The Patriots had a very good team effort in Sunday’s 31-21 victory over the Broncos.
It wasn’t perfect in all three phases — and with some coaching decisions — but it was extremely well done.
A lot of attention has been focused on the fast-break, no-huddle offense, and it’s certainly deserving. The players and all the offensive coaches deserve a lot of credit for getting it ready to unleash against a quality opponent.
And it was certainly a big reason the Patriots built a 31-7 lead. The Broncos didn’t know what hit them, and at times couldn’t even get lined up correctly.
But expect the Patriots to tweak how they use it, because the no-huddle was likely a big reason they went scoreless in the final 19:42 of the game and nearly allowed the Broncos to mount a comeback.
Some of the ineffectiveness had to do with the Patriots taking a more conservative approach to burn clock and the Broncos’ defense being aggressive.
But the Patriots also looked very tired in the final quarter-plus of the game as the first-half pace took a self-inflicted toll.
Of the final 22 plays the Patriots ran before the kneel-downs, 10 went for 1 yard or less, including three sacks, two fumbles (one lost), a penalty, and a near-interception. That’s 45.5 percent.
The Patriots had just 10 such negative plays in the first 72 plays they ran (13.9 percent).
It started with 1:08 left in the third quarter when guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell had dead legs trying to get out on a first-down screen to Brandon Bolden that went for no gain.
After two first downs, tight end Rob Gronkowski was easily tossed aside by Von Miller, who took down Bolden for a 3-yard loss.
On second down, Wendell was beaten for a coverage sack of Tom Brady.
And then on third down, Sebastian Vollmer looked like he barely got out of his stance on a Miller sack.
The Patriots ran eight plays on that drive. Five went for zero yards or less (including a penalty against Gronkowski).
The Patriots smartly replaced Mankins on the next series, and they also added Nick McDonald as a third tight end to give more oomph to a tired blocking scheme.
Vollmer was replaced by Marcus Cannon on the following series after limping off with a right leg injury.
So the Patriots were on top of it, but it’s something to monitor as the offense evolves. Expect them to pick and choose their spots a little bit more.
The positional ratings against the Broncos:
Quarterback (rating: 4.5 out of 5)
On passing alone, this was a solid performance by Brady, not spectacular. But when you factor in all that he had to manage with the no-huddle, checks and calls, it was outstanding. Brady was particularly adept at sensing a blitz and getting rid of the ball. The Broncos blitzed Brady a lot — 15 of his 39 dropbacks (38.5 percent), including penalties — yet he got rid of the ball against the blitz in an average of 1.97 seconds. That means it had no chance of getting home. That said, of the 11 quarterback pressures (four sacks, four hurries, three knockdowns), Brady was responsible for nearly a quarter (2.5, including 1.5 sacks). That first sack on third down to open the second half was definitely on Brady. Against a three-man rush and good protection, Brady ducked and was taken down by Miller in 4.45 seconds. Brady also shared some of the blame with Wendell on the sack on second and 13 early in the fourth. Brady was hurried in 3.09 seconds, which should have been enough time to dump it off underneath to Wes Welker . . . Just a terrific throw by Brady to Brandon Lloyd ahead of the crashing safety to the 1-yard line before Shane Vereen’s touchdown made it 14-7 . . . On the opening touchdown, Brady faked not once (run) but twice (slant to Lloyd) before coming back to Welker, who faked a run block himself to lull slot corner Chris Harris to sleep. Terrific design by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and flawless execution. They must have repped that one a lot in practice.
Running backs (3 out of 5)
Ridley’s fumble in a second straight game (think he ever wants to see Buffalo and Denver back-to-back again?) had a lot of people concerned, but just as concerning was him being on a different page than the rest of the offense on first and 10 at the Denver 17 with 7:06 left in the third quarter. Ridley ran a wheel route on an eventual overthrow to Lloyd in the end zone. Problem was, every other person on offense save Lloyd (running a clear out) was run blocking. Looked like it was supposed to be a gun trap over left guard . . . Bolden broke three tackles for a total of 20 yards, but he also was responsible for a knockdown of Brady after missing a blitz pickup that was negated by penalty . . . Two huge third-down conversions by Danny Woodhead on a run (19 yards) and pass (25 yards) . . . Patriots had the Broncos completely outflanked — four defenders to the left of center compared with five Patriots — on the toss touchdown to Ridley to make it 31-7. Lloyd’s block against Keith Brooking was also key.
Receivers (4.5 out of 5)
Some really terrific play out of this group, especially blocking; we counted 13 standout plays. Welker had his finest game of the season, doing everything well. Great blocks by Deion Branch, Gronkowski, and Vollmer on Bolden’s 24-yard run on third and 1 late in the first half. Nice blocks by Gronkowski on Elvis Dumervil, and by Welker on linebacker Wesley Woodyard (how does that happen?) on the 20-yard run by Ridley before his fumble. Great team blocking — and a complete failure by the Broncos (especially Woodyard) — on Woodhead’s improbable 19-yard run on third and 17. Gronkowski and Nate Solder worked combo blocks to the outside, Dan Connolly and Wendell to the inside, and Branch and Welker did their job down the field.
Offensive line (3.5 out of 5)
If any group was helped out by the no-huddle, it was the line, because the Broncos weren’t getting lined up, couldn’t dial up as much pressure, and were tired. Ranked in order of performance: Mankins, Solder, Connolly, Vollmer, and Wendell. Wendell (two half-sacks, hurry, 1.5 run stuffs, penalty) had a tough time when the Broncos were playing a guy over him. The fourth-down sack was a tough block for Wendell because he was actually held and ripped by rookie end Derek Wolfe, which left no chance to pick up the blitzing Woodyard. Real good design by the Broncos on the zone exchange that had Connolly, Vollmer, and Gronkowski blocking the same guy. Connolly probably should have helped Wendell . . . Mankins, who pancaked Woodyard on Ridley’s 7-yard run before halftime, was flawless outside of his false-start penalty . . . Awkward sequence before halftime when the Patriots squandered 4 points as Wendell got blown off the ball by Justin Bannan on the 1-yard run, and then tight end Daniel Fells let Miller, who was a terror, blow up the third-down play.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Take Ron Brace out of this group, and it was close to perfect. Rob Ninkovich’s stat line (sack, two forced fumbles, hurry) says it all. Chandler Jones (three of the team’s nine pressures, pass breakup), Vince Wilfork (hurry, half-knockdown, tackle for a loss), and Kyle Love (1.5 run stuffs) were robust. On the Broncos’ surprise third-and-4 gun run early in the third quarter, Love did a great job of holding up against the double team to allow Ninkovich, who beat the tight end, and Brandon Spikes to stuff it for 1 yard. Another huge play by Love on third and 1 with 11:26 left when he forced Ronnie Hillman outside and Devin McCourty cleaned it up for no gain. That set up Willis McGahee’s drop on fourth down.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Jerod Mayo (sack, hurry) probably didn’t play the Broncos’ first touchdown, to tight end Joel Dreessen, as well as he would have liked. Don’t know why Mayo was so focused on Peyton Manning while Dreessen ran to the corner alone. The coverage, especially by Mayo when he knocked down Dreessen, should get some credit for Ninkovich’s third-quarter sack/strip of Manning in 3.45 seconds. Spikes played a lot (85 percent of the snaps) for a passing game, and had a half-knockdown and tackle for a loss.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Yes, there is a fine line between turning around to play the ball and peeking too early and losing a receiver, but McCourty should know enough now to turn around against Erik Decker on the pass interference penalty. It’s not good enough. On the 38-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the final drive, McCourty got out of phase (not being shoulder to shoulder with the receiver) so he had to run harder to get back into phase, which left himself open to the back shoulder. And then you have rookie Alfonzo Dennard, who had no problem playing the ball on back-to-back good plays in the fourth quarter, the second with an assist from Patrick Chung, who continues to take bad angles. Dennard (31 of 67 snaps) has limitations in knowing the defense, but he obviously has a natural feel that deserves more time. When Chung isn’t paired with an experienced safety, the position really suffers. Tavon Wilson looked lost at times in his first start. On Thomas’s fumble, Wilson tried to jump Brandon Stokley with two teammates. Wilson should have been in the middle of the field to help against Thomas. Kyle Arrington and Wilson both butchered Stokley’s touchdown in the fourth quarter. Arrington took the play fake. Wilson was late reacting when he likely is supposed to play the first vertical route that’s apparent to him.
Special teams (4 out of 5)
Very good all around against a tough Broncos unit. Zoltan Mesko (4.55 seconds average hang time on three punts) and Stephen Gostkowski (4.33) showed very well. Matthew Slater had a great kickoff tackle; Wilson lost contain on the 33-yard return.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Situation: Leading, 147, the Patriots looked as if they would have to punt and give Denver great field position as they faced third and 14 at their 11-yard line with 3:42 left before halftime.
What happened: In a play similar to a big touchdown against the Bills last week, the Broncos played “two man” — two deep safeties with man coverage underneath. The Patriots ran clearout patterns, which left running back Danny Woodhead (39) alone one-on-one against slower linebacker Joe Mays (51) on the right side. Tom Brady (12) bought Woodhead some time to shake the initial physical coverage by rolling right as linebacker Von Miller (58) beat right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (76) inside, and right guard Dan Connolly (63) lost leverage against end Derek Wolfe (95). Brady delivered a strike on the run, and Woodhead easily beat Mays for the first down. Instead of punting, the Patriots virtually ran out the half and kicked a field goal to go up, 177.
ON HIS GAME
Wes Welker, receiver
Had 13 catches (five tough) for 103 yards and a touchdown, broke three tackles, and had three standout run blocks. Amazing that it took the Broncos until the second half to bracket Welker with another defender.
OFF HIS GAME
Ron Brace, defensive tackle
For the second week in a row, Brace showed little regard for his gap responsibilities, and it hurt the team again. He allowed runs of 8 and 9 yards within three plays in the second quarter and wasn’t seen again, which might continue. Paging Gerard Warren.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.