Bill Belichick always tailors his defensive game plan to the specific opponent but usually shows general tendencies. In one game, the Patriots usually will stick to man-to-man coverage or zone. Sometimes they’ll match up Darrelle Revis on a specific receiver, or keep him on one side of the field. On certain weeks, they’ll load up the box and dare the opponent to beat them deep, or hang back and beg them to run the ball.
On Sunday against the Broncos, the only tendency was that there were no tendencies.
Belichick and his staff kept Peyton Manning and the Broncos guessing throughout the entirety of the Patriots’ 43-21 win. It was like six game plans within a game plan; they did a masterful job of mixing up their coverages from series to series, and even play to play.
Revis opened the game on Demaryius Thomas, while Brandon Browner showed a zone look. The next play, they flipped sides of the field, with Browner on Julius Thomas and Revis on Emmanuel Sanders in man coverage.
On certain series, Revis played only the left side. Sometimes he shadowed Sanders. Sometimes he shadowed Demaryius Thomas. Sometimes Browner played deep off the ball, almost like a safety. Sometimes he played the slot. Sometimes he played press-man.
And Belichick reached deep down into his bag of tricks for this game. Patrick Chung, who usually comes off the field in passing situations? He played 66 of 80 snaps and did a pretty nice job covering Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.
Rob Ninkovich, the team’s best healthy pass rusher? He dropped into zone coverage on a half-dozen snaps and snagged a game-changing interception.
Browner covering the slot? That was a new one.
It kept Manning guessing, and unable to get into a rhythm, despite the gaudy-looking stats.
Manning studied the still photos on the sideline, but it was pointless. He wouldn’t see the same looks for the rest of the game.
Other observations from the game:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots liberally mixed and matched their formations and personnel on offense, as they usually do, but weren’t nearly as varied as they were on defense.
About half the snaps (40 of 84) were run out of the three-wide-receiver grouping, and they went with two tight ends on 15 snaps, tight end/fullback on seven snaps, and an empty backfield on eight snaps. The Broncos liberally switched between zone and man coverage, but kept Aqib Talib on the left side and Chris Harris on the right, which helped Tom Brady read the defense pre-snap and know where to go with the football.
■ Brady was once again devastating with the play-action pass. The Broncos’ linebackers bit hard on the play-fakes, creating a ton of room for Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman over the middle. Brady was 10 of 16 for 135 yards and a touchdown to Brandon LaFell with the play-action pass, including four catches for 60 yards for Gronk.
■ Not only has Brady’s accuracy improved tremendously since the Chiefs game, but his ability to maneuver in the pocket, avoid the rush, and throw on the run — which has never been his hallmark — has been outstanding. He did it again on his third-and-8 pass to Danny Amendola in the third quarter, which resulted in a big 21-yard gain.
■ Brady’s interception, his first in five games and only third of the season, began up front when Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork appeared to have a communication issue, allowing Malik Jackson to rush in untouched. Brady hurried his throw to Amendola, the pass was tipped, and Bradley Roby came down with the ball. Football is a team game.
■ Gronkowski had a game for the ages. He caught 9 of 10 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, was solid in the run game, and had one of the greatest catches you’ll ever see in the third quarter — jumping, one-handed, with his left hand (covered by a big, clunky brace), over the middle with T.J. Ward draped all over him.
It’s too bad he was ruled down at the 1, because he deserved that touchdown. And I can only imagine the smile on Brady’s face when he saw Gronk matched up one-on-one with Von Miller on the outside on the next play. Brady never will have an easier touchdown pass.
■ Gronk also affected the game when the ball didn’t come his way. Two touchdowns came as a direct result of the Broncos paying too much attention to Gronk and not enough to the other receivers.
■ I defended Ward’s hit on Gronk last year, when he took out the tight end’s knee while a member of the Browns, but his hit on Gronk in the first quarter looked downright dirty. There was no need to go that low to take down Gronk, who fortunately was able to swing his leg around and avoid injury. I understand the need to go low to take down a big target like Gronk, but Ward appeared to be squaring up his knee.
■ The offensive line is playing better but still has plenty of room for improvement. Nate Solder had a bad whiff on DeMarcus Ware on the Broncos’ only sack. Stork seemed to have a lot of trouble with Terrance Knighton. Stork and Connolly allowed a pressure that got Brady hit, and then whiffed on a draw play to Vereen.
Jonas Gray didn’t have any holes to run through, finished with 33 yards on 12 carries, and 19 of those yards came in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The Patriots usually don’t do well when Brady throws 53 times, but they couldn’t get anything going on the ground.
When the Broncos had the ball . . .
■ The key to slowing down the Broncos’ offense was the Patriots continuously dropping their linebackers into zone coverage to establish a wall in the short/middle area of the field. This prevented the Broncos from beating the Patriots with crossing routes and pick plays.
Devin McCourty played deep center field for the entire game, while the other 10 defenders lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. On a half-dozen plays, Ninkovich dropped off into coverage, while Jamie Collins or Dont’a Hightower blitzed. We counted 10 Patriots blitzes on 58 dropbacks, with Collins, Hightower, and Kyle Arrington doing most of the blitzing.
■ Special shout-outs to a couple of unsung players who stepped up in a big way.
I was really impressed with Chung in coverage, which is supposed to be his weak suit. I didn’t like his matchup with Julius Thomas, who beat him on a fade route for a touchdown, but Chung matched up on Welker for much of the game, and physically dominated him.
I counted three really nice pass breakups by Chung — one on Welker, and two on Jacob Tamme.
And undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler did an excellent job shadowing Sanders, despite Sanders’s gaudy (garbage-time) stats. On back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, Butler had a nice pass breakup on Sanders, then made a great open-field tackle on Sanders to stop the Broncos on fourth down.
I’m told Butler has surpassed on the depth chart Alfonzo Dennard, who has been a healthy scratch the last two weeks.
■ Revis allowed three catches on the second drive while in man coverage — the Broncos beat him with those darned crossing routes — but he wasn’t targeted again until the fourth quarter, and had a really nice game overall. Browner is a little boom or bust; he had great coverage on the Thomas Bros., his long arms are a tremendous asset, and his tenacity on defense really can get a receiver out of rhythm. But we’d still like to see him cut down on the penalties (three for 22 yards, including two on back-to-back plays).
■ The front seven didn’t get a ton of pressure on Manning, but that wasn’t an essential part of the game plan. They stuffed the run when they had to (Ronnie Hillman had only 10 carries for 16 yards) and Collins did a nice job of covering Hillman out of the backfield.
Newcomer Akeem Ayers, who was a linebacker in Tennessee, played 74 of 82 snaps as a defensive end, essentially replacing Chandler Jones. On his fourth-down sack (his second in two games), the Patriots rushed only three, and Ayers ran a simple twist up the middle, but no one picked it up, and he ran into the backfield untouched.
■ I counted four excellent blocks on Edelman’s 84-yard punt return: by Matthew Slater, Chris White, Tim Wright, and Brandon Bolden. Edelman did the rest by breaking Tamme’s ankles with a nasty cutback. Special props to Wright and Bolden, who almost blocked the punt, then sprinted back 50 yards to make the key blocks.
■ Newcomer Jonathan Casillas certainly proved his worth on special teams, playing 22 snaps and making the tackle on three kickoffs in a row. With Casillas, Slater, Bolden, Nate Ebner, and Don Jones as core special teamers, the Patriots probably have the best units in the NFL.