NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos attempted a frantic second-half comeback in Foxboro, but the New England Patriots ultimately emerged victorious in a 31-21 contest dominated by offensive output. Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns in the game, but his efforts were sabotaged by three turnovers; one of them a fourth-quarter fumble by Willis McGahee, who also dropped a pass on fourth down and one. New England’s offense was even more impressive; Tom Brady was precise, Wes Welker could not be contained, and the ground game was fantastic. Read on for more major storylines from today’s game.
All four running backs contribute to a dominant performance on the ground
Stevan Ridley was unquestionably New England’s most effective runner today, gaining 151 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, but all four of the Patriots’ options made an impact on the final outcome. Danny Woodhead converted two long third downs: he ran after the catch for 25 yards in the second quarter and converted a third-and-17 on the ground by rushing for 19 yards; he finished with 72 total yards. Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden added 54 yards on 14 carries, including a 24-yard gallop up the left side.
Shane Vereen made a cameo, scoring a one-yard touchdown in the second quarter; he also drew a long pass interference call in the third quarter on Broncos middle linebacker Joe Mays. Even Tom Brady contributed on the ground by converted a quarterback sneak at the goal line for his second rushing touchdown of the season.
New England’s 251 rushing yards and three touchdowns allowed them to dominate the time of possession and keep Peyton Manning sidelined for the majority of the game; Denver controlled the ball for just 24 minutes and 11 seconds.
Other options compensate for injured targets Edelman, Hernandez, Hoomanawanui
New England was forced to account for the absences of wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Michael Hoomanawanui, but got heroic performances from wideouts Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. On New England’s first touchdown drive, Lloyd made a critical third-down grab over the middle, and Wes Welker was responsible for four catches including the concluding touchdown; Welker continued to make difficult catches and run hard after the catch, while Lloyd was able to separate from star cornerback Champ Bailey for two key grabs on the third touchdown drive.
Welker finished the game with an astounding 13 catches for 104 yards, while the conclusion saw Lloyd with three catches for 34 yards. Rob Gronkowski played through what was described as a very painful hip injury and totaled four catches for 35 yards. Together, the trio of Welker, Lloyd, and Gronkowski accounted for 173 of Tom Brady’s 223 passing yards on the day.
Patriots offensive successful with quick pace, “Ace” personnel on field
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense were able to put a lot of pressure on Denver by lining up in their “Ace” personnel (which consisted of Stevan Ridley at running back, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker at wide receiver, Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells at tight end) and operating at a brisk pace, especially while running out of the no-huddle. New England’s second drive was largely based out of this formation (with some spread formations mixed in) and culminated in a 12-play, 84-yard drive which consumed just 4:44.
A few drives in the second half were disappointments, but overall the Patriots were forced to punt just three times and turned the ball over only once – on a Stevan Ridley fumble in the fourth quarter. New England totaled 444 yards on the day and converted 35 first downs; in short, Josh McDaniels’ gameplan this week was as strong as it’s been all season, and New England’s continued success on the ground was a pleasant surprise.
New England employs varied defensive schemes and roles against Manning
Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia clearly put in overtime this week; the Patriots gave Peyton Manning all sorts of looks in an attempt to confuse his schemes. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was all over the field; he was pressing receivers in the slot and picked up a tackle for loss after lining up at defensive tackle between Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. New England had some success blitzing with Jerod Mayo; they tried two blitzes early and were rewarded with a drive-ending sack in the mid-first quarter. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich frequently lined up in a two-point stance, and rookie Chandler Jones was often lined up at left end to match up against Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin; Jones even dropped into coverage on occasion.
New England’s creativity on defense was rewarded with three turnovers: Sterling Moore stripped Demariyus Thomas from behind on the game’s first drive and recovered the fumble, Vince Wilfork pounced a Peyton Manning fumble forced by Rob Ninkovich in the third quarter, and Jermaine Cunningham recovered another Ninkovich forced fumble – this time stripping the ball from Willis McGahee – in the red zone late.
Patriots struggle to cover Broncos’ receiving options
Wide receiver Demariyus Thomas was the obvious mismatch in the early goings of Sunday afternoon’s contest; he caught four passes for 89 yards in the first quarter alone, with Sterling Moore as the primary cover man. Moore later got burned by Thomas again on a go route. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard replaced Moore at right cornerback for part of the game and broke up a critical third down pass intended for Brandon Stokley. Later, Dennard defended two straight fly routes intended for Eric Decker; Dennard was perhaps New England’s best defensive back today and should see an increased role in the defense.
Another aspect of the Broncos’ offense that was concerning from a matchup perspective was their two tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen; their impact was felt early on when Manning hit Dreessen in the back of the end zone for a one-yard touchdown on a blown zone coverage. The throw was set up by a 19-yard defensive pass interference call on third down; Devin McCourty never turned his head around while trying to defend a pass thrown towards Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. McCourty played well overall but surrendered a short touchdown catch to Decker in the third quarter on a route which was nearly impossible to defend and a long completion to Demariyus Thomas late in the fourth quarter which allowed Denver into the red zone.
Ras-I Dowling got a little bit of playing time as well and was used in an unorthodox role, covering Denver’s tight ends. Tavon Wilson got the start at free safety and turned in a respectable performance, although he did allow a short fourth-quarter touchdown pass.