Any Given Sunday: Patriots over Broncos
by Andrew Healy
On the Broncos' first two offensive plays of the second quarter on Sunday, Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich dropped into a zone as linebacker Jamie Collins rushed up the middle. In their two previous games against Denver, the Patriots rarely dropped Ninkovich into coverage and did not utilize Ninkovich in this kind of zone blitz a single time. On the second play, Peyton Manning released more quickly, after seeing Demaryius Thomas flash open over the middle, but Ninkovich was running to the same spot where he snagged the game-changing interception.
Manning made a mistake on the play, but the root of that mistake was Bill Belichick playing a defense that he hadn't shown in at least the previous two games against the Broncos. Even though Manning threw for more than 400 yards on Sunday and averaged almost 8 yards per attempt, Sunday's game looks on tape like a vintage game for Belichick in varying the looks he showed to Manning. On Sunday, even without a big pass rush (the Patriots sacked Manning just once and hit him once more), the Patriots got the key third- and fourth-down stops they needed by changing things up.
Charting the Patriots defense on Sunday shows one clear pattern: disguised coverages. Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Malcolm Butler, and Patrick Chung regularly changed coverage assignments. Revis played the left side on some series, the right side on others. Browner often covered Julius Thomas, but Chung and Revis also covered him. (After giving up big games to tight ends such as Travis Kelce and Scott Chandler, the Patriots held Thomas to 33 yards on two receptions.) The Patriots often played a Seattle-style defense with man on the outside supported by zone in the middle with a single high safety, but also mixed in standard zone concepts to keep Manning guessing.
In the first half, the Broncos ran six plays on third or fourth down, converting one by penalty and failing on the other five. On those plays, the Patriots consistently varied their defense.
|1||13:05||3||12||DEN 18||4||Right side/ D.Thomas||Left side/J.Thomas||Complete to E.Sanders for 5 yards|
|1||9:12||3||11||DEN 19||4||Right side/ E.Sanders||Left side/D.Thomas||Incomplete to D.Thomas|
|1||4:03||3||10||NE 13||4||Right side/ E.Sanders||Left side/ D.Thomas||Pass interference on B.Browner|
|2||8:38||3||20||DEN 31||3||Left side/ D.Thomas||Right slot/ J.Thomas||Incomplete to E.Sanders|
|2||5:34||3||10||NE 23||4||Left side/ D.Thomas||Right side/ E.Sanders||Incomplete to W.Welker|
|2||2:14||3||6||NE 34||5||Left slot/ E.Sanders||Right side/ J.Thomas||Incomplete to W.Welker|
|2||2:09||4||6||NE 34||3||Right slot/ D.Thomas||Left slot/J.Thomas||Sack by A.Ayers for -9 yards|
Bill Belichick has not always varied his defensive looks in recent years as much as he did in prior history. Moreover, he has generally disguised where the pass rush is coming from less than the coverage. Watching him, I've always gotten the feeling that he avoids blitzes not because he's scared of the big play, but because he hates reducing his ability to disguise coverages. But even without sending more than four pass rushers, a good defense disguises where those rushers come from more than the Patriots often have. Last year's AFC Championship game stands out as a clear example, where Manning saw few curveballs and picked apart the steady diet of easy-to-diagnose stuff that the Patriots threw at him. Four pass rushers consistently came at him from the same four places. Just bringing a zone blitz brought huge dividends on Sunday, and Collins' explosion up the middle should pave the way for more of that. In addition to getting Manning to throw early on the Ninkovich interception, Collins nearly forced another pick later in the second quarter with a blitz that saw him blow right by Ronnie Hillman's attempted pickup and into Manning's lap.
Collins is just one of a group of talented Patriots on defense. With the best personnel the Patriots have had on defense since at least 2007 and a defensive guru as head coach, it was reasonable to expect the Patriots to have a top-ten defense for the first time in eight years. By the numbers, the Patriots haven't played on that level this year so far, ranking just 22nd by DVOA coming into Sunday. (They move up to 17th after beating Denver.) But Belichick may be saving his good stuff for when it's really needed. He brought out some of what he could do with a great cover corner (Revis), a physical complementary corner (Browner), a smart centerfielder (Devin McCourty), an explosive all-purpose linebacker (Collins), and a versatile defensive end (Ninkovich) in the first three quarters against Denver.
By the DVOA
New England won the DVOA battle in all three phases. The opponent adjustments make a particularly big difference for the Patriots' defensive rating. Through eight weeks, the Patriots had faced the easiest slate of opposing offenses of any team in football. Against that weak competition, the Patriots had given up about a league-average yards per passing attempt. On Sunday, they played a game that would have been mediocre had it been against an average team but rated as very good given the opposition.
The Patriots' advantage was largest on special teams, which accounts for almost two-thirds of their overall DVOA margin. Stephen Gostkowski went three-for-three on field goals for the Patriots, while Brandon McManus doinked his lone attempt off the right goalpost from 41 yards out. But the biggest special teams play came on a second-quarter punt return from the Patriots' new Troy Brown.
No. 1 in Punt Returns Since the Nixon Administration
The highest punt return average in NFL history belongs to George McAfee, who played for the Bears in the 1940s. McAfee ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds and averaged 7.3 yards on 65 carries in 1941, in addition to posting a career 12.8-yard average on punt returns that continues to stand as an NFL record. Three years ago, Devin Hester briefly surged ahead of McAfee. After the 2011 season, Hester was averaging 12.9 yards per return, a tenth of a yard ahead of McAfee. If he was George Costanza, he might have left the room and called it a day, but Hester kept playing and his average has since regressed to 12.3. In fact, Hester is now only second on the list for punt return average in the Super Bowl era.
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Top of the heap in this generation is now a seventh-round college quarterback out of Kent State. After his winding touchdown against the Broncos, Julian Edelman is now averaging 12.6 yards per punt return for his career. And Edelman's primary value is on offense. Minitron is on pace for a second-straight season of more than 100 receptions.
All of Edelman's production comes at a very reasonable price. After signing with New England last year for just $1.015 million when other teams showed little interest, Edelman is again a bargain this year (2014 cap hit of $2.75 million in the first year of a four-year, $17 million contract). He may not have McAfee's world-class speed or Hester's acceleration, but Edelman has enough of both to go with great agility and vision to now be the lone threat to McAfee's record among active players.
This Week in Passive Coaching
After continuing his descent into fourth-down passivity with a punt on fourth-and-1 from the Patriots' 40 in the second quarter, Bill Belichick decided to break out of his newfound conformity with an aggressive decision in the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-5 from the Denver 37, leading 27-14, Belichick eschewed the punt. The right decision -- even moreso given the offense he was facing -- led to the right outcome, too, as Tom Brady found Shane Vereen for 11 yards and a first down.
Earlier in the game, John Fox was not rewarded for being correctly aggressive in a similar situation. Facing fourth-and-6 on the New England 34, Fox went for it. The play fell apart when Akeem Ayers (very solid as a starter the last two weeks in New England after barely playing for the Titans) sacked Manning on a stunt from a three-man rush.
Good decision, bad result. And I'm giving credit for the good call to Coach Manning. Maybe I'm reading too much into Manning's wave to the sideline after the third-down incompletion, but John Fox almost never goes for it in this situation: fourth-and-8 or less in the first half between the 31- and 50-yard lines of the opposition. As Broncos' coach, Fox had gone for it once in 25 opportunities before Sunday, a fake field goal against Oakland in 2012. These decisions include six punts on fourth-and-2 or less.
Even if he was worried about Brandon McManus after the earlier field-goal miss, it is more in character for Fox to punt there than to go for it. So until further evidence comes in that Fox is living up to his last name with regards to cunning, Coach Manning gets the kudos here.
This Week in Phil Simms
"Tom Brady might have been able to run for the first down that time."
Film Room: Brady to Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski may be the most indispensable non-quarterback in football. With him on the field, the Patriots offense has been dominant since the second half of the 2010 season. Without him, the offense has sometimes stagnated (check out Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 for the data breakdown). This season, slowing Gronkowski down and slowing the Patriots offense down have been basically the same thing.
|Five games Patriots scored 30 or more points||35||45||480||5||77.8%||10.7|
|Four games Patriots scored less than 30 points||14||29||183||3||48.3%||6.3|
Three of those low-scoring games for the Patriots offense happened in the first four games of the season, when the Patriots limited Gronkowski's snaps and the tight end looked a little slow. Now, even though he might still not be quite as quick as he was before the knee injury last season -- when he looked incredible even by his standards -- his transcendent athleticism is back.
Early in the fourth quarter, that truly freakish talent was on full display. On a play that also showed the power of play action and what happens even to great quarterbacks when their footwork is off, Gronk pulled in a pass towards which Lynn Swann would have had trouble pirouetting.
Watching the play, I thought of the misconnection between Tom Brady and Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI. On that play, Brady's throw asked Welker to plant with his left foot before opening his body up with a jumping spin back to the right. On Sunday night, Brady's throw asked Gronkowski to plant his right foot before spinning back left. The man who came down with the errant pass was not the 185-pound wideout dealing with a slight misthrow, but the 265-pound tight end dealing with a throw nowhere near where it was intended to be.
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On the next play, Gronkowski scored a touchdown to tie Randy Moss for the second fastest player ever to 50 receiving touchdowns. After just 59 career games, he's already second on the Patriots' list for career touchdowns. But it has taken Gronkowski almost an extra season to get those 59 games. More importantly, he hasn't been healthy through the playoffs for the last three seasons. The Patriots' three losses that ended those seasons saw them not once break the 20-point barrier.
For these reasons, the most important Gronkowski play of the game wasn't the touchdown or the huge-tight-end-goes-all-balletic catch, but the tight end's first catch of the game. On that play, safety T.J. Ward hurled his body into Gronkowski's right knee. When the same safety hit the same knee last year, it ended the tight end's season and crippled the Patriots' Super Bowl chances. This time, Gronkowski had the extra second he needed to avoid a repeat. But it was a close call. If the Patriots can keep the injury roulette wheel spinning their way, they will have a lethal pass offense to combine with their newly stifling pass defense, a combination that will be hard to beat. That might be the most important "if" of the NFL season.