Perry's Report Card: Patriots vs. Broncos
A Denver nugget for the Pats
Go back to this summer, when 19-0 talk was all the rage, and we scoured the Patriots schedule for what looked like a challenge.
At Denver? Always a test. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's run to their eighth Super Bowl might, we thought, experience a bump in the road at Mile High.
Instead, the Patriots played their most complete game at a place that is usually a house of horrors for them. They played an uneven first half, but the last two quarters might be the first time the team actually looked like the dominant one many expected heading into the season.
The defense held up, keeping its opponent in the teens for a fifth straight game. The offense was masterful, exploiting mismatches against safeties and linebackers. And the special teams handed in big play after big play, making their head coach -- a former special-teams assistant in Denver earlier in his career -- look like a proud papa afterward.
Here are the grades, position by position, for the Patriots' smooth Sunday night.
You almost had to feel bad for the Broncos as you watched this one play out. Like vultures pecking at an open wound, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels attacked Denver's weaknesses over and over and over again and there was nothing anyone could do about it. You deploy two of the best corners in the game? No problem. The Patriots will zero in on your safeties and linebackers in coverage. The result a quick-hitting passing game that had Brady go more than 10 yards down the field on just 11 of 32 aimed attempts, according to Pro Football Focus. He was 25-for-34 for 266 yards and threw for three scores using a short-to-intermediate passing game that had the dual effect of limiting the Broncos pass rush. When Brady did throw deep, he found openings using play-action that made it easy on him. His two long-gainers on New England's first drive of the second half -- one to Brandin Cooks and one to Rob Gronkowski -- were beauties. He had one interceptable pass early when he threw to a well-covered Cooks on the game's opening drive, but otherwise he was stellar.
RUNNING BACK: A-
Just a couple of blemishes from this group's performance at Sports Authority Field, and both from arguably their best player James White. On a third-and-four in the red zone, he carried for three and seemed to get a little too careful looking for room at the end of the run. That led to a field goal. He also had a rare whiff in pass protection in the red zone that led to a sack and another Stephen Gostkowski FG. Outside of those two plays, however, this group was tremendous. Rex Burkhead has seen more work every week since his return, and his versatile skill set was on display as he carried in got-to-have it short-yardage situations (he plowed into a pile and converted on a fourth-and-one) but also lined up wide and got receiver-quality releases off the line of scrimmage against overmatched safeties and 'backers. His first-quarter slant route had safety Darian Stewart on his heels and, with Rob Gronkowski doubled, opened him up for a 14-yard score. White's option route on linebacker Will Parks was an ankle-breaker and led to his easy fourth-quarter touchdown. When Burkhead wasn't in the game, Dion Lewis ran hard and took over the "big-back" role vacated by Mike Gillislee, who was inactive. He wasn't targeted in the passing game, but he ran with authority and helped suck the life from the Broncos defense in the third quarter when he put together three consecutive demoralizing runs, on the last of which he carried Aqib Talib four yard into the end zone. On a night when Brady knew Gronkowski would see a lot of attention, the backs became a focus, and they responded with their best game of the season.
WIDE RECEIVER: B+
Though the tight ends and running backs were featured in the passing game, the Patriots were fine going to their receivers if the Broncos were going to use their linebackers and safeties in coverage. Take Danny Amendola's night, for example. He drew a hold on linebacker Brandon Marshall in the second quarter and burned linebackers for catches twice more in the fourth. It was a mismatch Brady would have taken every time. On the outside, the Patriots didn't want to test Aqib Talib or Chris Harris all that often, though Brady did try to hit Brandin Cooks several times on play-action passes. They hit for one big one in the third quarter when Cooks ran a deep angle route on Talib to get free. He also should have drawn a pass-interference penalty on Harris when he ran deep down the right sideline and Harris grabbed his wrist. The fact that Cooks was on the field as much as he was late in the fourth quarter, catching passes from Brian Hoyer with the outcome in hand, shows just how thin the Patriots are at this spot. Phillip Dorsett saw the second-most snaps among Patriots receivers (49), but he looked hobbled at times. It didn't hurt them in Denver, but the Patriots could use Chris Hogan back in the mix as soon as possible.
TIGHT END: A-
Don't worry. Rob Gronkowski isn't docked any points here for convincing the Patriots to use a challenge on his near-grab at the goal line. Why? Because even if it wasn't a touchdown (he was down at the 1), it looked like a catch. The only points taken off here are for Dwayne Allen's dropped touchdown and for a stuffed run that Gronkowski helped allow early in the first quarter. But Gronkowski more than made up for that play over the course of the night, catching four of his seven targets for 74 yards, and Allen got on the board with an 11-yard score as his first catch of the season. Again, this group took advantage of repeated mismatches in coverage. Allen got Von Miller on his score, and Gronkowski beat Brandon Marshall for a 12-yard completion before running through Denver's second level for a 22-yarder later in the game. Gronkowski's 26-yard gain in the third came off of play-action that fooled Marshall and safety Justin Simmons. You don't have to be an All-Pro to get open when the defense is tricked that badly. In the running game, this group was stellar. Gronkowski was used repeatedly in motion to kick out edge defenders out of 21-personnel. On those plays, fullback James Develin (who we continue to include in this group because he meets with the tight ends daily) was a force, helping to open holes for both Lewis and Burkhead. To help keep Denver's base personnel (and all of those awful coverage linebackers) in the game, Develin played a career-high 45 snaps. Allen was also impactful in the run game, clearing space on Burkhead's fourth-down conversion. Martellus Bennett played just seven snaps but made three catches for 38 yards, including a 27-yarder when he was sprung wide open because Denver's linebackers mistakenly double-teamed Burkhead. Their heads were spinning.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Tom Brady was sacked just one time, and it was because of a missed block by James White. Any time the Patriots offensive line can come away with a clean sheet like that -- particularly when handling the game's best edge rusher in Von Miller -- that's a performance that's deserving of high honors. LaAdrian Waddle filled in for Marcus Cannon and worked primarily against Miller, more than holding his own. Waddle used Miller's speed against him on New England's first drive, pushing Miller past Brady to help Brady find Rex Burkhead for a 10-yard reception. Waddle got some help from James Develin to keep Miller from sniffing Brady on Burkhead's touchdown one snap later. Waddle also had a key block on Dion Lewis' touchdown run, and he smothered Miller one-on-one during Brady's touchdown throw to White. Miller got to Brady for one hit while working on Waddle, and Waddle was blown up on a Burkhead stuffed run, but it was a night to remember for the Patriots swing tackle. Brady was pressured just six times total on 38 pass plays as they continue to improve each week. Joe Thuney was particularly impressive, not allowing a pressure, and according to Pro Football Focus, he's given up just three pressures on 158 pass plays over the last four games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
You could argue that this unit won the Patriots the game. By recovering Isaiah McKenzie's muffed punt (his fifth of the season . . . maybe time for a change there?) in the first quarter, momentum completely swung. The Broncos were feeling good after getting what they thought was a three-and-out. Instead the Patriots took advantage of the mistake and quickly went up, 7-0. Dion Lewis' kick return to the house was helped by the Broncos kick team leaving a gap on the left side -- it looked like Bennie Fowler got too far outside and lost his lane without anyone replacing him -- but blocks from Marquis Flowers, Dwayne Allen, James Develin, Matthew Slater, Brandon King and a double by Jordan Richards and Jacob Hollister were all picture perfect. The Broncos choked away another big play when rookie personal protector Jamal Carter barely stuck an arm out to slow down Rex Burkhead's punt rush, which was made possible by Brandon Bolden rushing to the outside to clear room. Burkhead did well not to rough the punter -- something the Patriots did twice earlier this season -- and get all ball before contact was ever made with punter Riley Dixon. Burkhead, King and Trevor Reilly all made two tackles in the kicking game as Stephen Gostkowski had what was essentially a perfect night. His kickoffs were well-placed and he made all seven of his kicks, including five extra points.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
The Patriots allowed 4.2 yards per carry, which may be a little deceiving when it comes to how the defensive line fared in that area. Aside from an Alan Branch missed tackle in the first quarter that led to a 21-yard CJ Anderson run, and Adam Butler getting thrown to the ground as a nose tackle to help lead to a Jamal Charles 10-yard run, they were generally pretty stout. Lawrence Guy loomed large in Malcom Brown's absence, using his length and strength to handle double-teams inside (even though he weighs about 20 pounds less than Brown). He helped stuff three runs in the first quarter alone. Aside from his one miss, Branch played well enough from start to finish, holding his ground to stop four Broncos runs -- one in every quarter. Butler had a pair of second-quarter stuffs as he continues his impressive rookie season. Trey Flowers had a pair of pressures and one quarterback hit that was a split-second away from being a strip sack . . . instead the ball floated forward and landed in the arms of Demaryius Thomas. Deatrich Wise also had a hit and was close to getting to Brock Osweiler on twists, but Osweiler got the ball out before Wise could make an impact.
The Patriots know how to use their thumpers in the middle. Elandon Roberts and David Harris are both better suited to get up the field as opposed to dropping into coverage, and so that's what Matt Patricia often asks them to do. Roberts missed one tackle near the line of scrimmage and got dragged by CJ Anderson on one run, but he had a quarterback hit, and he blew up offensive linemen twice to help set up his teammates to stuff Broncos runs. Harris also missed a tackle near the line that led to a chunk gain by Devontae Booker, but he helped clean up plays after Roberts collisions, and he even had a strong pass breakup when he drilled Jeff Heuerman in the middle of the field. Kyle Van Noy continues to be one of the team's most valuable defenders, as he had three quarterback hurries and was in on three run-stops at or near the line of scrimmage. His speed to beat a reach block helped set up Devin McCourty for a tackle for a loss. He also used a quick swim move to free himself for a stuff of his own. He went for a ride on Anderson's 21-yard scamper, and he missed a tackle on Jamal Charles' 10-yard run, but he was probably the team's best front-seven player on the night.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C+
Give credit where it's due. Emmanuel Sanders made some great catches on what were, gulp, actually some very good throws from Brock Osweiler. But Malcolm Butler has to be better than he was on a handful of Denver's explosive completions. Sanders got Butler to bite on an out-and-up move in the first quarter for one chunk play. Butler also gave up a much-too-easy 13-yard completion on third down on the same drive. In the third quarter, Osweiler overthrew Sanders and Butler was picked up by an NBC microphone telling Sanders that Sanders would have to double-move him all night if he wanted to get open. Might've been a bad idea. On the next Denver third down, Sanders shook Butler on a quick release -- not a double-move -- for 23 yards. Butler had a nice pass breakup, and he picked up a quarterback hit late, but he also got called for a holding penalty (which was declined) and was generally picked upon in what was a decidedly down game for him. Stephon Gilmore was fine. He got credit from many for an early pass breakup, but the Osweiler pass was thrown well behind Demaryius Thomas and wouldn't have been completed either way. Gilmore gets points for running stride for stride with Thomas on certain snaps, helping to deter Osweiler from throwing in his direction. But Thomas had a drop on a pass he had to jump for when Gilmore couldn't turn to find the football, and in the red zone Gilmore typically had Duron Harmon helping him with bracket coverage. The one time Gilmore was left alone, he thought he had help, and Thomas scored on a slant. Getting beat one-on-one isn't necessarily the concern here. It's that Harmon gave Gilmore a signal ahead of time to let him know that he wasn't getting help, but the message wasn't received. The two had a lengthy conversation after the fact. Apparently all the communication issues aren't ironed out. Gilmore also found a bad time to be flagged when he was called for a hold on third down early in the second quarter to extend a Denver drive. Devin McCourty (three run stuffs and a touchdown-saving tackle on Sanders on the Broncos first drive) and Patrick Chung (a pick on one target) continue to excel on the second level. Harmon effectively played his role as last line of defense, making two touchdown-saving tackles on the second Broncos drive of the game -- one on Sanders and one on CJ Anderson.