Patriots at Broncos Review: Pats Handed First Loss

Brock Osweiler and the Denver Broncos handed the Patriots their first loss of the season on Sunday night.

It’s surprising to see the Patriots lose to an inexperienced quarterback, but it was the Denver running game, coupled with a few timely throws by Osweiler, that won them the game.

With Osweiler, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak now has a strong armed quarterback that can move a bit in the pocket, think Joe Flacco in Baltimore.

Kubiak has returned to his run first offense, that thrives off of a zone blocking scheme with stretch run plays, and then protects the quarterback with big play action off of that.

The Patriots couldn’t slow down C.J. Anderson on the ground, and the offense started hot but cooled off considerably in the second half.

On Offense

Gronkowski Injury: It seems like every week now a major injury on offense leads this portion of the column. The latest injury to Rob Gronkowski is the nightmare that every Patriots fan prays to avoid each season. Luckily for the Pats, it appears that they have dodged a bullet, as Gronk sustained a minor knee injury that won’t force him to miss serious time. Having said that, excluding quarterbacks, Gronk is the most valuable player in the NFL besides maybe J.J. Watt. Not only is he impossible to cover, but he opens up opportunities for other Patriots receivers, and contributes in both run and pass blocking. If Gronk is out multiple games it will be very difficult for the Pats offense to produce points, especially when you consider the other injuries they have.

Run Game: Credit the Broncos for being stout up front against the run, but the Patriots rush offense has struggled mightily basically all season. Dion Lewis was able to cover up deficiencies in run blocking a bit, but since his injury in Week 9 the Patriots have averaged just 67.0 rush yards per game. The Pats have multiple flaws in the run game right now, including poor blocking upfront and a lack of burst from any of their running backs. Blount, Bolden, and James White all lack speed and quickness, and as a result the Pats have just 4 rushes of 10+ yards since Week 10, compared to 23 prior to that. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels addressed the issue during his media availability on Tuesday, and also cited that the team needed to do a better job of giving run plays a chance to get going. That was evident against the Broncos, as there was just nothing there on the ground.

Fourth Quarter Offense: Over the last three weeks the Patriots have scored just 20 points in the 4th quarter. That includes the game winning FG against the Giants and the game tying field goal against Denver. Other than on the final drive of the 4th, the Patriots offense struggled to get anything going vs the Broncos. After Brandon Bolden’s TD early in the quarter, the Patriots went punt, punt, punt, FG. Two of those drives were three and outs, and the third punt the offense ran just 5 plays. The lack of success in the 4th left the door open for Brock Osweiler and the Broncos to get back into the game. The Pats got the ball back with 6 minutes left in the 4th up 21-17 and went three and out. Then, they got the ball with four minutes left and ran just five plays. The Pats punted the ball back to Denver and Osweiler drove them down for the go-ahead score. The point of the matter is that these games don’t need to be as close as they have been, and all that needs to change is better execution down the stretch.   

On Defense

Run Defense: The Patriots got gashed for a season high 179 yards on the ground on Sunday Night. A lot of it had to do with backup linebackers Jerod Mayo and Jonathan Freeny logging a ton of snaps. Gary Kubiak is notorious for his zone-read rushing attack, so the stretch runs that the Broncos deployed shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Pats, they just couldn’t stop it. The injury to Dont’a Hightower was enormous as well, as the floodgates were opened for Denver rushing the ball once Hightower went down. Jonathan Freeny and Jerod Mayo filled in admirable, but couldn’t limit the cut back lanes available to C.J. Anderson. On many of the Broncos big runs, Anderson followed his blockers to the outside and cut it back towards the middle. Freeny in particular over-pursued a few runs, leaving nobody on the backside to make the tackle. Look here as Freeny goes to fill the rushing lane from his MLB spot, but leaves the backside open and Anderson cuts it back for a nine yard gain:

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Missed Tackles: Bill Belichick always says that what separates good defenses from great defenses is the ability to tackle, and the Pats had one of their worst tackling games of the season on Sunday. On all three touchdown runs by the Broncos, multiple Patriots defenders had a chance to make the tackle and couldn’t. The Pats showed poor tackling technique and took poor angles to the ball as well. Granted the conditions weren’t ideal, but the Broncos defense for the most part didn’t have the same issues. On the game winning touchdown, I count three missed tackles in all. One by Alan Branch, Jonathan Freeny, and Duron Harmon who failed to make the TD saving tackle. It looks like Devin McCoury was held, but he too didn’t put in his best effort to bring Anderson down. The Patriots are usually a sure tackling team, so it was strange to see them struggle in that area (http://tinyurl.com/gqpq8gg).

Logan Ryan: It wasn’t all negative on defense for the Patriots as Logan Ryan had a breakout performance. The football gods weren’t friendly to Ryan, as his great performance was overshadowed by two completions he gave up on the Broncos final drive of regulation. Prior to that drive, Osweiler was 0-7 when targeting Ryan in coverage, and Ryan had three pass break ups. When you factor in that many of those targets were when Ryan was covering Broncos top receiver Demaryius Thomas, who happens to be one of the best in the league, it really puts Ryan’s performance in prospective. Over the last five weeks in particular, Ryan has been very solid as the Patriots second cornerback behind Malcolm Butler.