AFC Championship Game Review: Flaws On Offense Bury Pats

The Patriots offense has had two fatal flaws nearly all season.

First, after starting LT Nate Solder went to the IR the offensive line has struggled to find five guys that can put together four quarters.

Keeping Tom Brady upright is the key to any season for this team.

Second, the Patriots rushing attack ranked 30th in the NFL, and it was even worse without Dion Lewis.

Running the football slows down the opposing team’s pass rush and forces them to play less defensive backs in the secondary to matchup with the Patriots playmakers.

The Broncos feasted on these two flaws on Sunday. They had zero respect for the Patriots run game (playing mostly dime) and dominated the offensive line up front.

Those two flaws are why the Patriots fell short of reaching the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons.

On Offense

Broncos Game Plan: You don’t see Tom Brady off his game very often, and this season he has been exceptional leading one of the most prolific offenses in football. On Sunday, Wade Phillips and the Broncos defense followed a game plan that we have seen before from the likes of the New York Giants and Rex Ryan coached teams. The Broncos got creative with their front four mixing the pass rush up and getting their star pass rushers (DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller) into favorable one on one matchups. They then dropped seven or eight defenders into coverage. The Broncos didn’t run anything complicated, but the constant pressure coupled with the extra defenders downfield slowed down Tom Brady’s process. He never looked fully comfortable or confident in his decisions or throws, and wasn’t seeing the field all that well. It’s very simple, when you have that many defenders dropping into coverage but can still get pressure it’s going to be very difficult for any quarterback to diagnose the defense in time, or any receiver to uncover downfield. This wasn’t Brady’s best game. He wasn’t very sharp diagnosing the defense like he typically is, and his pre-snap reads weren’t as accurate as they normally are. Brady typically brings what the Patriots are doing on offense to the defense, but on Sunday he and Josh McDaniels were reacting.

Offensive Line (fatal flaw #1): This is going to be talked about all offseason. The numbers aren’t friendly, and I’ve seen some say Tom Brady got hit as many as 23 times. The official NFL gamebook says 20, which is tied for the most since they starting keep track in 2006. The Pats O-Line got smoked a number of times trying to block the Denver pass rushers one on one, especially the two tackles Vollmer and Cannon. It was clear that the Patriots game plan was to get rid of the ball quickly to mitigate the Broncos pass rush, but by creating so much pressure with their front four Denver was able to take away the easy throws for Tom Brady, who was uncharastically off on short passes. From this perspective, coaching was as much of the problem as poor play. Players need to take pride in what they do, and go out there and perform better than they did, but they were repeatedly put in a position to fail by the Patriots coaching staff. The Pats hardly ever used an extra tight end or tackle to block, and rarely had a running back involved in pass protection. They didn’t even have the tight end or running back chip Miller or Ware on their way downfield very often. It was clear early in the 2nd quarter that the Patriots offensive line was overwhelmed, and there were too few adjustments to try to help the group up front.

Running Game (fatal flaw #2): In Tom Brady’s 15 years as the starting quarterback he has never had a worse running game than in 2015. The Patriots averaged 82.6 rush YPG this season, by far their worst mark since 2001. The Broncos had six defensive backs on the field on 56 of 78 defensive plays on Sunday, and the Patriots still didn’t commit to the run or run the ball effectively when they tried. The Broncos were just begging them to run the football with such a light grouping on defense, but the lack of a pure running back and good offensive line forced the Patriots to continue to slam their collective heads against the wall that was the Broncos pass defense. If you can’t run the ball on first and second down against dime you’re going to leave your offense in 3rd and longs too often, which is exactly what happened.

Ode To Gronk: The Patriots had 336 yards of total offense, Rob Gronkowski had 144 of them. Gronk delivered one of the best performances you will ever see on one of the biggest stages this sport has to offer. He was the only Patriots receiver that uncovered consistently against the Denver defenses backs, and was beating double and triple teams all afternoon. His catch on 4th and 10 on the Patriots final drive was season saving greatness. Gronk just ran right past the double team and caught the ball with two defenders draped all over him. He’s the reason why the Patriots were in this game.

On Defense

Field Position Battle: In a game like this every yard counts, and the Patriots defense let the Broncos flip the field in a few key situations. This point is a bit nit picky, as the defense is obviously not to blame for the Patriots loss, but Brady and company had horrible starting field position all day. The two most notable plays that cost the Patriots valuable field position were the Emmanuel Sanders grab over Malcolm Butler in the first quarter that went for 34 yards on 3rd and 4, and Peyton Manning scrambling for a first down in the third quarter. If the Patriots had gotten stops there, the Broncos would have punted from their own 26 and their own 20 respectively. Instead, they punted from the Patriots’ 39 and the Patriots’ 46. The little things in a defensive battle like this make a big difference.

Run Defense: One of the main talking points heading into Sunday was whether or not the Patriots could stop Denver on the ground? The Pats defenses responded by putting together a great group effort stopping both C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman for most of the day. The most impressive part of the Patriots run defense was how all 11 guys on the field contributed to setting the edge. You saw defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs alike protecting against the outside handoffs and swarming to the ball carrier. This was truly a group effort as the Patriots were extremely discipline up front, something they failed to do in their first trip to Denver. Malcolm Butler showed an underrated aspect of his game in stopping the run as well.

Owen Daniels: Who would have thought that on this side of the ball Owen Daniels would be the difference maker? The Patriots obviously didn’t see anything on film to suggest that Daniels would be such a threat in the red zone, as they went against their normal strategy against tight ends. Typically, good pass catching TEs have been covered by either Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty this season, and effectively at that. The Patriots trusted Jamie Collins in that spot not once, but twice, and they got burned both times. The second Daniels TD is the most interesting to me. As the coaching staff put Collins on an island with Daniels despite already giving up the first TD. On the second TD, Chung and McCourty drop into zone, but Collins is one on one with no help on Daniels. Manning sees his tight end on an island and throws a nice pass to the back pylon for the TD.