For a game that was hyped to be all about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the Patriots running game stole the show as the they rushed for 251 yards on 54 attempts in their 31-21 win over the Broncos. It was the first time since 1978 where the Patriots rushed for 200+ yards in consecutive weeks. They will look to continue their winning ways when they travel to Seattle next week.
Here are five observations from the game:
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense has taken on a new look of late. (FILE:USPresswire
A new-look offense
Over the past few weeks the Patriots offense has evolved into something which New England fans haven’t seen in the Belichick-Brady era — a run-based offense. The Patriots ran the ball 54 times against the Broncos, to just 31 pass attempts. Never has Brady thrown the ball more than 20 times less than the number of Patriot rushing attempts. Stevan Ridley led the charge with 28 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, followed by Brandon Bolden who had 14 rushes for 54 yards. Danny Woodhead and even Shane Vereen (one carry, one touchdown) were in the mix. Ridley and Bolden are a great combination, and you need to have more than one running back in the NFL these days. Also, there has been a game plan to commit to the running game, but unlike in the past the team has stuck to the plan even when teams go to sub-defenses like the nickel as the Broncos and Bills have the past two weeks. The running game has set up the passing game, something Brady hasn’t had since the Corey Dillon days. While it is something Patriots fans are not used to seeing, there is no complaining as it’s put up 83 points the past two weeks.
A question which has arose from the new-look offense is, did the offense change because of the injury to Aaron Hernandez? The Patriots rushed the ball over 30 times Week 1, but a lot of that came at the end when the Patriots were running out the clock. There was more of a commitment to the running game, but nothing like what’s been shown the past two weeks. It’s very hard to imagine this offense and Hernandez running the ball 54 times. Hernandez is the most valuable player on the offense as he can lineup in almost spot on the field. So with Hernandez being out of the lineup the last few weeks, has he been the reason for the Patriots to switch to a run-based offense? It will be interesting to see what takes place when he returns. No matter what the case may be, the Patriots offense is no doubt one of the best in the entire league.
Generating pressure key for defense
This will be the storyline with the defense the entire season. The unit is at their best when the front-seven can get pressure on the opposing quarterback. Against Manning the Patriots sacked him twice and hit him five times. Manning had his best moments when he had a lot of time to throw and was able to scan the defense, allowing his receivers to get open. This has been the case with every quarterback the Patriots has faced all year long. The Patriots secondary isn’t good enough to stay with their guys for very long, so they need the more skilled front-seven to help them out as much as they can.
Jerod Mayo led the defense with 13 tackles and a sack. Rookie safety Tavon Wilson, starting for the injured Steve Gregory had a great game totaling 10 tackles. In terms of a pass rush, Chandler Jones led the charge with quarterback hits. Rob Ninkovich has stepped up his play of late and it continued on Sunday as he forced a fumble of Manning and he and Jermaine Cunningham have been players who have gone under the radar by stepping their game up the past few weeks. It was especially important due to the absence of rookie Dont’a Hightower who missed the game, and most of last week with a hamstring injury. The front-seven getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will ultimately be what makes or breaks them this year.
The secondary is still continuing to have issues as they allowed 345 yards through the air, including a few big plays. Devin McCourty continued his up and down season as he got beat a few times in critical spots on Sunday. It’s hard to tell exactly how well or poorly he plays from just watching the game and noticing mostly just the negatives, but from the first-take it looked like he struggled. More to come in the coming days upon review of the game. There were a few bright spots in the secondary with Wilson doing an excellent job filling in for Gregory. Also, rookie Alfonso Dennard saw his first action of the year and performed quite well, breaking up a few passes. He could be a player to watch in the coming weeks as he could take some playing time away from Sterling Moore and maybe even McCourty or Kyle Arrington. Moore had a tough go Sunday and was pulled in favor of Dennard. One player who is not in a good position is Ras-I Dowling who saw very little action Sunday, even in sub-packages. Clearly, he has done something where Belichick and Co. don’t feel comfortable with him on the field.
Inability to close out games
Once again the Patriots had trouble closing out their opponent, this time due to not taking care of the ball and also a poor coaching decision. The Patriots led 31-7 with less than four minutes in the third quarter. There is no excuse to allow a team to get back into the game when you’re leading by 24 points at that point in the game. This happened obviously because of Ridley’s fumble with five minutes to go, and the Patriots leading by 10, but luckily the Broncos fumbled a few players later. Another play which stood out was with just over eight minutes to go and the Patriots leading by 17 with the ball just into Denver territory. It was 4th and 5 and Belichick decided to go for it. Brady fumbled, Denver recovered and scored quickly on their next possession as they only needed to go 40 yards. Why didn’t Belichick punt and force Denver to go 80 or 90 yards and take it even more time on the clock? Luckily for the Patriots this did not come back to hurt, but in the future playoff teams could make them pay. Belichick has a history of going for plays like that, does it mean he doesn’t trust his defense? The bigger point is the Patriots struggle at putting away opponents. Their four-minute offense has been very poor of late by failing to pick up key first downs and generating long, sustained drives, as well as fumbling like today. For a high powered offense this is something the Patriots really need to work on in the coming weeks.
Future play calling
With the Patriots committing to the running game the past few weeks it will be interesting to see how the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels handle things in the coming weeks with Hernandez and Edelman returning, as well as facing top teams like the Texans and 49ers. McDaniels has a tendency to panic in games against superior opponents and strictly throw the ball upwards of 45 times. The Patriots offense the past two weeks is matching the same intensity as in 2007. The running game is setting up the passing game, which allows Brady to have more time in the pocket and find his weapons. Adding Hernandez and Edelman to the mix makes it virtually impossible for defenses to match up against the Patriots. This offense is one of the fastest in any level of play and makes it extremely hard to play against as the tempo wears defenses out very quickly. McDaniels needs to stick with what has worked the past few weeks and not be tempted to go away from it — Hernandez and Edelman will only make it better.