NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Growth isn’t always quantitative; it isn’t always measurable by the day or week. But in stages, lower and simpler forms can develop into higher and more complex forms.
And while the progression of these stages is neither a constant nor a guarantee, it’s clear that New England Patriots rookie draft picks Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon have reached the next one.
Sunday night’s frigid battle at Gillette Stadium versus the Denver Broncos was the venue for them to do so.
The Patriots, down 24-0 after one half of football, stormed back to ultimately defeat quarterback Peyton Manning and the then-9-1 Broncos in overtime, 34-31. The comeback marked the largest in team history, and Collins, Ryan and Harmon were an integral part of it.
The three second-day draft choices logged a combined 181 snaps on defense and finished with 25 total tackles during the Week 12 resurgence. Yet while their names were seen numbers, their value was seen in plays.
The 52nd overall selection in last April’s draft out of Southern Mississippi, Collins has been a prominent face on special teams through 11 regular-season contests. Yet against Denver, the 6’3”, 250-pound linebacker resurfaced on the defensive side of the ball after tallying a mere four snaps since Week 8.
The 24-year-old was in the mix for just 23-of-90 downs, but he proved to be efficient with his opportunities. Collins notched a career-high 10 tackles, showcased versatility in coverage, and notably jarred a pivotal third-down overtime completion out of ex-Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker’s hands.
But with New England down 10 with 2:50 remaining in the third quarter, Collins displayed something else – a trait that was rampant during his days with the Golden Eagles.
He displayed explosion as a pass-rusher.
On a 3rd-and-5 from the Denver 42, the Broncos implemented “11” personnel with second-string tight end Virgil Green abutting the left tackle and fifth-year halfback Knowshon Moreno abutting Manning in shotgun.
Denver sought to exploit the middle of the field. In an effort to do so, Manning intended to send Green on a curl, Welker on a wheel route from the backfield, as well as wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on post and drag routes.
The Patriots defense responded in a two-up, two-down 4-2 nickel. Stand-up right defensive end was plotting press on Green, all while Collins and inside linebacker Dane Fletcher were plotting a stunt blitz over the A-gaps.
As Manning handled the snap and dropped back to assess his reads, he saw Green and Thomas jammed out of their initial routes by Jones and Talib. He saw Ryan hovering off Decker on the underneath pattern. And lastly, he saw Fletcher forging through the right A-Gap of the offensive line, followed by Collins.
The rapid burst of the two linebackers netted blitz pickup that Moreno would have to assume.
Fletcher used his arms and leverage to knife around center Manny Ramirez, while Collins used quick stutter and downhill force to take Moreno’s foundation out from underneath him. And their cumulative effort left Manning to either drift left or embrace contact head on.
He elected the former.
Yet as Manning drifted to the other side of the hashes, his late redirection brought his torso ahead of his feet. Consequently, he tripped on the turf and the football dribbled out.
But Collins, head over heels, maintained enough balance to stay upright and zero in on both Manning and the loose ball. Concurrently, Fletcher strived to regain footing.
The ball rolled to the 34-yard line as Manning dove to secure it. Collins, Fletcher and also defensive tackle Chris Jones found themselves in the vicinity.
Manning wrapped it up and Collins jumped overhead. The interior pressure from Fletcher and New England’s top draft choice in 2013 secondarily caused the fumble. And it went in the books as an eight-yard tackle for loss and an unofficial sack for No. 91.
The Broncos had to call on the punt team. And five plays later, quarterback Tom Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a touchdown – making it 21 points unanswered and a three-point deficit.
New England’s first of two third-round picks last spring, Ryan’s responsibilities have expanded with each passing game. Since Week 6, the 5’11”, 195-pound Rutgers cornerback has played 63 percent of snaps, filling the shoes left by fellow corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington when injuries have threatened continuity in the secondary.
Against the Broncos, that continuity was needed once again. Dennard’s recently-scoped meniscus kept him on the sidelines for the second half. In turn, the 22-year-old Ryan recorded 69 defensive snaps while also contributing four tackles and a pass deflection.
Although with 14:40 to play in the fourth frame, Ryan contributed in another facet. On a Denver 1st-and-10 from the far 21-yard line, the Broncos aligned in a three-wide receiver set with Green in-line as the “Y” tight end and undrafted rookie tailback C.J. Anderson accompanying Manning in shotgun.
Denver schemed play action, vying to stretch the field with Green and Thomas running vertical routes down the right side. If effective, the foreground would be cleared up for Anderson to slip into the flat, Welker to swing around linebacker territory on a circle route, and Decker to break in on a slant.
The Patriots operated out of the nickel with left defensive end Rob Ninkovich in a two-point stance, and Fletcher and fellow inside linebacker Brandon Spikes zoning the second level. On the outskirts of the weak side, Talib was ready to play off Thomas, and Harmon was ready to delegate the in-seam. But on the strong side of the field, a preemptive strike was looming. Arrington was gearing up for a nickel blitz. And as a result, free safety Devin McCourty was posting at the top of Welker’s route.
Ryan was prepared to press Decker in man coverage.
Manning took the snap and faked the handoff to Anderson. Immediately following that non-exchange, the 37-year-old looked the way of Decker, who was engaged on Ryan’s jam and deterred from veering in.
Arrington’s outside rush ensued.
Ryan contained Decker in the five-yard bubble and read the route-runner’s body language after foot placement had been established.
He gazed back to the passer.
And back at the passer, Arrington’s presence had hurried Manning. The four-time league MVP fired a pass ahead of Decker, but he shortened his steps and was unable to drive into the throw.
Ryan made the most of it, undercutting his assignment to play the pass. He lunged over Decker with both palms up.
Ryan’s proper technique, physical jam, reaction and body control gave way to an interception at the Broncos’ 30-yard line.
The interception was Ryan’s second in five games. And while he didn’t return this particular interception for a touchdown, Brady was able to get six just 74 second later, connecting with wideout Julian Edelman on a catch-and-run.
Ryan’s pick set up New England’s first lead of the game, 28-24.
Harmon may have been over-drafted at 91 overall out of the Rutgers pipeline. But based solely off the safety’s performance over the last three games – filling in for injured starter Steve Gregory – you wouldn’t know it.
The 6’1”, 205-pound 22-year-old has punched in for 177 defensive snaps since Gregory departed from the Week 9 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he’s come away with 18 tackles, a pass breakup and a 42-yard interception runback over that span.
Against Denver on Nov. 24, Harmon didn’t collect his third interception of the season, nor did he bring down a future first-ballot Hall of Famer for a sack. Yet over his 90 snaps, the Scarlet Knight made 11 stops, and seven of which came run support.
Harmon didn’t make one big play, but he didn’t concede one big play, either. According Pro Football Focus, Harmon was allowed four catches for 41 yards and a red-zone touchdown. But upon reflection, not all catches are the byproduct of poor coverage.
With seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and New England leading by seven, the Broncos employed “11” personnel once again on 2nd-and-5. Denver planned to send Decker on a go route from the “Z”, Welker on a drag from the slot, Moreno on a slip screen, Green on a conflicting drag from off the left tackle, and Thomas on a go route from the split end.
New England countered with a one-up, three-down nickel, pulling six men up to the line of scrimmage. Ryan prepared to press Decker, Arrington prepared to press Welker and defend the flat, McCourty prepared to help the deep right half, Fletcher and Spikes prepared to backpedal into center field, and Talib prepared to trace Thomas.
Harmon was prepared to assist in zone from out left – 12 yards away from the neutral zone.
Manning harnessed the snap and watched the natural crossing pick unfold. Spikes disrupted Green’s route and followed him between the hashes, just as Arrington did the same to Welker. The meshing point would be a breaking point in the zone help, however.
Harmon would have to diagnose and react.
And Manning’s odds were on Welker.
Arrington retreated back to his section, and Spikes did as well. It would be up to Harmon to act fast and close in on the impending throw. He began to close in anticipation.
Manning rifled the ball out in front of Welker, who was able to squeak in Spikes’ rearview. So Harmon, well aware that he was the last line of defense, sprinted to make a play.
The ball sailed in. It was too late to disturb the catch, but Harmon was not too late to make an open-field tackle. He squared his shoulders, curved his lowered arms and dipped low into the oncoming on the ball-carrier.
Harmon wrapped his arms around Welker, halting his momentum from scampering further down the field. Yet by inches, the Broncos were able to pick up the first down to prolong the drive.
Harmon’s play on Welker wasn’t a highlight. It was, however, a play of awareness, closing speed and tackling ability in a zone-coverage situation that could have escalated into much more.
Eight plays later, the Broncos tied the game on a Manning touchdown toss to Thomas. But the Patriots’ resiliency outlasted Denver’s prolific offense in overtime, and Collins, Ryan and Harmon were key components in that outcome.
Now their involvement and evolvement may be sporadic moving forward. But there’s reason to believe New England’s defensive trio of Day 2 prospects got more out of Sunday’s game than a number in the win column.