With the New England Patriots set to make their second trip to play the Broncos in Denver this weekend, I took a look back at their first contest earlier this season. The Pats fell short, losing 30-24 in overtime. Here’s 10 takeaways from that game. —
– The Patriots couldn’t ask for a better start in their Nov. contest against the Broncos. New England’s defense got a three-and-out, Denver’s bad punt gave Tom Brady the ball on the Broncos’ 47 yard line. Four plays later the Patriots were winning 7-0.
They could use a similar start this week.
– The Pats front seven was dominant in the first half. Rob Ninkovich made his presence known early and the defense kept Denver’s offense in check. Jamie Collins’ absence, forced Jonathan Freeny and Jerod Mayo to get a lot more snaps. His athleticism would have been useful tracking the Denver tailbacks.
In the second half, Dont’a Hightower’s absence — leaving with a knee injury at the end of the second quarter — was felt. The Pats lost containment on Denver’s running backs and it opened up the Broncos offense.
– Gary Kubiak’s offense is run oriented. In the first matchup, Brock Osweiler was under center for the majority of snaps. Denver runs a lot of misdirection plays, trying to get the opponents defense to move one way in order for the runner to cutback and move the other direction.
With Peyton Manning starting at quarterback this time around, the offense will shift slightly. He’ll be in shotgun or in the pistol formation over half the time. The idea is still the same though. The Broncos will establish the run, then use bootleg passes and play-action to get the Patriots defense off-balance.
– There’s no question Demaryius Thomas is a talented receiver, but he was erased by Logan Ryan in this game. Denver targeted Thomas 13 times in week 12, but he only caught one pass for 36 yards. He had zero receptions at halftime.
While Ryan shadowed Thomas for the majority of the game, the focus was clearly on Emmanuel Sanders. Malcolm Butler was in coverage more often than not and it’s expected to be a similar game plan this time around. He was more successful, however, hauling in six passes for 113 yards.
New England must double Sanders, forcing Manning to go another direction.
– There will be a lot of new additions in this rematch. The Patriots were without Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Collins and they’ll have Rob Gronkowski as well as Hightower which both left the first contest with injuries.
The Broncos will be getting some players back, too. TJ Ward left the game with an injury and was sorely missed. Edge player DeMarcus Ware, who missed the first game with a back injury, will also play.
– New England’s front must control Denver’s rushing attack. They did a good job in the first half, holding the Broncos to 43 yards on 15 carries. After the Hightower injury, and without Collins, Denver was able to generate a much-needed ground attack. Backup linebackers Freeny and Mayo missed some key tackles down the stretch, which gave the Broncos big yards in critical spots, including the game winning play in overtime.
– In big games, special teams play is usually magnified. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, trailing 21-7, the Broncos caught a huge break. Undrafted rookie, Chris Harper, muffed a punt that gave Denver the ball in New England’s territory.
The Broncos scored a touchdown four plays later.
But Denver had some critical errors throughout the contest. A missed field goal from Brandon McManus gave New England some early momentum and punter Britton Colquitt did not have a single punt inside the 20 which helped the Pats field position.
Expect this to be another big area of focus this week.
– New England used a lot of crossing routes in this contest. With Amendola and Edelman out, they relied heavily on splitting Brandon Bolden out wide and tried to take advantage of the Denver linebackers in space.
With both wide receivers available this time around, along with James White having a larger role in the offense, expect them to be fed early and often. It would be a surprise if Josh McDaniels strays away from the same type of play calling as the team had a lot of success back in November.
– One thing the Patriots weren’t afraid to do in week 12 — blitz. They sent an extra rusher early and often. One way they did this was with a linebacker going up the middle on a delayed blitz frequently. New England would start with three or four down lineman, then the Patriots would bring some extra heat two seconds later.
With Manning at QB, instead of the more mobile Osweiler, there’s little doubt Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will dial-up some of the same blitzes that worked so well the first time around.
Osweiler took some huge hits in the first contest. If the Patriots are able to get to Manning in the same fashion, he might not finish the game. With Manning’s health an issue all season, he can’t afford any free hits. He’s always been good at avoiding it, though. Nevertheless, it’s still in the Pats best interest to put him under duress and force some untimely throws, hopefully ending with some turnovers.
– Third down is likely where this game will be won or lost for both teams. In November’s contest, the Patriots were just 2-of-13 and struggled to stay on the field. This is why Edelman and Amendola are key this time around. With Edelman on the field, the Patriots have been around 20 percent better on third downs throughout the season. The ability for New England pass catchers to get open quickly will alleviate some of the pressure on the offensive line against a tough Denver pass rush and move the chains.
More on this game in the coming days. Look for my pregame thoughts, three keys to victory and prediction later in the week.
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