Passing Chart - Tom Brady
The Patriots’ plan through the air was made clear right from the first snap against the Broncos on Sunday night: get the ball to the running backs and tight ends.
Led by tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Rex Burkhead, the backs and tight ends combined for 16 catches, 177 yards, and all three touchdowns on Sunday night.
The Broncos have one of the best cornerback groups in the NFL led by Pro Bowlers Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr, and Brady didn’t seem interested in testing the strength of the Broncos’ defense.
Instead, the Pats counted on a heavy rushing attack (43.3 rush %, third-highest this season) and an underneath passing game predicated on picking out favorable matchups against the Broncos’ linebackers and safeties, which is nothing new in New England.
Furthermore, Brady did his offensive line a favor in this one by getting the ball out quickly, and not allowing Von Miller and the Broncos’ pass rush to tee off on the Pats QB.
The offensive line deserves credit for a terrific performance, but Brady’s average time to throw of 2.39 seconds was his second-fastest release of the season, trailing only the 2.34-second number he posted against the Falcons in Week 7.
Favorable matchups for the Patriots’ running backs and tight ends, plus a quick release from Brady, led to a happy #12 after this one.
Danny Amendola continues to be a nightmare for opposing teams in the slot.
Amendola was only on the field for 38.6% of the Patriots’ snaps on offense, as the team remains cautious with his usage due to his injury history and importance to the team.
It also allows the Pats to continue to use Amendola on punt returns.
The guess is here that we will see Amendola’s snaps increase on offense in January.
Another performance of note in the slot was fellow wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
In Chris Hogan’s absence, Dorsett took on many of his responsibilities, including lining up in the slot on 40.7% of his snaps, which is about where Hogan has been on average this season.
The Patriots’ offensive line delivered its best performance of the season against a highly regarded Broncos pass rush.
Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle deserves a game ball after the job he did filling in for starter Marcus Cannon.
Waddle had to deal with Von Miller most of the night, and Miller managed just one quarterback hit and two total pressures.
On the other side, this was also another solid performance from left tackle Nate Solder, who has quickly turned his season around in recent weeks.
Solder has been the weak link along the Pats’ offensive line this season but has dealt with injuries and the illness of his infant son, something that needs mentioning when evaluating his play.
Both tackles allowed just four total pressures and one quarterback hit against an excellent group of edge rushers for the Broncos, which was a huge win for this unit up front.
Finally, second-year left guard Joe Thuney had one of his best performances of the season, grading out as the top-graded Patriot on Sunday night at 88.7 according to PFF, and didn’t allow a pressure in pass protection.
The Patriots seemed unhappy with the play of the offensive line heading into the bye week, but Dante Scarnecchia must be thrilled with his groups progress on Sunday night.
Pass Rush/Run Stops
The most significant weakness of this Patriots team continues to be the pass rush.
In many ways, the Patriots have conceded that they aren’t going to be an aggressive pass rushing team.
They rank 26th in blitz percentage at 19.6 and lead the NFL for the second straight season in 3-man rushes.
It’s frustrating at times to watch, as we see Brock Osweiler holding the ball all day waiting for receivers to uncover, but you can’t deny it yields results on the scoreboard at the end of the day.
The Pats did generate some pressure from their linebackers, however, most notably Kyle Van Noy.
Van Noy’s productivity has risen considerably as the Patriots’ defense has turned a corner over the last five weeks, and his usage is a big reason why.
The Pats have Van Noy focused primarily on moving forward these days opting to use him as a critical piece in the center of the defense both against the run and blitzing the quarterback through the middle of the offensive line.
Less time in space in coverage has worked wonders for Van Noy, as he continues to play well in the role they’ve asked him to play mainly since Hightower’s injury.
Finally, as expected, the Pats relied heavily on the big guys on the defensive line to stop the run, and that produced mixed results as the Broncos ran for 118 yards on 4.2 yards/carry.
However, Lawrence Guy (4 stops), Alan Branch (2 stops), and rookie Adam Butler (2 stops) all recorded multiple run stops in this one, and the game script ultimately put the game on Osweiler.
If the Patriots had lost this game, the goat would most certainly have been cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Butler struggled mightily covering Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who to his credit was the best player on the field for Denver on Sunday.
In all, Butler ended up surrendering five catches for 99 yards to Sanders, with some ugly coverages thrown in that saw him getting turned around by Sanders’ lightning-quick route running.
Big-time playmakers like Sanders will get their stats, but the 58 yards after the catch that Sanders accumulated is the real issue here.
Both Butler (28 YAC allowed) and Jonathan Jones (35 YAC allowed) struggled with bringing down Sanders after the catch, an area the Patriots typically excel in.
The Patriots got strong performances in coverage from both Patrick Chung and Stephon Gilmore, with Gilmore finally returning from a concussion that sidelines him for the previous three games.
Chung’s primary role has been as a slot cornerback in the Patriots’ defense this season, and he did a terrific job locking down the Broncos’ secondary options on Sunday night and ultimately put the final nail in the coffin with an interception in the fourth quarter.
As for Gilmore, he shadowed Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas for most of the game, and although he allowed a touchdown on a slant in the red zone, he delivered a solid performance in his return to the field.
Gilmore has received a lot of flack from Patriots fans after his lackluster start to the season, which was warranted given his contract situation, but there’s no denying that the Patriots are a more talented secondary when #24 is out there.
(h/t Pro Football Focus: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)