Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) screams as he takes the field before the game against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots had a huge win at home against the defending AFC Champion Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning. The Patriots got big plays in all three phases of the game to top the Broncos 43 to 21 as they created turnovers, exploited holes in the vaulted Broncos defense, and quarterback Tom Brady continued his run of strong play in the passing game as he continued to shake off his slow start in September.
Here are six key points that may have been overlooked from the Patriots win over the Broncos.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones (94) and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) and fellow defense on the line as Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus (8) kicks during the second half at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 43-21. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
1. The Denver Broncos made a tactical mistake during the season that hurt the team in the first quarter and affected them throughout the game. When kicker Brandon McManus missed a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter it affected the offense the rest of the game. On the next drive the Broncos had a chance to kick a 51-yard field goal and passed it up. Manning was sacked by Akeem Ayers and the Patriots drove down the field in their two-minute offense to make it 27-7 at the half. Instead of a 20-13 game (if both the 41-yard kick was made and the 51-yard kick attempted and made), the Broncos were in a hole.
Earlier this season Broncos long-time kicker Matt Prater was suspended four games as part of the NFL’s substance abuse program which he entered as part of a 2011 DUI arrest. The Broncos cut him and took a $4.5 million cap hit this year to free up over $3 million next year as they try to make space to re-sign both Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas. Prater is hitting game-winning 54-yard field goals for the Lions in London, but McManus was untested and failed this week for the Broncos.
The Broncos spent a ton of money this offseason and then got cheap at the kicker position. Prater has been a weapon in Denver for years and his strong leg and accuracy made him a weapon anywhere across the 50-yard line at home in the thin air in Denver. The Broncos made a decision this year that has cost them once…so far.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware (94) during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
2. A dominant 43-21 win notwithstanding, but head coach Bill Belichick is going to have a lot of film to show the Patriots offense and defense to improve upon over the bye week. The offensive line had a tough go of it as everyone struggled. Tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder trying to keep Denver’s Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware off of Brady. The Denver Dynamic Duo was in the backfield and disruptive and Brady did a great job of feeling the pressure and getting rid of the ball or sliding away from the pressure.
Ware and Miller were not the only defenders collapsing the pocket as the Patriots interior linemen had their hands full with massive Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams, and Malik Jackson. Overall, ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) tracked Denver generating eight hurries, eight hits, but just one sack of Brady.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) flips the ball to an official after a reception during the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
3. A great job by the Patriots’ offensive coaching staff in game planning for the Denver defense. Just look at the goal-line play call at the one yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After Gronkowski’s amazing one-handed (left hand, no less) grab at the one yard line, the Patriots split him out wide and Denver was forced to have outside linebacker Von Miller slide out in coverage. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio of the Broncos should have called a timeout immediately (if only to get their best pass rusher back on the line of scrimmage!). Instead, the Patriots took advantage of the mismatch and Gronkowski recorded an easy touchdown.
Fellow tight end Tim Wright may not have caught a pass or even had one thrown his way, but the Broncos keyed on him everytime he stepped on the field. Wright as a decoy opened up space for wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman and running back Shane Vereen. Also, the Broncos spent a lot on safety T.J. Ward but yesterday showed why Cleveland let him go: his coverage skills were subpar at best. Gronkowski exerted revenge on Ward for his season-ending hit last season by abusing him in the passing game. When Brady saw him in coverage, he attacked.
Finally, the coaches seemed well aware of Aqib Talib’s habits from his year-and-a-half in New England. Talib was moved around the field to cover different targets, but more out of his inability to be effective rather than to shut down anyone. He was just plain out-muscled by Gronkowski, could not stay with Edelman and his quick moves, and was even beaten by Danny Amendola. For the day, Brady was five of eight for 73 yards throwing at his former teammate.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray (35) runs through a hole against the Denver Broncos during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
4. The Patriots’ ground game did not contribute much yards-wise, but they sure kept the Denver defense flat-footed. Jonas Gray averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and Shane Vereen averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, but they managed to keep moving forward and escape many big losses with only two negative rushes in the first three-and-a-half quarters. The play-action pass was a weapon for the Patriots and the mixing in of just enough running plays (about a 67% pass to 33% run mix for the game) to freeze the Denver linebackers and slow the pass rush.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman (23) runs the ball against New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
5. Courtesy of Mike Reiss at ESPN.com, the Patriots were in the sub package (nickel or dime defense) for 80 of 82 defensive snaps. After playing just ten snaps over the past two weeks, slot cornerback Kyle Arrington was on the field for 55 of the 83 defensive snaps and played well in coverage of Wes Welker and whoever else Denver threw out in the slot. Arrington played tight man coverage and was his usual aggressive self helping out in the running game.
It was very odd that Arrington was the odd man out the last two weeks, especially since he was not on the injury report. Maybe the Patriots’ defensive coaches figured that the Jets and Bears did not warrant having Arrington match-up in the slot, but he would have presented an intriguing match-up on Santonio Holmes in week eight and Jeremy Kerley. Whatever the reason for his loss of playing time, it was a huge positive for the defense having him back on the field and making plays in the secondary.
Nov 2, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) is tackled by Denver Broncos free safety Rahim Moore (26) during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 43-21. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
6. Fullback James Develin does not show up on the statsheet much, but he and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui have been unsung heroes on offense to date. They both do a lot of dirty work that does not get a lot of attention during the telecast but you can be sure that the coaches appreciate it. When they make a rare cameo as an outlet in the passing game the average fan remembers they are even on the team, but they contribute.
Hoomanawanui has done most of his work in the blocking game. He is not the biggest tight end (Daniel Fells and Alge Crumpler are two New England tight ends in the recent past who were HUGE), but he gets down and dirty in the pass blocking and run blocking game. You can see the trust offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has in “the Hoo-Man” on the game tape as he is occasionally left alone against defensive ends and outside linebackers protecting Brady.
Develin also is almost primarily a blocker as he comes in to clear the path for Jonas Gray or Shane Vereen. In week eight against Chicago, Develin was in blocking on 18 of the 30 rushing attempts by the running backs and it showed as the Patriots got 125 yards rushing from the running backs. The Broncos bit on the play-action fakes with Develin on the field more readily as the Patriots coaches used those tendencies to run with Develin on the field against the Broncos. Develin played 21 snaps but the Patriots passed on more than half of the throwing 13 times and rushing just eight times with their fullback on the field.