Perry's Report Card: Brady can't mask what ails Patriots offense
Perry's Report Card: Brady can't mask what ails Patriots offense
In a way, the first loss of the Patriots season may have helped them prove that there is still a gap between themselves and most other teams. For them to fall, it required a perfect storm of circumstances: On the road, against the league's top defense, without three of their best options in the passing game, with their top offensive weapon suffering an injury in the fourth quarter, with ticky-tack calls going against them, the Patriots still were able to tie the game and send it to overtime. This week's grades are far from perfect, but this was not a loss of the meltdown variety. There were still plenty of positive takeaways from Bill Belichick's club in the 27-24 defeat -- its first loss in a game of consequence in exactly one calendar year.
For an indication of just how difficult life can be without Julian Edelman, the Patriots are now 5-for-28 on third down conversions in their last two games. They converted 2-of-13 on Sunday night. Part of the reason for the team's inability to convert is that it has also been forced to work without Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola, but in Denver, New England had trouble picking up yards on first and second down which made third-down conversions all the more difficult. The running game was all but non-existent for the Patriots as they accumulated just 39 yards on 16 attempts. Amendola and Gronkowski, both of whom are expected to return before the end of the regular season, can't come back soon enough for Tom Brady. Against Denver's stingy pass defense, the Patriots quarterback was unable to find much consistency with any of his backs, tight ends or receivers when taking to the air.
As difficult a night as it was, Brady made some ridiculous throws to keep the Patriots in the game. His 63-yard touchdown to Brandon Bolden down the right sideline hit its target in stride. Brady's final pass of regulation, a cross-the-field laser to Brandon LaFell that got the Patriots into range to kick a game-tying field goal, may have been his best of the night. Brady went down the field often, and frequently without success, but his options were limited. With Aqib Talib on LaFell and Chris Harris on Keshawn Martin for much of the game, Brady likely believed that his best chance to move the ball was to attack safeties and linebackers in coverage. That meant plenty of looks to his tight ends (Gronkowski and Scott Chandler combined for 21 targets) down the field. Though he began the season by throwing very accurately, albeit sparingly, deep down the field, Brady had a hard time hitting anyone with those throws. Still, that he finished 23-of-42 for 280 yards and three touchdowns given the circumstances was an impressive performance.
TIGHT END: B-
With the Patriots hurting at receiver, Gronkowski was called upon to split out wide early and often, creating mismatches with any defender that lined up across from him. He finished the game with six catches for 88 yards, and his touchdown came when he was lined up wide, posted up on a Broncos defensive back, snagged Brady's pass, turned, and rumbled into the end zone almost unimpeded. The Broncos appeared to throw fewer obvious double-teams at Gronkowski than the Bills did in Week 11 (when he was held to just two catches), and he made them pay. Chandler had his best statistical game of the season, but it could have been even better. Playing in a season-high 54 of a possible 66 snaps, he caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. He was leaned on heavily during New England's game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, catching two of Brady's passes for 32 yards, but he had a drop early in the game, and he wasn't able to take advantage of his 6-foot-7 frame on the three occasions when Brady targeted him along the sideline.
RUNNING BACK: C-
Brandon Bolden may have earned himself the third-down back role on Sunday night. Including his 63-yard catch-and-run, he snared four passes for 84 yards and a touchdown and was clearly the most dynamic of New England's three running backs. He also had a slicing nine-yard run on one of his four carries. Early in the contest, the Patriots almost ignored their running game, opting to put the ball in Brady's hands as often as possible. But in the second half, when it seemed as though they hoped to control the clock, they couldn't do anything on the ground. LeGarrette Blount had 27 yards on nine carries and appeared to be tentative getting to the line of scrimmage. The blocking up front was far from dominant, but James White had a hard time making yards on his own as well. He carried three times for one total yard and caught two passes for five yards. White scored twice on four touches against the Bills, and he'll likely have a role going forward, but Bolden -- who has been primarily used as a special teamer during his tenure in New England -- may have earned himself more time with his performance at Mile High Stadium.
Going with a two-receiver package for the majority of the game, it was Keshawn Martin who filled in as the No. 2, not Chris Harper. In Martin's first game back since Week 6 -- he missed five games due to a lingering hamstring injury -- he caught one pass for eight yards on just one target. His lone catch came on a third down where he was tackled just shy of the first-down marker. LaFell caught four passes for 36 yards on nine targets. Brady sent a deep attempt his way on the first play of overtime, and while it looked like there was some hand-fighting between him and Talib, nothing was called. Without Edelman and Amendola, there simply were not many openings for Patriots receivers in the passing game. Undrafted rookie Chris Harper saw five offensive snaps after Gronkowski's injury. He was released on Monday.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
The Patriots allowed three sacks and 10 more quarterback hits against Denver's active front. The league's most productive edge rusher, Von Miller, accounted for one sack and four hits on his own while rookie Shane Ray hit Brady three times. This was the first game of the season in which undrafted rookie center David Andrews did not play. He was active, but the Patriots went with second-year center Bryan Stork from start to finish. The Patriots swapped their tackles, put Sebastian Vollmer on the left side and Marcus Cannon on the right. Though Cannon was often lined up across from Miller, he seemed to move much more easily on the right side. NBC color man Cris Collinsworth suggested during the broadcast that Cannon's toe injury made it hard for him to fire off of his right foot while playing on the left side against the Bills in Week 11. Vollmer allowed three hurries, but was solid on the left side, a spot he handled after Cannon initially injured his toe in Week 6. He could remain the solution there going forward. Right guard Josh Kline, who had been perhaps the most consistent Patriots lineman thus far this season, had one of his most difficult games of the year. He allowed his first sack of the season and appeared to struggle with defensive lineman Derek Wolfe (eight tackles, sack, tackle for a loss) when they were matched up. Shaq Mason played 50 snaps at left guard and Tre' Jackson saw 18 snaps at right guard. With Jackson in, Kline flipped to the left side. Jackson was flagged for a costly holding call, which negated a 51-yard pass play from Brady to Martin in the fourth quarter.
When linebacker Dont'a Hightower went out in the second quarter with a knee injury, the Patriots run defense took a significant step backwards. For the Broncos and quarterback Brock Osweiler, making just his second start, that was a game-changer. Denver finished with 179 rushing yards on 32 carries (a 5.6 yards-per-carry average) and three touchdowns. Before Hightower exited the game, the team had allowed just 46 yards on 16 carries (a 2.88 yards-per-carry average). Opening up the running game allowed coach Gary Kubiak's offense to run as he intended, with misdirection, play-action fakes and roll-outs taking greater effect because of what it was able to do on the ground. As Osweiler got more comfortable, he made some very good throws -- one to Emmanuel Sanders down the left sideline in the fourth quarter and one to Andre Caldwell for a touchdown in the back left corner of the end zone three plays later -- but it was Denver's running game that eventually won it for them in overtime when CJ Anderson ran for a 48-yard score.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots got some extremely strong performances from their front, highlighted by the work of defensive tackle Alan Branch and defensive end Jabaal Sheard. Branch broke up two passes and hurried Osweiler five times, dominating the interior of the Denver offensive line at times with his power. His night would have been even better had an eight-yard sack not been wiped away due to a Patrick Chung holding penalty. Sheard also tipped a pass -- which went straight up into the air and came down in the arms of his teammate Chandler Jones for an interception -- and hit Osweiler twice. He appears fully over the ankle injury that forced him to miss time in the middle of the season. Malcom Brown continued his upward trajectory with a sack, three run stuffs, and a quarterback hurry in a team-high 43 snaps among defensive tackles. Rob Ninkovich had one sack and four stuffs in the running game, while Chandler Jones had five quarterback hurries. Though the Broncos ran wild in crucial situations, it didn't appear to be a result of the Patriots getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. On some of Denver's biggest run plays, it appeared as though the New England line didn't get a great deal of help in terms of linebackers and defensive backs getting out to the edges to make tackles.
With Hightower and Jamie Collins out, the linebacker duties fell squarely on the shoulders of Jonathan Freeny and Jerod Mayo. Both showed up as downhill players, getting after Osweiler and combining for a sack (Freeny), two quarterback hits and two hurries. Freeny had 12 tackles on the night, including four run stuffs. Playing in 75 of a possible 79 snaps, this may have been Freeny's best game as Collins' primary fill-in. He still has his issues from time to time in pass coverage, but when moving forward, Freeny's athleticism and strength are apparent. Darius Fleming got 17 snaps after being promoted from the practice squad before the game, seeing more time than Jonathan Bostic (one snap) defensively.
Logan Ryan was the team's best defensive back in Denver. He was targeted 10 times and allowed just two catches. Both came in the fourth quarter, however, when Osweiler found Demaryius Thomas for a 36-yard gain and then later hit Caldwell for the touchdown. On both plays, Ryan was in good position. In some cases, though, a good throw and a good catch will beat good coverage. Thomas, Denver's top wideout, was largely invisible thanks to Ryan and his three pass breakups. Malcolm Butler had his hands full with Sanders but did a largely solid job. On the long Sanders completion in the fourth quarter, he was beaten, but it was a near perfect throw by Osweiler. In coverage, the Patriots were largely solid, but the pursuit angles and tackling by New England defensive backs on a few of Denver's more explosive run plays left something to be desired.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
This grade should be much higher. The performance Ryan Allen put together was perhaps his best of the season with five of his 10 punts landing inside the 20. Couple that with another incredibly clutch kick from Stephen Gostkowski -- a 47-yarder through the snow to send the game to overtime -- and it would have been another sterling day for the New England kicking game. What knocks this grade down several notches, however, was Harper's muffed punt in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the key play in the game, it was recovered by Denver and led to a Broncos touchdown that cut the Patriots lead to 21-14.