The Patriots have already cleaned out their lockers, and Bill Belichick and his staff are down at the Senior Bowl, already moving on to 2016.
Sunday’s loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game has already been dissected 27 different ways, but a nagging thought persisted Wednesday, three days later: Where were the adjustments from the Patriots offense in the second half? And how could an offense that was so good during the regular season suddenly look so pedestrian?
“Strange game,” ESPN film junkie and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski told me. “I thought the Pats were the better team, but they didn’t play better.”
We have an unquenchable thirst to assess and apportion blame here in New England. Obviously, the offensive line didn’t hold up against the Broncos, but surely someone else must be at fault. Why didn’t offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels make another brilliant “halftime adjustment?” Why wasn’t something — anything — done to help out the offensive tackles against DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller?
They’re fair questions, and ones we will continue to ask throughout the offseason. It just might not be so easy to blame the loss on the lack of adjustments. There was plenty of blame to go around.
“I think it’s foolish to sit here after the fact and say, ‘Josh McDaniels didn’t have a good game because he didn’t make adjustments,’ ” said former Raiders quarterback and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon. “This was the No. 1 defense in football, and when you’ve got two good pass rushers and two good corners, that makes it a lot more difficult.
“There’s probably a half-dozen things that you can look back on and say, ‘Well, they could’ve done this differently.’ ”
Let’s start with the offensive line, which allowed Tom Brady to be hit 20 times, the most for any NFL quarterback since 2006. And the Broncos did it without blitzing, sending an extra rusher on only 10 of 61 passing plays.
It’s easy to say “the offensive line was terrible — get rid of these bums and fire the coach” (the Patriots already did the latter). But when Ware and Miller are beating the tackles by two steps off the line of scrimmage, there’s something more at play. In this case, it was the Patriots’ silent snap count, forced into use because of the noise levels at Sports Authority Field. By the fourth quarter, the Broncos’ pass rushers had timed the silent snap count, and Brady wasn’t able to mix up his line calls as he does at Gillette Stadium.
“They couldn’t use the cadence, and I know that was an issue in the game,” Gannon said. “If you can’t change the cadence and slow down the rush, those [pass rushers] can just get on a roll. One time, I think it was Ware, he was 3 yards up the field before the left tackle got out of his stance.”
Next let’s look at Brady and his receivers — namely, running back James White. In hindsight, he was the key to the entire game. The Patriots created plays to get one-on-one matchups for White against linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, and they worked. The Patriots just couldn’t execute.
Four times in the second half, the Patriots lined White up out wide and threw him a deep fade pass, and missed on all four.
In the third quarter, White beat safety Josh Bush by a step, but Brady was hit when he threw and the ball was underthrown in the end zone.
With 8:15 left in the fourth quarter, White beat Marshall by two steps down the right sideline, and couldn’t track a pass that was slightly underthrown. With 6:51 left, Brady overthrew White by millimeters in the end zone against Marshall. And with 1:53 left, Brady again underthrew White after he had beaten Trevathan by two steps.
Overall, White caught just 2 of 9 passes thrown his way in the fourth quarter, and 5 of 16 overall, for 45 yards. Whether it was Brady releasing the ball a second too late, or Brady getting hit as he threw, or White not fighting hard enough for the football, the fact is the Patriots got the matchups they wanted but couldn’t execute.
“I really don’t have a problem with the game plan,” said Jaworski. “It was kind of the execution of the plan that cost them the game. They got those one-on-one matchups, they just didn’t hit them. When you’ve got a matchup that you’ve designed to get, you want to be 6 for 9 on that, not 2 for 9.”
The Patriots did make a minor adjustment, switching guards Shaq Mason and Josh Kline at the start of the fourth quarter, moving Mason from right to left. It didn’t work, as Brady got absolutely crushed in the fourth quarter, and Mason had a bad communication error with Sebastian Vollmer that led to another big hit on Brady.
Yet the Patriots still crawled back into the game and still came within 2 points of sending it into overtime.
Should they have used blocking tight end Mike Williams on more than 16 of 83 snaps? Should they have used Brandon Bolden for pass protection on more snaps? It’s easy to say from our armchair, but if the Broncos are rushing only three or four, the Patriots offense isn’t going to have much success with three receivers going out against all those defensive backs.
“Why don’t we keep seven in to block? Well, then we’ve only got three out in the route, and then you don’t have a great play,” Gannon said.
Maybe the Patriots should have run the ball more often against the Broncos’ soft defense. There were plays when the Broncos had five defenders in man-to-man coverage and two safeties over the top, yet the Patriots refused to take the bait and run the football.
But do you really want to put the game in Stephen Jackson’s hands, and not Brady’s?
“In hindsight, absolutely, they could have used more two tight ends in a closed formation, where you can at least reroute the pass rush, slow the pass rush down, maybe do a better job of using their backs in pass protection,” Jaworski said.
“But that’s not what the Patriots do. Their platform all season long has been to spread you out and let Tom read the coverage and get it out quickly, so they stayed with that same plan.”
You also have to tip your cap to the Broncos coaches and players. Wade Phillips dialed back on his blitzes, from 40 percent on the season to 16 percent. He also used a three-man pass rush on the same number of plays Sunday (14) that he did in the 17 previous games combined, according to Jaworski’s film research.
And not every play develops the way it was drawn up on the chalkboard. The failed fourth-and-1 pass to Julian Edelman in the fourth quarter was an incredible display of improvisation from Chris Harris, who instinctively abandoned his receiver (Danny Amendola) to pick up Edelman streaking across the field away from his defender, Aqib Talib.
If Harris doesn’t abandon his coverage assignment, Edelman had a ton of open field in front of him.
“The Patriots felt they had a play that wasn’t going to get them a first down — it was going to get them a touchdown,” Jaworski said. “And Harris just made an unbelievable play.
“Harris didn’t run with Amendola on the cross. It was mind-boggling. He had him man-to-man, and for some reason he stayed at home and made a tackle.”
The Patriots have emphasized for 16 years that football is a team game, and that the team can’t experience success without everyone doing their job. Sunday’s loss to the Broncos falls under the same category. There was plenty of blame to be shared, and no easy answers.