The New England Patriots’ defense may not be off to the same historic start it had last season, but it did show some encouraging strides against one of the NFL’s best offenses before its bye: the unit kept the Patriots in the game for three quarters against the Kansas City Chiefs, while slowing down an otherwise explosive unit. While a lot has happened since that game, New England’s defense is still in a situation to build on its last game against an opponent that has had its struggles on offense so far this season.
The Denver Broncos are ranked just 28th in scoring, averaging 20.5 points per game so far. They also do not fare much better in advanced numbers: their EPA of -0.082 has them ranked 29th in the league with their success rate (39.5%) and DVOA (-30.3%) both ranking 30th. The unit has also turned the football over eight times (30th) and is averaging just 25.3 yards per drive (31st).
That said, the Patriots will certainly face an improved offense on Sunday. Not only are the Broncos also coming off their surprisingly early bye after last week’s game between the two clubs had to be postponed, they are also getting staring quarterback Drew Lock back. Lock had missed the majority of the last three games after hurting his shoulder early in Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With him returning to practice in full capacity, however, New England can expect to go up against the former second-round draft pick.
So, what can the Patriots do to come away victoriously against Lock and his offense? Let’s find out.
Put pressure on Drew Lock
Denver’s QB1 may already be in his second year in the NFL, but his experience is still comparatively limited after he appeared in just five games as a rookie and was knocked out on his 72nd snap this season. As a result, Lock is still in a growing process as a quarterback, and not yet on the same level when it comes to fundamental conceptual understanding and internal clock management as some of his more experienced brethren.
New England will likely try to take advantage of this on Sunday by attempting to put pressure on the 23-year-old both in the physical sense and in the mental one.
From a physical perspective, this means winning in the pass rushing department either through one-on-one situations — more on that later — or by brining extra rushers to make Lock and the offensive line guess. The goal should remain the same: make Lock uncomfortable, and reap the statistical fruits of your labor. After all, Lock under pressure is not the same quarterback as Lock when being able to operate freely within the pocket.
According to Pro Football Focus, after all, his adjusted completion percentage this season sank from 84.0 percent to just 33.3 percent when facing pressure. Furthermore, his yards per attempt and passer rating go down as well — from 9.0 to 0.8 and 102.9 to 65.9, respectively. The following play from the Broncos’ opening day game against the Tennessee Titans is a good example of how bringing the heat can impact Denver’s second-year QB:
Tennessee approached the down in a 3-4 over alignment, but decided to rush five players at the snap. Denver’s offensive line initially picked those rushers up well, but they still penetrated into the backfield to force Lock (#3) into dropping back further from his initial five-step drop. Along that process, he kept his eyes on to the right side of the formation and wide receiver Tim Patrick (#81) instead of trying to get the ball out of his hands quicker. This, in turn, allowed the Titans’ defenders to close in and forced the quarterback into an off-platform throw that landed wide off his intended target.
Pressure, as noted above, can also be applied differently — namely through scheme. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the NFL at presenting and executing exotic coverage packages, which has, for example, also allowed them to slow down the Chiefs two weeks ago. With Drew Lock not on the same level as Patrick Mahomes, in part because of a lack of experience, New England could turn to a familiar script again on Sunday.
The Steelers did the same in Week 2, and it also led to some errant passes:
Here, Pittsburgh was showing a single-high look before the snap but giving no clear indication about who would rush or who would drop back into the man-to-man coverage played by the defense. The team eventually did rush five players, who again were picked up relatively well initially. Again, however, Lock held onto the football too long: his eyes were fixated on his left, where neither possible target was open, which led to him missing a potential chance to go to Jerry Jeudy (#10) on the perimeter dig route.
Just like on the example above, this allowed the pass rush to close in on Lock. He did not attempt a throw from the pocket this time, but instead opted to escape to his right to buy more time. With additional defenders closing in, however, he again threw an inaccurate pass that fell incomplete — actually the best-case outcome for the offense in this scenario.
All in all, though, the Patriots should try to make Lock feel uncomfortable in the pocket by presenting him with a variety of blitz and pressure packages as well as coverages that may be different than initially shown.
Be disciplined against play action
When Lock is under center instead of backups Jeff Driskel or Brett Rypien, the Broncos’ passing attack is more dangerous than its running game. One reason for that is the team’s usage of play-action concepts: Denver is using variations of fake hand-offs on roughly one third of its passing attempts with Lock, one of the highest rates in the league and a dangerous tool if a defense is not disciplined in its approach.
The Patriots, needless to say, have to be just that — especially at the second level where linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and safety/linebacker hybrid Adrian Phillips are projected to play most of the snaps. The two need to stay patient when it comes to attacking the pocket in order not to vacate their zones against possible play-action throws. After all, the Broncos have the receiving talent to exploit such lapses in coverage if a chance presents itself.
This is primarily due to Denver’s explosiveness at the skill positions as Bill Belichick recently pointed out during a media conference call.
“They’re a very explosive team,” New England’s head coach said about Denver’s offense. “They’ve got a lot of speed. [K.J.] Hamler’s fast, Jeudy’s fast, [Noah] Fant’s fast, [Melvin] Gordon’s fast, [Phillip] Lindsay’s fast, some of the quarterbacks are fast. They have a lot of good skill players they can put out there that give you a lot of speed and explosiveness. Certainly, Patrick is a tough receiver, a mismatched receiver.”
For Belichick’s team to find success against them, not allowing them any room is key. This is especially true when it comes to the play-action game: the Broncos will use it with Lock in the lineup, and the Patriots have to be ready for it to contain one of their opponent’s favorite modes of attack as well as possible.
Attack rookie center Lloyd Cushenberry III
Like most teams building around promising young quarterbacks, the Broncos also invested considerable resources in his supporting cast this offseason. This included spending draft selections in each of the first three rounds on the offensive side of the ball: wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler were picked in the first and second rounds, with center Lloyd Cushenberry coming off the board 83rd overall in Round Three.
While third-round rookies are not a safe bet to see considerable playing time early on in their careers, Cushenberry was able to quickly carve out a role — despite coming off a different-looking offseason that did not include any on-field workouts until training camp due to the NFL’s Covid-19 restrictions. Nevertheless, the LSU product earned the starting center gig to take over a role that was vacated when Connor McGovern left Denver for the New York Jets in free agency. He has played all 269 offensive snaps so far this season.
Having rookies start along the offensive line is not a novel idea, as the Patriots very well know, but Cushenberry did have his fair share of growing pains so far.
While serviceable although not necessarily a world-beater in the running game, Cushenberry’s main problems have come in the pass blocking department: the youngster has surrendered a total of 15 quarterback disruptions through his four games so far this season — most on the team and a byproduct of his inexperience. He oftentimes does not react quickly enough to movement up front, and has shown inconsistency when it comes to being on the same page as the other members of Denver’s O-line.
Just take a look at this play from Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an example:
From start to finish, the play is a negative one for Cushenberry (#79). It all started with him not to picking up blitzing linebacker Devin White (#45), which in turn put pressure on Broncos quarterback Jeff Driskel (#9). Instead, the team’s rookie center moved to the right side of the line where his team did initially have a numbers advantage. This appeared to be more of a structural flaw than anything, but given the way Denver set up its blocking Cushenberry was responsible for taking on stunting outside linebacker and ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett (#58).
As can be seen, he failed to win the matchup. Cushenberry moved too far to his right, which allowed Barrett to beat him around the left shoulder to get to the quarterback. While Driskel should probably have already gotten rid of the football at that point, the fact that his center was beat allowed for a sack in the end zone that resulted in a safety.
From the Patriots’ perspective, the direction is therefore simple: try to challenge Cushenberry and his communication with the rest of the line as often as possible. The youngster may turn into a fine player one day, but at this point in time he can be a liability New England should try to attack — be it through sending extra rushers from the second level to overload the interior, or by running stunts and other movement-based rushes. The goal is to get him off his rhythm, and to disrupt Denver’s defense from the inside out.
Go with the zone blocking flow
The Patriots’ second-level defenders are not just an integral part of slowing down the Broncos’ play-action game, but also when it comes to preventing the team from finding success when they do hand the ball off: Denver runs a lot of zone blocking up front, which in turn puts pressure on the linebacker corps to take correct angles to the ball carriers and not get behind offensive linemen crossing in front of them.
Once again, discipline is the key word. New England’s primary off-the-ball defenders — the aforementioned Ja’Whaun Bentley and Adrian Phillips — need to work in unison with the men up front to not give the Broncos’ runners any room to operate. This means that they will have to pick their attack spots patiently based on how front-line players such as John Simon, Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise Jr. take on the offensive line. If they can do this consistently, Denver’s outside zone runs will not yield the results the team is hoping for.