipline and a great nose to sniff out the play in the backfield. The return of Brandon Spikes cannot be understated enough as his return to the defense takes the run defense to another level.
Not all was sunshine and rainbows, though. The Patriots still struggled to tackle Willis McGahee on a consistent basis as he picked up 55 of his 76 yards after contact. Tim Tebow also broke free for a large gain as the defense couldn't wrap up the ball carrier. However, the real damage wasn't the result of missed tackles as much as it was from no tackle attempt at all. McGahee was able to run for additional yardage due to poor defensive reads, while Tebow picked up yards by being one step ahead of the defensive line.
If you factor out the longest runs by McGahee, Tebow, and Broncos 2nd running back Lance Ball, here are their results:
McGahee: 16 attempts, 57 yards, 3.56 ypc
Ball: 12 attempts, 31 yards, 2.58 ypc
Tebow: 4 attempts, -1 yard, -0.25 ypc
Total of main ball carriers: 32 attempts, 87 yards, 2.72 ypc
Run the same exercise on the Patriots running game and it comes to 22 carries, 61 yards, and a 2.77 ypc. Not stellar by any means, but it definitely matched the output of a run-first offense and it was enough to counter the opposition's offensive production. Major win for the Patriots.
2. 3rd Down Defense - At first glance, the Patriots held the Broncos to 7 third down conversions on 18 attempts for a 38.9% 3rd down conversion rate. Of course, the Broncos went for the first down on fourth down three times and converted twice, leading to an overall rate of 42.8%.
1st Quarter (4 Opportunities): 25% Success
3rd and 5: Tebow scrambles for 14 yards. Play breaks down and the entire Patriots D-Line pushes and Kyle Love grasps for Tebow who scrambles for a first.
3rd and 1: McGahee runs for 17. McGahee bounces against Kyle Love and turns to the outside as Devin McCourty is caught watching the play develop instead of setting the edge.
3rd and 3: Demaryius Thomas for 12. Thomas runs a crossing pattern to get quick separation from Kyle Arrington. Well drawn play.
Two conversions off of broken plays (Tebow and McGahee both ran in directions they had to improvise), while Thomas converted on a well schemed pattern. Thomas is known for his downfield receiving and the Broncos knew that Arrington would be giving Thomas a large cushion to prevent the deep throw. Overall, very fixable issues.
2nd Quarter (4 Opportunities): 100% Success
Success at its finest. The Broncos didn't convert on any 3rd or 4th down.
3rd Quarter (6 Opportunities): 66% Success
3rd and 13: Matthew Willis for 18. Julian Edelman was offsides, but Willis sat in the Patriots zone coverage as Pat Chung misses a pass break-up to stop the play.
4th and 3: Royal for 15. Tebow bootlegs to his left and Eddie Royal is covered by Arrington. Royal looks like he's taking off up the seam and Arrington turns his hips to run down the field, but Royal reacts and cuts outside while Arrington is turned around. Arrington actually recovers well from being turned around, but is a step too late to knock the ball free.
The score was a little out of hand and the Broncos had to start going for it on 4th down. Again, Willis' first down was a result of the Patriots trying to issue a dagger play to end the game and would not have been attempted had the game not been so clearly determined. Royal's first down was another well executed play by the Broncos as the Patriots cornerbacks have a tendency to turn their hips and commit to a route prior to the receiver, allowing the receiver to dictate the route. Fixable, but still the only real cause for concern through these convertible downs.
4th Quarter (7 Opportunities): 43% Success
3rd and 7: Thomas for 12. Thomas runs the same exact route that we've broken down before.
3rd and 7: Thomas for 14. Thomas runs almost the same exact route, but he runs an "in" route instead of a slant in order to get in front of the safety coverage.
4th and 6: Thomas for 41. Tebow is under pressure and the play breaks down. Thomas freestyles into the open field and Tebow finds him for some nice YAC. Not really a fault in coverage, just an extended play by the Broncos.
3rd and 3: Ball for 6. Ball runs towards Shaun Ellis, Rob Ninkovich, and Dane Fletcher who are all well blocked by the Broncos. The Patriots were out-executed.
It's clear the Patriots and Broncos had both checked out of the game and the effort and production on the field greatly declined. The Patriots were fine with running down the clock and Thomas converted on consecutive third downs with a play everyone knew was in Tebow's pocket. (Still- Tebow had a hand in 7 of the conversions, six by his throws). Another broken down play that Tebow extends with his legs, and a well executed run by the Broncos at the very, very end of the game.
Through three quarters, the Broncos only converted on 35.7% of downs. Add in the five 3-and-outs by the Broncos offense and the Patriots did a very good job on crucial conversion downs. Win for the Patriots.
3. Pressure Tebow - Tebow dropped back 32 times and was under pressure for 19 of those drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus. All 5 Patriots sacks came from blitz packages in order to confuse the young quarterback, while Tebow could only complete 38.5% of his passes (5/13) for 59 yards while under pressure. More scary? Tebow only completed 30.8% of his passes (4/13) for 77 yards while not under pressure. He was less accurate (by one pass) when he wasn't pressure. Yeesh.
Also, we looked at forcing Tebow to his right. He was 0/3 on passes to his right and 3/8 on passes to his left for 66 yards. He was 6/9 for 70 yards up the middle of the field. Just facts and proof that Tebow was more comfortable rolling to his left. Barely. Win for the Patriots.
4. Offensive Protection - Here's a direct quote from Broncos OLB Von Miller:
Question: Who is the best opposing player you’ve faced in your college career?
Von Miller: "Nate Solder. He’s a beast! When you’re that big and you’re that quick, it’s real scary for guys like me. He can match you on every step. And I went against other guys: Jason Smith, Trent Williams and Russell Okung. All of those guys are great. But Nate Solder’s excellent."
As a result of Solder completely Stone Walling Miller for the majority of the Week 15 match-up (Miller did play around, facing Matt Light and Solder) and Miller not racking up a single pressure, QB hit, or tackle, Miller spent more time around Matt Light in this round and actually picked up a few pressures and a QB hit. He still didn't pick up a tackle.
While Brady was pressure a few times by the Broncos, he was under no real duress for the majority of the game. The offensive line did their job and now they have to face a comparable defensive line of the Baltimore Ravens. Hopefully the offensive line can play just as well as they did against the Broncos. Win by the Patriots.
5. 60 Minutes - Should I give the Patriots credit for 60 minutes? It seemed as if they were lazy in the 2nd half. Oh, they were still playing hard and just not running up the score? Fine. I'll give them 3/4 of a win because a perfect 60 minutes wouldn't have allowed drives of 77 yards and 59 yards at the end of the game. Yes, I know it didn't matter. I'm sure Belichick is showing the Patriots those drives to keep their egos in check. I'll keep them in check with a 3/4 of a win.
So the Patriots clean house with a 4.75/5 victory. I couldn't give them a full 5/5 because you know a perfect game when you see it- and there were a couple pock marks on this game. Still, it was their most complete game of the entire season.
Hopefully the Patriots success, especially on the offensive line, can translate into more success as the Ravens come to town. One week at a time.