Perry's Report Card: Protection failures oust Patriots
Perry's Report Card: Protection failures oust Patriots
The Patriots did not lose the AFC Championship because they elected to receive the opening kickoff. They did not lose because Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point for the first time since his rookie season. They did not lose because coach Bill Belichick opted to go for it twice on fourth down in the fourth quarter. They lost because their offensive line struggled to block Denver's defensive front and because Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips utilized schemes that kept quarterback Tom Brady guessing. Being on the road didn't help the Patriots. Crowd noise and the Mile High altitude were certainly factors. But overall, New England's failures were the result of poor execution, especially up front.
Belichick told reporters on Monday morning that what Phillips did wasn't ground-breaking. And he was right. Phillips didn't re-invent defensive football with his game plan. But he did do things that went counter his typical blitz-happy tendencies. According to ESPN's Bill Barnwell, the Broncos blitzed just 16 percent of the time, which was a significant drop-off from the 42 percent of snaps he blitzed in the regular season. The Patriots had trouble reacting. Phillips had his defenders stay home in dime looks for much of the game, allowing his front to get pressure on their own. He also flooded the middle of the field with defenders in coverage. Often, because of physical mismatches at the line of scrimmage, Brady was pressured into incompletions or bad decisions, absorbing hits on one-third of his drop-backs. When Brady wasn't pressured off the snap, he tried to find ways to beat double-teams on tight end Rob Gronkowski while linebackers and safeties seemingly clogged throwing lanes to receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The tough-to-read coverages were complemented by New England's struggles to run-block or pass-protect. Without the threat of a running game, the Broncos were able to keep their coverage-heavy lineups on the field while continuing to get pressure without blitzing. Usually Brady has a field day with defenses that sacrifice numbers in coverage for attempts at pressure, but he wasn't given that opportunity on Sunday.
This game was somewhat reminiscent of what happened to the Patriots in the first half of their win over Cowboys. In both games, defensive coordinators with very obvious habits did something to confuse Brady, and it threw the Hall-of-Fame quarterback off of his game. As was the case against Rod Marinelli in Dallas -- Brady admitted after that game that they saw a defense that they hadn't practiced for -- it seemed as though Brady didn't anticipate seeing some of the things he was shown. The only difference was that in Denver, it wasn't really until the fourth quarter that he established any kind of rhythm -- and even that was fleeting -- whereas the Cowboys ended up getting blown out, 30-6. On Brady's first interception, he clearly didn't expect pass-rusher extraordinaire Von Miller to drop into coverage on Gronkowski, under-cutting the tight end's route. On his second pick, he was drilled by Denver defensive lineman Malik Jackson on a stunt, but telegraphed a throw down the sideline that was easily picked by safety Darian Stewart. Brady's throw to Gronkowski on fourth-and-10 to keep his team's potential game-tying touchdown drive alive was one of his best of the season, but throughout the game he missed potential openings to Edelman, and Gronkowski's numbers (eight catches, 144 yards, 1 touchdown) could have been even better had Brady targeted him more in one-on-one opportunities. On the two-point conversion try to tie the game, Brady had Gronkowski open in the back of the end zone but missed him and instead tried to force a pass to Edelman that was picked. Thanks to the pressure he saw all afternoon, Brady missed reads and hurried unnecessarily in the rare opportunities when he didn't need to escape. It would have been near impossible for anyone to overcome 20 hits to play well, and unfortunately for the Patriots, Brady could not.
TIGHT END: A
One of the lone bright spots for the Patriots offense in this game was the play of Gronkowski. What he did in the fourth quarter -- splitting double-coverage down the seam to convert on a fourth-and-10, then fighting through double-coverage again for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining -- kept the team's chances alive. He dealt with cramps that could potentially be linked to the altitude in Denver, but despite missing time in the third quarter, he was still the best offensive threat on either team Sunday. He took advantage of injuries to both of Denver's starting safeties at the end of the game, but still, to put together the game he had while garnering as much attention as he did was remarkable. He was targeted 15 times, and probably should have been targeted even more.
By taking away Brady's throwing lanes on short-to-intermediate passes, the Broncos largely sapped the lifeblood of the Patriots offense. At times, it appeared as though Edelman had trouble gaining separation from Broncos defensive backs, leading one to wonder if his surgically-repaired foot fracture bothered him as he tried to shake coverage. Other times, Edelman found openings only to be ignored by Brady, who was looking elsewhere. By not being able to connect with Edelman soon after the snap, Brady was forced to hold onto the ball, and the Patriots offensive line was further exposed. Both Edelman and Amendola competed with the ball in their hands, scrapping for extra yards as they often do, but their 12 catches for 92 yards on 12 targets was not enough to hide what ailed them. Brandon LaFell played 33 snaps and did not see a single target, clearly ceding the No. 3 receiver role in the Patriots offense to Keshawn Martin, who played 59 snaps but also did not have the ball thrown his way once. In New England's last four games, since being listed on the Patriots injury report with a foot issue, LaFell has made six catches for 32 yards on 10 targets.
RUNNING BACK: C+
Running back James White actually led the team in targets with 16, catching five for 45 yards. The Patriots opted to line him out wide on linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, where his quickness helped him create separation on crossing routes late in the game. Splitting him out wide, however, sacrificed one more body in terms of Brady's protection and may have helped lead to more Broncos pressures. Brady attempted several passes deep down the field for White who gave good effort in pursuit of the football but was not able to convert. The Patriots were able to pick up just 31 yards on 14 designed runs, which was mainly a result of the offensive line being unable to create openings. But an inability to create yards after contact, especially against the light defensive fronts shown by the Broncos, has to fall somewhat on the shoulders of those with the football in their hands. Jackson picked up a goal-line touchdown in what will likely be the last game of his NFL career, he finished with just eight yards (including one five-yard carry) on four attempts.
OFFENSIVE LINE: F
If ever there was a time to issue a failing grade, this was it. Across the board, the Patriots lost their one-on-one matchups consistently. Credit Phillips again with forcing the Patriots to try to block Miller and DeMarcus Ware one-on-one by aligning his interior defensive linemen wide. That drew the attention of New England's guards on both sides and left the Broncos edge men to go to work on a clearly limited Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon. Vollmer, who suffered an ankle injury that was severe enough to have him carted off the field back in Week 16, had trouble matching Ware's speed. And Cannon, who was evaluated for a concussion during the game, had an even tougher time with Miller on the other side. Even when the Patriots tried to bring in support in the form of Cameron Fleming, he was beat quickly by Ware and allowed a sack that backed the Patriots up to their own goal line. Josh Kline, who has coped with a shoulder injury since a Week 13 loss to the Eagles, had a hard time dealing with the strength and speed of both Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson inside. Shaq Mason held his own at right guard for the most part but seemed to have a communication issue with Cannon in the third quarter that led to one of Jackson's easiest pressures of the day, scooting by Cannon as he waited for a rusher that never came. Center Bryan Stork's snaps appeared to be timed by the Broncos by game's end, and his personal-foul penalty in the first quarter wiped out a five-yard gain from Stephen Jackson and put the Patriots in a second-and-20 situation that eventually resulted in a punt. It was the worst time for this group to have its worst game of the season. A little more than 24 hours after game's end, news broke that the team had moved on from offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo.
Punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt. That's how Denver's six second-half drives finished. Had it not been for one third-down run in the fourth quarter by CJ Anderson that went for 30 yards, Peyton Manning may have been shut out for the game's final 30 minutes. The reason the Patriots had a chance to tie things up on their final drive of the game was because their defense kept them in it. There were lapses -- the two touchdowns Manning completed to Owen Daniels were the most glaring -- but this was a pretty sound performance against an offense that was lacking.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
New England's front wasn't all that disruptive in terms of its pass-rush, but it was highly effective in limiting Denver's running game. On 27 Broncos designed runs, the Patriots allowed 3.26 yards per carry. On the interior it was Alan Branch's turn to flash as that group's top play-maker. He had a sack and a quarterback hurry as well as a run stuff. On the edges, Jabaal Sheard was stout, as he often is, making plays down the line of scrimmage consistently and finishing with seven tackles. Ninkovich led all ends with 51 snaps, and both he and Chandler Jones recorded three pressures of Manning. In a game plan that focused on stopping the run, this unit was dependable.
Jamie Collins guessed twice, and both times he ended up getting burned for touchdowns. Why would Collins bite? Manning's arm strength has been diminished. His passes have been wobbly. It made sense that he'd pepper his pass-catchers with quick passes when they were available. That thinking, though, appeared to be the reason Collins lost Owen Daniels on both scores. Both times, Daniels made a double move, and both times Collins jumped the first, expecting a throw. Manning can't spin it the way he used to, but he had enough to hit Daniels further down the field for touchdowns. Daniels, a mainstay in Gary Kubiak offenses since entering the league, showed route-running savvy on both plays that was enough to beat a far superior athlete in coverage. Dont'a Hightower played 56 of a possible 68 defensive snaps and was arguably New England's best defender when on the field. Against the run, he was a force, often operating on the edge, and he managed to hurry Manning twice. Despite dealing with a knee injury since the first time the Patriots were in Denver this season, Hightower has continued to be consistent as a pass-rusher, in coverage and against the run.
The Patriots relied heavily on their corners in man-to-man coverage once again, and they responded. Malcolm Butler allowed 62 yards receiving to Emmanuel Sanders on five catches, including a long completion of 34 yards. But the one chunk play was an instance of a talented player making an exceptional play on the ball. Butler was right with Sanders and even made contact with the football, but Sanders reeled it in anyway. Logan Ryan continued to stymie Demaryius Thomas, which is what he did to the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder in Week 12. On four targets, Thomas caught none, and Ryan broke up one of the attempts. Justin Coleman was the clear No. 3 corner for the Patriots. The undrafted rookie, who Belichick compared to Malcolm Butler due to the difficulty the Patriots had scouting him coming into the league, acquitted himself well although he nearly allowed a touchdown to Jordan Norwood in the fourth quarter but Manning overthrew his target. Devin McCourty was solid on the back end, breaking up the one of the two passes sent his way and providing strong run support. Patrick Chung was also stout against the run and stuck with Broncos backs in the passing game. It appeared as though the Patriots had determined the matchups before the game, leaving Collins on Daniels early, but it's a wonder whether Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would alter their plan at all in hindsight to have Chung cover Daniels. The strong safety has been consistent in coverage regardless of his assignment this season, and he's been especially effective against opposing tight ends.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Stephen Gostkowski, who owns the NFL record for successful consecutive extra-points, missed his first extra point since 2006. That eventually forced the Patriots to try for two points at the end of the game, and the Patriots Pro Bowl kicker blamed himself after they weren't able to convert. The next day, special teams captain Matthew Slater said it was "ridiculous" to believe Gostkowski lost his team the game, and rookie snapper Joe Cardona supported his teammate as well. "Without a doubt, he's a great man, he's a great leader. He's the best at his position in the world. He's the best at what he does, and there's not a doubt in my mind that that's the case." Ryan Allen punted six times and had his second-best game of the season in terms of net yards with an average of 43.3. Gostkowski's on-side kick, an attempted dribbler that was angled to the right, went unsuccessful.