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Film room: What went wrong on the Patriots’ final fourth down pass against the Broncos?

Related: Cam Newton: ‘There’s no need to press the panic button’

Denver Broncos v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The New England Patriots came close to completing an unlikely comeback against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, but eventually saw their hopes end on an incomplete 4th-and-10 pass. Cam Newton tried to hook up with N’Keal Harry, but the quarterback threw the ball wide of the former first-round receiver. As simple as it sounds, there is more to a play than just the basic outline of it — something Newton pointed out after the game.

“We didn’t execute the way we’re supposed to,” Newton said. “That was contingent upon me. I knew I was going to get hit. So I just tried to find a spot to give him, so he could make a play on it. There was a defender on the interior part stealing the field, so I still tried to give him an opportunity. ... It wasn’t a miscommunication, I tried to anticipate where he was going to be, I let the ball go prior to him breaking on his initial route. I knew I was going to get hit and I tried to give him a chance.”

Newton’s description of the play adds some context to it, but so does the tape behind it. Let’s therefore dig in to find out what went wrong on the Patriots’ final fourth down pass.

4-10-DEN 24 (1:03) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass incomplete short right to N.Harry [S.Harris]

After James White had gained six yards on a short catch to set up a fourth down with a minute left in the game and the Patriots down six points, the team sent out a 20-personnel group: White (#28) and Rex Burkhead (#34) were the two running backs on the field with wide receivers Damiere Byrd (#10), Julian Edelman (#11) and N’Keal Harry (#15) joining them as the other eligible receivers on the play.

The group was aligned as follows against a Denver defense playing off-man coverage to defend the sticks with 10 yards needed to be gained:

The Broncos’ alignment initially looked like a quarters call with the defensive backs splitting responsibilities into four zones. However, the team decided to run a blitz package with the safeties coming down from the second level. While not an all-out zero blitz like the one New England likes to run — cornerback and ex-Patriot Duke Dawson Sr. stayed back to man the middle zone — Denver still ran all-or-nothing play: the remaining non-Dawson defensive backs were all left one-on-one on an island against New England’s wide receivers.

The question was whether or not one of the Patriots’ pass catchers could take advantage. The answer encapsulates the team’s performance all day: no, but almost.

A look at the play illustrates this, with the intended target, N’Keal Harry aligned split out wide to the right, field side of the formation:

NFL GamePass

As can be seen, the Patriots were running two a double-post concept with Byrd and Edelman that creates some congestion in the middle of the field and leaves Harry plenty of space to operate in. The second-year man, meanwhile, was running straight up the field before making a sharp cut 15 yards into his pattern — either running a curl or trying to shake the defender before going to the corner. Either way, Harry did have some separation.

While the blitz was picked up relatively well by New England’s makeshift offensive line and the backs that stayed home in pass protection, it did force the ball out of Newton’s hand before Harry was making his cut. This, in turn, gave the intended receiver comparatively little time to make an adjustment on the throw and it ended up falling incomplete away from the intended target towards the boundary.

Without knowing the exact play called by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, it is impossible to know what exactly doomed the play. There are two possible options:

1.) Cam Newton’s pass was inaccurate: With Denver rushing seven players against seven blockers and effectively collapsing the pocket from the front-side, Newton had relatively little room to step into. This, in turn, may have forced him to throw a bit off-platform and wide off his intended target. The apparent hand injury he suffered in the third quarter also may have contributed, but that issue played only a minor role if even that.

2.) N’Keal Harry ran the wrong route: When looking at the film above, it appears as if Harry was anticipating a throw on the curl route while the ball was actually delivered to a location indicating that Newton may have wanted him to run a corner out of his break. The Patriots do have such a post corner concept in their playbook, and there is a chance that Harry should have run that route with the defender playing inside leverage against him (the “defender on the interior part stealing the field” Newton was mentioning above).

Of course, Newton saying that there was no miscommunication would indicate that he simply delivered an inaccurate throw — something his statements on WEEI on Monday morning also reflected when he called the pass a “bad throw” as a result of his anticipation.

Regardless of who is to blame, the fact remains that the Patriots offense simply could not deliver when it had to. So to answer the question about what went wrong, one might point to a variety of issues: from either the quarterback or his receiver making a mistake, to the team putting itself in a bad situation to begin with, to New England being able to practice just twice over the two weeks leading into the game.

At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to execution. In this sense that play is one among many for the Patriots on Sunday, despite standing alone as the one that eventually decided the game in Denver’s favor.